Health News

LA schools mandating non-cloth masks with nose wire, Atlanta district makes masks optional

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(LOS ANGELES) -- Students in Los Angeles public schools must wear a non-cloth mask with a nose wire at all times, including during sports, beginning Monday, the district announced in a letter to families this weekend.

Schools will give surgical-style masks to students and employees who need them, Los Angeles Unified's interim superintendent, Megan K. Reilly, wrote on Saturday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this month that loosely woven cloth masks provide the least amount of protection.

LA County schools will also continue weekly testing for students and staff through February, Reilly said.

The interim superintendent said "in-school case rates dropped 7% since our baseline testing and current rates of students and staff are half of those in the general community due to the safety measures in place."

COVID-19 cases in LA County remain high, with 39,117 new daily cases reported Saturday.

As Los Angeles County schools ban cloth masks, masks will be optional starting this week at Fulton County schools in Atlanta.

In-person learning resumed in Fulton County last week.

"Maintaining face-to-face instruction is a top priority for our district," the school system said. "Though some employees have been out due to COVID, we intend to stay open, providing we have the staff to safely operate our schools."

Of everyone PCR tested in Fulton County between Jan. 3 and Jan. 16, 2022, 25.2% were positive, according to county data.

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Fauci optimistic omicron will peak in February

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(NEW YORK) -- Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist, said Sunday he is "as confident as you can be" about the prospect of most states reaching a peak of omicron cases by mid-February.

"You never want to be overconfident when you're dealing with this virus," Fauci told ABC This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz, adding that the COVID-19 virus has "surprised us in the past."

"Things are looking good. We don't want to get overconfident, but they look like they're going in the right direction right now," he said.

Fauci said there are states in the northeast and in the upper midwest where cases have already peaked and declined "rather sharply" but that cases are still rising in southern and western states.

"There may be a bit more pain and suffering with hospitalizations in those areas of the country that have not been fully vaccinated or have not gotten boosters," he warned.

When Raddatz asked "what should life look like" going forward and about the "long-term strategy" for dealing with future peaks and variants, Fauci said the hope is the level of infection will be below what he calls an "area of control."

"Control means you're not eliminating it, you're not eradicating it, but it gets down to such a low level, that it's essentially integrated into the general respiratory infections that we have learned to live with."

Fauci said the aspiration is that future variants won't "disrupt society" or "create a fear of severe outcomes that are broad" but that the country should still be "prepared for the worst-case scenario."

"We'd like it to get down to that level where it doesn't disrupt us in the sense of getting back to a degree of normality. That's the best-case scenario."

As the Biden administration begins to ship out free COVID-19 tests to Americans and provide free masks across the country, Fauci told Raddatz these kinds of protections could help keep future variants at a "lower level."

"What about the next booster shot?" Raddatz pressed, noting that it's now been five months since some Americans received their booster. "How soon should we get another one?"

"We don't know," Fauci responded, adding that it's unclear whether an additional booster shot will be recommended since scientists are still trying to determine how much protection is provided by the first booster. But, he said, it's "quite conceivable, and I hope it's true, that the third shot boost will give a much greater durability of protection."

"We may need to boost again, but before we make that decision, we want to determine what the durability is," Fauci added.

Data released on Tuesday shows that nearly 1 million children tested positive for COVID-19 last week, according to new a weekly report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, and 28.8 million eligible children still remain completely unvaccinated.

Some schools in the U.S. are opting to remove mask mandates, and when asked by Raddatz if it is "safe to send your kids back to school without masks," Fauci stressed their importance, along with other mitigation efforts.

"You surround the children with people who are vaccinated. For the children who are eligible to be vaccinated, get them vaccinated. And provide in the school masks where you can have children protected, as well as ventilation to make sure that you can get a respiratory infection at its lowest level of infectivity. All of those things go together. And masking is a part of that."

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Minnesota COVID patient, transferred to Texas after judge prohibited doctors from taking him off ventilator, dies

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(HOUSTON) -- Battle against omicron variant pushes hospitals, health care workers to the brink
COVID-19 cases have soared to new records with nearly 800,000 new infections per day.

A 55-year-old Minnesota man, who was transferred to a Texas hospital earlier this month, after a judge blocked a local hospital from taking him off a ventilator, died on Saturday, at a hospital in Houston, a family attorney has confirmed to ABC News.

"On behalf of the family of Scott Quiner, I would like to thank the public for the outpouring of love and support during this difficult time. The family now requests privacy as they grieve the loss of their beloved husband and father," Marjorie J. Holsten, the Quiner’s family attorney, told ABC News on Sunday.

Eleven days ago, Scott Quiner's wife, Anne, was granted a temporary restraining order against Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, preventing the hospital from taking her husband off a ventilator, after healthcare providers advised her that they “intend[ed] to take actions on Thursday, January 13, 2022, that [would] end [her] husband’s life.”

