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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the placebo effect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts address vaccine hesitancy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthier morning beverage

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

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

Golden Chocolate

Serves 2

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

Directions

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

Benefits of this swap:

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

Squeeze test to swap out better-for-you bread

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

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

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

Rethink your oils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABC News' Kiara Alfonseca contributed to this report.

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

Evert shared the news in a Tweet on Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What women should know about ovarian cancer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABC News' Katie Kindelan contributed to this report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In some cases, viruses evolve to become more virulent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(NEW YORK) -- High school athletics are feeling the impact of the omicron surge, from paused games to restricted fans, amid a winter season that coaches and administrators already anticipated would pose challenges for indoor, close-contact sports.

Amid record COVID-19 cases in the U.S., schools are revisiting coronavirus protocols and guidelines to safely keep students playing in person. Teams have had to limit out-of-state travel due to transmission risks, or postpone in-league games due to cases. The Los Angeles school district, the second largest in the country, returned from winter break in person this week with a pause on all sports competitions due to surging cases.

Despite omicron, school officials are optimistic districts won't experience the same level of disruption as last school year -- when some programs saw abbreviated seasons, if any at all -- thanks to measures like vaccination and social distancing.

"It has not risen to the level that high school sports across the nation are being disrupted to the point where they can't go on," Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national leadership organization for high school sports and performing arts activities, told ABC News. "There's never been an expressed need for shutdown because people know how to deal with it now."

Readjusting schedules and protocols

Before the Los Angeles Unified School District returned to the classroom Tuesday following winter break, more than 65,000 public school staff and students had tested positive for COVID-19, for a positivity rate over 14%, according to district data. The school district temporarily paused all athletic competitions this week as it monitors cases, with student athletes allowed to practice outdoors while wearing a mask.

The district is also using this week to upgrade its health and safety protocols to be in compliance with stricter protocols from the county health department. Teams with four or more linked cases over a 14-day period are now required to suspend activities for a week.

"We will reevaluate our data and determine next steps before the end of the week," the district said in a letter sent to families. "Our goal is to resume athletic competitions as soon as possible."

As of Wednesday, the district did not have an update on its plans, a Los Angeles Unified spokesperson told ABC News.

Other entities have revised protocols amid the surge. In Washington state, all athletes and team personnel in high-risk sports are required to have regular COVID-19 testing regardless of vaccination status "in response to recent sports-related outbreaks," health officials said. Testing frequency was also increased to three times weekly. Previously, schools were testing unvaccinated students twice a week.

The revised rules came after the state health department traced 200 COVID-19 cases to multiple wrestling tournaments in early December.

In Portland, Oregon, the school district made several changes to its COVID-19 protocols through at least early February to help stem the spread of the virus, including requirements that student-athletes wear masks at all times. For competitions, spectators ages 5 and up also now must show proof of being fully vaccinated or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours.

Some schools have recently restricted the number of fans who can be in attendance. In Oahu, spectators are not allowed until further notice "based on the rising number of COVID-19 cases," the Hawaiian island's school sports association said.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, school officials are limiting crowds to just family members through Jan. 21 due to the uptick in cases in the community.

"The health department had anticipated the surge, and we've taken appropriate measures to try to limit as much of an impact as far as the spread of the virus," Bill Curran, director of athletic programs for Fairfax County Public Schools, told ABC News.

Successes and challenges

Mitigation strategies have helped keep sports in play with only minor disruptions this year, Niehoff said. The measures have included protocols "big and small," from widespread vaccination efforts to having multiple, sanitized basketballs at the ready during games, digital ticketing and concessions and frequent communication when potential postponements arise.

"If you've got a healthy school and then a school that can't play, the healthy school goes and finds another healthy school and we get the game on," she said. "We've been creative and supportive and a little safer, because we have a better idea of what we're dealing with."

Schools have gotten accustomed to being flexible during the pandemic, though it's not without its challenges.

In New York City, sports programs this school year have had to react to evolving protocols around vaccination requirements, spectators and travel while seasons were about to start or underway.

For Shawn Mark, head coach of the South Shore boys' basketball team in Brooklyn, limits on traveling to competitions outside the city have "hurt us."

"To be the best you got to play against the best," Mark told ABC News. "Sometimes it's not always in New York City, you got to go out of town."

