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  • Olympian Allyson Felix Is Racing to Improve Healthcare for Black Moms
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix (left) and her daughter, Camryn Grace (right). Allyson Felix Olympic medalist Allyson Felix is advocating for Black moms everywhere. Every 12 hours someone dies from pregnancy-related causes, and 60 percent of these deaths are preventable. People of color are also up to 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and their children can face a 130 percent higher infant death rate. Motherhood brought sprinter and nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix all the good feelings: love, joy, awe, and pride. It also inspired her to advocate for moms and babies across the country. After preeclampsia threatened the lives of her and her baby at 32 weeks pregnant, Felix had an emergency cesarean delivery on Nov. 28, 2018. Because her daughter, Camryn Grace, was born prematurely, she started life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). “I’m so grateful and fortunate that she got out of the NICU a strong baby and that things went well for her, but it also just opened my eyes to a whole new world — the risk associated with pregnancy, the limited access that some women have to maternal care, especially from the complications and facing death for Black women… and I felt compelled to do work around that,” Felix told Healthline. She teamed up with Better Starts for All, a partnership with March of Dimes and RB’s Enfa portfolio of brands, which offers on-the-ground and virtual interventions to bring support, education, and clinical care to communities in need. “Currently more than 2.2 million women of childbearing age live in maternity care deserts (rural and urban) that have no hospital offering obstetric care, no birth center and no obstetric provider. Approximately, 150,000 infants are born in these maternity care deserts each year,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer, senior vice president, and interim chief scientific officer at March of Dimes, told Healthline. In 3 years, Better Starts for All aims to improve the lives of more than 7,000 pregnant people in pilot markets in Southeast Ohio and Washington, D.C., by providing the following: a mobile health vehicle that brings prenatal care and related maternal health servicesa group prenatal care model that provides clinical care, education, and support in a group settingonline prenatal education for moderated groups and telemedicine to provide OB carecommunity providers to develop and implement strategies to increase access to care in maternity care deserts “The health of mothers and children is widely viewed as an important indicator of the health and well-being of a nation. Yet, the U.S. remains among the most dangerous developed nations in the world for childbirth,” Gupta said. March of Dimes reports that every 12 hours someone dies from pregnancy-related causes, and 60 percent of these deaths are preventable. “It is even more dangerous for moms and babies of color as Black women are over three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications,” Gupta said. “Women of color are also up to 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and their children can face a 130 percent higher infant death rate,” he said. Why maternal care disparities exist While the reasons for disparities in maternal care for Black people are complex, racism is at the root, said Dr. Leslie Farrington, a retired obstetrician and co-founder of the Black Coalition for Safe Motherhood. She points out that racism affects the body and uterus, and can result in preterm delivery. “There are many ways in which racism shows up biologically. The stress on Black women from dealing with the overall overarching effects of being devalued in society, being punished more, not being supported as much when children or encouraged as much in schools,” Farrington told Healthline. She added that this stress increases the risk of preterm birth. “When I was in the middle of my career, they were saying preterm birth is related to inflammation, but they did not see a correlation to infection, so they kept trying to say that Black women had more infections,” Farrington said. “But that’s not the case. They just had more inflammation, and this inflammation — the medical term being higher levels of leukotrienes — results in preterm birth,” she said. Moreover, more stress means more inflammation. “It’s been shown discrimination increases all of these factors,” Farrington added. Lack of insurance coverage is another reason for maternal health disparities. Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) core coverage provision came into effect in 2014, Gupta said uninsured rates fell across all racial and ethnic groups, with the biggest gains among Black and Hispanic people. “Still, 30 million people remain uninsured. About half of those 30 million are people of color. Fourteen states have refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA, which is one of the reasons why people of color are disproportionately likely to be uninsured today. This includes some of the states with the largest populations of Black Americans,” he said. Social determinants of health, such as access to care and poverty, environmental conditions, housing, transportation, and social economic status, also contribute to the disparities. “I see ‘social determinants of health’ as a euphemism for environmental racism: red-lighting, gerrymandering, controlling the budget of predominantly Black-serving hospitals,” Farrington said. Breaking the disparities As a Black mother, Felix said her role feels heavier in recent times. “It’s a really sobering responsibility, and I think a lot about my daughter and how I’ll have to give her the tools to navigate through this world, but it’s also this beautiful privilege that I get to do that and teach her,” Felix said. “So, a lot of these issues that I want to champion are motivated by her,” she said, “and I don’t want her generation to grow up and for these statistics to still be the same.” Felix is hopeful that more conversations about maternal care disparities are occurring in mainstream media, and that more research is dedicated to the subject. “[We] are moving in the right direction, but I’d love to see policies change and more support to be provided. But we are seeing programs like Better Starts for All where we are trying to address issues in a very real way, and so I’m excited that we are helping women in these communities with access to care,” Felix said. Policy actions and solutions can create positive change, noted Gupta. “We are demanding policymakers to take action to better serve the women and children in our country. While no single solution exists to address limited access to care and improve health equity, there are key policy actions that can create positive change,” he said. Those policies involve: improving access to quality and affordable preconception, prenatal, and postpartum care (e.g., expand Medicaid, provide coverage to telehealth services, expand access to midwifery care, support care quality improvement efforts)focusing on prevention and treatment (e.g., create paid family leave systems and address social determinants of health)expanding research and collection of surveillance data on maternal death and disease “Our hope is that by addressing the issue and creating solutions, other local community leaders and policymakers will follow suit so we can all address this national issue together,” Gupta said. “I do believe that some of your best performances and best work can be done after you become a mother, and we can’t put these limitations that society kind of forces on us,” said Allyson Felix. How Black people can find the best care In 2020, March of Dimes launched implicit bias training for healthcare professionals to uncover institutionalized racism in the healthcare system and to not perpetuate the cycles of discrimination. But bias among physicians exists. Farrington recommends that Black people seek out treatment from trusted Black obstetricians, midwives, or doulas. In addition to word of mouth, she suggests using apps like IRTH or Health In Her HUE to find reviews of Black healthcare professionals in your area. The National Perinatal Task Force, a grassroots movement that aims to start and grow Perinatal Safe Spots (PSS) in areas where it’s not safe or conducive to being pregnant or parenting young children, is another resource. Additionally, Farrington said you need to advocate for yourself. “Our ACTT acronym is a reminder to moms and their supporters of what they can do in the medical setting to get the care they need,” she said. ACTT stands for: Ask questions until you understand the answers.Claim your physical and mental space.Trust your body.Tell your story. Felix shared a similar sentiment: She promotes building a relationship with your doctor. “It is so important, and you can’t be intimidated to ask the questions, whether you think it’s something minor or something huge or something silly,” she said. Felix also recommends having a support system and someone else to advocate for you, as she did with her husband, Kenneth Ferguson. “I know in my situation, things went south very quickly, and I had to have a partner who was able to make some decisions and speak on my behalf and advocate for me… Really think about that beforehand, and put those things in place,” she said. And once a mom, give yourself some grace, added Felix. “There is so much — especially now with the pandemic going on, it’s just another layer of unpredictability and stress added to it — but really be kind to yourself, and know that it’s OK for everything not to be in control,” she said. The one thing that is in your control, though, is keeping a little bit of your pre-mom self in sight. “I do believe that some of your best performances and best work can be done after you become a mother, and we can’t put these limitations that society kind of forces on us,” Felix said. “I would encourage women to be strong, still have their same passions, and there’s no reason to shrink yourself at all because you’re in this new role. I think if anything, it motivates you and drives you to be even greater than before and to have a different perspective,” she said. Felix’s advocacy work is certainly proving this to be true. Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people. She writes with empathy and accuracy and has a knack for connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.

