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Northern states see uptick in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations as weather gets colder

Ergin Yalcin/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- There is a growing sense of optimism across the country, with national coronavirus infection rates steadily falling, booster shots available for many Americans and pending vaccine approval on the horizon for young children.

In southern states like Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia, which were hit early on by the delta surge, hospitalizations are on the decline.

But despite the good news, experts are pleading with Americans to remain alert, as the highly infectious delta variant continues to circulate.

Despite vaccination rollouts, several states, particularly those in colder climates, are beginning to see a rise in infections.

"You're starting to see an uptick in cases in the colder parts of the country and as people are driven indoors without masks on," former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNN earlier this month. "The delta wave has not run through the United States... I think we have a couple of months to go."

Experts have been warning for weeks that colder areas may see an uptick in cases this winter.

"We may be starting to see the delta surge in the northern parts of the country that were relatively spared over the summer," said John Brownstein, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

In recently released forecasts, the PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reported that infection rates in parts of the Midwest and Mountain states remained "stubbornly high," and that despite declining transmission in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and in California, a period of resurgence may be on the horizon for northern regions of the country.

"We can take some comfort this week in the fact that national daily case counts have dropped below 100,000 and national adult and pediatric hospital censuses have declined by 50% since late summer," the group wrote, adding that the country must still be prepared to see a resurgence.

In the Midwest, many counties throughout Minnesota and Michigan have had a significant rise in cases, while other states (Delaware, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Wyoming) are reporting high transmission in nearly every county, according to federal data.

"Coronaviruses tend to thrive in winter months and colder weather," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said. "Right now is not the time, as cases are coming down to become complacent because we do know colder weather is ahead of us."

These local increases in cases are being accompanied by an uptick in hospitalizations. Ten states (Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wyoming) are already seeing a higher number of hospital admissions.

In Montana, forecasters noted that cities are experiencing the highest rates of case incidence and hospitalizations they have seen throughout the pandemic, mirroring what happened in Idaho last month. Similarly, in Utah, the outlook continues to worsen, specifically in the Salt Lake City region, as resurgence spreads to a wider geographic area.

According to the PolicyLab, the regional variation across the country makes predicting the trajectory of this period of the pandemic challenging. While the team wrote that the likelihood of a fall and winter resurgence in northern areas "seems more probable," there is "uncertainty about the magnitude, duration and breadth of geographic regions that will be impacted."

"We need to expect that, as we enter a season of shorter, colder days that will push more people to gather indoors, we will soon see a widening geographic distribution of resurgent transmission in many locations," forecasters wrote.

The group noted that the Northeast did not experience a significant surge last year, until the holiday season in November and December, and added that nationally, case incidence increased rapidly just after Halloween last year, surging through the New Year.

"As winter approaches, indoor mixing, especially among the remaining unvaccinated populations, means that we will likely continue to see increases in cases. The biggest remaining question is whether we have vaccinated enough of the population to see a decoupling with hospitalizations and deaths," added Brownstein.

People who have not been fully vaccinated are 6.1 times more likely to test positive with the virus and 11.3 times more likely to die from it, compared with people who are vaccinated, according to federal data.

Although nearly two-thirds of Americans have now received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, more than 112 million Americans remain completely unvaccinated. Approximately 64 million of those unvaccinated Americans are people over the age of 12, and thus, are currently eligible to get the shot.

PolicyLab experts say it is therefore critical for communities to act now in order to "maximize vaccinations among children and adults so that we can prevent local surges in all regions this winter and finally move toward the waning days of the pandemic."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


CDC signs off on Moderna, J&J boosters, mixing and matching doses

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(ATLANTA) -- CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave the final signoff on Thursday evening to recommend both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine boosters for certain populations.

The CDC's independent panel voted unanimously to support that decision earlier Thursday.

The panel recommended a third dose for Moderna vaccine recipients at least six months after a person’s initial course for those 65 and older, and those as young as 18 who are at higher risk due to their underlying health conditions, or where they work or live.

This aligns with what was recommended for a third booster dose for recipients of the Pfizer vaccine.

A second dose for those that received a one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine was recommended for anyone 18 years and older, at least two months after their first dose.

The panel also cleared the way for allowing mixing and matching of booster doses, meaning they will allow for people to get a different brand as a booster than was used for a primary vaccination.

Echoing the FDA however, CDC advisors today did not say any booster combination was preferred over another.

MORE: As White House announces vaccine plan for kids ages 5-11, states prepare for complex rollout
CDC’s advisory vote follows -- and falls in line with -- FDA’s move Wednesday to authorize those boosters, and aligns with what FDA and CDC authorized for the Pfizer vaccine booster shots last month.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky must now give the final signoff to the panel's recommendation, which is typically expected within a day.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Fresh whole onions linked to salmonella outbreak in 37 states: CDC

FotografiaBasica/iStock

(NEW YORK) — A salmonella outbreak in 37 states has been linked to fresh whole red, white, and yellow onions sold to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least 652 people have reported illness with 129 hospitalizations due to the onions imported from Chihuahua, Mexico, and distributed by ProSource Inc, according to the CDC.

The company said these onions had import dates from July 1 to Aug. 27. It said they can last up to three months in storage and may still be in homes and businesses.

These onions may have stickers or packaging to indicate the brand, ProSource Inc., and the country where they were grown. They were sold in 37 states.