All athletes in the New York City public school system -- the largest in the nation -- are required to be vaccinated in order to play.

The city's public school enrollment has also dropped by about 17,000 students this year, according to preliminary data -- posing another challenge as athletes have left the public school system or the city altogether, Mark said.

"They want to play, they don't want any risk of what happened before, where a shutdown happens and then, you know, the season's over," he said.

Despite a couple postponements, Mark is optimistic that this season will continue.

Niehoff doesn't expect schools to see the same level of disruption as last school year, as long as states and districts continue to exercise caution and vaccination numbers trend up.

"We are hearing a success story, obviously concerns as they arise, but they tend to be remediated pretty quickly," Niehoff said.

Curran is "cautiously optimistic" as cases appear to be quieting down. After playing abbreviated schedules last school year, the school district has returned to its regular sports seasons.

"We are able to offer our program in a pretty meaningful way," Curran said, noting that the impact on students' overall health and well-being has been "phenomenal." "We've seen some cancellations of games here and there throughout, but for the most part we've been able to keep things moving."

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(NEW YORK) -- The U.S. is facing a national blood crisis, the "worst blood shortage in over a decade," the American Red Cross warns. Despite this urgent need for donations, people who have sex with gay or bisexual men are still facing restrictions on their ability to give blood.

The Food and Drug Administration bars people who have had sex with gay or bisexual men from donating blood for three months following the most recent sexual contact because of fears of HIV in the blood supply.

The agency changed the deferral period from 12 months to three months in November 2020 as blood donations fell and hospitals faced critical shortages during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some advocates, including the HRC, say the FDA is moving too slowly on removing the restriction, saying that it's an outright ban on the ability of people, particularly gay and bisexual men, to donate blood.

"Just like other individuals throughout the country, many people have sex on a regular basis, including with partners and spouses," said Sarah McBride, the press secretary of the LGBTQ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign.

"It really amounts to being an effective ban, based on a person's identity rather than an actual factor on the science," she added.

In 2015, the guidance changed from a lifetime ban to a 12-month deferral, and the FDA determines the guidance used by all U.S. blood collection organizations.

Restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men, who are considered to be at high risk for HIV or AIDS transmission, date back to the 1980s.

Gay and bisexual men undergo individual risk assessments instead of time-based bans in countries around the world, recently including Greece and France, according to international reports. Italy, Israel, and several other countries have similar requirements.

In 2020, ABC News broke the story that several major blood donation organizations -- including the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood -- announced that they are working together to study and provide data to the FDA to determine if eligibility based on an individual’s risk can replace the current time-based deferral system while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.

Vitalant told ABC News in a new statement that researchers are halfway toward its goal of enrolling 2,000 participants across eight cities: Washington D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. They encourage gay and bisexual men who are 18 to 39 years old to participate in the research.

The FDA, in a statement to ABC News, said that this study could generate data that will help the agency determine if a donor's individual risk assessment and questionnaire would be just as effective in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply as the time-based deferrals the FDA already has in place.

The FDA also said it does not have a specific timeline for when these studies will be completed but that it is "committed to gathering the scientific data that can support alternative donor deferral policies that maintain a high level of blood safety."

The America Red Cross said that there is no clear data that would suggest that changing this blood donation policy would significantly increase the number of blood donations, but the organization says it does not intend to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

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

However, according to the organization, doctors are now being forced to decide which patients receive blood transfusions and who is forced to wait due to the shortage. The organization says that "a lack of blood and platelet donations are critically needed to help prevent further delays in vital medical treatments."

"Donors who are excluded solely on their membership in a group ... doesn't encourage safe sexual behaviors in the integrity of the population," McBride, from HRC, said. "We want people to be engaged in safe sex practices. And we want to ensure that our blood supply is safe and sufficient."

ABC News' Tony Morrison contributed to this report.

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(NEW YORK) -- Kids who have recovered from COVID-19 may have an increased risk of developing diabetes, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study, which looked at databases with information for over 2.5 million patients under 18, found that children diagnosed with COVID-19 were about 2.5 times more likely to receive a new diabetes diagnosis a month or more after infection.

The health care data, taken from the first full year of the coronavirus pandemic, showed that other, non-COVID-related infections were not found to be associated with increased risk of diabetes diagnosis, leading researchers to look for reasons for this possible link between COVID and diabetes diagnoses.