Representatives from Allina Health, which operates Mercy Hospital, told ABC News on Sunday that they are saddened to hear about Quiner's death.

"We are saddened to hear about the passing of Scott Quiner and our deepest condolences go out to family, friends and loved ones. His passing marks yet another very sad moment as collectively we continue to face the devastating effects of the pandemic," a representative said.

Previously, an Allina Health representative told ABC News that they had "great confidence" in their team's work.

The family attorney told ABC News last week that legal action against the hospital had "not been ruled out."

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COVID hospitalizations and deaths surge in Los Angeles County

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(NEW YORK) -- As the recent COVID-19 wave begins to ebb on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Los Angeles County is still being battered by the virus.

The county reported 102 new COVID deaths Thursday, the highest number recorded in a single day since March 10, 2021, and more than double the 45 fatalities reported one week ago.

The majority of deaths occurred in people aged 50 and older, according to a news release from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

More than 90% of the deaths reported Thursday were among residents who contracted the virus after Christmas Eve, indicating a high likelihood they were infected with the omicron variant, the department said.

Dr. Jeffrey Smith, executive vice president of hospital operations and chief operating officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said the rise in the total number of deaths is not because omicron is more deadly than previous variants.

"We're still seeing a mortality rate of about 1.4%. It's just the sheer number of people who are infected is extremely high so 1.4% of a very, very large number gives you a higher number of absolute deaths," he told ABC News.

COVID hospitalizations are also on the rise, with 4,814 recorded Thursday, a figure not seen since Feb. 2, 2021. Of those patients, nearly one-third are in intensive care units, an increase from the week before.

Smith said Cedars-Sinai currently has about 220 COVID-19 patients, making up 25% of total patients.

"That had dropped as low as probably 5% to 10% prior to this most recent peak," he told ABC News.

Smith added that, of the people in the ICU, almost all of them are unvaccinated or have not yet been fully vaccinated, meaning two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The surge has caused many hospitals in Los Angeles to face staffing shortages, either because there are not enough health care workers to take care of patients or because so many workers have gotten sick and need to stay home.

"It's a dual crisis because staff have been furloughed or told to stay home because of positive tests, and then you have people who are unvaccinated, who have succumbed to infection and need hospitalization," Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told ABC News.

He continued, "And then you have this third piece of people coming in for a stroke or heart attack or something and then they test positive. But, because of the staffing crisis, the hospital is unable to see as many people as it typically would."

According to LA Public Health, about 50% of patients statewide were admitted for non-COVID reasons and only found out they were infected while undergoing routine testing.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted during a virtual media briefing Thursday that whether originally admitted due to the virus or not, the high number of COVID patients puts a strain on hospital staff and resources.

"It limits where people can be housed, what room they can be in, it limits some staffing, it changes the kind of medical and doctor interventions because people still have to practice infection control for an airborne pathogen," Klausner explained.

Meanwhile, the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases sits at 33,000.

While the daily test-positivity rate declined from more than 20% in late December to 18.5% Thursday, it still means about 1 in 6 people in LA County are testing positive for COVID-19.

The figure is also eightfold higher than the positivity rate of 2% that was being recorded a little over one month ago.

Klausner said until LA County and California come out of this wave, people with COVID symptoms should get tested and, if they do test positive, seek early treatment.

"We actually just did a survey of 10,000 people who tested positive and 25% of people stopped treatment and, of the treatments they stopped, the overwhelming majority were getting vitamins," he said. "That's really disappointing when we have known, proven interventions that can reduce people's risk of going to the hospital."

Smith also stressed the importance of testing -- but urged people not to visit already overcrowded emergency rooms -- as well boosting and mask-wearing.

He said he's been encouraged by declining COVID-19 rates in places such as New York City and hopes Los Angeles isn't far behind.

"We've seen rates declining in some parts of the country and we're hoping that our experience will be similar to what was seen in South Africa or the U.K., where the rates dropped almost as quickly as they rose," Smith said.

 

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Peanut allergy treatment effective on toddlers, study finds

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(NEW YORK) -- A peanut allergy treatment often used on children 4 years old and up in the U.S. appears to be safe for toddlers too, a new study has found.

Around 2% of children in the country suffer from the allergy, some to a debilitating degree, which is why the discovery is "extremely exciting," said Dr. David Stukus, professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Food Allergy Treatment Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

In the study, conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases across multiple hospitals, researchers added powder containing peanuts to the daily diets of children, and found that over time, a large majority of them became desensitized to peanuts.

A smaller group of children even achieved full remission, meaning they were no longer allergic to peanuts at all.

While almost all the children studied had reactions to the peanut products, most were mild to moderate in severity, experts said.

The study also found that the younger the patients were when they started the treatment, the better they were able to tolerate peanuts, and the more likely they were to achieve full remission.