Investigators are working to determine if any other onions or suppliers are linked to this outbreak.

ProSource Inc. said it voluntarily agreed to recall these onions.

"While investigations into various potential sources of salmonella remain ongoing, to date no onions marketed through ProSource have tested positive for Salmonella," the company said in a statement Wednesday. "This voluntary recall is being conducted out of an abundance of caution, in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), based on reported illnesses which have been associated with the possible consumption of fresh onions that originated in Chihuahua, MX."

CDC recommendations

Check storage coolers and coolers for these onions. If you can't tell where they are from, don't buy them or eat them, throw them away, the agency said.

Wash and sanitize any surfaces or containers that may have touched these onions with hot soapy water.

Do not buy or eat any whole fresh red, white, or yellow onions if they were imported and distributed from the above places.

Throw away any whole red, white, or yellow onions you have at home that do not have a sticker or packaging.

Salmonella symptoms

The CDC urges anyone to call their health care provider if they have any of these severe salmonella symptoms:

-Diarrhea and a fever higher than 102°F

-Diarrhea for more than three days that is not improving

-Bloody diarrhea

-So much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down

-Signs of dehydration, such as not peeing much, dry mouth and throat, feeling dizzy when standing up

Most people infected with salmonella experience diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Symptoms typically start six hours to six days after swallowing the bacteria.

Recovery for most people without treatment is four to seven days, but people with weakened immune systems like children under 5 and adults over 65 may experience more severe illnesses that require medical treatment or hospitalization.

For more information about salmonella, see the CDC Salmonella Questions and Answers page here.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


First lady Dr. Jill Biden speaks out on her mission to get people screened for breast cancer

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- First lady Dr. Jill Biden is speaking out about two causes close to her heart: access to community colleges and breast cancer awareness.

In a new interview with Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts, Biden, a professor of writing at Northern Virginia Community College, said she plans to continue to advocate to make community colleges more accessible to more Americans.

Tuition-free community college was included in President Joe Biden's social-spending package, but it is now reportedly one of the latest big-ticket items to be dropped from the package.

When asked by Roberts what she would say to families who were hopeful about the prospect of free community college access, the first lady replied, "I would say we're not giving up. We are not giving up. This is round one. This is year one. I'm going to keep going."

Biden, the country's sole first lady to hold a job outside the White House, said she is also committed to another cause important to her -- making sure breast cancer screenings are accessible to all Americans.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many doctors saw a drop in cancer screenings due to limited non-essential, in-person visits and patients opting to put off routine examinations -- including annual cancer screenings -- to curb risky face-to-face interactions.

The number of screening and mammograms given to people in the U.S. fell by as much as 80 percent during the pandemic, according to research published in July in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Now, Biden is making it her mission to make sure people do not miss their screenings.

“We were afraid of the pandemic, afraid of the virus, but now I think that we’ve moved on a little bit and people are vaccinated," Biden said. "We have to make sure that we have to get the message out.”

Urging people to get mammograms, Biden continued, "The next thing you have to do today is call your doc and get in there and get your screenings. If you go get that mammogram and they catch it early, you have a fighting chance.”

Why breast cancer research matters to the first lady

For Biden, who has been advocating for breast cancer research since the early 1990s, her fight for breast cancer prevention and awareness is personal.

“I had four friends who were diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time,” Biden said. “Unfortunately, we lost one of those friends, and I was so upset. I thought, what can I do? There has to be something. I thought, I know education inside and out, and so let's start to educate people."

Biden started to spread the message about breast cancer awareness in schools.

“I went into all the schools in Delaware and we taught them about early detection and breast health and the importance of good habits,” said Biden, whose husband served as a Democratic senator from Delaware for several decades. “Not only that, then they went home and sort of spread the word. When your kids say it, you do it, you know?”

Detecting breast cancer early

Biden spoke to Roberts at the Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center in New York City, where doctors have also seen a drop in the number of people getting mammograms.

“We screen about 41,000 patients getting mammograms every year, and with the pandemic here, that dropped to almost 31,000, and that's disheartening," Dr. Amanda Rivera, an attending radiation oncology physician at Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center, told “GMA.” “We really just want people to get their cancer detected early so that we have more treatment options."

For 52-year-old Sandra Cruz, her hesitancy around the pandemic pushed back her annual mammogram. It wasn’t until this past April, after her doctor urged her to get screened, that she learned of her Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis.

Like Biden, Cruz -- who does not need chemotherapy but will be starting radiation soon -- is urging other women to get screened early.

“I was one of those women during the pandemic that had the fear of coming in, getting screened,” Cruz said. “I for one didn’t know what COVID was all about except for the fear of catching it, so I was one of those individuals that waited until things calmed down.”

Biden noted she took time within the first month of moving to the White House earlier this year to get a mammogram.

"As soon as we got into office, there I was, off and getting my mammogram," she said. "There's nothing more important than your health. Nothing."

Improving access to screenings

As first lady, Biden said she is also working to make sure the federal government makes it a priority to provide access to mammograms to all women.

“It’s the responsibility of the federal government to make sure that we have access, that all communities have access,” Biden said. “Whether that’s urban, whether that’s rural, so that’s one of the things that we plan to do.”

Medical centers like Montefiore are also working to make sure their efforts to increase screenings reach all people, including those who face barriers when it comes to health care.