A possible link between COVID-19 and an increased risk of diabetes has also been found in adults. In June, two studies were released that showed the virus’s ability to infect pancreatic beta cells, decrease insulin secretion and effectively yield Type 1 diabetes.

In Type 1 diabetes, the body completely stops making insulin, requiring daily insulin injections, via shots or an insulin pump, to stay alive.

In Type 2 diabetes, the body continues to make insulin but develops insulin resistance, meaning the cells do not respond to insulin correctly.

The CDC's new study on children ages 18 and under, released Friday, included cases of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in its analysis.

The new concern for kids comes as the United States continues to see its most significant COVID-19 infection surge yet, which is heavily impacting children.

Last week alone, 580,000 children tested positive for COVID-19, nearly three times more than two weeks prior, according to a weekly report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

Here are three things for parents to know about kids, COVID-19 and diabetes.

1. Not all kids with COVID will get diabetes.

Sanjoy Dutta, Ph.D., vice president of research for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on Type 1 diabetes research and advocacy, said parents should be aware that the new research shows an association between COVID-19 and diabetes, but does not identify how the virus could or whether it actually does increase the risk of diabetes in kids.

"I would not necessarily go about raising the alarm bell right now that it is increasing Type 1 diabetes," said Dutta. "There is no mechanism yet to suggest that it is doing it or how it is doing it."

The study did not include information about who may have had preexisting conditions that could lead to diabetes and did not include laboratory data confirming the new diagnoses.

The study also did not include people without commercial health insurance, which excludes over one-third of children in the U.S.

2. Getting vaccinated remains important.

The study's findings highlight the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Currently, all children ages 5 and older are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Children ages 12 and older, and certain immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11, are also now eligible to receive a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Pediatricians say the safety of the vaccine is far more proven than the uncertainty of potential complications from COVID-19 for kids.

"We have never had a vaccine that we've ever given, going back 100 years, that long-term suddenly something showed up that didn't show up within the first two to three or four months," Dr. Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children's Pediatrics and Texas Children's Urgent Care, told ABC News earlier this month. "So we are very comfortable about the safety long-term of these vaccines."

"What we don't know is what the long-term effects of COVID can be to kids, even when they get over it now," he continued. "Parents need to know that if your child gets COVID and seems to be OK with it, great, but what's going to happen maybe six months or a year or five years down the road, because we definitely don't know."

3. There are warning signs of diabetes to look for.

The CDC is urging parents, pediatricians and caregivers to be aware of the warning signs of diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes include thirst, hunger, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, blurry vision and fatigue, according to the CDC.

Dutta added that parents should watch for unusual behavior patterns in their kids.

"Any unusual pattern of change in behavior in a short window of time is what I would look out for as a sign of needing to consult a doctor," he said. "It's not intentional, but it's very easy to overlook some of the signs of a disease."

Concerned parents should contact their child's medical provider, or in the case of an emergency, seek immediate help. A delay in diagnosis can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious complication of diabetes that can be life-threatening, according to Dutta.

A diabetes diagnosis can typically be made through a blood test.

ABC News' Sony Salzman and Robert Rowe, a resident in the ABC News Medical Unit, contributed to this report.

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(ATLANTA) -- After weeks of health experts urging Americans to upgrade their masks to protect against the omicron COVID-19 variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that it was planning to update its mask guidance to "best reflect the multiple options available to people and the different levels of protection they provide."

In a statement provided to ABC News on Wednesday, the agency said the goal is for Americans to have "the best and most updated information to choose what mask is right for them."

The move by the CDC would be the first significant update to its mask guidance since last July when it urged all Americans to return to wearing masks, after the delta variant proved so transmissible that research found even vaccinated people could transmit the virus.

While vaccinated people are considered infectious for a shorter period of time than someone who is unvaccinated, and they are considerably less likely to end up hospitalized, the CDC urged everyone to return to masking indoors to prevent community cases from rising.

Since the arrival of omicron, however, health experts have urged caution with the usual cloth masks and cities like Los Angeles and New York have already recommended mask upgrades to their residents.

CDC would not say how soon it planned to update its online guidance, although one administration official said the goal was by week’s end. The Washington Post first reported that CDC was considering the update to its guidance.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency's director, told reporters on Wednesday that the overall recommendation won't change that "any mask is better than no mask" and that a mask should fit well.