This means the treatment may be more effective if started while children's immune systems are still developing.

"This suggests that if we do start treatment younger, there is a potential to help some children become non-allergic," said Dr. Lisa Wheatley, section chief at the NIAID Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation.

Pediatric immunology experts interviewed by ABC News said they believe the study marks an important step in allergy research; still, they said more studies are needed to better understand young children's immune systems and how they change.

The experts said children with a history of severe allergic reactions were excluded from the study, and warned that adding peanut products to the diets of children with known peanut allergies can cause serious reactions and should only be done under the guidance of a physician.

They added that while the study's findings are promising, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan for children with peanut allergies, and parents must weigh the risks, benefits and expectations before letting their kids receive a treatment of any kind.

Aubrie Ford is an emergency medicine resident at Northwell Health, in New York, and a contributor to the ABC News Med Unit.

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Finding a therapist can be difficult. Experts explain how to find right one for you

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(NEW YORK) -- There's no denying therapy can be a valuable resource for guiding you through life's ups and downs.

However, it's also important to recognize that your first meeting with a therapist may not feel like the perfect match for your needs.

For Emily Maldonado, a 27-year-old New York City-based public relations and marketing manager, it took almost a year before she realized her first therapist was not a good fit. After opting to discontinue services, she realized what she actually was looking for in therapy, and that helped her evaluate other therapists with a clearer direction.

"Now, I love my therapist and we've been going strong for over a year," said Maldonado. "My original therapist just listened, but now I know I'm the type that appreciates action items and homework."

She added, "My current therapist is also Latinx like me so there are some things she just gets.”

Licensed therapist, relationship expert and New York Times bestselling author Nedra Glover Tawwab told Good Morning America the process of finding the best therapist can be done like speed dating.

"It's a way for you to figure out pretty quickly, in 15 or 20 minutes by phone or video, if this person will be a good fit," said Tawwab. "You just talk for 15 or 20 minutes and sort of figure out if it would be a good situation -- and yes, you can talk to a few therapists within the same week to figure out who might be the best fit."

What to know before you go to your first therapy session

Experts agree that nerves are normal as you're talking to a stranger and telling them very deep, personal information.

"There is no other space in which we do that, so there's nothing to compare it to. So it is an awkward and uncomfortable encounter, initially," said Tawwab.

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan advised that you shouldn't expect immediate resonance in the beginning.

"It takes time to acquire a good fit with a therapist, so an openness to feeling emotionally challenged can help navigate whatever is causing tension," she said.

Kate Rosenblatt, another Talkspace therapist, suggested doing a pre-interview to ask questions such as, "What would our therapy look like together? And have you worked with other people in a similar situation? How were the outcomes?"

It's generally recommended to attend a minimum of three sessions before evaluating if a therapist is or isn't right for you.

Once you've had a few sessions, and you are unsure if your therapist is the right fit, Rosenblatt shared that there are quite a few factors to consider before choosing to "break up" with your therapist.

Three key questions to ask yourself before moving on

1. Am I making progress in therapy?

"If you're not where you want to be, and you've brought this up to your therapist and you've tried something new in therapy, but nothing has changed, it might be time to consider finding a new therapist," said Rosenblatt. Or, alternatively, if you have made incredible progress, she suggests letting your therapist know it might be time for a break.

2. What do I want more of in therapy that I'm not currently getting?

It's common for your focus to change throughout therapy, but it's important to work with someone qualified to support the specific needs you'd like to focus on.

"If you speak with your therapist about your needs, and your therapist cannot adequately meet them, it might be time to find a therapist who can best support you," said Rosenblatt.

3. Is therapy in general making me feel uncomfortable, or am I feeling uncomfortable with my therapist?

As therapy can bring up some difficult memories or experiences, Rosenblatt highlighted that you're not going to leave every session feeling better immediately. However, she also advised that it is important to distinguish between your experience in therapy versus with your therapist.

"If your therapist has said or done things that feel unprofessional, uncomfortable or demonstrate a lack of cultural competency, see if it would feel right for you to address these with your therapist and then go from there," she recommended.

After closely examining your experience, and coming to the conclusion that you'd prefer to move on from your therapist, Tawwab said that it's truly a matter of preference when it comes to "breaking up" and your therapist, as a professional, is prepared for your relationship to end on your terms. "Believe it or not, therapists are ghosted all the time," she said.

"It's a part of the culture. We know everyone won't come back," added Tawwab. Still, she suggests that it is helpful to give feedback to aid the therapist in understanding where things might not have aligned.

Once you've parted ways with your initial therapist, there are a few tips to help navigate the process of finding someone new without getting discouraged.

Rosenblatt's best practices to keep in mind include being clear on your priorities in what you want, sourcing therapist referrals from your communities and doing your own research.