  • COVID-19 Updates: Concerns Grow Over Restriction Relaxation
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures via Getty Images The United States currently has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and related deaths in the world.More than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States.COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in the United States, but many eligible people are having difficulty making appointments. Update on COVID-19 numbers Globally, there have been more than 115 million confirmed cases and more than 2.5 million associated deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.The United States has reported more than 28.8 million confirmed cases. More than 520,000 people in the United States have died from the disease.More than 54 million people in the United States have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the CDC. Healthline updates this page on weekdays. For up-to-date information about the virus, go here. 3/5/21 10:52 a.m. — Moves to reopen may lead to new COVID surge, says Fauci Newly reported COVID-19 cases are stalling at high levels after weeks of decline with fewer Americans getting tested. Now, health experts warn that pandemic fatigue in the United States might jeopardize hard-won progress against COVID-19. Earlier this week, governors of Texas and Mississippi announced they were lifting mask mandates and allowing businesses to operate at full capacity immediately or within days. These announcements come as health experts warn the spread of more-transmissible COVID-19 variants could produce a new surge in cases. According to CNN, a person with the B.1.1.7 variant (first identified in the United Kingdom) can infect 43 to 90 percent more people than other versions of the virus, according to evidence published Wednesday by researchers at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you’re only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines, particularly when we’re dealing with anywhere from 55 (thousand) to 70,000 infections per day in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Wednesday. B.1.526 variant spreading through New York City A new COVID-19 variant, known as B.1.526, is spreading across New York City, after being discovered in February in the Washington Heights area in upper Manhattan, reported Yahoo News. “I am concerned about its immune escape,” Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in San Diego, told Yahoo News. He noted the new variant’s increased ability to evade the body’s immune protections, including a vaccine. According to Yahoo News, vaccines remain broadly effective against the coronavirus, including B.1.526, but the emergence of new varieties will require constant vigilance from virologists.  3/4/21 2:08 p.m. PST — COVID-19 death rates higher in countries with more overweight population The risk of death from COVID-19 is roughly 10 times higher in countries where most of the population is overweight, according to a report released by the World Obesity Forum. Researchers analyzed mortality data from Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization (WHO). They reported that of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is overweight. “We now know that an overweight population is the next pandemic waiting to happen,” Tim Lobstein, PhD, study author and senior policy adviser to the World Obesity Federation, told the Independent. “Look at countries like Japan and South Korea where they have very low levels of COVID-19 deaths as well as very low levels of adult obesity,” he said. 5 states roll back mask mandates, more may follow So far, five states have announced that they’re rolling back mask mandates. The move has caused some experts to wonder whether other states will join them, which would alter how the United States will deal with the pandemic at a crucial moment in the fight against the disease, reported USA Today. Dr. Eric Rubin, an infectious disease specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts, told the newspaper that “what they do in Texas matters to everybody else in the country.” He noted the state’s status as the second most populated in the country and as second highest with COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. According to USA Today, mixed messaging is confusing populations in different regions. Some local mayors and businesses continue to insist on mask use and other disease prevention measures while governors are saying those measures are no longer required. 3/3/21 4:00 p.m. PST — Sweden may lock down for COVID-19 surge Swedish officials warn that the country may need to implement its first lockdown of the pandemic as the number of COVID-19 cases surged 100 percent in Stockholm over the last 3 weeks, reported the New York Post. The Swedish capital recorded 6,336 new cases of COVID-19 last week, compared with only 3,225 reported the first week of February, according to data compiled by the region. According to Bloomberg, the surge in COVID-19 cases follows a warning from the government by Prime Minister Stefan Lofven that the Scandinavian nation might need to implement its first lockdown since the pandemic was declared last year. “We have a third wave of transmissions — it’s here now,” Johan Bratt, the acting health and medical care director for the Stockholm region, said at a press briefing on March 3, Bloomberg reported. Over 200,000 people sign up for health insurance after ACA marketplaces reopen In just 2 weeks, more than 200,000 people have signed up for healthcare coverage on the reopened healthcare marketplaces, according to the Associated Press. President Joe Biden directed that the marketplaces be reopened last month in order to help people get healthcare coverage during the pandemic. Many people have been at risk of losing their health insurance due to job loss stemming from the pandemic. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Texas, other states ease COVID-19 measures amid warnings On March 2, Texas became the biggest state to remove masking mandates and joined a rapidly growing movement by governors and other leaders across the nation to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. This happened despite the pleas from health officials not to let their guard down — yet, reported the Associated Press. Texas will also remove limits on the number of diners who can be served indoors, said Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, making the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock, reported US News. “Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility,” said Abbott, speaking from a crowded dining room where many of those surrounding him were not wearing masks. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed.” 3/2/21 2:31 p.m. PST — Merck and Johnson & Johnson will work together to make one-shot vaccine President Biden plans to announce today that pharmaceutical company Merck will help produce Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose COVID-19 vaccine, as his administration pushes to get the shot distributed to the public, reported The Wall Street Journal. President Biden is expected to make this announcement today while he gives an update on the pandemic. According to The Wall Street Journal, the assistance from Merck, a competitor of Johnson & Johnson, will help speed production following the one-shot vaccine’s authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Feb. 27. Facing questions about the company’s slipping delivery schedule, Johnson & Johnson Vice President Richard Nettles told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week that the drugmaker had faced “significant challenges” because of the vaccine candidate’s “highly complex” manufacturing process, reported the Associated Press (AP). The AP also reported that the Biden administration now expects to have enough supply of the three approved vaccines to inoculate all eligible U.S. adults by June, although actually delivering the injections could take longer. Experts worry as states reopen, Texas stops mask mandate CNN reported that in California, Los Angeles County health officials announced the daily test positivity rate is the lowest it’s ever been. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that COVID-19 hospitalizations had dropped to the lowest levels since Dec. 12. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said the state’s mask mandate would end on Tuesday and that businesses could fully reopen. But experty s told CNN this doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. “We should not ease up, allow indoor dining, big groups… getting rid of mask mandates. We have to hold on for another two or three months in this condition,” Dr. Zeke Emanuel, who was a health adviser for the Obama White House and a member of the Biden Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, told CNN. “We’re still having on average 2,000 deaths a day. We cannot become inured to that.” Emmanuel added that if people relax too early, COVID-19 numbers are “going to reverse and go up” in the United States. WHO says hydroxychloroquine should not be used as COVID-19 treatment In a paper published today, the World Health Organization strongly advises medical providers not to use hydroxychloroquine to treat people with COVID-19. The drug was originally developed to treat malaria. It had been touted by former President Donald Trump as a way to treat COVID-19 last year, but subsequent tests found the drug to be ineffective as a treatment for COVID-19. 3/1/21 2:11 p.m. PST — U.S. begins distribution of third COVID-19 vaccine The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this weekend added a third vaccine to the nation’s arsenal against COVID-19 — the Johnson & Johnson single-dose candidate. The FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) on Feb. 27 for the vaccine, which is being shipped out on March 1 and administered this week. “The emergency use authorization of a third vaccine against COVID-19 in the United States today, just over a year since the virus was identified, demonstrates extraordinary scientific commitment and progress,” the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) said in an emailed statement. “The availability of another safe and effective vaccine that requires only one dose and that can be stored with only basic refrigeration opens new opportunities for delivery and expanded access for millions of people,” the IDSA added. After an independent advisory panel voted to recommend that the FDA issue an EUA for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the FDA director signed off on that recommendation almost immediately, clearing the final hurdle before the drug can be distributed. “There’s a kind of new urgency to it,” Dr. Eric Rubin, a member of the FDA vaccine advisory committee and a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN on Sunday. “Because there are new viral variants coming out right now, with some chance that some of them could eventually become somewhat resistant to the protection provided by vaccines, it’s really important to get it out there fast.” Finland declares a state of emergency With COVID-19 cases rising, the government of Finland has declared a state of emergency, according to Yahoo News. Finland has seen a sharp rise in cases due in part to new coronavirus variants that spread so rapidly. Since the beginning of the outbreak, there have been more than 58,000 infections in the country and 742 recorded deaths. Downtrend in COVID infections stalls The steady decline in new COVID-19 cases across the nation appears to have stalled, according to public health officials. They warn that this might be because new, more transmissible COVID-19 variants are taking hold, reported The Washington Post. According to the Post, the number of new infections remains critically high, with more than 125,000 cases reported over the weekend, even as COVID-related hospitalizations continue to go down. However, this past weekend also saw promising developments regarding the pandemic. USA Today reported Feb. 27 that the United States administered the most vaccines in a day on Feb. 26, with nearly 2.4 million shots given, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). USA Today also reported that the House approved President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package early Feb. 27. This is a key step that would provide millions of Americans $1,400 stimulus payments, ramp up vaccine distribution, and extend unemployment aid through the summer. 2/26/21 3:31 p.m. PST—Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine is recommended by key FDA panel An advisory group recommended Friday, Feb. 26, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issue emergency authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine for people 18 and older. The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory CommitteeTrusted Source voted unanimously 22-0 in favor of the emergency use authorization (EUA). COVID-19 vaccines might end pandemic, expert says The U.S. COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 28.4 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than a half-million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 94 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the United States, with only about 70 million administered so far. While the numbers may seem daunting, The Harvard Gazette reported that current vaccines seem effective enough to end the pandemic. This is despite global concerns about new COVID-19 variants. Galit Alter, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a group leader at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, told The Gazette that while the U.K. variant seems able to evade some vaccine protection, and the South African variant appears able to skirt even more, none have completely escaped the body’s post-vaccination immune responses. “What we’re seeing is that these variants don’t seem to affect T-cell immunity all that much, and they [the T-cells] seem to be as effective in recognizing these variants as they do the original virus,” Alter told The Gazette. “What that means is that we actually have very important backup mechanisms built into our vaccines that will continue to provide protection against these newly emerging variants.” Jon Cherry/Getty Images COVID cases may be falling – but don’t underestimate virus, experts say Across the United States, and the world, COVID-19 seems to be losing its grip — cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rapidly and steeply plunging, reported the New York Times. However, researchers told the Times that they are worried Americans, so close to the end of the pandemic, might begin underestimating the virus. According to a New York Times database, hospitalizations are down 30 percent, and deaths have fallen by 22 percent, but these numbers are still high. “Very, very high case numbers are not a good thing, even if the trend is downward,” Marc Lipsitch, D.Phil., an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, told The Times. “Taking the first hint of a downward trend as a reason to reopen is how you get to even higher numbers.” Critically, the new COVID-19 variants might mean, “We’re essentially facing a pandemic within a pandemic,” Adam Kucharski, PhD, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told The Times. 2/25/21 1:37 p.m. PST — Influenza cases ‘disappear’ during pandemic According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), February is typically the peak of flu season, but this year is different. Influenza cases have nearly disappeared from the United States, with reports coming in at far lower levels than has been seen in decades. PBS News Hour reported that experts said measures to prevent virus spread, such as mask-wearing, physical or social distancing, and virtual schooling, were strong factors preventing a “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19. Also, increased efforts to get more people vaccinated against flu and fewer people traveling likely played a role. Dr. Nathan Mick, head of the emergency department at Maine Medical Center in Portland, the state’s largest hospital, told the Associated Press (AP), “I have seen zero documented flu cases this winter.” Dr. Arnold Monto, a flu expert at the University of Michigan, told the AP that another possible explanation is that the coronavirus has “muscled aside” flu and other bugs that are more common in the fall and winter. He added that although scientists don’t fully understand this mechanism, it would be consistent with patterns seen when certain flu strains predominate over others. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Pfizer studying third booster shot against COVID-19 Even with the Pfizer vaccine’s 95 percent effectiveness at preventing coronavirus infection after two doses, the drugmaker is looking at the effectiveness of a third dose, reported NBC News. Pfizer is trying to understand the effect of a booster shot on immunity against COVID-19 caused by circulating and any newly emerging COVID-19 variants. “The study will draw upon participants from the Phase 1 study in the United States who will be offered the opportunity to receive a 30 µg booster of the current vaccine 6 to 12 months after receiving their initial two-dose regimen,” Pfizer said in a statement. “The study is part of the Companies’ clinical development strategy to determine the effectiveness of a third dose against evolving variants.” FDA says that Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperatures The Food and Drug Administration said today that the Pfizer vaccine can be stored in conventional freezers instead of specialized freezers capable of ultra-low temperatures. Previously the vaccine has only been allowed to be transferred and stored at temperatures between -80ºC to -60ºC (-112ºF to -76ºF). This meant using specialized freezers that are not widely available. Being able to use conventional freezers may make it far easier to transport and store the vaccine. 2/24/21 2:43 p.m. PST—Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine found safe A recently released Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analysis finds the single-dose vaccine candidate produced by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson is safe for use. Johnson & Johnson says the company has 4 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine ready to ship as soon as it receives an emergency use authorization (EUA), which could happen this week, reported CNN. The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet Friday to review data on the vaccine candidate and decide whether to issue an EUA for adults age 18 and older. According to CNN, upon authorization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) makes recommendations to the CDC on how the vaccine should be used, including age groups and what type of schedule. An emergency meeting of ACIP will be held Feb. 28 and March 1. “We’re hoping that ACIP will provide some guidance on the most effective use of the J&J one dose vaccine,” Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, wrote in an email to CNN on Feb. 23. COVID-19 variants will likely cause new surge in cases COVID-19 infections across the U.S. are continuing to fall, with more Americans being vaccinated, but coronavirus variants may soon cause complications. Experts think that several experts have predicted the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant would likely fuel another surge of cases in the coming weeks, according to CNN. The U.K. variant is roughly 50 percent more infectious than versions of the coronavirus that dominated for most of the pandemic, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. This anticipated surge is why many experts highlight the need to maintain safety measures, such as mask use, social distancing, and avoiding crowded areas. Biden administration plans to send 25 million masks to health centers and food banks The Biden administration plans to send out 25 million masks this week to promote wearing a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19. The masks will be sent to community health centers and food pantries to provide low-income areas with supplies. The reusable masks will be made of cloth and fitted for both adults and children, according to USA Today. 2/23/21 2:50 p.m. PST — You still need a mask after vaccination Even after you get vaccinated against COVID-19, you’ll still need to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing, USA Today reported. However, “people are interested in taking the vaccine,” White House senior adviser on the COVID-19 response, Andy Slavitt, said at a news conference Monday, Feb. 22, “[because] they don’t want to be sick and they don’t want to die.” Two shots of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can reduce someone’s risk of developing symptomatic COVID-19 by about 95 percent, according to the findings of large research trials. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told USA Today that life wouldn’t get back to normal until national infection rates are reduced further. “There are things, even if you’re vaccinated, that you’re not going to be able to do in society, for example, indoor dining, theaters, places where people congregate,” Fauci said. Walensky added that vaccination will eliminate the need to quarantine after exposure. She said the CDC has concluded that, “if you’ve been exposed and you’ve been fully vaccinated — two doses — there is no longer the need to quarantine after you’ve been exposed.” Biden on track for 100 million doses in first 100 days President Joe Biden’s administration is on track to deliver over 100 million doses within his first 100 days in office. Biden made the promise during his transition, and later said they would aim for 150 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. Currently 49.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been released in Biden’s first 34 days in office. Nearly 100 New Yorkers need to be revaccinated due to error Dozens of people in New York were asked to get revaccinated for COVID-19 after their past dose was stored at an improper temperature, the New York Post reported. This error affected 81 of 1,379 doses distributed at the Jones Beach, New York, vaccination site on Long Island last Monday, Feb. 15, a state department of health spokesperson told NBC New York. New York state officials told the network that some vials warmed up too much in transit to the vaccination site, and that the affected people have been assured that “there will be no extra vaccine-related risks from revaccination.” 2/22/21 2:14 p.m. PST — U.S. to hit 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 The nation has reached a milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins. At 499,000, the present death toll is more than six average NFL stadiums worth of victims, according to CNN. “It’s really horrible. It’s something that is historic. It’s nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told CNN. “People decades from now are going to be talking about this as a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country, to have these many people to have died from a respiratory-borne infection.” Fauci emphasized that this is why health officials keep insisting the public continue with public health measures. “Because we don’t want this to get much worse than it already is,” concluded Fauci. COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa found in New York The variant, known as B.1.351, was detected in a Nassau County, New York resident, and announced one week after the tri-state area’s first case was discovered in a Connecticut resident hospitalized in New York City, reported NBC News. State and county officials didn’t provide additional details regarding ongoing contact tracing or exposure risk in the Nassau County case. According to the CDC, this strain of the virus was first detected in South Africa in October 2020 and was first found in the United States at the end of January. The CDC also cautioned that the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine used in the United States “may be less effective” against this COVID-19 variant. Physicians report first case of COVID-19 from organ transplant For the first time, a person developed COVID-19 after receiving an organ transplant from a donor who had SARS-CoV-2. A woman in Michigan developed COVID-19 and later died after undergoing a double lung transplant. Officials said the case appeared to be isolated with no other transplant-related coronavirus transmissions being documented, according to U.S. News and World Reports. 2/19/21 12:53 p.m. PST — Pfizer vaccine can be stored at standard freezer temperatures In a new press release, drugmaker Pfizer reported that their COVID-19 vaccine can now be stored at standard freezer temperatures. The company is submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to show that their vaccine can remain stable when stored at t -25°C to -15°C (-13°F to 5°F). Previously the vaccine had to be stored at -80ºC and -60ºC (-112ºF to ‑76ºF), which necessitated the use of special freezers. If the FDA approves the new storage it could make it easier to ship and store the vaccine. “We have been continuously performing stability studies to support the production of the vaccine at commercial scale, with the goal of making the vaccine as accessible as possible for healthcare providers and people across the U.S. and around the world,” said Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, in the statement. “If approved, this new storage option would offer pharmacies and vaccination centers greater flexibility in how they manage their vaccine supply.” Additionally, a new study published in The Lancet, found that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine may be as much as 85 percent effective after 15 to 28 days. Florida women disguised themselves to get vaccinated According to Florida health officials, two women disguised themselves as senior citizens in an effort to receive their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, reported ABC News. The story says that the women showed up at the Orange County Convention Center wearing bonnets, gloves, and glasses in an effort to appear older, but are in their 30s and 40s, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. This made them ineligible to receive vaccination outside of a healthcare or long-term care facility setting. “So yesterday, we realized a couple of young ladies came dressed up as grannies to get vaccinated for the second time,” said Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, during a Thursday press briefing. “So I don’t know how they escaped the first time.” The couple had valid vaccination cards from their first shot, but on their second attempt, there were issues with their identification, explained Pino. ABC News also reported that deputies gave both women trespass warnings after their dates of birth didn’t match those previously used to register for the vaccines. “This is the hottest commodity that is out there right now,” said Pino. “We have to be very careful with the funds and the resources that we are provided.” Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images Oregon infant is youngest to die with COVID-19 On Thursday the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported 466 new coronavirus cases and six deaths, including the state’s youngest victim, an infant from Umatilla County who died last month, reported The Oregonian. “Today’s update on the number of COVID-19 related deaths includes an infant who had tested positive for COVID-19 and died the same day,” the OHA posted to social media. “Every death from COVID-19 is a tragedy, even more so the death of a child.” According to KOMO News, the child also had significant underlying medical conditions. Dr. Bukhosi Dube, a senior health adviser for OHA, told KOMO News they cannot release more details about the baby’s death because of HIPAA laws, but he did confirm the infant had underlying conditions. Dr. Anne Vestergaard, a Portland pediatrician, told KOMO News that underlying conditions put babies at risk for many illnesses, including influenza and RSV (a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms). She emphasized that she doesn’t want this news to panic parents. “If you have a healthy baby, who doesn’t have underlying conditions, the likelihood of this occurring to your baby is very low,” said Vestergaard. 2/18/21 2:53 p.m. PST — U.S. life expectancy falls during pandemic, Blacks and Hispanics most affected Health officials say life expectancy in the United States dropped by one year during the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused its first wave of deaths, reported the Associated Press (AP). The CDC’s preliminary data shows life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population declining from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years for January through June 2020. These figures were released on Feb. 18 by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. According to the AP, marginalized groups experienced the biggest impact, with Black people’s life expectancy falling by nearly three years and Hispanics by about two years. “What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year … I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco told AP. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines effective against British COVID-19 variant The two COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna appear to be highly effective against the more transmissible variant of the virus first detected in Britain, according to newly published studies in the New England Journal of Medicine. The finding is a potential boost to vaccination efforts around the globe, reported The Washington Post. However, the vaccines also show a decreased ability to protect against the South African strain of the virus — pushing both drugmakers to develop an updated vaccine or booster shot. According to the Post, the new findings add to concerns about this variant, which has shown significant resistance to the AstraZeneca vaccine in a small-scale trial. Those results caused South Africa’s government to scrap that vaccine in favor of the single-dose candidate produced by Johnson & Johnson. 2/17/21 2:03 p.m. PST — U.K. to conduct COVID-19 ‘human challenge’ The United Kingdom will be the first country in the world to conduct a COVID-19 “human challenge” study, following approval by the country’s clinical trials ethics body. According to a statement from the British government, this first-of-its-kind COVID-19 study will try to discover the smallest amount of virus needed to cause infection. Once the initial study has taken place, a small number of volunteers exposed to the virus might be given vaccine candidates already proven safe to help identify the most effective vaccines and accelerate their development. The findings will give doctors greater understanding of COVID-19 and help the pandemic response by providing important information for vaccine and treatment development. According to CNBC, the human challenge trial will take place in the next few weeks within the Royal Free Hospital’s specialist and secure clinical research facilities in London. Biden cautiously optimistic about pandemic During President Joe Biden’s first televised town hall on Feb. 16, he answered questions focusing primarily on different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccinations, school reopenings, and how he planned to turn around the economy. “As my mother would say, ‘with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors,’ that by next Christmas, I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today,” Biden said during the CNN town hall. “A year from now, I think that there will be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, having to wear a mask, but we don’t know. So I don’t want to overpromise anything here.” Biden also said his administration expects to have over 600 million vaccine doses available by the end of July, which will be enough to vaccinate every single person in the United States. 2/16/21 2:18 p.m. PST — Unique COVID-19 variants found in U.S., study finds A study published Sunday identifies seven new COVID-19 variants unique to the United States, and all have a mutation that can make them more contagious. Yahoo News also reported that researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics in Los Angeles have identified another new variant, named CAL.20C, which became detectable over the summer and currently accounts for almost half of all COVID-19 cases in Southern California. “CAL.20C shows that we are the carriers,” Jasmine Plummer, PhD, one of the Cedars-Sinai molecular geneticists who discovered CAL.20C, told Yahoo. “We are the way by which SARS-CoV-2 is moving. It’s a reflection of our behavior. If we don’t give it the opportunity to move, then we can curb it right now.” Plummer emphasized that, so far, the California variant hasn’t resulted in more severe illness. “With the very small numbers we have right now, the outcomes don’t seem to be more severe,” she said. Vaccinations are picking up in the United States. Boston Globe/Getty Images WHO gives OK to AstraZeneca vaccine The World Health Organization has given emergency use authorization for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine will be rolled out via the COVAX initiative to give poorer countries access. A trial using the AstraZeneca vaccine in South Africa was stopped after it failed to be effective against a form of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine was not effective against mild and moderate COVID-19 cases. Israel reports a 94 percent drop in COVID-19 cases among vaccinated people In a major study, authorities in Israel have reported a 94 percent drop in symptomatic COVID-19 cases among 600,000 people who were fully vaccinated, according to Reuters. Clalit, Israel’s largest Health Maintenance Organization, found that people who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine had a major drop in the risk of developing COVID-19. They were also 92 percent less likely to develop severe disease. U.S. will surpass goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, Biden says President Joe Biden was optimistic Tuesday about the U.S. vaccine rollout, saying it would surpass forecasts, although a massive winter storm was slowing efforts to deliver shots this week, reported USA Today. “Before I took office, I set a big goal of administering 100 million shots in the first 100 days,” Biden posted on social media. “With the progress we’re making, I believe we’ll not only reach that, we’ll break it.” The White House announced Tuesday that it expects to send out 13.5 million vaccine doses every week to states, a 57 percent increase since Biden’s inauguration. According to USA Today, the winter storm that has caused icy roads, power outages, and dangerously low temperatures across much of the nation has snarled traffic. It is delaying vaccine shipments to Florida and Texas. 2/12/21 2:14 p.m. PST — COVID-19 booster shots could become routine Future checkups at the doctor’s office might include a COVID-19 booster shot, reported NBC News. Infectious disease experts have warned COVID-19 is likely to be an endemic disease, which means the disease will stick around like the flu, though not at present levels. “I think a big question on this coronavirus is, is it something that we’re gonna have forever,” Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News. “This virus is showing an incredible ability to mutate, to change, to adapt, in a sense, to everything we’re putting against it.” COVID-19 has undergone thousands of mutations since it was first detected in humans. Although most ended up being inconsequential, experts are concerned about alterations that could make this coronavirus more contagious or available vaccines less effective. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images Moderna to add more vaccine doses to vials The lack of available COVID-19 vaccine has been the main stumbling block to getting Americans vaccinated. Now, experts are hoping a simple change will greatly increase the amount of vaccine available: add more doses to each vial of vaccine. Moderna will now be allowed by the FDA to put more vaccine in each vial so that it will contain up to 14 doses instead of 10, according to the New York Times. North Carolina announces first case of South African COVID-19 variant North Carolina health officials on Thursday announced the state’s first case of a concerning coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa. “Viruses change all the time, and NCDHHS expects to see new COVID-19 variants in the state as the pandemic continues,” health officials said in a statement. “Data suggest this variant may be more contagious than other variants but does not suggest that it causes more severe disease. Current COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be effective against this and other new variants.” According to Fox News, North Carolina joins other states with confirmed cases of the new strain, including Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, California, and Texas. 2/11/21 2:53 p.m. PST — New CDC guidelines say two masks are better than one The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidelines Wednesday that include wearing well-fitting face masks or two masks at a time to prevent disease spread. The new guidelines follow a recent CDC study that found two ways to “substantially” reduce wearer exposure to COVID-19 are: Fitting a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask Knotting the ear loops of a medical procedure mask and then tucking in and flattening the extra material close to the face “In the breathing experiment, having both the source and the receiver wear masks modified to fit better reduced the receiver’s exposure by more than 95 percent, compared to no mask at all,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing. The new CDC recommendations also advise Americans to select masks with a nose wire that can be adjusted for a snug fit, and to use a mask fitter or brace to better seal their masks.  Vaccinated people won’t need to quarantine, says CDC The CDC has announced that fully vaccinated people who meet specific criteria will no longer be required to quarantine following exposure to someone with COVID-19, reported USA Today. The eased rules begin 14 days after the final vaccination dose and last three months after that for people showing no symptoms. The CDC emphasized that vaccinated people should still use a mask, practice social distancing, avoid crowds/poorly ventilated spaces, and follow guidelines for travel and other activities. 2/10/21 2:05 p.m. PST — WHO on how COVID-19 may have started Peter Ben Embarek, PhD, the leading animal disease expert at the World Health Organization (WHO), said the investigative team looked into four main scenarios about how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, initially spread to humans, according to Reuters. The first scenario theorizes a single person was exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through direct contact with a horseshoe bat. The virus might have been circulating in humans for some time before infecting people in Wuhan. The second, and most likely scenario, involves transmission to humans through an unknown intermediary species. Liang Wannian, PhD, an expert with China’s National Health Commission, told CNBC that pangolins were potential candidates but other animals may have also served as reservoirs. A third possibility is that COVID-19 originated under the first or second scenarios and that the virus was transmitted via frozen foods. Chinese experts associate later COVID-19 clusters to imported frozen food. However, investigators found that the fourth and least likely scenario is that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is known to have studied captive coronaviruses. Alcohol use during the pandemic creates wave of hospitalizations Liver disease related to alcohol use was a growing problem even before the pandemic, with 15 million people diagnosed with the condition around the country, and hospitalizations doubling over the past decade, according to Kaiser Health News (KHN). However, according to KHN, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly added to the toll. While national figures aren’t available, Dr. Brian Lee, a transplant hepatologist who treats the disease at Keck Hospital at the University of Southern California, told KHN that admissions were up 30 percent in 2020 compared with 2019. Specialists at hospitals affiliated with the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Harvard University, and Mount Sinai Health System in New York City have told KHN that rates of admissions for alcoholic liver disease have leapt by up to 50 percent since March. 2/9/21 2:15 p.m. PST — Biden administration considers COVID-19 ‘mobile vaccination centers’ For many, getting a COVID-19 vaccine appointment has been challenging. And, according to Biden’s adviser for COVID-19 response Andy Slavitt, this is because we’re still “in a situation of undersupply” of vaccine, CNN reported. “I think people are going to have to probably continue to be more patient than they want to be,” Slavitt told NPR. “But in the meantime, they should know that 40 million-plus shots have gone out. And a lot of people, particularly those at highest risk, have been able to get their first vaccines, and many their second.” He added that in the effort to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19, the Biden administration is considering mobile vaccination centers that travel within communities. “They can go to workplaces, they can go to churches, they can go to communities,” Slavitt said. WHO ends Wuhan investigation World Health Organization (WHO) investigators said Tuesday, Feb. 9, they would cease pursuing research into whether COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, USA Today reported. The WHO team has spent several weeks on the Wuhan fact-finding mission with experts visiting hospitals, research institutes, and a wildlife market tied to the outbreak. According to USA Today, the WHO’s fieldwork and other activities in Wuhan were conducted under close monitoring by Chinese officials and security officers. Beijing has also resisted calls for a completely independent investigation into the origins of the virus. 2/8/21 2:14 p.m. PST — Pandemic increasing number who choose to die at home Since the pandemic hit, mortuary owner Brian Simmons has been making more trips to homes to pick up bodies for cremation or embalming, according to the Associated Press (AP). Simmons’ crews regularly visit homes in the Springfield, Kansas, area and remove bodies of people who chose to die at home instead of spending their last days in a nursing home or hospital, where family visitations can be prohibited because of the pandemic. The AP story emphasized that Simmons understands this sentiment all too well – his 49-year-old daughter died of COVID-19 just before Christmas, and he could be updated on her condition only by phone as her health worsened. “The separation part is really rough, rough, rough,” Simmons told the AP. “My daughter went to the hospital, and we saw her once through the glass when they put her on the ventilator, and then we never saw her again until after she died.” Health officials brace for Super Bowl COVID-19 surge On the same day the state hosted Super Bowl LV, Florida became the first state to report 200 variant COVID-19 cases, USA Today reported. According to USA Today, this news comes as public health officials across the United States brace for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases due to Americans disregarding warnings to not gather for Super Bowl parties. Health experts warned in The New York Times that the Super Bowl itself could create a spike in cases. “Any time you get 25,000 people together yelling and screaming during a pandemic, you’re going to have transmission,” Carl Bergstrom, PhD, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, told the Times. Coronavirus variant from the U.K. is spreading rapidly in the U.S. A new study published Sunday found that cases of the U.K. variant of the novel coronavirus are doubling every 10 days in the United States. While overall U.S. COVID-19 cases are declining, experts worry that the rapidly spreading variant could again lead to another surge of disease. South Africa halts AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial A trial of the COVID-19 vaccine made by AstraZeneca was halted after it appeared ineffective against a variant of the novel coronavirus found in South Africa. The country halted the trial this past weekend after finding it failed to protect against mild and moderate forms of COVID-19. New variants of the disease concern health officials because they may render some COVID-19 vaccines less effective. 2/5/21 2:22 p.m. PST — Vaccine passports under consideration Government and business are considering digital proof of vaccination, The New York Times reported. One of President Joe Biden’s executive orders aimed at curbing the pandemic asks government agencies to “assess the feasibility” of linking coronavirus vaccine certificates with other vaccination documents and producing digital versions of them, according to the Times. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is moving forward in that direction with the launch of its IATA Travel Pass. It is a global, standardized solution to authenticate all country regulations regarding COVID-19 travel requirements. “It’s about trying to digitize a process that happens now and make it into something that allows for more harmony and ease,” Nick Careen, senior vice president for airport, passenger, cargo and security at IATA, told the Times. “Making it easier for people to travel between countries without having to pull out different papers for different countries and different documents at different checkpoints.” Careen, who leads IATA’s travel pass initiative, added that sporting organizations, concert venues, and tourism agencies have all reached out for identification tech support. The Times noted that proving vaccination status to participate in activities or to enter certain countries is not a new concept. For decades, travelers to some countries have had to prove they’re vaccinated against certain diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), travelers still need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination to enter certain countries in South America and Africa. Biden acts to reach goal of 100 million shots in 100 days COVID-19 vaccine shipments are heading to pharmacies next week under a federal program to get more people vaccinated quickly, CNN reported. According to a fact sheet from the White House, Biden is taking the following actions: Expanding vaccine supplyLaunching first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 VaccinationIncreasing reimbursements to states According to the White House, the new steps will help meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million shots in 100 days and expand access to vaccines in the coming weeks to more Americans. Daily deaths from COVID-19 top 5,000 While COVID-19 cases are on the decline in the United States, deaths are still reaching new records. This week, more than 5,000 people died of COVID-19 in a single 24 hour period, according to The Guardian. Fatalities tend to lag case counts by a few weeks. Johnson & Johnson applies for FDA authorization Johnson & Johnson is applying for FDA emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine. The company’s single-dose vaccine was found to be about 85 percent effective against severe COVID-19 symptoms. The decision about authorization could be made as soon as Feb. 26. 2/4/21 2:34 p.m. PST — Mixing COVID-19 vaccine doses to fight new variants The growing threat from the new coronavirus variants shows the need to make sure available vaccines can continue to protect us. A new trial is looking into something that could speed the process — mixing vaccine shots, NBC News reported.  According to NBC, patients participating in a clinical trial launched Thursday, Feb. 4, in the United Kingdom will be given different vaccines for their first and second doses. The two vaccines being used are those developed by AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech, and this is the first study of its kind. This 13-month study “will monitor the impact of the different dosing regimens on patients’ immune responses, which have the potential to be higher or lower than from the same dose regimen,” said the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care in a statement. The study’s initial findings are expected to be released this summer. “If we do show that these vaccines can be used interchangeably in the same schedule, this will greatly increase the flexibility of vaccine delivery, and could provide clues as to how to increase the breadth of protection against new virus strains,” said the trial’s chief investigator, Dr. Matthew Snape, in a statement. Mario Tama/Getty Images Pfizer vaccine may be 90% effective after a single dose Researchers are investigating if a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine can provide high levels of protection against the novel coronavirus. In a preprint of a study, researchers from the University of East Anglia found evidence that a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine may be 90 percent effective about 3 weeks after it’s administered. The team looked at data from over 500,000 people in Israel who were given the Pfizer vaccine. The results should be looked at with caution as the paper was not peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal. 2/3/21 2:58 p.m. PST — New vaccines to fight COVID-19 variants being developed Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced on Feb. 3 that it would work with German biopharmaceutical company CureVac to develop new vaccines targeting COVID-19 variants amid concerns some mutations make the virus harder to combat, reported the Associated Press (AP). According to the AP, this announcement comes as public health officials worldwide raise concerns about new and potentially more contagious or vaccine-resistant COVID variants. Scientists are closely tracking these mutations to make sure they quickly identify variants of concern. “The increase in emerging variants with the potential to reduce the efficacy of first generation COVID-19 vaccines requires acceleration of efforts to develop vaccines against new variants to keep one step ahead of the pandemic,” the companies said in a statement. Younger Americans are biggest COVID-19 spreaders, study finds A new study from Imperial College London finds Americans between ages 20 to 49 are the biggest spreader of new coronavirus infection. Researchers recommend prioritizing this age group for vaccination to speed school reopenings. According to the study’s findings, people in that age range accounted for roughly 72 percent of cases detected after schools reopened in October. However, less than 10 percent came from teens, and children caused less than 5 percent. “We believe this study is important because we demonstrate that adults aged 20-49 are the only age groups that have consistently sustained COVID-19 spread across the U.S.,” said Oliver Ratmann PhD, from Imperial College London in a statement. “Additional interventions targeting the 20-49 age group could bring resurgent epidemics under control and avert deaths.” 2/2/21 1:28 p.m. PST — Russian COVID-19 vaccine safe and effective, phase 3 trial finds The Russian Sputnik V vaccine is 91.6 percent effective against symptomatic COVID-19 and 100 percent effective against severe and moderate disease, according to an interim analysis of the vaccine’s phase 3 trial results, CNN reported. A commentary on these findings recently published in The Lancet confirmed recipients “generated robust antibody responses to the spike protein,” and “evidence of T-cell responses, consistent with an immune response that should not quickly wane.” The interim report of phase 3 data included results for over 20,000 participants, 75 percent of whom were assigned to receive the vaccine. According to CNN, the Sputnik V is a two-dose adenoviral vector vaccine that uses two different adenoviruses for each dose. The doses are administered 21 days apart. “The outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated,” the authors of the Lancet article wrote. “Which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.” If you had COVID-19, one vaccine shot might be enough A report still in preprint and not yet peer-reviewed finds people who’ve already experienced COVID-19 may need only one vaccine shot to be protected against the disease. “Changing the policy to give these individuals only one dose of vaccine would not negatively impact on their antibody titers, spare them from unnecessary pain, and free up many urgently needed vaccine doses,” the study authors wrote. However, some experts disagree with the findings. E. John Wherry, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Immunology, told The New York Times that before pushing for a change in policy, he’d like to see data showing those antibodies could stop the virus from replicating. “Just because an antibody binds to a part of the virus does not mean it’s going to protect you from being infected,” Wherry said. 2/1/21 4:21 p.m. PST — As vaccines roll out, antiviral drugs languish As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its first anniversary — with widespread vaccination still months away and thousands of patients still dying every day in the United States — doctors have very few ways to fight the virus, reported the New York Times. According to the Times, while the government poured $18.5 billion into vaccines, resulting in at least five effective products at record-shattering speed, its investment in treatments was far smaller, at about $8.2 billion. Most of this funding went to few candidates, like monoclonal antibodies, and studies of other drugs were poorly organized. This resulted in a promising class of drugs called antivirals — which can stop the disease early — being neglected. This was because researchers couldn’t find enough funding or enough patients to participate. Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the FDA, told the New York Times the lack of centralized coordination meant many trials for COVID-19 antiviral drugs were doomed from the start, since they were too small and poorly designed to provide useful data. “I blame myself to some extent,” Woodcock, who has overseen the federal government’s efforts to develop COVID-19 drugs, told the Times. In the next couple of months, she added, the government plans to start large trials for existing drugs that could be repurposed to fight the pandemic. ‘COVID hurricane’ is coming, expert warns On Sunday, Jan. 31, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” an epidemiologist warned of a looming wave of cases and said the United States should adjust its vaccination strategy to save lives, reported CNBC. “The fact is that the surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is going to happen in the next 6 to 14 weeks,” said director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Michael Osterholm, PhD. According to CNBC, the COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom has been associated with more rapid transmission, is possibly more deadly, and may be the dominant strain in the United States by March. “Well, I think it’s going to be tough,” Osterholm, who advised President Joe Biden’s transition on the COVID-19 crisis, told NBC. “I mean, imagine where we’re at… right now. You and I are sitting on this beach where it’s 70 degrees, perfectly blue skies, gentle breeze. But I see that hurricane five, category five or higher, 450 miles offshore,” he said. “And, you know, telling people to evacuate on that nice blue sky day is going to be hard. But I can also tell you that hurricane’s coming.” 1/29/21 1:45 p.m. PST — CDC: New COVID-19 variant has reached point of community spread According to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 variant first found in South Africa, and already detected in two people in South Carolina, has reached the point of community spread in the United States, NBC News reported Friday, Jan. 29. “I think one of the concerning things is that we know these two people did not know one another and that they did not travel to South Africa so the presumption is, at this point, that there has been community spread of this strain,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, told Savannah Guthrie on the “Today” show. According to NBC, the fact that the B.1.351 variant was first detected on Thursday, Jan. 28, in the United States, doesn’t mean it just arrived, because the country has “lagged greatly” behind other nations in tracking changes in COVID-19 by sequencing its genetic code. In a press release, the CDC said it’s early in its efforts to understand the variant and will continue to provide updates as they learn more. “At this time, we have no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease. Like the U.K. and Brazilian variants, preliminary data suggests this variant may spread more easily and quickly than other variants,” the CDC said. Johnson & Johnson releases key COVID-19 vaccine data The pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson released key data from its COVID-19 vaccine. In phase 3 data, Johnson & Johnson found that the vaccine provided high protection against moderate and severe COVID-19. The company found in preliminary studies that the vaccine was 66 percent effective against moderate to severe COVID-19. The effectiveness of the vaccine varied greatly from region to region. While the vaccine was 72 percent effective in the United States, it was 66 percent effective in Latin America and 57 percent in South Africa, where a new variant has made health experts nervous. Does COVID-19 affect male fertility? Severe cases of COVID-19 might influence the quality of sperm, possibly reducing fertility, according to a new study published Thursday, Jan. 28, in the journal Reproduction. “This report provides the first direct evidence to date that COVID-19 infection impairs semen quality and male reproductive potential,” the study said, according to CNN. However, experts not involved in the study told the network that they were skeptical about the study’s findings. “Being ill from any virus such as flu can temporarily drop your sperm count (sometimes to zero) for a few weeks or months,” Channa Jayasena, PhD, a consultant in reproductive endocrinology and andrology at Imperial College London, told CNN in an email. “This makes it difficult to work out how much of the reductions observed in this study were specific to COVID-19 rather than just from being ill,” he said. 1/28/21 3:43 p.m. PST — Race against time with COVID-19 variants, scientists warn Experts say the United States is in a “race against time” to vaccinate the largest number of people before other variants of the coronavirus emerge, NBC News reported Jan. 28. According to NBC, delivery issues, insufficient supply, and vaccine hesitancy have crippled the nation’s vaccination efforts. To avert another surge of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, scientists told NBC it may be necessary to rethink how the vaccines are distributed to increase the number of shots administered and protect against new strains of SARS-CoV-2. “We really are in a race against new variants,” Wan Yang, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health told NBC. “We need to prepare as much as possible before things increase to a level that puts more strain on our healthcare systems.” Biden expands healthcare coverage amid pandemic President Joe Biden signed two executive actions Thursday, Jan. 28, designed to expand healthcare coverage amid the coronavirus pandemic. Among his first actions addressing access to healthcare, the president will direct Department of Health and Human Services to open a special enrollment period for HealthCare.gov, the federally run insurance marketplaces, from Feb. 15 to May 15. This will provide people in the United states who lost their employer-based insurance during the pandemic an opportunity to sign up for coverage. 1/27/21 2:04 p.m. PST — COVID-19 cases surpass 100 million worldwide Confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 100 million worldwide Jan. 27, according to a Reuters tally, as nations struggle with both new virus variants and vaccine shortages. According to Reuters data: Nearly 1.3 percent of the world’s population has contracted COVID-19, and over 2 million people have died.On average, 1 person has contracted the virus every 7.7 seconds since the year’s start, and roughly 670,000 confirmed cases were reported each day over the same period, with the global fatality rate standing at 2.15 percent.The worst-affected countries — Brazil, India, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom — make up more than half of all reported COVID-19 cases but represent only 28 percent of the world’s population. January deadliest month for COVID-19 The month isn’t over yet, but January is now the worst month for deaths from COVID-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic, reported CNN. According to the network, data from Johns Hopkins University shows more than 79,000 reported fatalities from the novel coronavirus this first month of 2021, topping a previous record set in December by more than 1,000. Biden plan to battle pandemic The Biden administration has proposed a wide-ranging $2 trillion plan to turn things around, reported The New Yorker. The effort will rely on stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits, a minimum-wage increase, and funding to help schools open safely. But the plan’s key component is mass vaccination. According to The New Yorker, Biden has pledged to deliver 150 million shots in his first hundred days in office. The president also announced that his administration is nearing deals with Pfizer and Moderna to secure another 200 million doses by summer’s end. 1/26/21 1:11 p.m. PST — U.S. must prepare for new COVID-19 strain, Moderna CEO warns News of the Moderna vaccine’s weakened response to the COVID-19 variant known as B.1.351 is raising alarms amid the ongoing pandemic, Yahoo Finance reported Jan. 25. Experts, who have been closely watching the B.1.351 variant (which hasn’t yet been detected in the United States), warn that we should prepare for the potential spread of the strain. According to Yahoo Finance, Dr. Anthony Fauci said as much on CBS Jan. 24, and Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told Yahoo Finance Jan. 25 that Fauci agreed with the company’s need to study the strain. “We met with the team several times between the weekend, talked with the board, and decided this was the prudent thing to do— which Dr. Fauci confirmed to me yesterday as I was engaging with him,” Bancel told Yahoo Finance. “I would definitely tell people, get vaccinated, you need to be protected now.” New virus strains mean shopping may carry increased infection risk Health officials are “extremely” worried about the new coronavirus variants being detected in the United States, and what they could mean over the coming months, CNN reported Jan. 26. “We’ve seen what happens in other countries that have actually had coronavirus under relatively good control, then these variants took over and they had explosive spread of the virus, and then overwhelmed hospitals,” emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. According to CNN, this means everyday activities, like shopping, may carry increased risk of contracting the virus. “If there is something more contagious among us, if we thought that going to the grocery store before was relatively safe, there’s actually a higher likelihood of contracting coronavirus through those everyday activities,” Wen cautioned. She added that wearing a better mask, reducing the number of times that we go out shopping, or are exposed to indoor crowded settings, are helpful. Gorilla gets COVID-19 antibody treatment A silverback gorilla at the San Diego Zoo was given a monoclonal antibody treatment after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The gorilla named Winston was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year. He was given the antibody treatment in the hopes that it would lessen his symptoms. The treatment was from a supply not intended for human use, according to the zoo. 1/25/21 1:41 p.m. PST — Moderna shot protects against virus strains, but it’s developing a booster Moderna confirmed that its vaccine candidate offers protection against coronavirus variants. However, “out of an abundance of caution,” Moderna is also developing a booster shot against the disease, the drugmaker said in a press release. “We are encouraged by these new data, which reinforce our confidence that the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine should be protective against these newly detected variants,” said Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, in a statement. “Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective to boost titers against this and potentially future variants,” Bancel said. COVID-19 variants, known as viruses of concern (VOC), might prove more dangerous than the current pandemic virus. According to a report from the United Kingdom’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) committee, “based on these analyses, there is a realistic possibility that infection with VOC B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death compared to infection with non-VOC viruses.” However, NERVTAG noted that the “absolute risk of death per infection remains low.” Merck to stop developing COVID-19 vaccine Merck announced Monday, Jan. 25, it will stop developing both formulations of the COVID-19 vaccines the company has been working on. The drugmaker cited inadequate immune responses to the shots, STAT News reported. “This decision follows Merck’s review of findings from Phase 1 clinical studies for the vaccines. In these studies, both V590 and V591 were generally well tolerated,” the company said in a statement. “But the immune responses were inferior to those seen following natural infection and those reported for other SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 vaccines.” 1/22/21 1:15 p.m. PST — Pandemic will get worse, Biden warns President Joe Biden laid out his administration’s plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic on his first full day in office, warning that the worst is yet to come, CBS News reported. “Let me be clear,” Biden said during the event at the White House. “Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.” According to CBS, the president signed 10 executive orders to significantly expand testing and vaccine availability, to meet a goal of administering 100 million vaccine doses by the end of April. He also invoked the Defense Production Act to compel federal agencies and manufacturers to increase key supplies needed to fight the virus. Biden implemented new travel restrictions intended to curb the spread of the disease. “This is a wartime undertaking,” Biden said, and noted the more than 412,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States, a figure that’s higher than the number of Americans who died during World War II. Biden vaccine goal may not be ambitious enough President Joe Biden has promised not only a faster COVID-19 vaccine rollout, but also vowed to have 100 million shots administered in his first 100 days in office. But some think this is not enough, according to Vox, Vox reported Jan. 22 that in the past week, the United States has averaged about 900,000 vaccinations a day, which makes Biden’s goal of 1 million per day a scant improvement from what the nation achieved before he took office Jan. 20. “The Trump administration was given 36 million doses when they were in office for 38 days. They administered a total of about 17 million shots. That’s about less than 500,000 shots a day,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said in briefing. “What we’re proposing is to double that to about 1 million shots per day.” Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease and vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, told Vox that the United States should aim for at least 2 million or more daily vaccinations, which would get some of the most important parts of the vaccination efforts done before summer. 1/21/21 1:01 p.m. PST — Single dose COVID-19 vaccine could be ‘game-changer’ New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson has developed a single dose vaccine that doesn’t need to be stored at ultralow temperatures, USA Today reported Jan. 21. According to USA Today, results from clinical trials of the new vaccine are expected by the end of this month. This single-dose vaccine could soon become the third candidate authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Interim analysis showed that the drugmaker’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate induced an immune response and was “generally well-tolerated” across all study participants. Also, after a single vaccination, neutralizing antibodies against COVID-19 were detected in over 90 percent of study participants, Johnson & Johnson said in a press release. “Listen, if Johnson & Johnson comes through, that’s a game-changer, period,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in a statement. Monoclonal antibody treatment may reduce risk of symptomatic COVID A monoclonal antibody treatment significantly reduced the risk of contracting symptomatic COVID-19 among residents and staff of long-term care facilities, Eli Lilly and Company said Jan. 21 in a press release. According to the drugmaker, findings from the phase 3 BLAZE-2 COVID-19 prevention trial suggest there was a significantly lower frequency of symptomatic COVID-19 in participants who received the antibody bamlanivimab (LY-CoV555) treatment versus those given a placebo. “We are exceptionally pleased with these positive results, which showed bamlanivimab was able to help prevent COVID-19, substantially reducing symptomatic disease among nursing home residents, some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, Eli Lilly’s chief scientific officer in a statement. “These data provide important additional clinical evidence regarding the use of bamlanivimab to fight COVID-19 and strengthen our conviction that monoclonal antibodies such as bamlanivimab can play a critical role in turning the tide of this pandemic,” he said.