“We know that in communities of color, in communities where there's less access to health care, we have barriers to overcome in terms of getting that population in for cancer screening,” Rivera said. “When you add a pandemic onto that, those disparities only grow further.”

Rivera said one of the ways Montefiore is reaching communities of color is through its clinical trials.

“As we learn through science, through research, we know that certain differences exist,” Rivera said. “Until we get more representation on those clinical trials, we’re not adequately assessing that patient population. So it’s very important to get more clinical trial enrollment from communities of color.”

According to federal guidelines, women ages 40 to 44 should have access to annual breast cancer screening with mammograms, while women ages 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year.

Starting at age 55, women should switch to mammograms every two years or continue annual screenings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Largest nurses union applauds possible OSHA action against three states over PPE

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(NEW YORK) -- The country's largest nurses' union praised the federal government on Wednesday after officials said three states tasked with implementing their own safety measures for health care workers would lose that right unless they adhered to agreed-upon guidelines.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration had announced Tuesday it was considering stripping Arizona, Utah and South Carolina of their abilities to oversee workplace safety enforcement because they're not in compliance with an emergency standard order passed over the summer that guarantees certain protections.

OSHA had allowed 22 states to oversee work conditions for health care workers -- measures including the wearing of personal protective equipment, or PPE, enforcing social distancing, providing paid sick leave -- so long as local workplaces adopted requirements at least as strong as those agreed to at the federal level.

Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, which represents over 175,000 nurses, said in a statement on Wednesday that health care workers from coast to coast have been pushing for better protections as they put themselves at risk working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We urge federal OSHA to act expeditiously to put in place the necessary elements for federal OSHA to resume enforcement in Arizona, Utah, South Carolina and any other states which fail to enforce the [emergency standard] to ensure protections for health care workers," Burger said in a statement. "We will never emerge from this pandemic if we don't make sure nurses and health care workers are safe at work."

The Republican governors of Arizona, Utah and South Carolina defended their states' action and accused OSHA of overreach.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey contended that the Industrial Commission of Arizona's OSHA, or ICA, the state's workplace overseer, intends to comply with the emergency standards but is seeking public input on the mandate. Ducey accused the federal government of not justifying its threat to revoke oversight powers.

"The federal government's threat to strip the ICA of its OSHA authority is nothing short of a political stunt and desperate power grab," Ducey said in a statement.

Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox said in a statement that he had concerns over the emergency standard, saying it "would place an unfair burden on the health care industry" and his state didn't "have regulatory authority to require employers to pay their employees sick leave."

"We reject the assertion that Utah's State Plan is less effective than the federal plan," Cox said.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said his office is preparing for "a vigorous and lengthy legal fight" and that OSHA's announcement Tuesday was "clearly a preemptive strike by the federal government."

Burger stressed that all three states needed to prioritize the safety of health care workers and come together to make sure they're protected as hospitalizations keep increasing.

"Arizona, South Carolina, and Utah had the duty -- legally and morally -- to come into compliance and protect workers," Burger said. "They did not, and we could not be more proud that OSHA is standing up to hold them accountable today."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


FDA authorizes boosters for Moderna and J&J vaccines

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized COVID-19 boosters for millions more Americans, giving a green light for third shots to Moderna and Johnson & Johnson recipients.

The FDA also said it will allow people eligible for a booster to mix and match doses. So no matter which shots you initially received, you can choose your preferred brand for a third shot.

The FDA decision paves the way for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make an official recommendation to the public. An independent advisory committee to the CDC planned to meet Thursday with a final agency decision expected by the end of the week.

Dr. Peter Marks, a top FDA official, said allowing people to mix boosters makes sense, particularly when people might not remember what brand they initially received.

"Most people don't know what brand flu vaccine they received. And although they're somewhat more standardized, perhaps, this is something that is probably a good next step for us to be able to have the flexibility that people can get vaccinated easily," he told reporters.

Under the new rules, if the CDC signs off, Moderna recipients would qualify for a booster shot of their choice if they are older than 65 or younger with medical conditions or a high-risk job. The FDA and CDC had already cleared Pfizer recipients to get a third shot, and now they too can choose which brand booster they want.

Marks confirmed the agency is looking at whether to lower the age of boosters for Moderna or Pfizer recipients. But he said the situation is "very dynamic" and has to be data driven.

The news was considered particularly welcome by those who had gotten the single shot of J&J, which was shown to be only 70% effective against moderate to severe symptoms. That effectiveness climbed to 94% with two doses, prompting the FDA to allow for boosters for anyone 18 and older two months after their last shot.

"That is great news," Rose Tamberino of Hudson Valley, New York, who had gotten the J&J shot, told ABC News.

After losing her brother-in-law to COVID-19 in 2020, Tamberino was among the 15 million Americans who got the one-shot dose.

But she grew increasingly nervous this summer with the arrival of the delta variant and after hearing reports that J&J was less effective and testing her own antibodies with low results.

Six days ago, frustrated that Washington hadn't acted, she took matters into her own hands. After being turned down from a medical facility because she was already considered vaccinated -- and the FDA hadn't acted yet -- she went to a pharmacy and lied. She omitted details of her past J&J shot and got a Pfizer dose.

After going rogue, her vaccine record will now be consistent with federal recommendations.

"I'm just such a by-the-book person so for me to do something like this was really out of my comfort zone, you know?" she told ABC News in an interview.