With patience and hope, many people have found amazing therapists after some trial and error, and experts concur that one bad experience shouldn't be the end-all when it comes to taking care of your mental health.

"Meeting the right therapist is like any sort of relationship where you're learning someone else," said Tawwab. "If you're in school, it's going to be 20 people in your class and you may have one to two friends."

"If you're dating, every relationship won't work out and it's that same sort of thing," she continued. "You keep going. Hopefully, you don't give up on dating or making friends or any of these sort of things, so please don't give up on finding the right therapist."

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Inside Oklahoma's surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children

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(OKLAHOMA CITY) -- Oklahoma doctors say they are seeing a massive surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children -- more than during any previous wave of the pandemic.

Between Jan. 9 and Jan. 15, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 tested positive for COVID-19, making up 18.7% of all cases in the state that week, according to a weekly epidemiology and surveillance report from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

That's a 138% increase from the 6,700 children who contracted the virus the week before and a 566% spike from the 2,400 children who tested positive for the virus the week before Thanksgiving.

"If l look back just to two months ago -- kind of October, November -- that number tended to be between five and 10," Dr. Cameron Mantor, acting chief medical officer at OU Health, told ABC News. "In the past three weeks now, we've just seen it continue to skyrocket."

At Oklahoma Children's Hospital OU Health, more than 50 pediatric patients are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 for the first time ever -- a tenfold increase from just two months ago and three times as high as last winter's surge.

Kids of all ages have been admitted, from as young as 2 weeks old up through teenagers, according to Mantor.

He said it's not clear whether more children have been hospitalized because the omicron variant -- which is fueling the recent wave -- causes more severe illness or because the number of children being infected is so high that, naturally, the hospitalization rate will rise too.

Compared to adults, though, children with COVID-19 at Oklahoma Children's Hospital have required intensive care treatment at lower rates, he said.

About 10% of children who have been admitted to intensive care units need oxygen support or mechanical ventilation compared to 25% of adults at OU Health.

However, even though most children recover from COVID-19, this doesn't mean they don't suffer complications.

Mantor said more kids have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, during this wave than in previous waves.

MIS-C is a condition in which different body parts can become inflamed, such as the heart, lungs and kidneys, and is often seen in children after they are diagnosed with COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, during an OU Health roundtable discussion held on Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Stephanie DeLeon, inpatient medical director at Oklahoma Children's Hospital OU Health, said the hospital has recently seen children diagnosed with COVID encephalitis, meaning these patients have inflammation in their brains and have symptoms including altered mental states and seizures.

Health officials have stressed the importance of vaccinating children.

The weekly report from the OSDH shows that as of Jan. 8 -- the latest date for which data is available -- there were 32 children aged 17 and younger hospitalized statewide over the last 30 days.

Of those children, 31 were unvaccinated, including 17 children aged 5 and older who are eligible to receive vaccines.

Just one fully vaccinated child was hospitalized and no partially vaccinated children were admitted to hospitals.

"When we look at the state of Oklahoma, around 60% have had at least one vaccine dose, but the kids 5 and older who can get vaccinated, that percentage is still very small," Mantor said.

Only 33.6% of Oklahoma children between ages 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the OSDH report. For kids aged 5 to 11, just 9% are fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccines for children under age 5 have not yet been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"It's the same old message that we've been preaching for two years now that to try to prevent the transmission of the disease, both amongst our pediatric patients but also from our pediatric patients to mom and dad and to grandma and grandad, is we have to get vaccinated," Mantor said."The kids that haven't been vaccinated have to get vaccinated. It's safe, it's effective, it works."

He added, "It's not perfect. People are still getting infected with the virus but their likelihood of requiring hospitalization or becoming severely ill is much, much less if you're fully vaccinated, so vaccines are so important. We need to really continue to push that in our aged 5 and older patients."

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CDC urges Americans to get moving, but there's no simple solution

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(NEW YORK) -- While the benefits of exercise are becoming increasingly well known, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that more than one-fifth of Americans remain physically inactive.

In the study, being physically inactive meant no physical activity at all over the past month -- anything from running to gardening.

"Getting enough physical activity could prevent 1 in 10 premature deaths," Dr. Ruth Peterson, director of CDC's Division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, said in prepared remarks. "Too many people are missing out on the health benefits of physical activity such as improved sleep, reduced blood pressure and anxiety, lowered risk for heart disease, several cancers and dementia."

The CDC specifically warned about higher rates of inactivity in the South compared with the rest of the country. Meanwhile, more than 29% of Hispanic, African American and Native American adults were inactive compared to 23% of non-Hispanic white adults.

But doctors said that for many Americans, getting more active isn't as simple as it sounds.

"What this map shows us is that there are disparities, but we have to be better about tailoring our strategies to different populations," said Dr. Alok Patel, an ABC News special correspondent and a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford Children's Health.