The best mask, she told reporters, is "the one you can keep on all day long that you can tolerate in public indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it," Walensky said.

"I recommend you get the highest quality mask that you can tolerate and that's available to you," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and President Joe Biden's senior medical adviser, told CNN on Tuesday.

One problem with pushing higher grade masks is that they can be costly, harder to find and – in the case of surgical N95s – somewhat uncomfortable to wear. The CDC also warns customers against counterfeit masks that aren't as effective.

Prior to omicron, Walensky resisted a call for Americans to wear surgical N95 masks for the average American because the agency didn’t want to discourage people from wearing any mask.

Walensky did not wear an N95 mask while testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday. According to a spokesperson, she wore a disposable mask with a cloth mask on top "to ensure a tight seal." That would be in keeping with CDC's current guidance that suggests Americans could opt for two masks for increased protection.

To address the issue of limited supply, the Biden administration says it’s planning to help ramp up production of N95s to make them more available to Americans who want one. Dawn O’Connell, a top official at the Health and Human Services Department, said Tuesday that the government planned to sign a contract within the next month or so that would identify a provider to produce 140 million N95 masks a month.

There are already 737 million N95 masks in the strategic national stockpile available for medical workers.

White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday the White House was seriously considering making "high quality masks" available to all Americans, although he did not provide additional details.

ABC News reporter Cheyenne Haslett contributed to this report.

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(NEW YORK) -- Nearly 2 million new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed and some 609,000 people will likely die from cancer in the U.S. in 2022, according to a new report published Wednesday.

The annual report from the American Cancer Society estimates that 1,918,030 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer, equivalent to 5,250 new cases being detected every day. This is up from approximately 1.8 million new cases that likely occurred in 2021.

Both figures -- for cases and deaths -- are the highest estimates made by the ACS since at least 2007.

Health experts have suggested that people missing cancer screenings and doctor's appointments due to the COVID-19 pandemic may cause cancer rates to rise in the coming years.

However, Dr. Rebecca Siegel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society and corresponding author of the report, told ABC News that estimates were made based on complete data, which is only available through 2018 for cases and 2019 for deaths.

"We absolutely expect that the pandemic will impact cancer rates because of delays in screenings, and diagnoses because of health care closures, but we were not able to account for that yet," she said.

She expects future reports will likely reflect the impacts of the pandemic.

Among the findings in the report is that cases of breast cancer have been slowly increasing by about 0.5% every year. In 2022, an estimated 290,560 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer, mostly women.

Siegel said this is not because of an increase in screenings that detect the cancer but rather because more women are having fewer children later in life -- both of which are linked to an increased likelihood of breast cancer.

"It's thought to be related to continued declines in the fertility rate, because the higher number of childbirths and the earlier age is protective against breast cancer, and we know that women are having children later and they're having fewer children," she said. "So that is likely contributing to this small increase."

She added that higher body weight also increases the risk of breast cancer and that increasing rates of obesity are likely a contributing factor.

The report also showed disparities when it comes to communities of color. For example, Black women were 40% more likely to die of breast cancer despite having lower rates than white women.

Siegel said this is because minorities have traditionally had less access to high quality health care and that more effort needs to be placed in providing access to disadvantaged communities.

However, the report also had some bright spots. The risk of death from cancer overall has been declining continuously since 1991 with about 3.5 million cancer deaths avoided as of 2019.

"The population-level data seen in this report reflects our experience treating patients. Cancer has become a curable or chronic disease for more Americans," Dr. Deb Schrag, Chair of Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who was not involved in the report, told ABC News in a statement.

Additionally, although lung cancer continues to be the leading cause of death in the U.S. -- with an estimated 350 deaths per day from lung cancer -- the three-year survival rate has increased from 21% in 2004 to 31%.

Siegel said declines in smoking played a role, but the bigger factors are recent improvements in treatment and lung cancer being detected in early stages.

"One finding was that twice as many lung cancers are being detected at an early stage, and that means more patients are having their cancer detected when they're the most treatable," Dr. Lauren Byers, a lung cancer expert at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, who was not involved with the report, told ABC News.

Siegel said she hopes the new report encourages people to stay up-to-date on their cancer screenings.

"We have a lot of effective screening tests now to prevent deaths from cancer and so, while none of these tests is perfect, being up to date and talking with your doctor about when you should screen can really help reduce your risk of dying from cancer," she said.