  • I Tried It: ‘Supernatural’ VR Workout on Oculus Quest
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Healthline contributor Nancy Schimelpfening strapped on a VR headset and tried the new fitness game “Supernatural” to find out if it’s a worthy workout that’s worth the price. Could the latest VR workout game for Oculus Quest put the fun in your at-home fitness routine? Supernatural When I saw the ads for “Supernatural” on Facebook, I was intrigued. I have been using the Oculus Rift, and later the Oculus Quest, for a few years now. In particular, I really enjoy games like “Beat Saber,” which have allowed me to remain active at home during the pandemic. However, while these games are fun, I’ve never felt that they really lived up to the potential that VR fitness has. For example, while “Beat Saber” does use the 360-degree rotation that is available with the Quest, there are only limited levels where it is used. Would “Supernatural” do a better job? And would it be worth the relatively hefty price of admission? Since they were offering a free trial membership for the first 30 days, I decided to check it out. What is ‘Supernatural’? Imagine opening your eyes and finding yourself standing on the Great Wall of China (or one of the many other scenic locations that are featured in the game). However, before you can fully process the fantastic vista that surrounds you, pairs of black and white targets begin to float toward you. An exercise coach speaks in your ear, encouraging you to swing at them with the corresponding black and white bats that you hold in your hands. A rousing sound track consisting of musical hits that you know and love plays in the background. Soon, you are sweating and breathing hard as you spin around 360 degrees, squatting and swinging in time with the music. This is the VR fitness game “Supernatural.” ‘Supernatural’ vs. ‘Beat Saber’ No review of “Supernatural” is going to be complete without comparing it to what is arguably the reigning king of VR fitness games: “Beat Saber.” How they are similar “Supernatural” is most often compared to “Beat Saber” because they share many of the same mechanics: Both involve using objects to strike targets as they come toward you. Both provide varying patterns of targets choreographed to music to get you moving your body in different ways. Both have you stepping side to side and squatting in order to avoid obstacles. Both allow you to rotate 360 degrees in space. This is where the similarities end, however. How they are different While there are many similarities between “Supernatural” and “Beat Saber,” it’s easy to see how they differ when we break down some of their individual features and compare them head to head. The music When you buy the basic “Beat Saber” game, you receive a limited sound track of electronic music. They are all very catchy and I did come to love them; however, none of them were music that I had previously heard, which initially took away from my enjoyment of the game. Unfortunately, the limited number of songs gets boring pretty quickly. The developers do periodically release new music expansion packs, featuring artists like Imagine Dragons and BTS. However, each pack comes at an additional cost. Also, there’s no guarantee I’ll even be interested in the featured artist. “Supernatural” is very different though. It features top hits from today and past decades. Most are songs that are very familiar to me, and even the ones that aren’t are ones that I enjoy right away. I think that’s to be expected when the list is curated based on what’s popular. So far, as I finish up my 30-day trial, I have not repeated any music. I’m not sure how large their selection is at this point, but it’s obviously large enough to keep things fresh. The great selection of music that they provide is a part of why it’s more expensive, but it fixes two big complaints that I had with “Beat Saber”: stale music and music that I didn’t necessarily like. The moves There’s so much to say about how “Supernatural” gets you moving in better and different ways from “Beat Saber.” One big contrast is that you are able to make better use of the fact that you can turn 360 degrees. When “Beat Saber” first came out, it was designed to work best with the Oculus Rift. So, for the most part, it’s played facing forward. While they have added 360-degree movement to some levels, it’s mainly been added to the more difficult ones. If you haven’t yet mastered those, you are out of luck. “Supernatural,” on the other hand, makes full use of your ability to rotate in every single workout. Another really great way that it allows you to move is there are a lot more squats, lunges, and twisting motions in its workouts than are found in “Beat Saber.” Basically, where “Beat Saber” seems to concentrate more on creating complex patterns that you master through repetition, Supernatural is more about getting you moving in ways that enhance your strength and fitness. With “Supernatural” I find myself working up a sweat and feeling stronger over time. This did not happen when I was playing “Beat Saber.” The motivation One thing that “Supernatural” has that really adds value is its use of real trainers to lead each workout. In a time when going out to an exercise class isn’t always possible due to concerns about COVID-19, this is a real bonus. During my workouts, I have found myself pushing just a little bit harder or feeling just a little bit stronger because of something that the trainer was saying. Even though I know it’s not a live class, the fact that it’s VR gives it that feel of being there with a real trainer. I find myself looking forward to working out with the trainers that I like the best, almost as if they are really visiting my home. This feel of being there with a person to guide and encourage you is entirely missing from “Beat Saber.” Another great motivator is their use of beautiful background scenery. Each song is set to a different 360-degree backdrop of a location somewhere around the world, for example, the Great Pyramid of Giza or the moais of Easter Island. From your position on a platform floating above the scene, you can turn in every direction to view your breathtaking location. Really, my only complaint about this feature is that I don’t have quite enough time to look around in awe before the next portion of the workout begins. One additional feature that I found motivating was the way the game can be linked to my Apple Watch and a smart phone app to monitor my heart rate and other in-game statistics. Being able to see and compare these numbers gives me feedback that keeps me wanting to do better each time. The cost “Supernatural” and “Beat Saber” also differ quite a bit in price, which may be a sticking point for many people. The basic version of “Beat Saber” is a one-time $29.99 fee, with the optional music expansion packs ranging in cost from $6.99 to $14.99 and individual songs costing $1.99. “Supernatural,” on the other hand, is a subscription-based service that will set you back $19 per month. However, you can get a reduced price of just under $15 per month if you opt for an annual subscription at $179. Is ‘Supernatural’ worth the monthly fee? When I first started the free trial, I wanted to not like it. For the cost of the annual membership, I could probably purchase a basic membership at one of the big box gyms. Or I could simply keep using “Beat Saber,” which I already owned. However, I have to admit that I am now hooked. I find myself looking forward to working out in a way I never did before. It doesn’t feel like a chore. When I’m moving along with the music and soaking up the gorgeous scenery, I feel powerful, motivated, and open to new possibilities. It’s something about the visual and auditory beauty combined with the illusion of being there with a friendly, energetic trainer that just makes me feel good about putting on my headset and becoming immersed in that world. I feel like the use of real trainers and the availability of new music and workouts each day adds value to the membership that can’t be found in “Beat Saber.” Finally, it helps knowing that I don’t have to worry about COVID-19 or any other germs that might be lurking in a gym. I have decided that, for me, it is absolutely worth it. I would recommend that anyone who is interested in VR fitness should at least give it a test. With the free 30-day trial, you really can’t go wrong. If you like “Beat Saber,” you’ll probably love “Supernatural.”