"It's important that any message we send is met with equity, inclusiveness and relatability, so that individuals can understand how to adopt and integrate practices into their own unique lives," Patel added. "Even a walk in the neighborhood can be sufficient, but not everyone has access to safe environments. I can't tell you how many times I've had a teenage patient tell me there's no park within a mile of where they live."

This is partly why experts including Patel emphasize that public health and community-based programs need to be individually tailored. Language barriers and cultural beliefs play an integral role as well. Early education though school-based programs and community-based research used to shape public health initiatives can prove especially critical.

And, Patel said, programs able to "listen" to their communities are at the crux of improving health literacy: "It's not a one-size fits all solution."

Nitya Rajeshuni, M.D., M.S., a pediatrics resident at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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Many COVID-19 vaccine side effects caused by placebo effect: Study

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(NEW YORK) -- Many continue to worry about experiencing side effects from vaccines -- especially the COVID-19 vaccines -- but new data from a comprehensive meta-analysis suggests there is little to fear.

The study from Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center found that a large number of side effects reported by patients after receiving their shot can be attributed to the placebo effect.

Researchers examined 12 vaccine safety trials, involving thousands of people, and compared rates of side effects reported between those who received a placebo shot and those who received a real shot. They found that after the first shot, two-thirds of people experienced side effects like headache and fatigue, which the researchers said were attributable to the placebo effect. Shockingly, nearly a quarter of the people -- some who received the placebo shot -- experienced side effects like a sore arm, also attributable to the placebo effect.

What is the placebo effect?

The placebo effect occurs when people anticipate a medical treatment will have certain effects, so much so that they perceive the outcomes they were expecting after the treatment.

It is a well-known phenomenon among scientists and is important to investigate when developing vaccines and medicines, according to Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University.

"After the injection, people are more aware now that they think they might have gotten a vaccine. They're more likely to tell their doctor about things," Schaffner said. "Never underestimate the power of the human mind."

Experts say the placebo effect is a powerful example of the connection between our minds, bodies and circumstances.

In the study, the amount of side effects attributable to the placebo effect decreased to about half after the people studied received a second shot. Frequency of side effects was lower among placebo recipients after the second shot, while the opposite was true for vaccine recipients. This helps reinforce the placebo effect phenomenon, experts said.

Researchers noted one caveat is that the studies examined included different phases of clinical trials, and results were not standardized throughout.

Experts address vaccine hesitancy

With the omicron surge still straining hospitals across America, addressing vaccine hesitancy remains a crucial discussion.

Experts interviewed by ABC News said that if more people knew that experiencing side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines is not as common as they think, more people may be encouraged to get vaccinated.

"When people are armed with information, they are better suited to identify and manage their symptoms," Dr. Simone Wildes, infectious disease physician at South Shore Health, said. "This might also help those who are reluctant to get vaccinated."

Aubrie Ford, D.O. is an emergency medicine resident at Northwell Health in New York and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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Vaccinated people with prior COVID infection had strongest protection during delta, CDC study finds

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(ATLANTA) -- Both vaccination and a prior infection provided protection against another infection and hospitalization due to COVID-19 during the United States' delta wave, according to a study released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between May and November 2021, researchers analyzed data from New York and California to determine the impact of vaccination and previous COVID-19 infection on cases and hospitalization rates.

The study focused on four core groups of people -- those who were unvaccinated, without a previous infection; those who were unvaccinated, with a previous infection; vaccinated people, without a previous infection; and vaccinated people, with a previous infection.

The analysis found that before delta became the predominant variant in June, vaccination offered better protection against breakthrough infections than prior infection offered against reinfection. But after delta became dominant, this trend shifted, with prior infection offering slightly better protection. However, this also coincides with a time when many Americans were several months out from their shots, and before boosters were authorized.

Notably, the study was conducted prior to the emergence of the omicron variant, and before the widespread availability of booster shots, thus, researchers warned that results cannot be directly applied to the nation's current surge. In addition, the analysis did not include data pertaining to the severity of initial infections, and hospitalization data was only pulled from California.

During the delta wave, two doses of a vaccine offered excellent protection against hospitalization, and notably, researchers stressed that getting vaccinated remains a safer option than contracting COVID-19.

Vaccine immunity does fade over time, the study found, and the further out an individual is from one's last vaccine shot, or a prior infection, the more likely it is that they will experience a breakthrough infection.

When asked repeatedly on Wednesday during a press briefing whether the data were showing that when delta was prominent, having had an infection provided greater protection against a subsequent infection than from being vaccinated, a CDC representative insisted that vaccination is still the safest way to protect oneself.

Scientists also suggest the study reinforces the evidence that "vaccination remains the safest strategy for protecting against COVID-19."

The CDC also cited a recent study, which demonstrates that as time increases after an infection, vaccination still provides greater protection against COVID-19 compared to prior infection alone, thus underscoring "the importance of being up to date on COVID-19 vaccination."