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(NEW YORK) -- Throughout the pandemic, periodic surges in demand for COVID-19 testing -- typically during a spike in cases or prior to holiday travel -- have put strain on the nation's testing capacity.

During these times, it can be difficult for people to quickly learn if they are positive for the virus -- and to isolate if they are.

Testing is something the U.S. has struggled to get right from the get-go, from strict rules and problems with the initial test kits to how to manage supply and demand during peaks and lulls. In 2021, America grappled with how to manage the volume of tests needed in a fully reopened country with schools and workplaces requiring regular testing, pressures exacerbated during the highly contagious omicron variant hitting ahead of the holidays.

This presents a real problem because experts believe a successful COVID-19 testing regime -- along with vaccinations -- is the key to building a new normal.

Over the course of the pandemic, the number and types of tests have proliferated, turnaround times for results have varied and other questions arose, including which test should be used and when and where should they be administrated.

So how can the U.S. increase access to tests, and what kind of infrastructure is needed if COVID is going to be an endemic disease, meaning it is always circulating within the population but at low rates. What kind of testing system is needed to prevent further outbreaks fueled by variants including delta and omicron?

Testing experts told ABC News the answer is decentralizing the system and delivering tests to patients directly, setting up community sites with reliable rapid molecular testing and being able to test people for multiple diseases at one time -- including COVID.

The tests we have now

Currently, the U.S. has two different types of viral tests used to diagnose COVID-19: antigen tests and molecular tests.

Antigen tests, also known as rapid tests, look for antigens, or proteins, from the coronavirus and return results usually within less than an hour. Molecular tests, also known as PCR tests, are run in a laboratory for viral material and typically return results within three days.

PCR tests are mostly administered at government-run sites, urgent care centers, doctor's offices and pharmacies, many of which have seen long lines amid the surge fueled by the omicron variant. At-home antigen tests have soared in popularity in recent weeks as way to avoid lines and quickly determine whether or not a person is infected.

How quickly the omicron variant continues to spread will determine whether the U.S. has enough testing capacity for now, the experts say.

"Certainly we have a lot of testing and I think, currently, in the country we can provide well north of two or three million [lab] tests in a day when you consider everything that's available," Dr. William Morice, chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine at Mayo Clinic, told ABC News.

Currently, the U.S. is performing an average of 1.7 million COVID-19 tests per day, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, experts say we should be performing more tests than that.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News that the U.S. needs to be performing many more tests -- upwards of 2 or 3 million per day -- so infected people can get the treatment they need more quickly, avoid being sent to the hospital and contact tracing can occur.

"Use of testing, it's not as much to show how many cases we have, but it's actually used for diagnosis " Chin-Hong said. "When people use testing early on, they can get better bang for their buck with early therapies and prevent them from going to the hospital."

He continued, "A PCR test can trigger contact tracing, early therapy. There are a lot of other domino effects of testing that's simply just more than 'I have another case in my community.' It actually ends up potentially saving hospital resources."

Morice believes that if cases continue to rise, then the supply could be strained. The U.S. is recording an average of more than 668,000 infections per day (as of Jan. 7) -- the most ever since the pandemic began, although this figure is partially due to a backlog of data reporting over the holidays.

"When the virus is not prevalent and less common in communities, the testing that we've had, for example here in Seattle, has been quite adequate," Dr. Geoffrey Baird, chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at UW Medicine, told ABC News. "I think we have plenty of testing available if we were just testing people who have symptoms."

He continued, "But when you have to test asymptomatic people before traveling, before gatherings, before school or before sports, that ends up getting difficult to so support because the absolute number of tests needed can get very, very large."

The experts say that infectious disease modelers didn't predict the emergence of the omicron variant or how quickly it would spread -- especially as people traveled over the holidays -- leading to increased demand for testing.

Dr. Brian Rubin, professor and chairman of the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, told ABC News that at his lab, there have been about 50% more positive tests in 2021 than the year before.

During the previous winter surge, the clinic never had more than 1,000 positive tests per day. In late 2021, as many as 1,700 tests per day come back positive, he said. With as many as 4,000 to 5,000 tests being run every day, this puts a great amount of strain on hospitals, laboratory personnel and testing supplies.

The system we need

Rubin believes the key to building up a robust testing program is to decentralize the system the U.S. has even further, meaning more at-home testing without the need of a healthcare provider to order or perform the test.