"For me to take this upon myself and just go against what the government was doing at the time, felt really strange for me," she added. "But I felt better doing it than not though, because I just wanted to be protected."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


CNN's John King say he hopes revealing his MS diagnosis helps people do 'easy things' to protect against COVID-19

Good Morning America

(NEW YORK) -- One day after making a surprise revelation on live television that he has multiple sclerosis , CNN anchor John King said he hopes his openness inspires people to take precautions against COVID-19 seriously.

"I'm not supposed to be part of the story, I'm supposed to cover stories," King said Wednesday on "Good Morning America, adding, "If my personal experience can help anybody or help people understand, again, that the person next to you, you may not know, on the subway, or on the bus, in a coffee shop might need your help and you can do a couple easy things to make them feel safer, if I can help with that, then so be it."

The "Inside Politics" host opened up about his own MS battle Tuesday during a segment in which COVID-19 vaccine mandates were discussed, following the death of former secretary of state Colin Powell, who died Monday morning due to complications from COVID-19.

Powell, who was fully vaccinated, was being treated for multiple myeloma, which compromises the immune system. He had also been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, according to his spokesperson.

"I'm going to share a secret I have never spoken before. I am immunocompromised," King said on his show. "I have multiple sclerosis. So I am grateful you are all vaccinated. I am grateful my employer says all of these amazing people who work on the floor, who came in here in the last 18 months when we are doing this, are vaccinated now that we have vaccines. I worry about bringing it home to my 10-year-old son who can't get a vaccine. I don't like the government telling me what to do. I don't like my boss telling me what to do. In this case, it's important."

King, 58, who is CNN's chief national correspondent, told "GMA" that he had not planned to reveal his MS diagnosis live on-air, but felt compelled in order to help combat what he called "reckless and dangerous" rhetoric around COVID-19 vaccines and other safety measures.

"We should be willing to do hard things to help other people," he said. "Rolling up your sleeves and getting a safe vaccine is easy. Putting on a mask in a crowded place is easy. So why can't we do the easy things?"

"These steps are easy and they could help a friend or a neighbor or a stranger get through the day," King added.

Currently, just 66.8% of Americans ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

King said he has taken extra safety precautions himself during the pandemic, for his own health but also to protect his family, including his 10-year-old son, who is currently too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Studies have shown vaccinated individuals are significantly less likely to spread coronavirus to family members within a household, National Institutes of Health director Frances Collins wrote in a blog post Tuesday on the safety of the vaccines.

In addition to being fully vaccinated, the CNN anchor said he also received a vaccine booster shot.

"I don't like being told what to do. I don't want my employer telling me you have to get a vaccine. I don't want the government telling me I have to do things, but this is bigger than that," he said. "Moments in American history when we're all challenged, when we're all at risk, we're supposed to come together and set the politics stuff aside and just love thy neighbor, protect thy neighbor."

King said he has relapsing-remitting MS, which is the most common disease course, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

He said he takes medication to slow the progression of the disease and considers himself "lucky," but still faces days where the MS is "very frustrating."

"Today I'm having a problem with my hands. I have not been able to really have full sensation in my legs since late in the Clinton administration," he said, noting that his MS diagnosis came several years later. "There are some days this knocks me on my you know what, there are other days it's just a little nagging."

"But it has made me stronger. I hope, I certainly hope it has made me a better person," King continued. "And it's made me aware, again, that a lot of these symptoms, a lot of the stress people are going through is hidden. You cannot see it, but we should just be aware that it's out there."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Relief, eager anticipation for many Americans ahead of FDA decision on booster shots

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(NEW YORK) -- For Mitchell Kronenberg, answers on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can't come soon enough.

A 42-year-old dad living outside Charlotte, North Carolina, Kronenberg enrolled in a clinical trial for the single-dose vaccine and got his shot last January. Since then, he's been patiently waiting for U.S. federal regulators to tell him what to do next to stay safe: Should he get another Johnson & Johnson shot? Switch to Moderna or Pfizer? Is his single-shot vaccination enough to protect him from spreading the virus to his unvaccinated 4-year-old son?

"Why is it taking so long? You have people out on a ledge out here," he said of the process.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide as early as Wednesday whether the 15 million Americans who got the single-dose J&J shot by Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies should get a second dose. The decision comes after studies suggested effectiveness against moderate and severe symptoms climbed from 70% with one dose to 94% with two doses.

Also anticipated is a decision on possible third booster shots for Moderna recipients and whether Americans can mix vaccine brands when getting a booster.

With a decision expected soon, an advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to meet Thursday to offer the public a final recommendation.

Typically a wonky endeavor ignored by most Americans, the FDA and CDC regulatory process is now being closely followed by millions of Americans. People describe joining private Facebook groups to swap the latest research and repeatedly getting their antibody levels checked, even if experts warn it's an incomplete measure of a person's immunity.

Some have even opted to mix booster shots on their own even without the federal government's blessing.

"Every day, I was researching, Googling, reading everything I could get my hands on," said Lynne Conway, a 59-year-old development officer for an animal shelter in Ithica, New York.

Conway said she experienced mild heart inflammation following her first dose of Moderna last March. After ruling out other causes, her doctor recommended she get the J&J so she can be fully protected against COVID-19. She got that shot in August, despite there being no official green light from regulators to mix shots in such a way.

"The relief of finally deciding to get the (J&J) vaccine, and have it over with, was monumental," she said.