Later this week, the CDC said it will publish additional data on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters while omicron has been circulating.

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Three easy food and beverage swaps to level up health at home and reduce inflammation

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(NEW YORK) -- Registered dietician and author Rachel Beller joined "Good Morning America" to share tips that will help others level up their nutrition and may help reduce the risk of chronic illness through food.

Beller showed three simple food swaps that can potentially reduce inflammation and lower the risk for certain chronic diseases like heart disease or diabetes. She prefaced that while no single food can cure or prevent chronic disease, overall nutrition over time may help reduce a person's risk.

Healthier morning beverage

Her first swap and recipe tackles a very popular drink, the chai latte, which can contain over 40 grams of sugar.

Beller said that's equivalent to drinking 10 teaspoons of sugar, or about 10 lollipops. With excess sugar linked to increased systemic inflammation, she shared a healthy swap to add spices that will give the body a boost of nutrition and flavor.

Golden Chocolate

Serves 2

Ingredients
2 cups non-dairy milk
3 dried Medjool dates, pitted
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon ground coffee, or 1 shot of organic espresso (optional)
Pinch of sea salt (option)

Directions

Stir ingredients into warm plant-based milk. OR if using a date place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and heat up. For an extra boost of caffeine, you can add an optional shot of espresso.

Benefits of this swap:

Use spices for flavor and for an antioxidant boost and dates for natural sweetness
Turmeric and cacao have anti-inflammatory properties
Ceylon cinnamon contains antioxidants and adds sweet flavor

Squeeze test to swap out better-for-you bread

Most breads, including ones made with whole wheat flour, can still cause a spike in a person's blood sugar which can contribure to inflammation.

Beller suggests the squeeze test to check, so if you can easily roll a slice of whole wheat bread into a ball, it's mostly flour and doesn't contain intact grains and could therefore spike blood sugar faster. High fiber content in carbohydrates slows down glucose absorbtion.

Instead, swap for something that "resists the squish" and has intact, whole grains and seeds in each slice. That will mean it contatins more fiber and will help your body work harder, which is better for blood sugar control, energy balance and staying full longer.

Rethink your oils

Most of us get too much highly refined and processed oils in common snack foods, such as soybean, safflower, sunflower and canola oil which are low in antioxidants and nutrients.

Beller suggest choosing oils to add to your diet that are less processed and retain valuable phytonutrients and antioxidants like olive, avocado, flaxseed and walnut oils, all of which are high in monosaturated fats or mmega-3 fatty acids and could help lower inflamation and risk of chronic disease.

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Biden administration speaks out on federal blood donation policy impacting gay men amid national blood shortage

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(WASHINGTON) -- For the first time, the Biden administration is commenting on the Food and Drug Administration's long-time blood donation guidelines, which are impacting the LGBTQ+ community by preventing gay and bisexual men from being eligible blood donors.

The statement, made by a White House official exclusively to ABC News, acknowledges the painful origins of the policy and comes on the heels of the American Red Cross declaring their first-ever national blood crisis last week, as supplies at hospitals and blood banks become dangerously low.

Current U.S. policy holds that sexually active gay or bisexual men must abstain from sex for at least three months before they're allowed to donate blood. The rule applies to gay and bisexual men who are monogamous and those who test HIV negative and are practicing safe sex. It also includes gay and bisexual COVID-19 survivors who wish to donate convalescent plasma, rich with antibodies, for research.

The restriction on blood donations came out of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when limited testing technology and capacity existed to screen blood for HIV. In 1983, the FDA implemented a lifetime ban on blood donations from all men who had sex with men after 1977.

The FDA removed the lifetime ban and enacted a 12-month deferral period in 2015, meaning gay or bisexual men had to abstain from having sex with other men for at least 12 months before donating blood. That deferral period was reduced to three months in April 2020 amid blood supply shortages in the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite cutting of deferral periods in recent years, the current federal policy remains a blanket policy covering LGBTQ+ people, and does not take into account individual risk.

"The legacy of bans on blood donation continues to be painful, especially for LGBTQI+ communities," the White House official told ABC News in a statement. "The President is committed to ensuring that this policy is based on science, not fiction or stigma. While there are no new decisions to announce at the moment, the FDA is currently supporting the 'ADVANCE' study, a scientific study to develop relevant scientific evidence and inform any potential policy changes."

In 2020, ABC News broke the story that several major blood donation organizations -- including the American Red Cross, Vitalant and OneBlood -- announced that they were working together in an FDA-funded study (ADVANCE: Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility) to provide data to determine if eligibility based on an individual's risk could replace the time-based deferral system while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.

While the lead researchers involved in the study previously told ABC News their goal was to present their findings to the FDA in late 2021, the FDA revealed to ABC News that the study is ongoing, amid what the American Red Cross is calling "the worst blood shortage in over a decade."