"Anything we can do to automate that," he said. "Decentralizing is going to be the key. How do we not call their doctor to order the test, get them to swab themselves, et cetera."

He added, "If we can get really reliable testing into the hands of individuals so you can test at home without leaving your home, we can handle it."

Although most at-home tests currently on shelves are pretty reliable, some at-home tests are known to produce an abundance of false positives.

He envisions a system in which the U.S. uses Amazon or an Amazon-like service to deliver test kits to people's homes on a grander scale than what is already available.

People perform the test themselves, including swabbing and analyzing the sample. Once they get results, they scan a barcode or QR code, alerting public health officials of a positive test result rather than the person having to call a doctor or the local health department to inform them. Although some tests already do this, Rubin would like to see all tests have this capability.

At-home tests have a very low likelihood of delivering false positives if a person is symptomatic. So, under Rubin's proposed system, if the person is symptomatic and gets a positive result, they could stay home and therefore help eliminate long lines at testing sites and free up appointments at clinics.

However, a person who is asymptomatic and gets a positive result from a delivered at-home test would be recommended to get PCR test to confirm they are truly infected with COVID.

Additionally, under Rubin's system, if someone is a contact of a positive patient, they would be informed and get guidance on whether to get tested or quarantine.

"We have all the pieces for home testing, but how do we make it super elegant and slick and make it as easy as possible," he said.

The Biden administration is trying to ramp up testing via a similar method: creating a website that will distribute 500 million free at-home rapid COVID tests to Americans, which officials promised will not cut into the current supply of tests on shelves.

Possible setbacks

However there are issues with rapid tests. At-home testing involves multiple steps and requires a clean workspace, meaning people may be performing the tests incorrectly. Additionally, rapid tests are more likely to return false negatives than laboratory tests because they are less sensitive.

This means that rapid tests have to detect enough antigens, or proteins, in the nose to return a positive result. However, laboratory tests, which look for genetic material, can return a positive result even if only trace amounts are detected.

Because of these potential issues, Baird says he is in favor of setting up community testing sites like UW Medicine has done in Washington that use rapid molecular tests.

These are like PCR tests, which are considered the gold standard of testing, but return results within a few hours rather than within a few days.

The UW community sites collect samples, which are then shipped by courier back to the main lab, where they can be quickly analyzed, Baird would like to see a similar system set up by big hospitals across the country.

"The chances of it giving a false negative are very, very low. No test is 100% perfect but it's as good as you can get and so we're doing the best we can by making the best possible test as expendable as possible," Baird said. "I'd be in favor of multiple community test sites like kiosks or trailers or other sites, it can be in retail spaces or something like that."

Morice said it's also important to have combination tests that check for multiple diseases such as COVID-19 and the flu, which are currently available -- although not at all clinics.

"That will be really important and it's certainly needed," he said. "Last year was really anomalous in that we had no influenza whatsoever. Now we're seeing rates going back up so we'll need it for that reason."

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(NEW YORK) -- When the omicron variant first began sweeping the country, there was some hope that because initial studies indicated it was less severe, it would prove to have less of an impact on the health care system.

However, given its increased transmissibility, the unprecedented explosion of cases is proving otherwise, leaving a record 146,000 coronavirus positive patients hospitalized across the country.

The record-smashing omicron surge, right on the heels of the crushing delta surge of the summer and fall, is pushing many overtaxed hospital systems over the edge -- systems facing staffing shortages, patients seeking care for non-COVID-related ailments adding to the burden. The increased pressure also comes despite having 62.6% of the country fully vaccinated and an array of treatments at their disposal.

"Even though they say omicron is probably more mild, I don't think we're necessarily seeing that with the unvaccinated," Dr. Raymond Lee Kiser, a hospitalist and nephrologist at Columbus Regional Health in Indiana, told ABC News. "Here in Indiana, this sort of second wave just superimposed right on top of delta."

Across the state, a record 3,400 COVID-19-positive patients are currently hospitalized. In mid-November, there were already more than 1,100 patients receiving care.

"There was barely time to breathe before omicron rolled right on over top of us. It really is just like a second surge right on top of the last one."