  • Why You Should Take the First COVID-19 Vaccine That’s Available to You
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts say all the COVID-19 vaccines available are highly effective, so don’t shop around. Chet Strange/Getty Images Experts say the three COVID-19 vaccines now in use as well as those in clinical trials are highly effective.They urge people to get the first vaccine that’s available to them rather than wait on one that might be slightly more effective than another.Getting a vaccine that’s less effective than others is still much better than having no vaccine at all, experts say. Which COVID-19 vaccine should you get? Whichever one you can get into your arm first, medical experts say. When the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, first emerged more than a year ago, there was no vaccine to fight COVID-19, the disease it causes. Now there are three vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with more in advanced stages of development.  The vaccines take different approaches to fighting COVID-19, and effectiveness varies slightly as well. However, experts say the bottom line is that any vaccine is better than no vaccine in preventing COVID-19. And, if you do get COVID-19, a vaccine increases the chances that you’ll have a mild rather than severe bout of the illness. “Here’s my attitude toward the vaccine: Get what you can and as soon as you can get it,” Dr. Ramin Ahmadi, the chief medical officer for Graduate Medical Education Global LLC, told Healthline. “Get the first one available,” agreed Dr. Steven Quay, a COVID-19 researcher, author of “Stay Safe: A Physician’s Guide to Survive Coronavirus,” and CEO of Atossa Therapeutics Inc. “They all keep you out of the hospital and keep you from dying, and those are big things.” Dr. L. J. Tan, chief strategy officer of the Immunization Action Coalition, told Healthline that while a lot of concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines have been raised — from the reasonable to the outlandish — research has proven most of these theories to be unfounded. For example, he said, when the FDA issued emergency use authorizations for the first two COVID-19 vaccines, the agency brought in independent experts to review safety data on the vaccines. And while those new vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna use groundbreaking messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, Tan said that researchers have been familiar with such vaccines for at least 15 years. Both vaccines also far exceeded the FDA’s threshold for effectiveness of emergency vaccines, which was set at 50 percent. “Those of us involved with these vaccines were not surprised at how safe and effective they are,” Tan said in late January. “We have now vaccinated more than 20 million people and we see that the sky is not falling.” About 1 in 4 people experience some sort of side effects from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s mostly fever or soreness at the injection point. Reported side effects and (rare) allergic reactions are pretty consistent among the approved vaccines, although a recent report found that some recipients of the Moderna vaccine have experienced delayed rashes at or near the injection site. Rather than being alarmed, vaccine recipients should view such symptoms positively, Tan said. “If I feel crappy, I’m happy because it shows your immune system is doing its job, and I know the vaccine took,” he said. Overall, the COVID-19 vaccines are causing fewer side effects than the vaccine for shingles but somewhat more than the flu shot, according to Tan. Swatting away another myth, he noted that the vaccines can’t give you COVID-19 because the viral material they contain is “absolutely dead.” Pfizer came first On Dec. 11, the FDA granted an emergency use authorization for the first COVID-19 vaccine. Developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the vaccine was authorized for use in people 16 years and older. Delivered in two doses, the vaccine was found to be 95 percent effective in preventing severe disease. “While not an FDA approval, today’s emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine holds the promise to alter the course of this pandemic in the United States,” said Dr. Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in a statement at the time. “With science guiding our decision making, the available safety and effectiveness data support the authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine because the vaccine’s known and potential benefits clearly outweigh its known and potential risks,” Marks said. The recommended interval between the first and second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 21 days. Moderna uses modern strategy A week after approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for a second two-dose COVID-19 vaccine. This one was developed by pharmaceutical company Moderna. The Moderna vaccine is authorized for use in adults 18 and older. It was found in clinical trials to be 94 percent effective against COVID-19. The Moderna vaccine is “stronger” than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the sense that each dose contains more vaccine material: 100 micrograms compared with 30 micrograms for each Pfizer-BioNTech shot. The recommended interval between the first and second dose of the Moderna vaccine is 28 days, a week longer than for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Like the Pfizer-BioNTech product, the Moderna vaccine doesn’t contain weakened viruses like traditional live attenuated vaccines. A live vaccine would have required far more safety testing. It also would have taken a long time to grow in sufficient quantities to distribute to the public, said Mary Premenko-Lanier, PhD, a biosciences research scientist at the nonprofit scientific research institute SRI International.  Rather, both vaccines are built around genetic material called mRNA that’s derived from SARS-CoV-2. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mRNA is basically instructions to cells on how to make a piece of the “spike protein” that’s unique to SARS-CoV-2.  “When a person receives this vaccine, their body produces copies of the spike protein, which does not cause disease, but triggers the immune system to learn to react defensively, producing an immune response against SARS-CoV-2,” according to the FDA. Researchers have been working to develop mRNA vaccines for at least a decade, but the need to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the technology out of the lab and into practice, Quay said. “It absolutely works the way we hoped it would,” he told Healthline. Johnson & Johnson now available The vaccine most recently approved by the FDA comes from Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. In an announcement, the company pledged to distribute 20 million doses of the vaccine in the United States by the end of March and 100 million doses for the first half of the year. On Jan. 29, Johnson & Johnson announced that the vaccine was 72 percent effective in preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 28 days after vaccination. Severe disease was prevented in 85 percent of cases. That’s less effective than the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. However, “having an efficacy of 70 to 80 percent is still very good for a vaccine,” Premenko-Lanier told Healthline. “This vaccine has several advantages compared to the existing ones,” Ahmadi said. “It is a single dose… You can store the vaccine for months in a regular refrigerator [both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored at extremely low temperatures]. And it was effective in the U.K. and South Africa where there are concerns about the new strains.” The vaccine uses genetically modified inactivated adenoviruses — a group of viruses that includes the common cold — to carry part of SARS-CoV-2’s instructions into the body, rather than mRNA. Side effects reported in clinical trials for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are similar to those of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines: pain, redness of the skin, swelling at the injection site, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, nausea, and fever. Rarer allergic reactions have also been reported. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has run into some resistance by anti-abortion groups, who expressed concern that the vaccine was tested (although not developed) with cell lines derived from fetal tissue. In a statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stopped short of saying that Catholics should not get the Johnson & Johnson shot due to ethical concerns. “However, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s,” the group advised. Tan said that whatever vaccine you get will not only protect your health, but also serve the greater good of helping to end the COVID-19 pandemic. “We need to do everything we can to slow down and stop the spread of this disease,” he said. “The more opportunities you give a virus to replicate, the more opportunities it has to evolve and evade the immune response.” Other vaccines in the pipeline By the end of 2020, two other vaccine candidates were in phase 3 clinical trials, the last step before possible application for emergency use authorization by the FDA. These vaccines are being developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax. On Jan. 29, the AstraZeneca vaccine was recommended for use in the European Union, although not yet in the United States. Like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the AstraZeneca injection uses modified adenovirus to provoke an immune response against COVID-19. In studies, researchers who administered the AstraZeneca vaccine in two doses to test people 18 and older found no cases of severe infection or hospitalization for 14 days after the second dose. Quay said the adenovirus approach used in the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines has been “well known and well used” over the past 30 to 40 yeas in fighting other diseases, such as Ebola. The Novavax vaccine hasn’t yet been authorized for use in the United States or Europe. However, the company reported on Jan. 28 that the vaccine had an 89 percent effectiveness rate and has also been shown to be effective against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa. The biotechnology company uses nanoparticles to carry the spike proteins into the body to activate the immune system.

  • COVID-19 Does Not Pose a Greater Risk for People with Asthma, Researchers Say
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts say some medications that people with asthma take may have some preventive qualities against COVID-19. Justin Paget/Getty Images A new study concludes that people with asthma are at no greater risk of contracting the new coronavirus or developing severe COVID-19 if they do contract an infection.The latest research is backed by other recent studies and provides a different conclusion from studies done early in the pandemic.Experts say some medications that people with asthma take may have some preventive qualities against COVID-19. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there were so many unknowns, including who was most at risk of severe illness or death from the disease.  People with asthma were on high alert. A contagious and deadly respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2 seemed a certain threat to people who may have difficulty breathing on any given day. “With the rapid spread of a novel disease, healthcare providers faced a glaring lack of data and were required to use knowledge of previous coronaviruses and SARS to make initial recommendations,” wrote Dr. Mitchell H. Grayson, a physician in the division of allergy and immunology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, in an editorial that will be published in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology that was provided early to Healthline. “Using this previous knowledge and early reports of ‘chronic lung disease’ being a risk for poor outcomes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared asthma a high-risk condition for developing severe disease from COVID-19,” he wrote. There have been many studies since the early days of the pandemic that have reduced the fear of a poor outcome for people with asthma. A study from the George Institute published last month looked at how COVID-19 affects people with asthma. It’s providing more reassurance that having asthma doesn’t necessarily increase the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. Healthline explored this research and other studies, and asked experts what they’re telling their patients and how people with asthma should proceed with this information. What studies have found In a press release for the George Institute study, Dr. Anthony Sunjaya, a lead study author and a researcher in the George Institute’s respiratory division, explained there were early concerns that people with asthma may be at higher risk of contracting the new coronavirus and becoming sicker or dying from COVID-19 if they did contract it. “People with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma were previously reported to be at greater risk during the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak, caused by a virus with a similar structure,” he wrote. “Also, respiratory infections like those caused by coronaviruses can exacerbate asthma symptoms and corticosteroid treatment may increase susceptibility to COVID-19 infection and its severity,” he added. The researchers wanted to present the best available evidence on the risk of infection, severe illness requiring admission to ICU or ventilator use, and death from COVID-19 in people who have asthma. Asthma causes a person’s airway to become inflamed or swell and produce mucus, all of which make it difficult to breathe and can impair routine activities. Data from more than 300,000 people with COVID-19 from Asia, Europe, and North and South America was analyzed. The study participants had similar proportions of asthma to the general population.  About 7 in every 100 people in the study who tested positive for COVID-19 also had asthma, compared with about 8 in 100 in the general population, a study author said. The researchers also found that people with asthma had a 14 percent lower risk of developing COVID-19 and were significantly less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19. They found no apparent difference in the risk of death from COVID-19 in people with asthma compared with those who don’t have asthma. Other research has reached similar conclusions.  One study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that asthma is not associated with higher COVID-19 severity or a worse outlook. That same study found that people with asthma have a lower risk of death compared with people without asthma. Another study published in the American Journal of Critical Care Medicine compared the rate of asthma in people with COVID-19 by region, disease severity, and death. The results did not provide clear evidence of increased risk of COVID-19 diagnosis, hospitalization, or severity due to asthma. Another study found that approved asthma treatments could actually be advantageous for people with asthma who are already taking these medications before contracting a coronavirus infection. Dr. Michael Wechsler, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Colorado, worked on publishing data in the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society this past year.  “We looked at COVID-19 hospitalization with reported asthma prevalence and looked at several different individuals who were hospitalized with COVID-19, and we found that the proportion of asthmatics among hospitalized patients with COVID-19 was relatively similar to the population asthma prevalence,” he told Healthline. “It suggested — similar to the [George Institute] study — that among those hospitalized with COVID-19, the proportion or the prevalence seems to be similar to that in the general population. That there was no increased prevalence of asthma in patients hospitalized with COVID-19,” he said. What this and other studies have shown is that if you have asthma, you’re no more or less likely to get COVID-19 than if you don’t have asthma, Wechsler explained.  “But what studies have also shown is that, which was a bit surprising, that if you do have asthma that you’re at no greater risk of getting really sick from COVID-19 or requiring admissions to the ICU, of getting put on a ventilator, or of dying from COVID-19,” he added. What doctors are saying Wechsler said this information doesn’t change his recommendations to people with or without asthma.  “I am telling them what I’m telling everyone else: masking, handwashing, social distancing, getting vaccinated. Those are all really, really important factors associated with preventing getting COVID-19,” he said. “I also tell them that they should take their medications as prescribed because if they get COVID-19, then we want them to be as well controlled as possible so that asthma does not get worse,” Wechsler said. “So, they need to continue on their inhaled steroids or whatever other controllers they’re taking.” Always talk with your doctor about your medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, which are often prescribed for asthma. There’s the suggestion, Wechsler said, that the steroid component of this medication may reduce viral replication of the coronavirus. So, if your airways are less compromised because you’re taking your medication as prescribed, then you’re less likely to develop a complication if you get COVID-19. Dr. Joe Zein, a pulmonary medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Healthline that he assures his patients that “asthma may not necessarily be a bad thing, and your risk is probably not higher than someone who doesn’t have asthma.”  Zein urges people with asthma to continue taking their prescribed medications and following all the recommended COVID-19 precautions. “We need to first get vaccinated and take precautions with face masks and all those things,” he said. “However, they should not worry — mainly for psychological purposes — they should not worry that if they have asthma, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be much worse than someone who doesn’t have asthma.’ So that would be my take-home from the study.” Grayson, who is editor-in-chief-elect of the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, said he’d tell a person with asthma that the most important thing is to make sure they manage their asthma: continue to use controller medications, and let providers know of any increased symptoms or a need for reliever medication.  “In terms of risk of COVID-19, I would say that in general they are at no more increased risk than the general population,” Grayson told Healthline. “That means they should still wear a mask in public, avoid large gatherings, practice physical distancing, and wash hands frequently.” “They should feel less threatened by the risk of COVID-19 but should not let their guard down,” he said. “When they have the opportunity to get vaccinated, they should take that opportunity.”  It’s an important topic that brought up important questions, Wechsler said.  “It would be reasonable to think that people with asthma might have a greater risk,” he added, “but as it turns out, it doesn’t appear as if they do, and the exact reasons why remain unclear.” What we still don’t know Why people with asthma don’t have higher risk of death or severe illness from COVID-19 is uncertain at this point.  Possible explanations could be that asthma corticosteroids might have some protective effect, Wechsler said. He added it also might be because people who have asthma tend to be younger and may have fewer comorbidities. Dr. Christine Jenkins, a professor and head of the George Institute’s respiratory program, offered possible explanations. “Chemical receptors in the lungs that the virus binds to are less active in people with a particular type of asthma and some studies suggest that inhaled corticosteroids — commonly used to treat asthma — can reduce their activity even further,” she wrote in the study’s press release. “Also, initial uncertainty about the impact of asthma on COVID-19 may have caused anxiety among patients and caregivers leading them to be more vigilant about preventing infection,” Jenkins added.  Lack of data for people with asthma in the beginning of the pandemic may have actually prompted them to be more careful.  “I think what we’ve seen now with large numbers that are out there is that people who are at greatest risk, the ones with the most severe asthma, they tended to protect themselves the most,” Wechsler said. “And maybe because of that there were fewer hospitalizations and deaths in this patient population.” There’s still much to learn in this area, Sunjaya said. “While we showed that people with asthma do not seem to have a higher risk of infection with COVID-19 compared to those without asthma and have similar outcomes, we need further research to better understand how the virus affects those with asthma,” he said.

  • COVID-19 Vaccines May Help Stop Virus Transmission: Here’s What We Know
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Early evidence suggests that COVID-19 vaccines may reduce the chance that a vaccinated person will transmit the virus to others. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images Experts say it appears that COVID-19 vaccines can help reduce the transmission of the new coronavirus from person to person.They say this is accomplished by reducing the viral load in a vaccinated person’s nose.Experts say until further studies are done, vaccinated people should still abide by safety protocols such as mask wearing and physical distancing. There’s strong evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines approved in the United States are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death. But one big question remains unanswered: Can the vaccines prevent fully vaccinated people from transmitting SARS-CoV-2 to others?  The answer to this has implications for what our lives will look like going forward, such as when it will be safe for vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in public spaces. A growing body of evidence suggests that, yes, some of the vaccines cut down on viral transmission, at least to some extent. Exactly how much, though, still needs to be determined. “We think it is likely that vaccination will reduce transmission, but the definitive studies to prove this are still ongoing,” said Dr. Sarah George, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri. In the meantime, public health officials are cautioning people to continue wearing masks and physical distancing in public, even after they’re vaccinated. This will help protect those who don’t have immunity to the virus. Data suggests vaccines reduce virus transmission Most of the COVID-19 vaccines are injected into the muscle. This generates an immune response throughout the body — without causing COVID-19 — that trains the immune system to recognize and fight the coronavirus if it later encounters it. If a person inhales virus particles that someone else has breathed out, the virus first encounters the mucus-secreting surfaces of the nose and throat, where it can infect cells and replicate. If that person has been vaccinated, the body will mount an immune response targeted at the virus. Some research, though, suggests that it can take longer for the immune system to clear a coronavirus infection from the nose than from the lungs. Until the body clears the infection from the nose, a person may still be capable of shedding virus particles that other people could potentially contract. To reduce person-to-person transmission, a vaccine has to either block infection completely or reduce the number of virus particles shed from the nose. Scientists are examining both these scenarios. George points to a recent Israeli study involving people who received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.  Researchers saw an 89 percent drop in asymptomatic infections among this group compared with an unvaccinated comparison group. These results haven’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal. While asymptomatic infection doesn’t measure transmission directly, experts say that when there’s no virus present in the nose or back of the throat, it likely translates to no transmission. “We think reduction in asymptomatic cases is key,” George told Healthline, “as preventing these cases will reduce or block transmission.” Other studies have seen a similar drop in asymptomatic cases after vaccination. In a preprint study in U.K. healthcare workers, researchers saw an 86 percent drop in coronavirus infections — both symptomatic and asymptomatic — after two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. In addition, data that vaccine-maker Johnson & Johnson submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of its emergency approval application showed a 74 percent drop in asymptomatic cases.  This data is based on an interim analysis, but Johnson & Johnson Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky told CNBC on March 1 that researchers will continue to follow people who participated in the clinical trial. He said they expect to have a more definite answer “in the coming months.” While injection of the COVID-19 vaccine into the muscle is the most common delivery method, some researchers are working on vaccines that take the fight right to the source of viral transmission: the nose. A group of researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis developed an intranasal vaccine that generated a strong immune response in mice in both the cells lining the nose and upper airway as well as cells in the rest of the body. A handful of other nasal COVID-19 vaccines are being developed around the world. Additional studies needed to understand transmission Some experts caution that just looking at asymptomatic infections doesn’t fully answer the question of whether vaccines block transmission. Doug Reed, PhD, an associate professor of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research, said viral load studies can also shed some light on whether COVID-19 vaccines reduce transmission. In this type of study, researchers measure the amount of virus in the body of a vaccinated person who contracts a coronavirus infection and compare it with the viral load of an unvaccinated person with an infection. This is typically done with a PCR nasal swab. In one preprint study, Israeli researchers found that the viral loads in vaccinated people with an infection were 3 to 4.7 times lower than in unvaccinated people with an infection. “If the viral load in [vaccinated] people is substantially reduced, it suggests that their ability to transmit the virus to other people would be also substantially reduced,” Reed said. While this kind of study doesn’t fully answer the question of transmission, “there is good data to say that the higher the viral load, the more likely a person is to transmit the disease,” Reed told Healthline. “So, if the viral load is very low, the likelihood of transmission is also quite low.” George said combining a viral load study with a contact tracing study can provide more “definitive proof” of reduced transmission. In this scenario, contact tracing involves studying the close contacts of vaccinated and unvaccinated people to see whether vaccinated people who contract an infection are less likely to transmit the virus. “That kind of study is more time and labor intensive,” she said, especially since you have to rule out close contacts contracting an infection who are outside the household. Dr. Davey Smith, MD, MAS, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is leading this type of study. It will involve collecting data on household contacts of people who have been vaccinated, reports The San Diego Union-Tribune. Variants and other factors can affect transmission Even if scientists determine how much a vaccine reduces transmission, those results may not apply to every situation or every vaccine. All the approved vaccines protect against severe disease and death. However, certain vaccines are less effective at preventing overall infection. So, people who receive one of these vaccines are more likely to contract a coronavirus infection. And even if their symptoms are milder, they may also be able to transmit the virus. Coronavirus variants are another wild card. Some, like the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa, reduce the efficacy of certain vaccines. Other variants, such as B.1.1.7, which emerged in the United Kingdom, spread more easily. This could increase the number of vaccinated people who contract an infection, or could lower the viral threshold for infection. “If vaccinated people have more virus in their bodies and it takes less of that virus to infect another person, there will be higher probability a vaccinated person could transmit these new strains of the coronavirus,” Deborah Fuller, PhD, a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, wrote for The Conversation. Community factors can also affect transmission. When few people in a community are wearing masks or physical distancing, there are more opportunities for a vaccinated person with an infection to transmit the virus to another person. These public health measures are also effective at lowering virus transmission in a community. Likewise, when vaccination rates are low, there’s a greater chance that a vaccinated person with an infection will come into contact with an unvaccinated person. That’s why public health officials are trying to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. Doing so will speed up the return to “normal.” “I urge everyone to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible with whatever vaccine they can get,” George said. Reed cautioned that our understanding of transmission will change as more studies are completed. This is especially true when looking at the effect that coronavirus variants have on transmission. “We are really learning as we go,” he said. “A lot of our initial information [about COVID-19] was based on what we knew from prior pandemics or other diseases.” And while it may seem like we will be wearing masks forever, there are signs that life will soon shift for people who are fully vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to issue new public health guidance that will touch on small gatherings of vaccinated people. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also addressed this at a White House COVID-19 briefing March 1. “Small gatherings in the home [of vaccinated people], I think you can clearly feel that the relative risk is so low you wouldn’t have to wear the mask,” Fauci said. “You could have a good social gathering in the home.” What the CDC will recommend for other scenarios, said Fauci, will be based on a combination of data, modeling, and “good clinical sense.” Many of the studies that will generate this data are already in progress, with more to follow.

  • Why Lifting State Mask Mandates Could Trigger a Fourth COVID-19 Wave
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Despite many states easing mask restrictions, health experts contend it’s too early to abandon preventive measures that slow the spread of COVID-19. Montinique Monroe / Getty Images Texas, Alabama, and several other states are canceling mask mandates and allowing businesses to open at, or near, full capacity.Elected officials cite the FDA’s emergency approval of three COVID-19 vaccines as well as emerging therapeutics as rationale for the easing of restrictions.Health experts argue that ending the mandates early could lead to a fourth wave of cases and hospitalizations as well as the possible emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants. On March 2, the governor of Texas announced the state would be ending its mask mandate and opening businesses back up to 100 percent capacity.  Mississippi and Alabama followed suit soon after, joining a couple other states — Iowa and Montana — that recently tossed away their mask mandates.  Thanks to the recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency approval and rollout of three effective COVID-19 vaccines, many elected officials see the light at the end of the tunnel. Health experts, however, criticized the Texas governor’s announcement, questioning why the mask mandate would be lifted during the most critical point in the pandemic.  Ending preventive measures too soon could jeopardize the final stretch of the pandemic and possibly lead to another spike in cases and new virus variants, disease experts say.  What’s going on in Texas? Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced March 2 that mask mandates are no longer needed because of the advancements made with vaccines and therapeutics, as reported by NPR.  “Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed,” Abbott stated.  Abbott also said the state would be opening businesses back up to 100 percent capacity. Soon after, Mississippi went public with plans to do the same.  Experts agree it’s too soon to relax protocols Infectious diseases experts largely agree it’s far too soon to take a hands-off approach to masking and physical distancing.  “We are right at the cusp. It’s not now, at the last leg of the race, that we want to now give up or mess up. We have to finish the race,” said Dr. Daniel Fagbuyi, an emergency physician who served as a biodefense expert in the Obama administration. Only 13.6 percent of Texans have been vaccinated with one dose and 7.5 percent with two doses, which is far from the level of vaccination we need to achieve herd immunity (which is about 70 percent).  More than 519,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, 45,000 of whom were Texans. “On the day of Governor Abbott’s announcement, 275 Texans died. The trend may be better, but is that a good day? These deaths are especially sad because the end is clearly in sight,” said Brian Castrucci, DrPH, an epidemiologist and president of the public health nonprofit de Beaumont Foundation. What are the risks of letting our guard down now? The most obvious threat is that Texas could see a fourth surge this spring.  Throughout the pandemic, we’ve observed how an uptick in cases triggers a surge. After cases peak, they eventually drop off before spiking yet again.  “Ending practices that have contributed to better outcomes places the state at increased vulnerability,” Castrucci said. Some models are predicting a fourth wave will strike around May as the SARS-CoV-2 variant identified in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) becomes more widespread. If people stop wearing masks and ignore public health protocols, they put both themselves and others at risk.  That potentially “means a surge on our medical system, and that means limited resources for people who are sick and those who have other ailments, such as strokes, heart attacks, a fracture, a car crash,” Fagbuyi said, noting this could lead to more lockdowns.  The other big concern is that unchecked transmission could lead to the emergence of new virus variants, according to Fagbuyi.  “There’s an increased likelihood of having more variants and different types of the virus that then can undermine our responses and put us back in the same situation and maybe even worse,” Fagbuyi said.  Where are we with therapeutics?  Though scientists have made incredible advances in preventing and treating COVID-19 since it first struck in early 2020, we still don’t have a cure.  “Therapeutics are en route and on the way, but don’t get it twisted: The monoclonal antibodies, based on new data, they’re not being as effective against the variants,” Fagbuyi said. Monoclonal antibody therapies have been the go-to resource for treating high-risk, hospitalized patients with COVID-19.  We don’t have antivirals for COVID-19, and the best protections we have are the vaccines along with personal protective gear and physical distancing.  Science has shown that mask wearing, handwashing, and physical distancing are effective ways to prevent COVID-19 transmission.  “If we can have leadership in place and advocacy that ensures that science is put first, we can see this to the end,” Fagbuyi said.  We can build the economy back up safely  There’s no denying that small-business owners and people across the country have been struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.  Castrucci said it’s important to get students back in school, to support businesses, and to help communities rebuild their economies — and there’s a way to do it safely. “We can reopen while also continuing necessary precautions, and that means washing hands, maintaining social distance, wearing masks, and avoiding crowded spaces with limited ventilation,” Castrucci said.  Normalcy won’t return until most people are immune through a combination of vaccination and natural immunity from infection. Through mass vaccination efforts, we’re on our way there. Giving up now could prolong the pandemic and lead to even worse outcomes.  “To put it in football terms, revoking the mask requirement is like dropping the ball at the 1-yard line just before reaching the end zone,” Castrucci added. The bottom line  On March 2, the governor of Texas announced the state would be ending its mask mandate and opening businesses back up to 100 percent capacity. Mississippi and Alabama followed suit soon after. Health experts criticized the governor’s announcement and worry that lifting protocols now could lead to a fourth surge and make way for new SARS-CoV-2 variants. 