While the American Red Cross said that there is no clear data that would suggest that changing the current blood donation policy would significantly increase the number of blood donations, if the deferral period were lifted, an additional 360,000 men would likely donate, "which could help save the lives of more than a million people," according to LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD.

In what seems like a clash over risk vs. stigma, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and many in the medical community are aligned on the idea that the current federal policy on LGBTQ+ blood donor eligibility is largely discriminatory.

"We believe blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation and we're committed to achieving this goal," the American Red Cross said in a statement to ABC News.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, also told ABC News, "Just like other individuals throughout the country, many people have sex on a regular basis, including with partners and spouses."

And in 2020, Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, told "Good Morning America": "The AMA has been a long-term advocate of using a risk-based approach, rather than stigmatizing one group of people. So we believe there should not even be the three-month deferral, but that we should use a risk-based approach."

ABC News' Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.

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Tennis legend Chris Evert reveals ovarian cancer diagnosis

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(NEW YORK) -- Former world No. 1 tennis player Chris Evert revealed she is battling Stage 1 ovarian cancer.

Evert shared the news in a Tweet on Friday.

"I wanted to share my stage 1 ovarian cancer diagnosis," she said. "Thanks to all of you for respecting my need to focus on my health and treatment plan."

The tennis legend, who made her debut at age 16 at the 1971 U.S. Open and is an 18-time Grand Slam winner who took home 157 singles titles and 32 doubles titles during her career, opened up in depth about her diagnosis in an ESPN article she co-wrote with friend and ESPN journalist Chris McKendry.

In the article, McKendry talks about the moment she learned Evert was diagnosed in a conversation she had with her over text.

"It was short, simple and yet so damn complicated. I got a text on Dec. 7," McKendry wrote. "My friend Chrissie has cancer. The disease had killed her sister Jeanne. My god."

McKendry details how Evert was nervous about her diagnosis, which was discovered following a preventive hysterectomy in early December.

"We thought we were being proactive,'" Evert told McKendry. But following the surgery, doctors told Evert that she would need to go back for lymph nodes and tissue samples. The pathology revealed malignant cells and a tumor in Evert's left fallopian tube.

She had surgery again on Dec. 13 to see if the cancer was in its first or third stage.

During this period of waiting to see what the results were, Evert shared that it reminded her of her younger sister, Jeanne Evert Dubin, who was also diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

For Dubin, also a former professional tennis player, it was late-stage ovarian cancer and it had spread. She died in February 2020 at the age of 62 after battling the disease for over two years.

Evert said that Dubin tested negative for harmful mutations of the BRCA1 gene.

Mutations in the BRCA1 and 2 genes increase the likelihood for developing breast or ovarian cancer in women, and, to a lesser extent, breast cancer in men, according to the National Cancer Institute, although the BRCA genes are not the only genes associated with breast/ovarian cancer.

The increasing likelihood of developing cancer from a BRCA mutation depends on the type of mutation.

After Jeanne's diagnosis, the Evert family was notified of a change in the interpretation of Jeanne's genetic report, which prompted Evert to send her blood for genetic testing. It revealed that she had a variant of the BRCA1 gene, which led her to undergo the preventive hysterectomy.

Evert learned she has stage 1 ovarian cancer, which after chemotherapy, could mean there is a 90% chance the cancer doesn't return.

"I feel very lucky that they caught it early and expect positive results from my chemo plan," she wrote on Twitter.

Evert, who is also an analyst for ESPN, will be covering the Australian Open remotely.

She said she hopes her story inspires women and men to be aware of their bodies and to get screened for cancer before it's too late.

"'We need to have these conversations,'" Evert told McKendry. "'Ovarian cancer is a very deadly disease. Any information is power.'"

"'Be your own advocate. Know your family's history. Have total awareness of your body, follow your gut and be aware of changes,'" Evert added. "'Don't try to be a crusader and think: This will pass.'"

What women should know about ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer originates in the ovaries, which make female hormones and produce eggs, or in the nearby areas of the fallopian tubes and the peritoneum, the tissue that lines your abdominal wall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A woman's risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78, while her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 108, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Ovarian cancer can affect females of all ages and races but is most common in women ages 63 and older and is more common in white women than Black women, according to the ACS.

While early signs of ovarian cancer can be vague, the main symptoms are abdominal pain or pelvic pain, bloating and an increase in urination, according to the CDC.

It is particularly important for women to pay attention to symptoms of ovarian cancer and speak openly with their doctor because there is currently no reliable way to screen for the disease.

In some cases, targeted use of pelvic scans and sonograms or a CA-125 blood test may be used to detect ovarian cancer, but additional testing is "not one size fits all and it is not recommended for all women," said ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a board-certified OBGYN.

Treatment for ovarian cancer usually involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy, according to the CDC.