On average, more than 18,000 virus-positive Americans are being admitted to the hospital each day, a figure which has more than doubled since early December. In addition, approximately 80% of staffed adult intensive care unit beds are occupied, with more than 23,000 Americans with COVID-19 currently requiring ICU-level care.

Health care workers interviewed by ABC News and officials say the vast majority of those who are severely ill are unvaccinated, leading hospital staff to plead for people to get their shots.

'Very overwhelming'

Echoing many of her colleagues in numerous health care settings, nurse Becky Bevi, at Columbus Regional Health in Indiana told ABC News she is exhausted.

"Two years later, I'm frustrated," said Bevi, who has staffed her hospital's main COVID-19 unit since the beginning of the pandemic. "I feel like this should have been zapped in the first year. Just frustration, tired, exhausted from constantly dealing with it, watching death. It's just so much and I don't feel like it's going to go away anytime soon."

In Wisconsin, nurse Hilary Krieger, said she often feels overwhelmed, given the constant uncertainty that surrounds the virus.

"It's hard to explain. It's lonely. It feels very overwhelming at times," Krieger said.

In the emergency department at Baystate Health, in western Massachusetts, nurse Thomas Mapplebeck, told ABC News that the staff is burned out.

"We're working 12- to 14-hour shifts on Sundays up to 16-hour shifts. Breaks are minimal and it's just that busy, and people are just that sick. Some of us are pushing more than 60 hours a week," Mapplebeck said.

Nationwide, nearly 30% of hospitals, for which data is available, are reporting that they are experiencing a critical staffing shortage.

Mapplebeck shared his harrowing experiences caring for coronavirus patients over the course of the last two years in the hospital's 20-bed emergency room.

"We have patients of all age brackets with no medical history, unable to breathe, their bodies unable to compensate and overcome their symptoms. For some, we take over their breathing for them, we transport them to the trauma center where despite all efforts, they die," Mapplebeck said. "We have 40-year-olds that are trying to walk to the bathroom and get short of breath and collapse and they need resuscitation."

Sicker, faster

Kaila Sizemore, a nurse at Columbus Regional Health, explained that patients appear to be getting sicker, more quickly, compared to previous surges. While the disease was somewhat "more progressive" during the first wave, Sizemore said, now patients suddenly need oxygen and to be transferred to the ICU.

"It's just how quickly and unexpectedly I think that people change has kind of been hardest for me," she added.

At Maine's Northern Light Health, this state's latest surge is the "worst" the staff has ever seen.

"The numbers are crazy," said Melissa Vail, assistant vice president of Ambulatory Care Management. "Our staff is scared. I don't know that we have ever seen anything like this and I don't know that we will ever see anything like it."

Northern Light nurse Allison Leary has also been caring for a growing number of COVID-19-positive children.

"It's challenging taking care of little people ... little kids, and it's sometimes very emotionally draining and intense," said Leary.

Nationwide, pediatric hospital admissions have surged to a record high, with an average of 830 children admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 each day.

"I'm saddened by the fact that we're seeing more kids with it now," Leary said.

Vast majority of those critically ill are unvaccinated

According to health officials, the vast majority of those who are critically ill in the hospitals continue to be the unvaccinated.

"The sickest of the sick that we are seeing now with the patients that are not vaccinated. COVID patients that come in and go home are the ones typically that are vaccinated. They get fluids, medications if needed, and then go home to recuperate," said Mapplebeck, the nurse from Baystate. "This vaccine doesn't put an invisible shield around you like a superhero. It's meant to jumpstart your immune system. So when and if you do become sick with COVID, your body is ready to fight, which gives you a fighting chance."

Kiser added that he has witnessed a dichotomy between those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated. The course for the vaccinated patients, is much milder, he said, typically only requiring a few days of medications, and often, they are able to go home without any oxygen therapy. In addition, the patients who end up getting transferred from the medical floor to the critical care unit are "almost exclusively" unvaccinated.

"If it weren't for that group of people ... I don't think we would feel sort of as physically and emotionally crushed as we do right now," Kiser said.

Mapplebeck, Kiser, of Columbus Regional Health, and others stressed that people should get vaccinated in order to help decrease the number of people who need hospital beds, and give those who are really sick a chance to get the care they truly need.

"Nobody wants to go get a shot, but you know, do this. If you're not going to do it for yourself. Do it for your community. All the hospitals are just struggling right now. All the health care providers are struggling. We're all hurting," pleaded Kiser.

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