  • Why Working Out at Your Gym Indoors Is a Terrible Idea Right Now
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Even with safety precautions in place, working out indoors at fitness centers can increase your risk of developing COVID-19. Tempura/Getty Images COVID-19 safety precautions and their enforcement can vary widely at different gyms in different areas.Health experts advise against working out at indoor public gyms at this time.Instead, experts suggest exercising outdoors or virtually to reduce your transmission risk. Avid gym-goers may be wondering: Even when safety guidelines are followed to the letter, is it really safe to attend indoor fitness centers and exercise classes during the pandemic? Multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 have been linked to fitness facilities since the pandemic started, including dozens of cases linked to a fitness center in Chicago, Illinois. In the latest issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), officials from the Chicago Department of Public Health shared findings from their investigation into the outbreak. “I think this report really highlights what many of us already assumed in the first place: exercising in an indoor facility during a pandemic like COVID, especially with high-intensity activities, is a major risk,” said Dr. Keri L. Denay, the medical director of Briarwood Family and Sports Medicine and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Denay wasn’t involved in preparing the report. The Chicago fitness facility temporarily shut down on Sep. 1 after learning that one of its patrons had tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Investigators later found that 55 out of 81 people who attended high-intensity exercise classes at the facility from August 24 to September 1 developed confirmed or probable COVID-19. Patrons wore masks ‘infrequently’ At the time of the outbreak, the fitness facility was running 4 to 8 high-intensity indoor exercise classes per day. Class sizes were limited to 25 percent capacity. Patrons brought their own mats and weights to classes, where they were positioned at least 6 feet apart. The facility also required mask use, temperature checks, and symptom screening when patrons entered the facility. However, patrons were allowed to remove their masks while exercising. “I think the biggest error, and it’s still done in some places, is requiring masks when you enter the facility and then allowing people to take them off when exercising,” Denay told Healthline. “That makes absolutely no sense. If you put individuals into a high intensity activity where you’re huffing and puffing, that only exacerbates things,” she continued. Most of the facility’s patrons told investigators they infrequently wore masks during classes. Mask use was less common in patrons who developed COVID-19 than those who didn’t. Heavy breathing adds to spread In another investigation published in the same issue of MMWR, health officials in Hawaii linked 21 cases of COVID-19 to two fitness instructors that taught classes shortly before testing positive for the virus. Researchers have also linked outbreaks to dance classes in South Korea, squash games in Slovenia, and a recreational hockey game in Florida. Even when people stay 6 feet apart while exercising, that doesn’t appear to be enough to stop virus transmission. “It is becoming more evident that 6 feet of distancing alone is inadequate as a means to reduce transmission when unmasked people are exercising in enclosed environments with poor or inadequate ventilation,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Rapid and sustained breathing for prolonged periods of time increases the risk of viral spread by aerosols, which can remain in a room up to 3 hours, particularly in poorly ventilated settings,” he added. Strategies to reduce the risk To limit the spread of the virus at fitness facilities, the authors of both MMWR reports emphasize the importance of wearing face masks, physically distancing, and proper ventilation. They advise patrons and staff to wear masks, even when they’re maintaining distance from other people and exercising at high intensities. It’s also important for patrons and staff to isolate at home if they develop symptoms of COVID-19, test positive for the virus, or are waiting for test results after possible exposure to the virus. “A few things are quite clear — it’s vital that all patrons be masked while exercising, adequate ventilation be in place to reduce risk, and staff and patrons who are ill or at risk should not come to the facility to work out,” said Glatter. Forty percent of patrons who tested positive for the virus in the Chicago outbreak attended exercise classes on or after the day when their symptoms began. Finding creative alternatives While certain precautions may help reduce the spread of the virus in fitness facilities, “exercising outdoors or virtually could further reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk,” write the authors of both MMRW reports. “My personal opinion as a physician, at this point in time, is that it’s not the right time to return to fitness facilities,” Denay said. “I want to support our fitness facilities in every way that I can, but the health risks of returning are very real,” she added. In a call to action issued by the American College of Sports Medicine, Denay and co-authors write that creativity is “crucial” for finding ways to stay active — especially for people who live in crowded areas or neighborhoods where the outdoor environment isn’t safe for exercise. For one of Denay’s patients, getting creative has meant reviving an old VHS player and collection of exercise tapes. People with home internet access may find a variety of fitness videos on YouTube and other sites. Getting outdoors When people have access to safe outdoor spaces, those offer another alternative to hitting the gym. “Go for a walk. Go for a bike ride. Go snowshoeing,” suggested Denay. Exercising outdoors may help you maintain plenty of distance from other people. Wind currents also help disperse saliva droplets and aerosol, cutting your risk of exposure to the virus. Even so, Glatter still recommends wearing a mask while exercising outside. “It’s still advisable to wear a mask — even if you will be exercising outdoors and more than 6 feet apart from others. It adds an ‘additional layer’ to further reduce transmission,” he said. “Neck gaiters made with polyester and spandex, while more comfortable, have not been found to be as effective as masks in reducing escape of droplets,” he added.

  • A Simple Phone Call Can Help Relieve Anxiety and Depression for Those in Lockdown
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    A new program found that regular phone calls can help people stuck in lockdown. Halfpoint Images/Getty Images A new study recently published in JAMA Psychiatry found that a layperson-delivered phone call program could reduce feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.These calls also improved the general mental health of study participants within 4 weeks.Each caller contacted between 6 and 9 participants daily for the first 5 days. Over the past year, many of us have struggled through feelings of isolation and loneliness because of COVID-19 restrictions and enforced physical distancing to prevent virus transmission. This has resulted in accompanying feelings of loneliness and anxiety for many. A new study recently published in JAMA Psychiatry found that a layperson-delivered, empathy-oriented telephone call program could reduce feelings of depression, and anxiety, while improving the general mental health of study participants, within 4 weeks. “We were partnering with Meals on Wheels of Central Texas already, and when COVID-19 struck we realized the increased mental health concerns of their members,” corresponding author Maninder K. Kahlon, PhD, associate professor in the department of population health at the University of Texas at Austin, told Healthline. Kahlon said her team quickly designed a program and tested it rigorously to confirm that they could see improvements on “clinically-relevant scales.” “We needed to prove to ourselves that the intervention had the effects we hypothesized,” she emphasized. Study included participants who were homebound and faced food insecurity From July 6 to September 24, 2020, researchers recruited and followed up with 240 adults assigned to receive calls or no calls (the control group). They were between ages 27 to 101, with more than half 65 years or older. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety were measured at the beginning of the study and then after 4 weeks. Intention-to-treat analyses were conducted. Participants received calls in their homes or wherever they might be when the call was made. The study included Meals on Wheels clients in Central Texas who matched their service criteria, which included being homebound and expressing a need for food. The callers were between 17 and 23 years old and trained in empathetic conversational techniques prior to the study. Each caller contacted between 6 and 8 participants daily for the first 5 days, after which participants could choose to reduce the frequency, but to no fewer than 2 calls per week. ‘Sunshine calls’ Known as “Sunshine Calls,” the program was a randomized control trial (RCT) developed by Factor Health, a collaborative initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. About half of participants lived alone, and all reported having one or more chronic health conditions. According to the findings, compared to those who weren’t called, call recipients reported average improvements of over 1 point on a 7-point standard scale in feelings of loneliness, for a 16 percent difference. The number of participants who felt at least mildly anxious at the beginning of the study also dropped 37 percent by the end of the study, and those at least mildly depressed dropped by 25 percent. “We trained callers to prioritize the person at the other end of the phone call. Listen to them, and to listen to the clues they provided in their conversation about their interests,” Kahlon said. “If the person mentioned their aunt in passing, the caller would go back to that and pull on the thread, and usually there’s a story there that they’re just waiting to share!” Calls are a promising way to improve health Kahlon said she was surprised by the study’s findings. “We hypothesized we’d affect loneliness by having people connect, meaningfully, to participants. We were pleased by the degree of improvement,” she said. “But what we were surprised by were the significant effects on depression and anxiety,” she added. Kahlon explained that these are two major health concerns, especially considering the effects that both mental states have on “broader mental health scales.” She also believes this program is a particularly promising way to improve health across the board. However, according to the study, a major limitation of this research is that it’s unclear whether benefits can be sustained for longer than 4 weeks. The study also noted that future work should address whether improvements are not only sustainable, but also enhanced with longer implementation. Reaching out can help relieve anxiety and loneliness “I think the relationship between loneliness and health — I think it’s a very complicated relationship and any number of factors… could be involved,” said Dr. David Roane, chair of psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. He pointed out that people who aren’t attached to others have less motivation to take care of themselves, have no one to assist them or look after them to make sure they’re eating or sleeping properly, and “don’t necessarily have standardized routines.” Roane explained that isolation itself can have a direct effect on physiology, and can affect aspects of medical health directly. Kahlon thinks programs like ‘Sunshine Calls’ can remedy a shortage of mental health professionals. “We can address mental health, at scale,” she said. “Loneliness need not remain unaddressed, and depression and anxiety can be tackled without being constrained by our lack of mental health professionals.” She concluded that, “The health system should pay for whatever delivers results, including programs such as this one.” Reaching out can be rewarding “Well, I think the study here is really focused on some interesting ideas,” said Roane. “The focus on reaching out to people through technology through the phone, through Zoom, and reuniting with friends and relatives that you haven’t been in touch with recently.” He emphasized that people are very open to hearing from others, “so reaching out can often be very rewarding.” Roane added that long distance contact must be regular for the most benefit. “So if you have a friend or relative who is particularly isolated it might actually be a great idea to have a regular scheduled call,” he said. “That might not be every single day, it might be on a Saturday or Sunday or whatever works for the person who’s trying to reach out.” According to Roane, setting and maintaining a routine of scheduled calls is key. “I think that for the isolated individual to know that they can expect social contact could be very helpful,” he said. The bottom line New research finds that making regularly scheduled ‘empathetic calls’ to isolated individuals can significantly reduce loneliness and anxiety — and possibly improve overall health. Experts agree that reaching out electronically to friends and relatives isolated by physical distancing measures is a good idea, but contact should be regular for the greatest benefit. Experts also say that calling programs can help address a shortage of mental health providers to help people experiencing loneliness and anxiety in their homes.

  • How to Talk to Kids Who Are Fearful of COVID-19
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    As states ease restrictions and some children return to in-person learning in classrooms, they may experience increased fear and anxiety regarding COVID-19. Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images The lack of consistency over the last year has been detrimental to children’s mental health.Many kids remain afraid of losing a loved one, but they’re also afraid that this pandemic will never end.After a year of being home with their parents, a return to school and work may kick up some separation anxiety for some children. It’s been a year since COVID-19 changed life as we know it — a year of school closures, physical distancing, and adjusting to the new normal. However, despite our efforts to adjust the best we can, many people are still harboring fears related to the novel coronavirus — especially young children. Licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, Amy Nasamran, PhD, told Healthline that because the last year has involved so many unavoidable changes and adjustments, kids are lacking the predictability and consistency they typically rely on to feel safe. “Children tend to thrive and do better with structure because they know what to expect,” she explained. “Quickly changing situations and ambiguity with what the future may look like can cause some children to feel anxious.” Not knowing what to expect is just one of the things contributing to fears children may be carrying right now, though. Psychotherapist and licensed social worker Margaret Cochran, PhD, said that kids are still contending with two big fears. The first is straightforward: She said that a lot of children remain fearful of losing their parents or loved ones to COVID-19. But the second fear is one many may not even know how to articulate. Kids are afraid the inconsistency, distancing, and massive loss of lives will never end. “To a child, a year is an eternity,” Cochran explained. “As there has been so little positive change in the last weeks and months, the pandemic can feel like it’s forever and they will never see their friends again, go to school, or feel safe to play with others.” Different age groups may be facing different challenges Younger kids (toddler age and below) aren’t old enough to have necessarily recognized the changes brought forth by the last year. But Nasamran says that they’re perceptive enough to have potentially been impacted by those changes. “Some separation anxiety in toddlers between ages 1 and 3 is part of typical toddler development,” she explained. “With the stress of pandemic life, toddlers may be especially fearful about separating from their parents or caregivers.” By school age, however, she said that kids have the cognitive capacity to envision the real-life what-ifs of the pandemic. This includes the fear of death. “The children and adolescents who remember a different way to be in the world are those who suffer most,” Cochran said. “They are, as we are, grieving.” That grief, she said, can extend to the loss of social connections, hugs, familiar routines, and developmental milestone events such as graduations, birthdays, and more. How to help kids process and overcome their fears “Providing as much structure as is feasible during this time is important,” Nasamran said. “Sticking with the parts of your family routine that you’re able [to] can provide kids with a sense of security that they need to thrive.” When changes in routine are unavoidable, she says that it’s key to give children a heads-up as far in advance as possible. This provides them with the time and opportunity to understand and adjust their expectations. “For bigger fears and anxiety, reading books about COVID topics is a great way to start the discussion and engage kids at their level,” she said. “Most books use age-appropriate language that makes it easier for kids to grasp.” By reading books that allow kids to hear the story through the eyes of other characters, you can help your kids to feel less alone in their fears, Nasamran explains. “It can also be easier for kids to take a step back and understand or relate to the story objectively.” Cochran said that it’s equally important for parents to remember that their kids are watching them and they’re looking for calm and positive reactions. “Taking a few minutes each day to develop a family gratitude practice can make a huge positive difference in the lives of both your children and yourself,” she said. This can be as simple as going around the dinner table each night and listing something you’re thankful for. “Even though your kids may moan and complain that it’s dumb, do it anyway,” Cochran said. “Research has shown that this helps build mental resiliency, improves mood, and lowers stress. They’ll thank you after they turn 25 and their collective brains are fully developed.” How to address separation anxiety and fear as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted With schools reopening and many workplaces welcoming their employees back to in-office work, it’s fair to say that these changes may impact some kids as well — especially those who’ve grown used to being home with family 24/7. “Even though separation anxiety is more common in toddlers, some school-age children may feel sad or worried after being at home for an extended time,” explained Nasamran. “It’s important to reflect and validate their feelings, while at the same time reminding them of the precautions in place as well as things they can look forward to at school.” She says that it’s easy for kids to become hyper-focused on the fear and forget what they enjoy about school when anxiety starts to take over. That’s when it may be a good idea to remind them how much they love being around their teacher and friends. For those who seem to be exhibiting genuine separation anxiety while returning to school and being away from their parents, Cochran says that they may benefit from some extra emotional support and coaching throughout the day. They may also need permission to touch base with their parents regularly. “These practices will then be slowly faded over time as they are no longer needed,” she said. If you’re concerned your child may need some of that extra support, talking with their teacher and administrators can be a great place to start in figuring out the best ways to help them ease into the change. Signs that professional help may be needed “There are children, just like adults, who are genetically prone to experience depression and anxiety, especially in times of high stress,” Cochran said. She listed the following symptoms as signs your child may need additional help and support: listlessnesspoor or increased appetite, undesirable weight loss or gaindisturbed sleeptearfulnessloss of interest in formerly important activitieswithdrawal from friends and familyexpressing feeling of hopelessness or helplessnessirritabilitydropping grades If you notice any of these signs, or if your child is expressing uncontrollable anxiety to you, Cochran says that it’s important to take them to their physician first to make sure there are no physical causes for these changes in behavior. Once that’s been ruled out, she says that it’s time to seek the services of a licensed mental health professional. “COVID and some of the other disasters that children have had to undergo have placed unusual emotional burdens on them,” Cochran said. “I cannot stress enough how important a factor their parent’s attitude is in the maintenance of their mental health.” She explains that while adults know there are typically corresponding ups that follow down periods in life, children don’t have the life experience to know that. They need to hear from the adults in their lives that things can and will get better. “Talk about and make plans for the future and what they can look forward to as individuals and what you will do together as a family,” Cochran added. She encourages parents to remind children that fear can be normal, especially after what the last year has brought us. But also, it’s important to show them, through your own actions, that pushing through those fears is possible and necessary for a return to happy, healthy, social lives.

  • FDA Says Not to Use This Antiparasitic Medication to Treat COVID-19
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    An anti-parasitic drug should not be used for COVID-19 treatment warns experts. LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images The FDA warned that using ivermectin intended for veterinary use is dangerous and can result in severe consequences for health.Many studies have been conducted to find whether ivermectin can treat COVID-19, but experts say that so far, none offers conclusive evidence.Ivermectin has been used in the past as a treatment for parasitic infections in humans. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have searched for a shortcut to cure the disease, which has few proven treatments. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning against using an antiparasite drug called ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19. Self-medication is dangerous “FDA is concerned about the health of consumers who may self-medicate by taking Ivermectin products intended for animals, thinking they can be a substitute for Ivermectin intended for humans,” the FDA said in a statement. “These animal drugs can cause serious harm in people.” The FDA emphasized that people shouldn’t take any form of ivermectin unless it’s been prescribed to them by a licensed healthcare provider and obtained through a legitimate source. Ivermectin was originally discovered in the 1970s and first used as a veterinary drug to kill internal and external parasites in pets and livestock. It’s currently also used to treat parasite infections in people. People who intentionally overdose to treat COVID-19 While considered safe for humans when used as prescribed, taking a dose intended for pets or livestock could cause severe health issues. According to the Missouri Poison Center, there have been reports of intentional ivermectin overdoses, which can cause serious symptoms that include: seizurescomalung and heart problems According to the FDA, increased interest in ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19 infection began with the announcement of a research article. The article described the effect of ivermectin on SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory setting. It’s important to note that ivermectin wasn’t given to people or animals in this study. FDA hasn’t issued Emergency Use Authorization The National Institutes of Health (NIH) online database of clinical trials shows 38 studies around the world that include ivermectin as a possible treatment for COVID-19. However, according to the database, many of them are still recruiting participants and only a few are located in the United States. The FDA emphasized that while ivermectin is being investigated in a laboratory setting, further research with conclusive data is needed before it’s approved for treating COVID-19. Critically, the FDA hasn’t issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for ivermectin, which allows a drug still in testing to be used outside a clinical trial. Conflicting evidence for ivermectin Mangala Narasimhan, DO, director of Critical Care Services at Northwell Health in New York, told Healthline that several randomized trials and retrospective cohort studies of ivermectin use in patients with COVID-19 have been published or made available ahead of peer review. However, evidence for it is mixed. “Some clinical studies showed no benefits or worsening of disease after ivermectin use,” she said. She pointed out that some studies did report improvements in recuperation time reduced inflammatory marker levels or lower mortality rates in patients who received ivermectin compared to other drugs or placebos. “However, most of these studies had incomplete information and significant methodological limitations,” she explained. According to Narasimhan, these limitations included small sample size, varying doses of ivermectin, and patients receiving other medications with treatment. WHO finds ivermectin safe for mass treatment of parasites in humans Although self-administering a drug dose intended for animals is never safe, ivermectin has helped many people when used properly as prescribed by healthcare providers. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that drug manufacturer Merck (patent holder of ivermectin) recognized the drug’s potential for human use in the 1980s. Merck began a drug donation program for river blindness (caused by a parasite) that became the global model for philanthropic partnerships between drug companies and countries unable to afford a drug. The WHO added that ivermectin has “valuable public health applications” for controlling a disease caused by roundworms called strongyloidiasis and scabies (caused by mites). Paul E. Marik, MD, professor of internal medicine in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, said that ivermectin is on the WHO list of essential medications. He added it’s one of the safest ones available with “3.7 billion doses dispensed over the last 25 years, with minimal side effects.” The bottom line The FDA warned that using ivermectin intended for veterinary use is dangerous and can result in severe consequences for health. Many studies have been conducted to find whether ivermectin can treat COVID-19, but experts say that so far, none offers conclusive evidence. Experts also say that when used under medical supervision, ivermectin is safe and effective for the conditions it’s meant to treat and might have a role to play against the novel coronavirus.

