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Health Highlights: May 11, 2021

By Steven Reinberg HealthDay Reporter

Biden Restores Health Care Protection For Gay and Transgender Americans

In a move to reverse Trump-era policies, the Biden administration announced Monday that the government will protect gay and transgender people against sex discrimination in health care.

The Trump administration had tried to narrow the legal rights to access medical care by gay and transgender Americans, defining "sex" as the gender at birth, thereby excluding transgender people from the law's protection.

"Fear of discrimination can lead individuals to forgo care, which can have serious negative health consequences," U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra told the Associated Press. "Everyone -- including LGBTQ people -- should be able to access health care, free from discrimination or interference, period."

The announcement is another step by the Biden administration to secure the rights of gay and transgender people in everything from military service to housing and employment.

The new policy will bring HHS into line with last year's Supreme Court decision that said sex discrimination laws in workplaces also protects gay and transgender people. Despite that ruling, the Trump administration tried to restrict the legal protections against health care discrimination. A federal judge had blocked those rules from taking effect, the AP reported.

The new regulation restores the Obama administration policy in the Affordable Care Act which prohibited sex discrimination in health care, but did not include the term "gender identity."

The Obama administration, however, interpreted the law as protecting gay and transgender people, relying on an understanding of sex based on someone's sense of being male, female, neither or a combination.The dispute over the rights of transgender people focuses on a medically recognized condition called "gender dysphoria" -- discomfort caused by tension between the gender a person identifies as and the gender assigned at birth, the AP noted.

Gender dysphoria can cause severe depression. Treatment can range from gender-confirmation surgery and hormones to changing outward appearance by adopting a different hairstyle or clothing.

Under the Obama administration, hospitals could be required to perform gender-transition procedures such as hysterectomies.

According to LGBTQ groups, explicit protections are needed for those wanting gender transition treatment, even for transgender people who need care for illnesses such as diabetes or heart problems, the AP said.

More than 1.5 million Americans identify as transgender, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank focusing on LGBT policy at the UCLA School of Law. More than 4.5% of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to Gallup, the AP reported.

The American Medical Association and civil rights groups have supported health care protections for gay and transgender people, but social and religious conservatives want to narrow these protections.

After taking office Biden issued an executive order combating discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation and directed every agency to find ways to combat discrimination. Biden also reversed the rule barring transgender people from serving in the military.The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also canceled a Trump policy that would let taxpayer-funded homeless shelters deny access to transgender people, according to the AP.

WHO Increases Warning About Indian COVID-19 Variant

On Monday the World Health Organization called the B.1.617 variant of the COVID-19 virus, which has become more common in India, a "variant of concern," The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Scientists don't know much about this variant but are concerned that it may be a cause of the steep increase in India's infection rate.

"There is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies" of the variant," Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead of the WHO's coronavirus response, told the Times.

Van Kerkhove also noted that the vaccines may not work as well against this strain of the virus, although that worry comes from a study that has not been peer-reviewed. Still, WHO believes that the vaccines will provide enough protection against B.1.617.

The variant was first found in India in late 2020 and became more common in March. It's now been found in 32 countries including the United States and Britain, the Times reported.

As the pandemic ravages India, many experts are condemning the Indian government for not instituting nationwide restrictions to stem the tide of deaths.

With more than 350,000 new infections a day and nearly 250,000 total deaths the virus has overwhelmed the subcontinent. Some experts believe that the numbers are vastly undercounted and estimate that India is could see more than one million deaths by August.

Other variants of concern include B.1.1.7, which was first seen in the United Kingdom, and P.1, originally found in Brazil.

"I am concerned about 617 -- I think we have to keep a very close eye on it," Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California told the Times.

He cautioned, however, that few samples of the variant were being analyzed in India, making it hard to know exactly how dangerous B.1.617 is. "We really, really need better data out of India," he said.

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