J&J recipients are among those who expressed being most on edge emotionally, with the 70% effectiveness after one shot -- lower than the two doses of Pfizer or Moderna.

Jadzia Pierce, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., said she was relieved regulators were inching toward a decision. In her early 30s, Pierce isn't at serious risk of major complications from COVID-19.

But she also would like to visit higher-risk relatives this holiday season and to know she's not at risk of infecting them.

"Even if the answer is (that it puts) other people around at risk, then I guess I just won't go home," she said. "I just feel like safety is the most important thing at this point and that's really all that matters to me."

J&J declined to comment for this article, citing pending action by regulators. But last Friday, after a meeting of FDA advisors, a top company official told ABC News the J&J vaccine likely protects people by triggering the protection of a person's T-cells, which is harder to measure than antibodies.

J&J's "biggest, most impressive components are T-cells, which contribute to both efficacy and durability of our vaccine," said Mathai Mammen, global head of R&D at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.

For its part, the FDA says its staff is working around the clock to comb through technical data. The CDC too has to hear from its own advisory panel before making a decision.

Kronenberg, who has to travel for work as a director for a medical device company, said he still worries about spreading the virus to his son. He says he understands wanting to get it right but wishes the various agencies could get in a room together and hash it out immediately, rather convene separate meetings and reviews that can drag on for weeks.

Pierce, also in limbo having received the J&J, said she's torn on whether to be frustrated with the regulatory bureaucracy.

"I'm trying to be patient. I do realize that this stuff takes time, and I don't want to be following advice that is too rushed and not complete," she said.

ABC News' Sony Salzman contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Vaccinations help protect families: National Institutes of Health

PeopleImages/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- Getting a COVID-19 vaccine isn't just about protecting yourself, it goes a long way toward protecting your family, according to a new blog post by the director of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Francis Collins also noted in his Tuesday post that the data shows adults getting vaccinated helps protect those who can't get vaccines, especially children.

"This is a chance to love your family -- and love your neighbor," Collins wrote.

Collins reiterated that studies have shown vaccinated individuals are significantly less likely to spread coronavirus to family members within a household. He cited a Swedish study published in JAMA Internal Medicine Journal last week that looked at 1.8 million people from more than 800,000 families "who acquired immunity from either previous COVID-19 infection or full vaccination."

"The data show," Collins wrote, "that people without any immunity against COVID-19 were at considerably lower risk of infection and hospitalization when other members of their family had immunity, either from a natural infection or vaccination."

Specifically, the study found that households with one immune family member had a 45% to 61% lower risk of a COVID-19 infection, and that when a household included two immune family members the risk dropped 75% to 86%. With three or more immune family members, the risk of infection dropped almost 97%.

"These results show quite clearly that vaccines offer protection for individuals who lack immunity, with important implications for finally ending this pandemic," Collins wrote.

Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor, said Collins' message is important because there needs to be more emphasis on how getting a vaccination is an altruistic act for the entire community.

"We get a lot of focus on individual risk and side effects, and it takes our eye off the ball for the real reason we can and want the population to get inoculated," he said.

MORE: COVID-19 vaccine shots for kids under 12 may be available in November: 6 things to know
Brownstein said it's imperative that every eligible person gets vaccine shots as soon as possible since it may take a while for tens of millions of American children to be fully protected.

"Vaccines create a cocoon that ultimately protects those who aren't eligible," he added.

Anyone who needs help scheduling a free vaccine appointment can log onto vaccines.gov.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Why breakthrough COVID deaths can be misunderstood

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(NEW YORK) -- The death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell due to COVID-19 complications has sparked conversations about breakthrough deaths among vaccinated individuals.

It would be inaccurate, however, to jump to any conclusions about vaccine effectiveness from a single breakthrough death such as Powell's, who was 84 years old, immunocompromised and being treated for multiple myeloma, a blood-borne cancer that "in and of itself can lead to compromised immunity," Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at the South Shore Medical Center in Massachusetts, told ABC News.

In a statement, Dr. Paul Richardson, the director of clinical research at the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said myeloma patients are "not only vulnerable to infection but once infected, they are more prone to serious complications including vascular effects and profound immune dysfunction."

Dr. Craig Devoe, chief of medical oncology and hematology at Northwell Health in New York, said that myeloma doesn't just put patients at a higher risk of severe illness but could have also put their immune system at a disadvantage for fighting off COVID-19 even when fully vaccinated “because both the disease and the treatment itself are highly immunosuppressive.”

According to his spokesperson, Powell was fully vaccinated and was being treated for myeloma, which is not curable. He had also recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which can itself be debilitating depending on the stage.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been roughly 7,000 breakthrough deaths among the 187 million vaccinated Americans, with more than 6,000 over the age of 65 in contrast to the more than 700,000 COVID-19 deaths among the unvaccinated.

"Without question, we can expect deaths," Ellerin said. "It is much more common in those unvaccinated than vaccinated. But we are seeing breakthrough vaccine deaths, especially in the elderly -- patients in their 80s and older -- or those who are immunocompromised."

No one who receives a COVID-19 vaccine is 100% protected from death, but the vaccines have shown to be extremely effective at lowering the risk of getting the disease.

The CDC recently updated its website with data illustrating the fact that vaccines are still dramatically reducing the risk of testing positive or dying of COVID-19 amid the latest delta surge. While there has been a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths since July 2021, the increase is more pronounced among unvaccinated individuals.