  • Here’s Exactly Where We Are with Vaccines and Treatments for COVID-19
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Scientists around the world are working on a number of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. Xinhua/Zhang Yuwei/Getty Images Scientists around the world are working on potential treatments and vaccines for the new coronavirus disease known as COVID-19.Several companies are working on antiviral drugs, some of which are already in use against other illnesses, to treat people who have COVID-19.Other companies are working on vaccines that could be used as a preventive measure against the disease. HEALTHLINE’S CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE Stay informed with our live updates about the current COVID-19 outbreak. Also, visit our coronavirus hub for more information on how to prepare, advice on prevention and treatment, and expert recommendations. With confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States surpassing 9.4 million and continuing to grow, scientists are pushing forward with efforts to develop vaccines and treatments to slow the pandemic and lessen the disease’s damage. On Oct. 22, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the go-ahead to Veklury (remdesivir), the first drug approved for the treatment of COVID-19. It is intended for use in adults and children 12 years and older. The agency has also issued emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for several other treatments, including convalescent plasma therapy, a drug used to sedate people placed on a ventilator, and two drugs for people undergoing a type of blood purification known as continuous renal replacement therapy. An EUA allows doctors to use these drugs to treat people even before the medications have gone through the formal FDA approval process. No vaccine that protects against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has received emergency use authorization or full approval in the United States. However, some countries have granted limited or early approval to certain vaccines. Over the coming months, we may see additional drugs approved as COVID-19 treatments, depending on the outcome of clinical trials. Experts also expect that a COVID-19 vaccine might be available in spring or summer 2021, although certain high-risk groups may have access to a vaccine earlier. As we wait for additional treatments and a possible vaccine, there are still other tools we can use to protect ourselves and others from the new coronavirus. “Even though technological advances allow us to do certain things more quickly, we still have to rely on social distancing, contact tracing, self-isolation, and other measures,” Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, told Healthline. Vaccine development Vaccines are designed to protect people before they’re exposed to a virus — in this case SARS-CoV-2.  A vaccine basically trains the immune system to recognize and attack a virus, even one it hasn’t seen before. While vaccines imitate an infection, they almost never cause illness. Vaccines also protect the community by reducing the spread of disease among people. This protection is known as herd, or community, immunity. While many potential vaccines are in development, there is no guarantee any of these will work. “There’s a lot of uncertainty with vaccine development,” Lee said. “Naturally, you have to make sure the vaccine is safe. But you also have to make sure the vaccine will elicit enough of an immune response.” Like drugs, potential vaccines have to pass through clinical trial stages. This is especially important when it comes to safety, even during a pandemic. Scientists are testing 50 candidate vaccines in clinical trials in people. At least 150 candidate vaccines are in preclinical development, including animal and laboratory testing. Six vaccines, in China and Russia, have been given limited or early approval. These were released before the completion of phase 3 clinical trials, which has raised some concerns about safety. Many scientists and public health experts caution that taking shortcuts with the vaccine approval process could damage the public’s faith in any approved vaccine. “The public’s willingness to back quarantines and other public health measures to slow spread tends to correlate with how much people trust the government’s health advice,” Shibo Jiang, a virologist at Fudan University in China, wrote in the journal Nature. “A rush into potentially risky vaccines and therapies will betray that trust and discourage work to develop better assessments,” he wrote. Vaccine timeline Scientists began working on candidate vaccines to protect against SARS-CoV-2 in January after the virus’s genetic code, or genome, had been deciphered. While vaccine development typically takes years, scientists hope to have a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine sometime next year. This process has been sped up by recent advances in technology. Experts say the likely timeline for distribution of a vaccine is spring or summer of 2021, although some high-risk groups could receive a vaccine as early as January. Some scientists argue that a “human challenge trial” could speed up the vaccine clinical trials and answer questions about the vaccine’s efficacy and long-term protection. In this type of trial, healthy volunteers are given a potential vaccine and then intentionally infected with the virus. Usually, researchers wait for a person given a potential vaccine to be exposed naturally to the virus. Then they look at how well the person was protected by the vaccine. There are no plans for this kind of study in the United States, but more than 38,000 people around the world have signed up to take part in this kind of trial. In the United Kingdom, researchers are recruiting volunteers for a challenge trial. If the trial is approved by regulators, researchers plan to start in January. A human challenge trial raises many ethical questions. One is that there’s still a lot we don’t know about this virus and disease, including who will get seriously ill or die from COVID-19. That means people can’t really know the risks of participating in the study, so they wouldn’t be able to give high-quality informed consent. This is an essential part of modern clinical trials. The World Health Organization released ethical guidelines to navigate these tricky waters. COVID-19 vaccines Here’s a look at some of the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine projects: Moderna / National Institutes of Health. The company began testing its two-dose messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine in March in a phase 1 clinical trial, with promising results. In late July, Moderna began phase 3 clinical trials of the vaccine. In late August, company officials said preliminary phase 1 trial data showed that the vaccine elicited a promising immune response in 10 people between the ages of 56 and 70 as well as 10 people over age of 70. The company announced in late October that it had finished recruiting all 30,000 participants in the phase 3 trial. This included more than 7,000 people over the age of 65 and more than 5,000 younger people with chronic conditions that increase their risk of severe COVID-19. In early October, company officials announced their vaccine won’t be available for wide distribution until spring 2021. Later in the month, Moderna’s CEO told investors that the trial’s data and safety monitoring board could start analyzing study data in November. In mid-November, Moderna officials reported that their vaccine had achieved an effective rate of 94 percent in initial phase 3 trial results. Experts said more testing and more information is needed. On November 30, Moderna officials said they would apply to the FDA for its vaccine to be approved for emergency use. On December 18, the FDA granted an emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine. The company began shipping out the product three days later. Pfizer / BioNTech / Fosun Pharma. Drugmaker Pfizer teamed up German biotech company BioNTech and Chinese drugmaker Fosun Pharma to develop a two-dose mRNA vaccine. In mid-August, company officials said the vaccine had produced a “robust” response in a phase 1/2 clinical trial. The company launched a phase 3 trial in late July, with a goal to recruit 30,000 people from the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Germany. They later announced plans to increase this to 44,000 people. In October, the company said it received approval to enroll children as young as 12 years in the trial — the first American trial to include this age group. As of late October, the trial had enrolled more than 42,000 people. At the time, the company had not yet conducted an interim analysis of the study data, which puts it behind its original goal of doing so by September. However, the company still expects to have enough data sometime in November to apply for emergency use authorization from the FDA. On November 9, the company announced that its vaccine had been more than 90 percent effective in clinical trial participants. A few days later, company officials announced they were applying for an emergency use authorization from the FDA for their vaccine. It was the first regulatory approval in the United States for a COVID-19 vaccine. The officials said the vaccine could be available to high-risk groups as early as mid-December. On December 8, the FDA released documents that reported the Pfizer vaccine offers some protection after the first dose and nearly full protection after a second dose. On December 11, the FDA granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine. The company started distributing the product two days later. In late January, company officials said a study indicated their vaccine is only slightly less effective against the COVID-19 variant from South Africa. In mid-February, a study from Israel reported a 94 percent decrease in symptomatic COVID-19 cases among people who received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. That study also indicated the vaccine was 85 percent effective 15 to 28 days after an initial dose. In mid-February, Pfizer officials announced that they believe their vaccine can be stored at regular freezer temperatures. In late February, a study from the United Kingdom reported that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine can reduce the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus by 70 percent with an 85 percent reduction after two doses. In early March, a study out of Israel reported that the Pfizer vaccine was highly effective in preventing COVID-19 in people with a variety of conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Inovio. When COVID-19 appeared in December, drugmaker Inovio had already been working on a DNA vaccine for MERS, which is caused by another coronavirus. This allowed the company to quickly develop a potential COVID-19 vaccine.  Company officials announced at the end of April that it had enrolled 40 healthy volunteers in its phase 1 trial. In late September, the company announced that its phase 2/3 trial is on hold as the it responds to the FDA’s questions about the study. Sanofi / Translate Bio. Drugmaker Sanofi announced in February that it would work with Translate Bio to develop an mRNA vaccine. Preclinical testing showed that the vaccine could elicit a strong immune response in mice and monkeys. The company expects results from its phase 2 trial in early December. After that, they will start a phase 3 study. CanSino Biologics. Scientists at this Chinese company are also working on a potential vaccine that uses an adenovirus known as Ad5 to carry coronavirus proteins into cells. In late July, they reported that participants in a phase 2 trial showed a strong immune response when given the vaccine. However, they noted older adults had a weaker response, suggesting two doses might be needed for that segment of the population. The Chinese military approved the vaccine in June, allowing the vaccine to be given to its armed forces. In August, the company began phase 3 trials in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Gamaleya Research Institute. This Russian institute developed a vaccine that includes two adenoviruses, Ad5 and Ad26. In August, President Vladimir Putin announced that the country’s regulatory agency had approved the vaccine, even before phase 3 trials had started. Russian officials later said the vaccine had received a “conditional registration certificate.”  Results of a phase 1/2 trial found that the vaccine elicited an immune response with mild side effects. Phase 3 trials are currently under way in Russia, Belarus, United Arab Emirates, and India. Johnson & Johnson. Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson announced in late July that it had begun a phase 1/2 trial in people after their adenovirus vaccine had shown promising results when used in monkeys. In late September, the company announced it was starting a phase 3 trial of its one-dose vaccine with 60,000 participants. In mid-October, the company announced it was pausing this trial due to an “unexplained illness” with one of the participants. The company has since received permission to restart the study. In mid-November, Johnson & Johnson officials said they expected their vaccine to be ready for FDA approval by February. In mid-January, company officials reported that in early clinical trials nearly all participants developed an immune response from the vaccine. In addition, the response lasted for at least 71 days. In late January, company officials announced that their vaccine was 66 percent effective overall and more than 50 percent effective against the new variants. In early February, Johnson & Johnson requested an emergency use authorization for its vaccine. FDA regulators will examine the data in the ensuing weeks because this is the first of the one-dose vaccines. An FDA advisory panel is scheduled to consider the company’s request in late February. In late February, company officials announced they will be able to deliver 20 million doses of their vaccine by the end of March. In late February, the company received emergency use authorization from the FDA for its single-dose vaccine. In early March, the White House announced that Merck will help Johnson & Johnson manufacture its vaccine so the company can hit production targets. AstraZeneca / University of Oxford. A phase 1 clinical trial at the University of Oxford began in late April. The vaccine is based on a chimpanzee adenovirus, which shuttles coronavirus proteins into cells.  In August, AstraZeneca began phase 3 trials in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States. These trials were halted in September when a study volunteer developed a rare spinal inflammatory disorder called transverse myelitis. The trials were restarted a week later in Brazil and the United Kingdom. In late October, the FDA authorized the U.S. trial to resume. In mid-November, company officials said their vaccine had produced a strong immune response in a clinical trial that involved people over the age of 70. Data released on December 8 indicated that the vaccine was safe but only about 70 percent effective. In early February, company officials announced that phase 3 clinical trial results showed that their vaccine was 82 percent effective after 12 weeks. They added that the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death. They also noted that the vaccine achieved up to a 67 percent efficacy in preventing disease transmission. A few days later, South Africa officials suspended plans to inoculate their front-line healthcare workers because clinical trials indicated the AstraZeneca vaccine wasn’t effective in preventing mild to moderate illness with the COVID-19 variant now dominant in that country. In mid-February, the World Health Organization approved an emergency use authorization for the AstraZeneca vaccine to be distributed worldwide. Sanofi / GSK / TranslateBio. Drugmaker Sanofi is pursuing two vaccines. The company is working with drugmaker GSK on a vaccine based on proteins from the coronavirus. When combined with another compound, called an adjuvant, the proteins elicit an immune response. They expect results from a phase 2 trial in early December, after which they will begin a phase 3 study. Sanofi is also working with biotech company Translate Bio to develop an mRNA vaccine. They expect to start clinical trials in December. Novavax. This company received up to $388 million in funding this spring from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a group that has funded COVID-19 vaccine development. The vaccine is made by attaching virus proteins to microscopic particles. In August, Novavax launched a phase 2 trial in South Africa. A month later, the company began a phase 3 trial in the United Kingdom. It plans to start another phase 3 trial in the United States by the end of November. In late January, company officials announced their vaccine was 90 percent effective overall and 60 percent effective against the South African variant. University of Queensland in Australia / CSL. Researchers at the university developed a vaccine by growing viral proteins in cell cultures. They began preclinical testing stages in early April. The phase 1 trial in people began in early July. A phase 2/3 trial is expected to start late this year. Wuhan Institute of Biological Products / Sinopharm. Chinese company Sinopharm is testing an inactivated virus vaccine developed by the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products. After a successful phase 1 trial, researchers launched phase 3 trials in the UAE in July and a month later in Peru and Morocco.  Beijing Institute of Biological Products / Sinopharm. Sinopharm is testing a second inactivated virus vaccine developed by Beijing Institute of Biological Products. Phase 3 trials began in June in the UAE and in September in Argentina. In September, the UAE approved the vaccine for use on healthcare workers even before the results of the phase 3 trials. Sinovac Biotech. This Chinese company launched phase 3 trials of its inactivated virus vaccine in Brazil in July, Indonesia in August, and Turkey in September. In August, the Chinese government issued emergency approval for the vaccine for use on high-risk groups. Bharat Biotech / Indian Council of Medical Research / Indian National Institute of Virology. Indian company Bharat announced in late October that it was beginning a phase 3 trial of its inactivated virus vaccine. Repurposed vaccines Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia is conducting a phase 3 trial of the bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) tuberculosis vaccine to see if it also protects people from the coronavirus. This trial is being run in Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Some scientists think the polio vaccine might boost the immune system just enough to fight off the new coronavirus, although there’s no evidence yet to confirm this theory. Two U.S. researchers also suggested that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine might offer protection against inflammation and sepsis in people with COVID-19. They recommend starting a clinical trial with the MMR vaccine in healthcare workers. Antivirals Antivirals are drugs that are used for treating viral infections. Some antivirals target specific viruses, while others work against a number of viruses. These drugs can work in different ways such as preventing the virus from entering host cells, replicating, or releasing viral particles to infect other cells. Here are some of antivirals being eyed as treatments for COVID-19. Many of these have been approved for other conditions or have been tested on other viruses. Remdesivir (brand name Veklury). Developed a decade ago, remdesivir failed in clinical trials against Ebola in 2014. But it was found to be generally safe in people. Research with MERS, a disease caused by a different coronavirus, showed that the drug blocked the virus from replicating. In April, drugmaker Gilead Sciences announced that preliminary data from a trial of remdesivir overseen by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) had “met its primary endpoint.” Based on these results, the FDA issued an order on May 1 for the emergency use of remdesivir for hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19.  In August, the agency broadened the EUA to allow for use of the drug in all hospitalized COVID-19 patients, including children. The results of a phase 3 trial published in October in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that remdesivir shortened the hospital stay of COVID-19 patients by about 5 days. People taking remdesivir also had a lower risk of dying compared to those who had been given an inactive control substance. On Oct. 22, the FDA approved remdesivir for use as a treatment for COVID-19 in adults and children 12 years and older. The drug is the first approved by the agency as a treatment for COVID-19. Not all clinical trials have found that remdesivir is effective. A study published in The Lancet in May reported that participants in a clinical trial who took remdesivir showed no benefits compared to people who took a placebo. Preliminary results from a World Health Organization trial released in October found that remdesivir had little effect on how long people stayed in the hospital and no effect on their risk of dying. Remdesivir is also being tested in many COVID-19 clinical trials around the world, including in combination with other drugs such as interferon beta-1a and a highly concentrated solution of antibodies. In mid-September, officials at Eli Lilly announced that in early stage trials their anti-inflammatory drug baricitinib when added to remdesivir can shorten hospital stays by 1 day for people with COVID-19. Olumiant, which is the name baricitinib is sold under, is already used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions that involve overactive immune systems. The drug is also being tested in children with moderate to severe COVID-19. In mid=November, FDA officials announced they had granted an emergency use authorization to use the baricitinib-remdesivir combination therapy for treatment on hospitalized adults and children who need supplemental oxygen. AT-527. This drug was developed by Boston biotech Atea Pharmaceuticals and is being developed in partnership with drugmaker Roche. Atea began a phase 2 trial in May, testing the drug in people hospitalized with moderate COVID-19.  The company plans to test the drug next year outside the hospital setting, and test to see if the drug can work in people recently exposed to the coronavirus. EIDD-2801. This drug was created by scientists at a nonprofit biotech company owned by Emory University. Research in mice has shown that it can reduce replication of multiple coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2. Pharmaceutical company Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics LP signed an agreement in May to develop this drug. A phase 1 trial of this drug began in April in the United Kingdom, followed in July by a phase 2 trial. Unlike remdesivir, EIDD-2801 can be taken orally, which would make it available to a larger number of people. Favipiravir (brand name Avigan). This drug, which is manufactured by the Japanese company Fujifilm Toyama Chemical Co., Ltd., is approved in some countries outside the United States to treat influenza. Japan, where the medication is made, is sending the drug to 43 countries for clinical trial testing in people with mild or moderate COVID-19. Canadian researchers are testing to see whether the drug can help fight outbreaks in long-term care homes. In September, Fujifilm released the results of a phase 3 trial that began in March. COVID-19 patients taking the drug improved after 12 days on average versus more than 14 days on average for people taking an inactive placebo. The company is seeking approval of the drug in Japan as a treatment for COVID-19. Fluvoxamine. This drug is already used to treat people with obsessive/compulsive disorder. In mid-November, a study with 152 participants reported that the medication was effective in easing symptoms of COVID-19. In early February, a study indicated fluvoxamine could help prevent mild COVID-19 symptoms from becoming worse. Kaletra. This is a combination of two drugs — lopinavir and ritonavir — that work against HIV. Clinical trials are being done to see whether this drug combo also works against SARS-CoV-2. There have been mixed results. One small study published May 4 in the journal Med by Cell Press found that lopinavir/ritonavir didn’t improve outcomes in people with mild or moderate COVID-19 compared to those receiving standard care. Another study, published May 7 in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the drug combination wasn’t effective for people with severe COVID-19. But another study found that people who were given lopinavir/ritonavir along with two other drugs — ribavirin and interferon beta-1b — took less time to clear the virus from their body. This study was published May 8 in The Lancet. A U.K. study published in October in The Lancet found that the drug combo did not reduce the risk of dying, length of hospital stay, or need for mechanical ventilation in COVID-19 patients. Merimepodib (VX-497). This drug, developed by ViralClear Pharmaceuticals Inc., has been previously shown to have antiviral and immune-suppressing effects. It was tested against hepatitis C but had only modest effects. The company is running a phase 2 trial of this drug. People with advanced COVID-19 will be randomized to receive either merimepodib with remdesivir, or remdesivir plus a placebo. The company ended its phase 2 trial in October after concerns about the drug’s safety. Niclosamide. ANA Therapeutics began a phase 2 and 3 trial in October of oral niclosamide, a drug that’s been used for more than 50 years to treat tapeworms, to see whether it helps people with COVID-19. Earlier studies showed the drug had antiviral and immune-modulating activities. Umifenovir (brand name Arbidol). This antiviral was tested along with the drug lopinavir/ritonavir as a treatment for COVID-19. Researchers reported in mid-April that the three-drug combination didn’t improve the clinical outcomes for people hospitalized with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. A July review of 12 studies found that Arbidol didn’t improve outcomes in people with COVID-19. Monoclonal antibodies Monoclonal antibodies trigger the immune system to attack a virus. Like antibodies made by the body’s immune system, these lab-made molecules target a specific invader, such as SARS-CoV-2. AstraZeneca received funding in October to begin phase 3 trials of its anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody combo drug AZD7442. One study will examine whether the drug can provide protection for up to 12 months. The drug is made of two antibodies discovered by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, isolated from the blood of a couple from Wuhan, China. Celltrion. This South Korean company began a phase 3 trial in October of its monoclonal antibody treatment, CT-P59. It’s being tested in people who have been in close contact with a person with COVID-19 to see whether the drug can prevent infection. Edesa Biotech Inc. received approval to begin a phase 2 trial of its monoclonal antibody drug, EB05. The company thinks its drug could reduce the overactive immune responses associated with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Eli Lilly. In early October, Eli Lilly reported that a new treatment involving two antibodies showed promising results in reducing SARS-CoV-2 levels. The treatment was given to people with COVID-19 who hadn’t been hospitalized.  The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. People who received the antibodies had significantly reduced virus levels after 11 days. They also had slightly less severe symptoms compared to participants who received an inactive placebo. In mid-October, the National Institutes of Health paused the phase 3 trial of Eli Lilly’s antibody over potential safety concerns. The drug was being tested in combination with the antiviral remdesivir. In mid-November, the Eli Lilly drug bamlanivimab received an emergency use authorization from the FDA for use on people with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms who are at risk of hospitalization or severe symptoms. In mid-January, researchers reported that bamlanivimab taken along with etesevimab reduces the amount of COVID-19 viral load in people with mild or moderate symptoms. Also in mid-January, Lilly company officials announced that baklanivimab significantly reduced the risk of contracting symptomatic COVID-19 among nursing home residents and employees. The phase 3 trial included 666 employees and 299 residents. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. is testing a two-antibody combination in four groups: people hospitalized with COVID-19; people with symptoms of the disease but not hospitalized; healthy people at high risk for getting sick with COVID-19; and healthy people who have had close contact with someone with COVID-19. On Oct. 7, the company asked the FDA for emergency approval of its antibody mixture, or “cocktail.” The announcement came a few days after President Trump was treated with the drug for COVID-19. Regeneron officials said doses for 50,000 people would initially be available. In mid-October, the company reported its antibody mixture had performed well in a clinical trial involving hamster and rhesus macaque monkeys. In late October, the company announced it would stop recruiting participants who need high levels of supplemental oxygen into its phase 2 and 3 trial due to potential safety concerns. People who need low or no supplemental oxygen will continue to be enrolled. In late January, company officials announced that its antibody cocktail appears to be effective against the United Kingdom and South African variants of the novel coronavirus. Sorrento Therapeutics. This small biotech company announced in May that it has an antibody drug that’s been effective in early testing in blocking SARS-CoV-2. The company says the drug could potentially be used to treat people with COVID-19 as well as help prevent infection.  A preprint study published in September found that the antibody protected Syrian golden hamsters that were infected with SARS-CoV-2. Vir Biotechnology has isolated antibodies from people who survived SARS, a disease caused by another coronavirus. The company is working with Chinese firm WuXi Biologics to test them as a treatment for COVID-19. In October, Vir and drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline began a phase 3 trial of its antibody therapy VIR-7831. In early November, Reuters reported that a large-scale plan by the World Health Organization to supply COVID-19 drugs to poorer countries would focus on antibody treatments and steroids but not include remdesivir. Convalescent plasma therapy Along the same lines, the FDA has announced a process for medical facilities to conduct trials on an experimental treatment that uses blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19. The theory is that their plasma contains antibodies that will attack this particular coronavirus. In late March, the New York Blood Center began collecting plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19. In late May, researchers reported that 19 of 25 people with COVID-19 who were treated with convalescent plasma transfusions at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas had improved. Eleven of those patients have been released from the hospital. Mayo Clinic and Michigan State University are also leading convalescent plasma programs. In late August, the FDA approved an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma therapy to treat COVID-19. Some experts, however, said more research needs to be done on this type of treatment. A phase 2 trial published in The BMJ in October found that this treatment didn’t prevent people from developing severe COVID-19 or reduce their risk of dying. Immune modulators In some people with COVID-19, the immune system goes into overdrive, releasing large amounts of small proteins called cytokines. Scientists think this “cytokine storm” may be the reason certain people with severe COVID-19 develop ARDS and need to be put on a ventilator. Several immune suppressants are being tested in clinical trials to see whether the drugs can quell the cytokine storm and reduce the severity of ARDS. Dexamethasone. The inexpensive corticosteroid is already approved for other conditions and can be given orally or intravenously. Preliminary results published in July in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a moderate dose of dexamethasone reduced death in people hospitalized with COVID-19 on a ventilator and people receiving supplemental oxygen but not on a ventilator. Other drugs being tested include baricitinib, a drug for rheumatoid arthritis, and IL-6 inhibitors. Eli Lilly announced in October that baricitinib in combination with remdesivir reduced recovery time and improved clinical outcomes in people with COVID-19. The largest benefits were seen in those receiving supplemental oxygen or noninvasive ventilation. In October, the National Institutes of Health began a phase 3 trial of three immune modulators: infliximab, developed by Johnson & Johnson; abatacept, developed by Bristol Myers Squibb; and cenicriviroc, developed by AbbVie. The FDA has also approved a device that filters cytokines out of the blood of people with COVID-19. Stem cells Athersys Inc. began a phase 2 and 3 trial that will examine whether the company’s stem cell treatment could potentially benefit people with ARDS. Mesoblast has also developed a potential stem cell treatment for ARDS. The company is enrolling people with moderate to severe ARDS into a phase 2 and 3 clinical trial in the United States. As of October, the company had enrolled more than half of the participants for the phase 3 trial. Other treatments Scientists are also looking at other ways to target the virus or treat the complications of COVID-19. Antibody cocktail. In late July, researchers at Columbia University in New York announced some initial success in using a mix of antibodies to potentially treat people with a SARS-CoV-2 infection. They said the antibodies were collected from people hospitalized with COVID-19. The drug mixtures were tested on human cells as well as hamsters. If proven safe and effective, the antibodies would be given via blood transfusions to people who recently contracted the virus. Apilimod. In late July, Yale University announced it’s conducting a trial with AI Therapeutics on a drug known as apilimod. Yale officials said the medication has been proven safe in treating autoimmune diseases and follicular lymphoma. They said preliminary research indicates apilimod can block cellular entry of the new coronavirus. The drug has been granted fast-track status by the FDA. Arthritis Drugs. In early January, hospital officials in the United Kingdom reported that tocilizumab and sarilumab, drugs used to treat arthritis, can reduce the length of time spent in a hospital by 10 days. They added that the two drugs can reduce the risk of death from COVID-19 by 24 percent for people who are seriously ill with the disease. Blood thinners. In mid-September, U.S. researchers announced they’ve started two clinical trials to look at the possibility of using blood thinners to treat COVID-19. One trial would focus on people with COVID-19 who have been hospitalized while the other would center on those with COVID-19 who weren’t hospitalized. In mid-February, a study reported that blood thinners given as a preventative treatment to people within 24 hours of their hospitalization for COVID-19 reduced the risk of death from the disease. Cannabinoid drug ARDS-003. In mid-September, officials at Canada-based Tetra Bio-Pharma announced they had received FDA approval to start a phase 1 trial of a synthetic cannabinoid drug to treat COVID-19. Company officials said the medication may provide protection against ARDS, a condition that’s the most common cause of death for people with severe COVID-19. Diabetes drug. In late September, researchers reported that the diabetes drug sitagliptin reduced death and improved clinical outcomes in people with type 2 diabetes who were given the drug after being hospitalized for COVID-19. Researchers said it’s possible that sitagliptin could also help people without type 2 diabetes who develop COVID-19. Feline coronavirus drug. In early September, a study reported that a drug sometimes used to treat a coronavirus illness in cats showed promise in a trial against COVID-19 in humans. The drug hasn’t been approved by the FDA for use in cats or people, but researchers say it’s shown indications it can stop SARS-CoV-2 from replicating by targeting a key part of the virus’s cellular machinery. Gout drug. A study published in early February reported that colchicine, a drug used to treat gout, reduces the need for supplemental oxygen as well as speeds up the recovery for people who are hospitalized with COVID-19. Researchers said people treated with colchicine needed oxygen to help breathing for three fewer days on average. They also spent on average two fewer days in the hospital. Ibuprofen. In early June, scientists started a clinical trial to see whether the pain medication could be used for people hospitalized with COVID-19. Their theory is that ibuprofen’s anti-inflammatory qualities could help ease breathing difficulties associated with the illness. Interferon beta. In mid-July, scientists in the United Kingdom reported success in initial tests with a protein called interferon beta. The body produces this protein during viral infections. The researchers said the protein is inhaled directly into the lungs of someone with a SARS-CoV-2 infection in hopes of stimulating an immune response. They said the protein reduced the odds of developing a severe form of the disease in hospitalized patients by 79 percent. Preliminary results from a study by the World Health Organization found that interferon beta didn’t help people with COVID-19. Nasal spray. In late September, officials at Australian biotech company Ena Respiratory reported that a nasal spray used to treat colds and flu was highly effective in an animal study in reducing SARS-CoV-2 replication. Human trials are scheduled to start soon. Nitric oxide. In October, Nitric Oxide Innovations (NOI) LLC announced plans to begin a phase 2B and 3A outpatient clinical study of NOviricid, an oral lozenge that stimulates the production of nitric oxide in the body.  The study will enroll African Americans, a group that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Earlier research has suggested that nitric oxide might work as a treatment for COVID-19 by improving blood vessel function. It may also prevent certain viruses from replicating. Synthetic antibodies. In mid-August, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco announced they had created synthetic antibodies that may neutralize the new coronavirus. The compound still has to go through clinical trials, but the scientists said it could be available within a few months in a nasal spray or inhaler. Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. These drugs received emergency use authorization from the FDA at the end of March. On June 15, the FDA revoked that authorization, citing studies that indicated hydroxychloroquine didn’t significantly help people with COVID-19 and may have caused serious health risks. At the time of the FDA authorization in March, manufacturer Novartis donated about 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine and 1 million doses of chloroquine to the nation’s existing Strategic National Stockpile. The United States is now left with 63 million doses of hydroxychloroquine and 2 million doses of chloroquine in its emergency stockpile. Clinical results for the drugs have been mixed. Studies published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine and Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the drugs didn’t help people with COVID-19. In late May, the World Health Organization announced it was halting its clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine due to safety concerns. In mid-June, the National Institutes of Health halted its clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine after data showed that the drug was no better than an inactive placebo. In late June, British officials announced they would restart a global clinical trial on hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine. In late July, scientists in Brazil announced that hydroxychloroquine given alone or with other drugs didn’t improve the condition of people hospitalized with mild to moderate COVID-19. In late September, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that hydroxychloroquine was no more effective in preventing the contraction of the new coronavirus in people who took the drug as opposed to those who didn’t. In early March, the a panel of experts from the WHO stated that hydroxychloroquine should not be used to prevent or treat COVID-19. Clinical trial stages Phase 1. The drug is given to a small number of healthy people and people with a disease to look for side effects and figure out the best dose.Phase 2. The drug is given to several hundred people who have the disease, looking to see whether it works and if there are any side effects that weren’t caught during the initial testing.Phase 3. In this large-scale trial, the drug is given to several hundred or even up to 3,000 people. A similar group of people take a placebo, or inactive compound. The trial is usually randomized and can take 1 to 4 years. This stage provides the best evidence of how the drug works and the most common side effects.Phase 4. Drugs that are approved for use undergo continued monitoring to make sure there are no other side effects, especially serious or long-term ones.