While there is no known way to prevent ovarian cancer, there are things associated with lowering the risk of getting ovarian cancer, including using birth control for five or more years, having given birth, breastfeeding, having had a hysterectomy, having had your ovaries removed and having had a tubal litigation, according to the CDC.

ABC News' Katie Kindelan contributed to this report.

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CDC warns loosely woven cloth masks are 'least protective' against COVID

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(ATLANTA) -- Any mask is better than no mask. But loosely woven cloth masks provide the least amount of protection and Americans in some cases might want to opt for higher quality masks like KN95 and N95 respirators, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote Friday in updated online guidance.

"Wearing a highly protective mask or respirator may be most important for certain higher risk situations, or by some people at increased risk for severe disease," the CDC stated.

The updated guidance comes after weeks of health experts urging Americans to upgrade their masks in the face of omicron, warning that cloth masks are not effective enough at stopping the highly transmissible variant from spreading.

But with much of the public reluctant to wear a mask at all, the CDC recommendation stops short of calling on Americans to choose one mask over the other, maintaining that any mask is better than no mask. The CDC also argues that higher quality masks can be less comfortable, and if a person takes it off, they are left with no protection.

"What I will say is the best mask that you can wear is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long that you can tolerate in public indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, told reporters this week.

N95 and K95 masks can be costly and harder to find, even as the U.S. government has built up a stockpile of 737 million N95s to ensure first responders don't fun out. President Joe Biden said this week he is developing a plan to make the higher quality masks more widely available.

"Next week we'll announce how we're making high-quality masks available to the American people for free," Biden said.

In its earlier guidance, the CDC urged Americans not to purchase surgical N95 masks so as to save them for health care workers. However, it noted that "basic disposable" respirators can be an option so long as supplies are available.

While this latest guidance stops short of calling on people to wear a certain type of mask, it includes more information about why a person might opt for a nonsurgical N95 or a KN95. It also suggests wearing a disposable surgical mask with a cloth mask over it to improve the fit.

"Some masks and respirators offer higher levels of protection than others, and some may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently than others," the CDC stated in the updated guidance. "It is most important to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator correctly that is comfortable for you and that provides good protection."

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Debunking the idea viruses always evolve to become less virulent

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(NEW YORK) -- As evidence mounts that the omicron variant is less deadly than prior COVID-19 strains, one oft-cited explanation is that viruses always evolve to become less virulent over time.

The problem, experts say, is that this theory has been soundly debunked.

The idea that infections tend to become less lethal over time was first proposed by notable bacteriologist Dr. Theobald Smith in the late 1800s. His theory about pathogen evolution was later dubbed the "law of declining virulence."

Simple and elegant, Smith's theory was that to ensure their own survival, pathogens evolve to stop killing their human hosts. Instead, they create only a mild infection, allowing people to walk around, spreading the virus further afield. Good for the virus, and, arguably, good for us.

But over the past 100 years, virologists have learned that virus evolution is more chaotic. Virus evolution is a game of chance, and less about grand design.

In some cases, viruses evolve to become more virulent.

Continued virus survival, spread and virulence are all about the evolutionary pressures of multiple factors, including the number of people available to infect, how long humans live after infection, the immune system response and time between infection and symptom onset.

Unfortunately, that means it's nearly impossible to predict the future of the pandemic, because viruses don't always evolve in a predictable pattern.

There have been thousands of identified COVID variants, each with unique mutations. But most new variants emerge and then quickly die out, unable to compete with the reigning dominant variant.

Some variants, however, have clear "advantages to continued survival, such as those that evade the immune system and spread easily," said Dr. Abir Hussein, associate medical director for infection presentation and control at University of Washington Medical Center.

Experts warn that it is important to assess the severity of omicron in the context of existing immunity through vaccines and prior infections.

"It is difficult to determine with new variants like delta and omicron if variants are evolving to be more or less virulent. This is because these variants emerged at a time when we had a good deal of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 in certain countries," said Andrew Pekosz, a professor of microbiology at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

People who are vaccinated or recently infected will have milder symptoms if they experience a breakthrough infection or a reinfection, studies show.

"This is not because the variant is less virulent, but because your immune system was primed from prior vaccination and infection," said Pekosz.

Experts say omicron should not be taken lightly or thought of as a less lethal form of COVID. Even if less deadly, the omicron variant is also significantly more transmissible, leading to more deaths overall.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that 22,000 more people could die of COVID-19 over the next two weeks.

People who are unvaccinated remain significantly more at-risk, with officials estimating they are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized and 20 times more likely to die of COVID-19 compared to people who are vaccinated.

"The available COVID vaccines provide immunity for a range of variants and continue to be the first line of defense," said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

As for the future of the pandemic, experts say new variants may emerge in the future, but they won't be easy to predict.

Jess Dawson, M.D., a masters of public health candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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