In August, unvaccinated people were 6.1 times more at risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and 11.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to vaccinated individuals, according to federal data pulled from 16 states and jurisdictions.

"[A breakthrough vaccine death] is not an argument for 'don't get your vaccine,'" Ellerin said. "That is an argument for 'get your vaccine because that's the best way of reducing your likelihood of death.'"

Additionally, when broken down by age, death rates in every age group were higher among the unvaccinated populations. Older Americans (80+) had the highest rate of deaths among fully vaccinated people per capita, though their risk of death was about 5.7 times lower than their unvaccinated counterparts in the same age group.

Among the breakthrough deaths, the U.S. is currently seeing what Ellerin labels "a precarious triangle" of risk factors -- old age, underlying diseases that lead to immunocompromisation and treatments for those diseases -- which make individuals more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection.

Vaccinated people who fall into the intersection of these risk areas should also prioritize non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as masking when indoors and optimizing ventilation, experts say.

Dr. Edward Stadtmauer, director of the myeloma program at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News that the best way for cancer patients to prevent COVID-19 infection or limit its severity is to get vaccinated.

"If you have abnormal plasma cells to begin with or are getting therapy that might suppress or damage plasma cells, you can see why that this group of patients may have the most difficulty responding to a COVID infection and responding to vaccines," he said.

Stadtmauer said he is seeing about 70% of patients with myeloma generate COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies after vaccination.

“If there is any group of patients who should be vaccinated and get a booster, it is this group of patients,” he said.

The Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 22 authorized Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine boosters for people 65 years and older and those at risk. Powell himself was due for the booster shot the same week he fell ill with COVID-19, his spokesperson said.

"None of these are perfect strategies, but you have the best chance of survival," Ellerin said.

The misuse of the news of Powell's death to spread misinformation about vaccine failure and discourage individuals from getting vaccinated can be harmful to those immunocompromised, according to experts, who say that in order to protect those with underlying diseases, it is imperative that everyone around them gets vaccinated to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"Hopefully his life and the fact that he believed in vaccination can be a catalyst for many others to get it," Ellerin said.

 

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


J&J recipients should 'feel good' about booster recommendation: Fauci

Chaz Bharj/iStock

(WASHINGTON) -- Recipients of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine should not be concerned about the shot's lower efficacy now that boosters have been recommended, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

"I think that they should feel good about it because what the advisers to the FDA felt is that given the data that they saw, very likely this should have been a two-dose vaccine to begin with," he said Sunday.

The FDA vaccine advisory panel unanimously recommended booster shots for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Friday. The panel recommended all J&J recipients 18 years and older to get an additional jab as early as two months after the first dose -- key differences from their recommendations for the Moderna and Pfizer boosters which were only for Americans 65 and older or in higher risk groups.

The decision came days after early data released from a National Institutes of Health study found that boosting with a different shot than one's original vaccine appears to be safe and effective. The data, which is not yet peer reviewed, also found that for J&J recipients, antibody levels were higher if they received a Moderna or Pfizer booster rather than a J&J booster.

Raddatz pressed Fauci on whether mixing and matching vaccine boosters for J&J recipients would be a better idea.

“But, Dr. Fauci, the panel was also looking at new data that suggest J&J recipients may be better off getting a booster shot from the more effective Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Is that a better solution?" Raddatz asked.

“That is true, the data you refer to, that if you boost people who have originally received J&J with either Moderna or Pfizer, the level of antibodies that you induce in them is much higher than if you boost them with the original J&J,” Fauci said.

He went on, “However, you’re talking about laboratory data, which very often are reflective of what you would see clinically. But the data of boosting the J&J first dose with a J&J second dose is based on clinical data. So what’s going to happen is that the FDA is going to look at all those data, look at the comparison and make a determination of what they will authorize.”

Fauci added that the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will give people the flexibility to mix and match vaccine boosters based on their individual health situations.

Now that the FDA has recommended J&J boosters for a wider group of Americans, the question turns to when Moderna and Pfizer boosters will be expanded to the general public.

Fauci said that will depend on the data being collected by the CDC and the findings coming in from Israel, which is about a month ahead of the U.S. in its vaccine rollout.

As for vaccines for children ages 5-11, Fauci said the FDA is on track to approve the Pfizer vaccine in early November.

With kids eager to go trick-or-treating and the holidays right around the corner, Raddatz also asked Fauci about his guidance for celebrating the upcoming holidays.

“I believe strongly that -- particularly in the vaccinated people, if you’re vaccinated and your family members are vaccinated, those who are eligible, that is obviously very young children are not yet eligible, that you can enjoy the holidays,” he said. “You can enjoy Halloween, trick-or-treating and certainly Thanksgiving with your family and Christmas with your family.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Mom diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant

Courtesy Christine Kump

(CHANNAHON, Ill.) -- Christine Kump, of Channahon, Illinois, was newly pregnant with her second child late last year when she felt a lump in her breast.

She said it was in the same spot as a lump she had developed when she breastfed her now 3-year-old daughter, so she brushed it off as leftover scar tissue.

"When you Google it, it says it could be breast cancer, but most likely scar tissue," Kump, 34, told Good Morning America. "I thought there's no way I have breast cancer."