  • COVID-19 Vaccine Can Cause ‘False Positives’ on Breast Cancer Mammograms
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts say breast cancer screenings can be delayed after getting a COVID-19 vaccination, but diagnostic mammograms should not be postponed. Aleksandar Nakic/Getty Images Researchers say swollen lymph nodes caused by COVID-19 vaccination can produce “false positives” in breast cancer mammograms.Some medical facilities are delaying breast cancer screenings for 4 to 6 weeks after getting the vaccination.However, experts say a diagnostic exam being done after breast cancer symptoms are discovered should not be postponed. One potential side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine is swollen lymph nodes. It’s normal and it’s temporary, but it can lead to unclear mammogram results. Articles published in the journals Clinical Imaging and Radiology detail several cases of unclear mammogram readings following COVID-19 vaccinations. In some of those cases, people underwent more imaging tests or biopsies. The swollen lymph nodes occurred under the arm or near the collarbone on the same side of the body where the vaccine was administered. “We have observed swollen lymph nodes in the armpit of many women following the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Dr. Emily Sonnenblick, a breast imaging radiologist at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital as well as an associate professor of radiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “Lymph nodes are part of the body’s immune system. They swell as a normal response to a foreign substance, such as vaccine or infection,” she added. Swollen lymph nodes and mammography Radiologists look for suspicious changes in the breast and armpit. Enlarged lymph nodes can be a sign of cancer. “But an isolated swollen lymph node in the absence of known breast cancer is a rare first sign of cancer,” Sonnenblick told Healthline. Dr. Clayton Taylor is a breast radiologist with The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. Taylor told Healthline that it’s too soon to know how common swollen lymph nodes are after a COVID-19 vaccination. There’s also uncertainty how they might be seen on a screening mammogram and cause a false-positive result. “However, from our experience since January of this year, the risk of a false-positive screening mammogram from a swollen lymph node associated with COVID-19 vaccination seems very small, as long as we collect information from our patients regarding COVID-19 vaccination status at the time of their appointment,” Taylor said. “If a swollen lymph node from COVID-19 vaccination was identified on a screening mammogram and found to require further evaluation, we would ask the patient to return for a focused ultrasound evaluation of this area,” he added. Who should reschedule and who should not delay a mammogram Dr. Deanna J. Attai is an associate clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Attai told Healthline it’s important to differentiate between screening mammography and diagnostic mammography. Screening mammography is performed in people with no symptoms. “The Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) has recommended that women wait approximately 4 to 6 weeks after the COVID vaccine to undergo screening mammography or to try to receive the vaccine prior to the mammogram,” Attai said. Taylor said that screening mammograms can be safely and accurately interpreted in people who have recently received COVID-19 vaccination. “As long as that vaccination information is gathered, as recommended by the SBI. Therefore, we are collecting COVID-19 vaccination information. But we are not recommending that women delay their screening mammograms at this time,” he continued. “If a woman and her provider feel very concerned about the possibility of false-positive results from lymph node swelling, we suggest they schedule their screening mammogram 4 to 6 weeks after vaccination is complete. If in the future additional information becomes available, we will update our guidance about scheduling screening mammograms,” Taylor said. Diagnostic mammograms should not be delayed. If you have a new finding, such as a lump, abnormal discharge from the nipple, swelling of the breast, or any other change, get your mammogram, said Attai. “Diagnostic studies are performed in women with a new finding, such as a lump, or who have an abnormal screening mammogram. These studies, per SBI, should still be performed. When at the facility, women should inform the mammography technologist about recent vaccination,” she said. Sonnenblick explained that if you already have breast cancer, an enlarged lymph node can be a sign that it has spread. If you notice any changes in your breast or underarm, such as pain or a lump, speak with your doctor. Cancer screening backlog Cancer screenings in general have slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for breast and colorectal cancer. Shutdowns fueled part of the slowdown as well as fears of contracting the coronavirus. Less screening resulted in fewer diagnoses. After a steep decline in the spring and summer of 2020, cancer screening rates are picking up again. But there’s still a backlog of missed or delayed screenings. A new prospective study of nearly 550,000 women found that skipping even one recommended mammography screening before a diagnosis of breast cancer significantly raises the risk of death. Medical facilities across the country have taken steps to prevent COVID-19 transmission. These steps include spacing out appointments, physical distancing, mask wearing, and sanitizing procedures. Talk with your doctor about COVID-19-related safety concerns and whether you should schedule a mammogram. Guidelines for screening mammograms vary according to individual risk factors. “Patients who are symptomatic or may be contagious with COVID-19 should follow appropriate current public health recommendations,” Taylor said. “However, having a personal history of COVID-19 infection would not be expected to interfere with screening mammograms,” he said. “The most important thing is that women continue to undergo screening mammography and receive their COVID-19 vaccinations when they are available, since we know these are both proven to be very important for health maintenance,” Taylor said.

  • Half of Women Are Given Wrong Antibiotic for UTIs: Here’s Why
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts say antibiotics are many times prescribed before lab results return for a suspected urinary tract infection. Mego Picturae In a new study, researchers say half of women are given the wrong antibiotic for a urinary tract infection.Experts say this is done many times because a medication is prescribed before lab results come back.Experts urge women who believe they have an infection to insist on a urine culture and wait for results before taking antibiotics. Nearly half of women treated for urinary tract infections (UTIs) start out and often stay on the wrong antibiotic. That’s the finding from a recent study out of Washington University in St. Louis published in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.  Experts say the research is important for people fighting a urinary tract infection, as well as for antibiotic use overall. “Antibiotics are serious medicine and need to be used in a thoughtful way,” Dr. Katherine Campbell, MPH, medical director of labor and birth, maternal special care unit at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, told Healthline. “We are now in about our third generation of (having antibiotics available), and there are real consequences from antibiotic resistance,” she added. The recent study was designed to look at the differences in antibiotics prescribed to women in urban areas versus rural areas. While the study authors anticipated finding more challenges in one area above another, they found that the issue exists across the board. The researchers noted that nearly half of the 670,450 women in the study received the wrong antibiotic and often were kept on antibiotics too long. “Given that uncomplicated UTIs are one of the most common indications for antibiotic prescribing in otherwise healthy populations, we wanted to identify targets for interventions designed to improve guideline adherence,” Anne Mobley Butler, PhD, a study author and an assistant professor of medicine and surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine, told Healthline. “Although we observed differences between rural and urban prescribing, inappropriate prescribing was rampant in both rural and urban settings,” she added. Women in rural areas were more likely to be on antibiotics for a longer time than needed, but overall, the prescribing issues showed in equal measures across the board. Why is this important? It can mean a delay in improvement in symptoms, and this overuse of medication can have long-term impacts. “We now understand there are a myriad of issues with (incorrect or overdone) antibiotic use,” Dr. Felice Gersh, who treats thousands of women as founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in California, told Healthline. “It disrupts our microbiome.” How and why it happens This isn’t a case of doctors not understanding or caring, said Gersh.  Rather, she said, it comes from a combination of different antibiotics working better in different regions and a tendency to treat for a UTI before culture testing is back. Antibiotics that are used frequently in regions can become less effective. Infectious agents can build up resistance to them and then that antibiotic can become less powerful. Amoxicillin is a great example, Gersh said. “It used to be the first in line, but now it’s just not as effective,” she said. “Resistant strains are so prevalent, it’s not the standard anymore.” This situation gets complicated for providers, as the answer isn’t an across-the-board solution. But drilling down and understanding how and when and which antibiotics to prescribe would help, Butler said. “Promoting optimal antimicrobial exposure — including appropriate agent and duration — benefits the patient and society by preventing avoidable adverse events, microbiome disruption, and antibiotic-resistant infections,” she said. “Inappropriate antibiotic use is associated with increased risk of treatment failure, adverse events, antibiotic resistance, and healthcare costs,” she added. Butler said she hopes the study spurs action. “Accumulating evidence suggests that shifts in prescribing practices — from broad- to narrow-spectrum agents and longer to shorter durations — can reduce adverse outcomes at the patient level,” she noted. There’s another thing at play as well. Many providers wanting to provide relief for a patient prescribe an antibiotic before culture results are in. UTIs can grow different bacteria, and the only way to know which one — and therefore which antibiotic fights it best — is to wait the 3 days it takes for that culture to grow in a lab, Campbell said. Gersh pointed out that UTIs can be somewhat simple or more complicated and involve the kidneys. This study only looked at women with uncomplicated UTIs, but Gersh said that knowing and understanding the level of the UTI informs providers on which antibiotic to choose. So, too, does waiting on lab results. Many providers, she said, may “wonder if it is impacting the kidneys and treat (with an antibiotic for that) just in case,” she said. They also may worry that a patient may not come back for financial or other reasons and prescribe an antibiotic immediately so the person will have one. “They’re trying to be thoughtful,” she said. That, most experts agree, may need to change. “If you are not immunocompromised or pregnant, there is no need to immediately treat (a UTI),” Gersh said. Waiting would be the best bet for using the proper medication for the right amount of time, she said. Actions to take What’s a person who may suspect a UTI to do? Be ready to ask questions, and be willing to wait, experts say. Some steps that Gersh suggests: Be clear with your symptoms Be ready to share your urination frequency and urgency, your pain level, and if you’ve had a fever. Writing this down ahead of time, particularly if you’re feeling ill and distressed, is a good plan, she said. “Especially in the age of telemedicine,” Gersh said. Insist on a urine culture Even if your provider is sure it’s a UTI, ask for the test. “We need to know exactly what bacteria is growing on your bladder,” Gersh said. Even with a repeated UTI, she stresses this. “It’s not rare for a woman to have repeated infections, but then we have to know if it is the same bacteria, if it’s becoming resistant, or if it’s something else completely,” she said. “You don’t really know what you have if you don’t actually know what is going on,” she said. Be willing to wait First, don’t take an antibiotic from home without asking, Gersh said. In addition, patience can pay off. “There’s no reason to immediately treat,” she said. “Antibiotics did not exist 100 years ago, and women still got UTIs and they weren’t dying from them.” Gersh suggests self-treating with hydration and herbal remedies until the culture returns. You may even find, she said, that things begin to correct with just that. “We want to try to allow our bodies to heal themselves,” she said. As for practitioners, Butler hopes the study results help bring focus to the situation and that there’s more focus on drilling down to the proper medication. Campbell said she believes the answer could begin to come via electronic medical records. Those records, she said, should track a person’s past illnesses and medications as well as results, and can be used to better assess UTI needs in the future. “Even as an equalizer for urban and rural areas,” she said. “It’s a great example of how we can better this. For an uncomplicated thing like a UTI, it should be doable.”

  • Why Black, Hispanic, Asian Children Less Likely to Receive an ADHD Diagnosis
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts aren’t sure why non-white children are less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis, but the delay in diagnosis can affect their success in school and life. Getty Images Researchers say Black, Hispanic, and Asian children are less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis and treatment for the condition.Experts aren’t sure why the disparity exists, but they say it’s important to investigate it.They note that children with undiagnosed ADHD are less likely to succeed in school and life in general. Having a child receive an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis can be a double-edged sword.  Some parents see the diagnosis as an unwanted label that can stigmatize their child, while others see it as a way to help their child get the necessary resources to help them better succeed in school and life. That includes access to therapy and medications, specialized learning plans, and even giving parents a chance to better understand how to best help their children navigate the systems around them.  But new research suggests there are wide gaps in who gets those diagnoses.  Researchers from the Mayo Clinic looked at children born between 2006 and 2012. They found continued racial disparities in who gets an ADHD diagnosis and treatment. The research, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, found that of the 238,011 children participants, those who identified as Asian, Black, and Hispanic were “significantly” less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis compared with white children, Black, Asian, and Hispanic children were also less likely to receive treatment for ADHD. “Compared with other groups, white children were more likely to receive some kind of treatment. Asian children had the highest odds of receiving no treatment,” the study authors wrote. That’s significant, researchers noted, because people with ADHD have an overall poorer quality of life and higher medical costs. That’s why clinical guidelines suggest preschool-aged children with an ADHD diagnosis receive behavioral therapy as a first-line treatment, and then medication starting in elementary school. Looking for reasons Researchers aren’t entirely sure why the disparities exist. It appears to be a mix of both explicit and implicit bias among physicians, distrust of the healthcare system, and reluctance to seek such a diagnosis or treatment.   The Mayo Clinic team acknowledged in their study that since they used information from a national commercial insurance database, their underlying data may not be representative of all children in the United States.  Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, said the disparities could be partially explained by the fact that researchers were looking at populations with private insurance. “The sample of upper income and possibly white populations may have been inflated, thus resulting in a smaller pool of racially diverse populations,” she said.  “I am not surprised by the research finding that children of color are diagnosed at lower rates than white children, because children of color are often identified as presenting with disruptive behavior problems, conduct problems, oppositional/defiance and learning deficits before considering neurodevelopmentally based explanations for challenges,” Mendez said. “Also, cultural factors strongly influence identification of behavioral and/or learning challenges, resulting in increased tolerance for behavioral differences in some cultures and over-responded to in other cultures,” she said. Dr. Bruce Wexler is a professor emeritus at Yale University in Connecticut and founder of C8 Sciences, a company that provides brain training programs to improve ADHD. To him, fewer children receiving an ADHD diagnosis might be a good thing, considering what other facts the study laid out. The researchers noted that about half of the diagnoses were made by pediatricians, not psychologists, psychiatrists, or neurologists, who may have a better idea of treatment options available besides powerful, short-term stimulant medications.  “The second you stop taking [the medications], the benefits are gone,” he said.  Wexler said it’s hard to tell whether one group is overdiagnosed or another group is underdiagnosed because there’s no reference point to what the rates of ADHD in any racial or age group should be. “We don’t know what the real level is,” he said.  But Wexler said there does appear to be differences in some groups, particularly white parents, who are more likely to engage in “permissive parenting” and a “culture of medicalization of problems” rather than accepting their child is different from others.  “Let’s call it a medical problem and get a pill for it,” he said.  Why the research is important Research into who gets an ADHD diagnosis and who doesn’t is important as some research has suggested that behavior that’s now attributed to ADHD was positive in terms of evolution. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived longer if they were constantly processing the stimuli around them, as doing so could signal potential food or predators.  While children are more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis while in school, the modern classroom hasn’t evolved to meet students with those traits.  “The schools are a major factor,” Wexler said. “That’s when they’re given demands that haven’t been asked of them before.” That, for people with ADHD, means learning to survive in a new world, one that now includes endless distractions from pocket-sized supercomputers and other items.   Regardless of what an ideal world looks like for a child with ADHD, Mendez said everyone can have a role in closing the disparity gap. That includes critical stakeholders such as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals, teachers, school psychologists, nurses, principals, and behavior support staff.  Mendez said those stakeholders can address social inequities for children of color and close the gaps of racial disparities by increasing awareness and information about symptoms associated with ADHD. They can also recognize cultural differences and increase awareness of differing cultural norms with respect to development, education, learning, and behavioral expression. Professionals can also dispel misconceptions and myths about ADHD symptoms and treatment as disadvantaging, hurtful, and damaging to a child, among other things.  “It is also extremely important to provide accurate, culturally sensitive, and realistically available intervention options for parents as stakeholders who know their children best. Well-informed parents are more likely to weigh the options and approach information openly,” Mendez said. “Accurate information provided to parents increases the chances of them taking objective consideration,” she said, “and decreases defenses that trigger their parenting insecurities.” 