Kump underwent IVF to get pregnant with her second child, so she also attributed the soreness she felt in her breast to side effects from the treatment. When the soreness continued and a burning sensation developed though, Kump went to see her primary care doctor.

"The doctor sent me to do an ultrasound but she wasn't super concerned," said Kump. "A few weeks later I went for the ultrasound and then they had me do a biopsy, which I did on Christmas Eve."

A few days after the biopsy, on Dec. 29, 2020, Kump said her doctor called and told her she had Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer.

"I was worried that I wasn't going to make it through the pregnancy," said Kump, who was eight weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed. "I was thinking I was going to have to write letters to my [3-year-old] daughter Susie for all of her milestones because I wasn't going to be there."

Because Kump had a history of cancer in her family, she underwent genetic testing and tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, meaning she was at an increased risk for breast and ovarian cancers.

About 1 in every 500 women in the United States has a mutation in either her BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because of her genetic background and because her cancer was so advanced, Kump began chemotherapy once she entered her second trimester of pregnancy, a time that doctors say is safer because the baby's organs are more developed.

Kump was in the middle of her chemotherapy treatments in May, when she went into early labor.

She gave birth to her daughter, Vivian, on May 30, 2021, about three months before her August due date.

"She decided to show up super early," Kump said of her daughter, who weighed 2 pounds, 10 ounces at birth and faced complications that come from premature birth. "She was intubated for six days and then was on oxygen until she could breathe on her own."

Vivian would go on to spend the next 59 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, which was 10 minutes away from the cancer center where Kump received treatment.

"My husband and I were the only ones who were allowed to see her in the NICU," said Kump, adding that she would go from receiving chemotherapy in the morning to visiting her daughter in the afternoon. "The NICU was the safest place for me to be because it was so clean."

Kump continued on with chemotherapy after giving birth, completing 16 rounds in all. She finished her last treatment in August, shortly after bringing Vivian home from the NICU.

In September, Kump underwent a bilateral mastectomy.

She will next have to undergo nearly six weeks of radiation treatment, and then will undergo a hysterectomy in January since the BRCA1 gene mutation puts her at a higher risk of ovarian cancer.

Kump said she is sharing her story publicly to both raise awareness of breast cancer during pregnancy, and to encourage women to listen to their bodies and seek help if something feels off.

Breast cancer is found in about 1 in every 3,000 pregnant people, according to the American Cancer Society.

"I was taken very seriously and was diagnosed on the first time, but a lot of women are told it's just an infection, or it's something from breastfeeding," said Kump, who, at 34, was six years below the recommended age of 40 to start annual mammograms. "If you think something is a little off, call your doctor, and if you don't like the response you get from one provider, get a second opinion. It's so important that we advocate for ourselves."

It's a message echoed by Dr. Mary Ahn, Kump's breast cancer surgeon at Northwestern Medicine.

"If you're pregnant and see changes in the breast, the majority of time it is pregnancy-related, but if there is something that feels unusual, get it evaluated. It's better to be cautious," she said. "We have be our own advocates, be aware of our bodies and, if there are any questions, address them with a medical professional."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Dad walking 1,200 miles to fund research for daughter's treatment

Courtesy the Brannigan Family

(NEW YORK) -- One dad is going the extra mile for his daughter -- literally.

Chris Brannigan, 41, from England, is currently walking 1,200 miles barefoot from Maine to North Carolina in order to fund research on gene therapy for his daughter Hasti, 9, who has a rare genetic disorder called Cornelia de Lange syndrome.

Although the exact number of cases is unknown, the CdLS Foundation estimates that CdLS occurs in 1 in 10,000 live births.

"If you have a rare disease you don't have the same treatment options or the same quality of healthcare so parents like us have to fight endlessly," Brannigan told "Good Morning America." "The sad truth is there's just no money for rare disease research so it's left to families like ours to undertake these fundraising campaigns just so we can get treatments for our kids."

The disorder affects a person's growth and development, and symptoms include seizures, gastrointestinal problems, autistic-like behavior, heart defects, hearing loss, myopia, and body malformations and other abnormalities.

As a child gets older, more serious symptoms such as anxiety and self-injurious behavior may appear. The CdLS Foundation found that self-injurious behavior occurs in 60% of children and adults with the disorder.

"It gets worse over time," Brannigan said. "For my wife and I, that was really frightening."

After Hasti was born, Brannigan said he and his wife, Hengameh, "knew straightaway something was wrong."

"She looked unhealthy to us," he said. "She was jittery. She was underweight. When we got her home from the hospital, she had a seizure within the first 24 hours."

Many of Hasti’s developmental milestones were delayed. Brannigan said she didn't walk until she was almost 2 years old and didn't feed voluntarily for the first year of her life.

"There were so many indications but the diagnostic odyssey in the rare diseases world is so long and painful," he said.

At age 4, Hasti had blood tests done to check for CdLS but the results came back negative, much to the family's relief.

"I sort of did a little jump for joy because we knew how difficult a condition it was, having researched it after speaking to the doctor," Brannigan said.

To figure out what could be wrong, Hasti was then enrolled in the 100,000 Genomes Project in the U.K., where they sequenced her genome and looked for common gene errors or mutations. The project took two years, Brannigan said, and the new results showed that she did actually have CdLS.

To manage the disorder, Hasti receives a number of daily treatments, such as hormone replacement therapy via injections and speech and language therapy.

"The cycle of therapies and medical appointments is just never-ending,” Brannigan said.