  • Why Skipping Even One Mammogram Can Be Dangerous for Your Health
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Getting regularly scheduled mammograms became more difficult during the pandemic. choja/Getty Images A new study finds skipping one scheduled mammogram can greatly increase a person’s risk of death. During the COVID-19 pandemic many people fell behind on regular mammograms due to access or concern about COVID-19.Experts say if you missed a scheduled mammogram now is a good time to get screened. We are seeing a light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel, but experts are quick to remind the public that COVID-19 is far from over. For many the last year has meant staying home as much as possible and sometimes skipping regular health checks. But experts say remaining vigilant does not mean postponing regular health checks, particularly cancer screenings, and mammograms for women. Now a new study finds women who skip even one scheduled mammogram screening before a breast cancer diagnosis can face a significantly higher risk of death. What the study found The study, which was published in the journal Radiology, looked at data from nearly 550,000 women eligible for mammography screening in Sweden from 1992 to 2016. Women were divided into groups based on participation in the two most recent scheduled screening exams prior to a cancer diagnosis. The data showed that those who participated in the two most recent screenings had a higher protection against the cancer. Fatality within 10 years of diagnosis was 50 percent lower for these participants. Compared to women who attended only one screening, women who attended both had about a 30 percent reduction in breast cancer mortality. “This study shows that 50 percent of women died from their breast cancer if they did not have routine screening mammograms than women who had routine screening mammograms. This is a big number,” said Dr. Kristin Byrne, Chief of Breast Imaging, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York. “Routine screening mammography gives patients the best chance to discover a small invasive cancer before it has spread to other parts of the body. This is why it is so important for women to get their screening mammograms every single year and not just some years.” Dr. Alice Police, Westchester regional director of breast surgery, Northwell Health Cancer Institute, said this study helped answer the question of does skipping just one or two mammograms “really matter?” “This direct link between missing a mammogram and breast cancer death has been largely missing from screening research,” Police said. “This important study emphasizes the power of screening mammography to reduce the mortality rate from breast cancer and to improve the lives of women.” Mammograms during the pandemic That said, 2020 was a very different kind of year. Many hospitals had to put cancer screenings and other medical procedures on pause as they were inundated with COVID-19 patients. Additionally some people scheduled for cancer screenings may have been hesitant to get screened even if these options were available to them in the midst of a pandemic. One study done in July 2020 at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that 22 percent of respondents had a delay in breast cancer screening. More than 31 percent of people who had been diagnosed with breast cancer reported a delay in care, and 9.3 percent reported a delay in treatment.  Early detection is essential in reducing the risk of death from breast cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts that this year there will be more than 281,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed in women. About 49,000 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS), a non-invasive and early form of breast cancer, will be diagnosed. More than 44,000 deaths from breast cancer are expected to occur in 2021. What can we do now? Experts and medical professionals want to get the word out to women that it is imperative to continue with your regularly scheduled mammograms — and that doctors’ offices and hospitals are better equipped than ever to keep patients safe from COVID-19.  “For primary care physicians, clinicians, and providers, get the word out,” said Dr. Vivian Bea, Chief of Breast Surgical Oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and assistant professor of surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Encourage their patients to not skip that mammogram.” She adds that people should still stay vigilant and within the COVID-19 regulations when going to get screened. This means wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, and staying socially distant. “At New York Presbyterian, we’ve made changes to decrease the risk of transmission for COVID. One or two patients are scheduled at the same time. They are six feet apart in the waiting area. The equipment is wiped down, and the staff and faculty has the appropriate PPE to decrease transmission,” Bea added. Hospitals and doctors’ facilities all over the country are safe and taking heightened precautions. If you are at all concerned, call your preferred institution and ask questions about what safety measures have been taken. The one caveat, Bea warns, is that many hospitals and doctors’ offices are still overwhelmed with appointments because they are catching up on all the delayed mammograms, so it is important to be diligent in trying to set up that screening. She also brings up the point that the pandemic affected many women’s insurance. If women lost their jobs due to the pandemic, they may have lost their health insurance, which could be impacting whether or not they get a mammogram. Bea recommends looking into federal and statewide programs that cover mammograms in certain states. “If we engage the community and help them upfront with what they’re concerned about, we delay any fears. I encourage any community leaders to help get the word out that women need their mammograms,” she said. “I really believe this is an effort that has to be pushed forward. Breast cancer didn’t stop because COVID-19 appeared. Breast cancer isn’t going to stop.” 

  • Diabetes, Obesity, Hypertension, and Cardiovascular Disease Linked to Most COVID-19 Hospitalizations
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Mario Tama/Getty Images Diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease account for the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations, suggests a new study.Researchers estimate a 10 percent reduction in the number of people with each of these conditions could have potentially prevented about 11 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Experts say physicians should help people manage these conditions to decrease their risk of severe COVID-19. Certain medical conditions increase the risk of severe COVID-19. Four of these account for the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations, suggests a recent study. Researchers estimated that of the more than 900,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations that occurred in the United States through mid-November 2020, 30 percent could be attributed to obesity; 26 percent to high blood pressure; 21 percent to diabetes; and 12 percent to heart failure. Combined, these four cardiometabolic conditions accounted for almost two-thirds of the COVID-19 hospitalizations during that period, estimate the researchers. This suggests that if people had not had these conditions, these hospitalizations could have been prevented. The researchers also estimate that a 10 percent reduction in the number of people with each of these conditions could have prevented about 11 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations.  The authors believe that more should be done to help people reduce their risks from these four cardiometabolic conditions, such as through lifestyle changes like improved diet and regular physical activity. “Our findings call for interventions to determine whether improving cardiometabolic health will reduce hospitalizations, morbidity, and health care strains from COVID-19,” said study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a news release. Some of these lifestyle changes could produce noticeable health benefits within a short time. “We know that changes in diet quality alone, even without weight loss, rapidly improve metabolic health within just six to eight weeks,” said Mozaffarian. “It’s crucial to test such lifestyle approaches for reducing severe COVID-19 infections, both for this pandemic and future pandemics likely to come.” The study was published online February 25 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.  Older adults and marginalized groups impacted more For their study, researchers used a mathematical model to estimate the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations that could have been prevented if Americans did not have these four cardiometabolic conditions. The hospitalization risks for each of the conditions was based on data from more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients diagnosed in New York City earlier in the pandemic. Researchers also used other national data on COVID-19 hospitalizations and the rates of underlying health conditions among people with COVID-19 to extend these risks to the national level. The new study also showed that older age increased the COVID-19 risks associated with each of the four conditions. For example, researchers estimated that about 8 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations in adults under 50 years old were due to diabetes, compared to about 29 percent among those 65 and older. A similar age-related trend was seen for high blood pressure and heart failure. In contrast, obesity was equally harmful for all age groups — accounting for about 30 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Black and Hispanic adults were also impacted more by these four conditions. Hispanic adults had a higher rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations due to diabetes and obesity than white adults. Black adults were at higher risk for hospitalizations for COVID-19 that were also attributed to these four conditions compared to white adults. “National data show that Black and Hispanic Americans are suffering the worst outcomes from COVID-19,” Mozaffarian said. “Our findings lend support to the need for prioritizing vaccine distribution, good nutrition, and other preventive measures to people with cardiometabolic conditions, particularly among groups most affected by health disparities.” Managing chronic conditions lowers risk Because this is a modeling study, it doesn’t show that these diseases are directly responsible for more severe COVID-19.  But Dr. Daniel Drucker, an endocrinologist and diabetes researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says the results fit with what has been seen in earlier research. “We’re about a year into the pandemic, and there have been dozens of epidemiological studies all over the world looking at this,” he said. “The results are all quite consistent that diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease are the top three [COVID-19] risk factors, in addition to age.” One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows how much impact these cardiometabolic conditions can have on COVID-19 risk. The data from that study show that a 35-year-old with an underlying health condition such as diabetes or heart disease has about the same risk of being hospitalized for COVID-19 as a 75-year-old with no underlying health condition. In addition, a 35-year-old with an underlying health condition also has about the same risk of dying from COVID-19 as a 65-year-old with no other health problems. While age is a risk factor for severe COVID-19, it’s not one we can change. But conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are potentially modifiable, either through lifestyle changes or medications. Drucker says one thing missing from the new study is data on the COVID-19 hospitalization risk for well-managed health conditions versus uncontrolled conditions. “There is overwhelming evidence that if you have either type 2 diabetes or type 1 diabetes, and you have excellent blood sugar control, then you have a very low risk of having an adverse COVID-19 outcome,” he said. He says even someone with “healthy obesity” — a person whose BMI puts them in the obese category, but who eats healthy and exercises regularly — will have a different risk from another person with obesity who doesn’t do those things. The authors of the new study believe that physicians and other healthcare providers should do more to help people manage their conditions and improve their health.  This includes understanding the barriers that keep people with these conditions from meeting regularly with healthcare providers, affording their medication, or developing healthier habits. Drucker says by emphasizing that managing chronic conditions could lower COVID-19 risk, some people may be motivated to make changes. “If you’re healthy with diabetes or you’re healthy with obesity, you’re probably at low risk [of COVID-19],” he said.  “And if you’re not at your goals for your diabetes, obesity, or blood pressure, this should be additional motivation to say, ‘Hey, what can I do to make myself healthier?’”

  • The Latest on the Coronavirus Variants from New York and California
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts are watching how new variants are rising in the U.S. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images Two new variants of the novel coronavirus have been identified, one in California and another in New York. Researchers suspect that the variants may be more infectious than previous ones, and there’s a chance that the California variant may be deadlier. Experts expect that current vaccines will still provide good protection against the variants.  New coronavirus variants are popping up.  A new variant called P.1, is behind the surge in cases in Brazil. There’s another, B.1.1.7, that’s spreading throughout the United Kingdom and now the U.S. as well. And the B.1.351 is dominating in South Africa.  Researchers have also recently identified two new variants in the United States — the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant in California (or CAL.20C) and another, called B.1.526, in New York.  The variants contain different mutations but are all thought to be more transmissible and could potentially increase the severity of disease.  Recent studies on the new variant detected in California suggest it may be more transmissible, better at replicating itself, and less recognizable to antibodies.  Overall, the research is in the early stages, and more data is needed to understand how the California and New York variants differ from the original coronavirus.  Here’s what we know so far.  What to know about the variants According to researchers in California studying new variants, CAL.20C has become the predominant variant in the state. It was first identified in July 2020. By December, it accounted for 24 percent of all samples, according to a preprint paper posted in late January.   Like the variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, the CAL.20C variant has multiple mutations on the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that binds to cells. Scientists suspect that those mutations make it more transmissible, meaning that it may be better at replicating itself in people’s bodies. They could even cause more severe illness, since more deaths were linked to the CAL.20C variant than the original variant. The New York Times reported that upcoming research from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that people in households with someone with the CAL.20C variant infection had a 35 percent chance of getting sick. People had a 26 percent chance of getting sick if someone in their house had an infection from another variant.   The UCSF research hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Like the CAL.20C variant, B.1.526 in New York may have mutations that help it somewhat evade monoclonal antibody therapies and vaccines. Most cases have been detected in New York City and New Jersey, according to recent evidence. Data on the variants are limited Given the lack of data, it’s too soon to know if these variants are deadlier.  “Early data suggests that they may spread faster and cause more hospitalizations, but we need much more data to know if this is true,” said Dr. Chris Thompson, an immunologist and associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland.  Mutations are a natural part of a virus’ life cycle and occur when a virus causes infections. Most mutations are useless or weaken the virus, but occasionally a mutation may benefit the virus.  “Variants arise in people, not the environment. Viruses are useless without a host cell,” Thompson explained.  If we can prevent infection — through vaccines, physical distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing — then we can prevent the rise of more variants, according to Thompson. “It is too early to know what effect this will have on the pandemic, but one thing is absolutely clear: With more and more variants being identified and an unknown level of protection from the vaccine, we must remain vigilant in social distancing, hand-washing, wearing masks, getting tested, and staying home if you are sick,” he said.  How will the variants impact vaccine efficacy? All our current vaccines are specifically designed to target the original form of the coronavirus that appeared in 2020.  While it would be ideal for a vaccine to be an exact match for a circulating virus, this is unlikely to happen due to the mutations in the emerging variants, according to Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor of biology at Texas A&M University. The good news is that the vaccines don’t have to be a perfect match against a virus to provide protection.  Each mutation alters a small part of the virus.  “These are the latest mutants, and [they] are a little different from what we have seen before,” explained Neuman. “But even the most genetically distant mutants we know are still 95 percent or more identical to the original version of the spike, meaning our immune systems have a really good shot at stopping the virus completely after vaccination.” Eventually, scientists may need to update the vaccines to target emerging variants, Neuman said, “but for now, it is a race to get as many people protected as possible before the virus changes again.”  Recent data from Israel show that widespread vaccination reduces infections and transmission.  “As more people are vaccinated, fewer will become infected, and the virus will have nowhere left to go,” Neuman said. “That’s how we win.” The bottom line  Two new variants have been identified, one in California and another in New York. Researchers suspect the variants may be more infectious than previous ones, and there’s a chance the California variant may be deadlier. The data are limited, and more evidence is needed to understand how the variants are different from the original coronavirus. Experts expect that the COVID-19 vaccines will still provide good protection against the variants. 

  • Here’s Where COVID-19 Cases Are Rising and Falling
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    People line up for COVID-19 vaccinations at a clinic in California. Gina Ferazzi/Getty Images New COVID-19 cases have plateaued at about 70,000 per day.Experts say while those numbers have dropped significantly since early January, they’re still worrisomely high.Vaccinations are helping ease the pandemic, but experts say the public still needs to adhere to safety protocols to avoid another surge in cases. Editor’s note: This story will be updated regularly as new statistics are released. After declining sharply during the past 6 weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States appears to have leveled off. According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the daily case rate in the United States was about 70,000 per day last week. The agency did report that there were about 50,000 new COVID-19 cases nationwide on Feb. 28 and March 1, the lowest daily levels since October. Those numbers are also a fraction of the record 315,179 cases reported on Jan. 8. However, after 2 weeks of declines of more than 20 percent, the number of new COVID-19 cases this past week nationwide fell by only 3 percent. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, expressed concern that the nation’s COVID-19 cases have plateaued at a level that’s equal to the height of last summer’s surge. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, has the same worry. “I share the concern about the plateau at 70,000 cases per day. This is much too high,” Schaffner told Healthline. Overall, the United States has recorded more than 28.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations now stand at slightly under 46,000, down 13,000 from a week ago and a third of the 130,000 recorded in early January. COVID-19-related deaths in the United States have now surpassed 516,000 with deaths still averaging 2,000 per day. Experts do have concerns that the plunging numbers from the past 6 weeks are encouraging states to lift mask mandates and some communities to reopen businesses and public facilities too quickly. “Some jurisdictions, including in my own state, are removing mask mandates and are relaxing social distancing guidelines,” Schaffner said.  “We have made this mistake before. The roller coaster of cases will start to rise again. We must continue to wear our masks and practice social distancing while we vaccinate intensively. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are getting closer,” he said. Dr. Jamila Taylor, the director of healthcare reform and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, urged the public to continue with safety protocols even with the predictions by some experts that the United States could reach herd immunity by late April. “I think it is realistic if we continue to increase distribution of the vaccine, and do so equitably,” she told Healthline last week. “It is also important to continue driving the message that everyone distances themselves, wash their hands, and wear masks.” State numbers This past week, 29 states reported increases in COVID-19 cases. That compares with 7 states the prior week. The CDC reports that Texas recorded the most new cases in the past 7 days with 53,379, about 23,000 more than the previous week. The snowstorm that hit the state 2 weeks ago affected the numbers reported at that time. Florida was second with 37,073 new cases, about the same as the prior week. California was third with 32,467 new cases, about 8,000 fewer than the previous week. New York was fourth with 24,290 cases, about the same as the previous week. New Jersey was fifth with 23,387 new cases. New Jersey had the highest rate of cases with 37 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 7 days. Rhode Island was second with 35 cases per 100,000 residents, followed by Arkansas at 32 per 100,000 residents and New York at 31 per 100,000 residents. There were 18 states that reported an increase this past week in COVID-19 deaths. California recorded the most COVID-19 deaths the past 7 days with 2,856, about 600 more than the previous week. Texas was second with 1,588 reported deaths, followed by Virginia with 1,285 deaths. Where we are with vaccines The CDC reports there have been more than 78 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered across the country. More than 26 million of those doses were for people receiving their second shot. California has administered the most doses at more than 9 million. That’s followed by Texas at almost 6 million, Florida with more than 5 million, and New York with more than 4 million. None of those states, however, are in the top 5 in terms of doses administered per 100,000 people: Most vaccination doses per 100,000 residents1. Alaska: 36,9002. New Mexico: 34,4093. South Dakota: 31,9424. North Dakota: 31,3425. West Virginia: 29,938Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention The White House announced on March 2 that it will increase the weekly supply of vaccine doses delivered to states to more than 15 million, up from 14.5 million the previous week. That will include 3 million doses distributed to local pharmacies. The Biden administration also announced that Merck will help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine to help that company meet production goals. Both Schaffner and Taylor said the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine will have an impact. “The J&J vaccine is a great addition,” Schaffner said. “A third vaccine manufacturer will now add millions more doses of vaccines.”  “J&J has two special advantages,” he said. “It is a single-dose vaccine — one and done. We can vaccinate people with half the effort. Also, it can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, so that will allow wider distribution of vaccine to remote areas as well as to pharmacies and doctors’ offices.” “I think this is wonderful news,” Taylor added. “I am encouraged by the availability of this one-dose vaccine, which means that more people will be on track to become vaccinated in the coming weeks. I would like to see a continued focus on ensuring vaccine confidence and making shots available to those most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

  • Children May Start to Be Vaccinated for COVID-19 in the Fall: Why That’s Important
    on March 6, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Experts say children can transmit the coronavirus, so they need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Erlon Silva – TRI Digital/Getty Images Clinical trials involving children have begun for COVID-19 vaccines.Experts say this is important because children are 20 percent of the U.S. population.They note that it’s difficult to reach herd immunity without vaccinating children. With clinical trials planned or underway, children might be able to start receiving COVID-19 vaccines by this fall. Experts say that round of vaccinations could be the final step to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.  As it stands, about 15 percent of people in the United States have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Right now, the Moderna vaccine and recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine are only available for adults ages 18 and older. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for people ages 16 and older.  That means that nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population isn’t currently eligible to receive the vaccine.  Unvaccinated children can potentially transmit the virus  While those 20 percent of younger people remain unvaccinated, that means they have the potential to continue transmitting the coronavirus. “Children can spread the virus to adults, and vaccinating children will be an essential element in decreasing infection rates,” said Ann Muñana, DNP, a master instructor at Chamberlain University and a member of the Chicago Department of Public Health COVID Vaccine Scientific Workgroup. How long children can transmit the virus after being exposed is unknown, but the risk remains.  “Probably this period is similar to the time period in adults,” Dr. Robert Amler, the dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice Building at New York Medical College and a former chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, told Healthline.  “How much this contributes to spreading the virus in different communities is not well known,” he said.  Kids might be necessary to achieve herd immunity  Since children with the virus could keep the flames of COVID-19 alive in the community, experts say we may need to include vaccinating children to reach herd immunity. What percentage of that younger population needs to be vaccinated is currently unknown.  “The estimates of what constitutes herd immunity for COVID-19 vary quite a bit. I’ve seen anywhere between 60 to 90 percent,” said Nichole Cumby, PhD, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Medicine and Health Services’ St. Kitts campus in the Caribbean. “However, if it is closer to the upper end of that threshold — which is likely given the emergence of the new variants, which are able to spread more easily — then children under 16 will likely need to be vaccinated to get to the 90 percent vaccinated mark,” she said.  Then there’s the reality that not every adult will get vaccinated, either by choice or because of health complications.  “For a few, they have allergies that prevent them from receiving the current vaccine. Others are electing not to for a variety of reasons,” Cumby told Healthline. “Since we are unlikely to see all adults getting vaccinated, vaccinating children becomes more important for reaching the critical threshold for herd immunity,” she said. Why separate trials are necessary Current active clinical trials involve children ages 12 and up with plans to test younger children if these trials go well.  “The most ethical way to do these studies is to start with older children and then move on to younger children gradually,” said Johan C. Bester, MBChB, PhD, MPhil, the director of bioethics at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Medicine. “There must always be a consideration of the interests of the children that are involved. It is important to have extra safeguards in place when doing research involving children to be sure that the interests of children are protected,” he said. While similar to adults in some ways, children’s biologies and, in particular, immune systems can differ significantly from those of adults. Look no further than the lower rates of COVID-19 among children — they’re half as likely to get it as adults — as well as child-specific reactions to the disease, such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome. “It’s important to recognize that children aren’t merely little adults. Therefore, we need to do the hard work of evaluating the vaccine in clinical studies so that we can ensure the right dose and the right frequency of immunization,” said Dr. C. Buddy Creech, MPH, the director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.  Protecting the future The bottom line, most experts say, is the more people vaccinated, the better — regardless of their age.  “We are just beginning to learn about what might be the long-term implications of having had COVID, and as time goes by, years go by, we will likely see the long-term impact of the infection,” Muñana told Healthline. “We don’t know how a child, or an adult for that matter, who has recovered from COVID might years later experience health issues. For example, respiratory or neurological conditions. Therefore, it is important that we make sure to vaccinate as many as possible, including children, who meet the eligibility criteria for vaccination,” she said.

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