The fact that CdLS is a rare disease means not much is known about it and how to treat it, which is why Brannigan said he and his wife have had to become experts on the disorder.

"If your child has something terrible like cancer, doctors know what to do because they're well-practiced in those things," he said. "But if your child has a rare disease, they just don't know and that causes a lot of anxiety for parents."

He added, "Parents have to be experts because no one else is."

The reality of having a rare disease

After Hasti received her initial diagnosis, Brannigan said he and his wife reached out to numerous doctors around the world to ask them to take a look at gene therapy as a way to help manage the disorder.

"Through online research we came to realize that other rare conditions like spinal muscular atrophy were achieving gene therapies that were transforming children's lives," he said, adding that several medical professionals said they would be willing to look into it but it would take “a lot of time” and “cost huge sums of money.”

"When we realized something could be done, we were presented with a question, which was: 'Do we do this? Do we throw everything we have at our disposal at creating a therapy for Hasti and all the other kids with CdLS? Or do we consciously not do that?'" he said. "As parents I don't think there's any other choice you can make. You can't choose to not help your child."

The family created the charity, Hope for Hasti, in order to raise the money for research into CdLS gene therapy. After consulting doctors and researchers on how much would be needed to fund the research, they set a $3 million target.

"Raising money has been incredibly hard through the pandemic so my wife and I decided that we should run a fundraising event that would help focus people on not just fundraising but also how difficult it is to manage the life of a child with a rare disease," Brannigan said.

According to Dr. Wendy Bickmore, director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, gene therapy will likely not be a cure but a way to treat some of the disorder’s symptoms.

“Gene therapy encompasses several things,” Bickmore told “GMA.” “It can be adding back in an extra copy of the gene, which has been mutated, or it can be gene editing where you go in with these CRISPR molecular scissors and try and correct the actual spelling mistake of the genome. They both have the ultimate aim of trying to repair the genetic defect.”

All of the preclinical research will be handled by the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. According to Dr. Cathleen Lutz, the lab’s senior director, they’re working with mouse models with various genetic mutations, including one with Hasti’s specific mutation. As CdLS can be caused by any number of genetic mutations, a therapy that works for one may not work for another.

“I think we all recognize we’re in uncharted territory, no one is rushing here,” Lutz told “GMA.” “We’re trying to explore the potential for these therapeutics. Even if gene therapy turns out not to be a path forward for CdLS, we’re going to have so much information to plug into new potential therapeutics.”

In a recent statement, the CdLS Foundation announced a partnership with Jackson Laboratory to coordinate research efforts for all genes implicated in CdLS. The goals of the collaboration include advancing basic science around the disorder, creating a centralized repository of existing and new mouse models with CdLS features, and testing various treatment options.

A British army major, Brannigan calls himself the "Barefoot Soldier."

"The idea of being barefoot is to make it really difficult because Hasti's condition makes her life incredibly challenging," he said. "Things that other children find easy, she finds very hard. It seemed only fair that I do something that was equally difficult and challenging."

Brannigan has already completed one barefoot walk so far. From July 6 to August 18, 2020, he walked 700 miles from Land's End in England to Edinburgh in Scotland.

"I wounded both of my feet," he said. "It took weeks for them to heal."

His current walk will see him do 1,200 miles through 12 states over 53 days. So far, Brannigan's made it well over halfway and expects to complete the journey in late October.

"It's been incredibly painful and I think I have nerve damage in my foot," he said. "I've cut my feet. I've stood on glass. I've had more blisters than I can count. I've encountered some really challenging road conditions and it's slightly dangerous."

Though Brannigan plans to finish out the walk no matter what, the kindness he's experienced along the way has kept his spirits up. People have walked with him for parts of the journey, given him food and drink, and even housed him for a night.

"Hasti is a child like every other child who has hopes and dreams and we want her to realize those," he said. "She deserves to be happy and healthy."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Double amputee beats breast cancer diagnosis

ABC

(NEW YORK) -- Even before her stage two breast cancer diagnosis in 2020, Yvonne Llanes knew her strength -- and her community.

Llanes, who was first introduced to "World News Tonight" in 2017, had lost both of her legs nearly 16 years ago in a freak accident. For a decade, Llanes was confined to a wheelchair.

But, in 2017, she had made a promise to herself -- and her late father -- to walk again.

"I was just depressed. I was sad. I was mad at the world and I wanted my life back. I wanted my legs back," Llanes told "World News Tonight" in 2017.

Llanes found a community at the Hanger Clinic's Bilateral-Above-Knee Amputee Bootcamp.

With the support of fellow amputees and after months of determination, Llanes pushed herself to get out of her chair and walk across a stage in front of her friends and family.

"I met a group of amputees such as myself that were doing extraordinary things. They were up and they were walking and they were out of their wheelchairs and I was just incredibly amazed and I told myself I want to be like them," said Llanes.

"I decided enough was enough I was going to get up and get on with life," she added.

Nearly four years later, Llanes returned to the Hanger Clinic's Bootcamp for Amputees to celebrate another victory. This time, to announce that she was cancer-free.

She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and underwent surgeries in 2020 and 2021. Across the country, her Bootcamp family was there for her by sending photos and wearing "Yvonne Strong" T-shirts.

"All my amputee friends here have stood behind me through this diagnosis and have been very supportive of me 100%, and I just appreciate it tremendously," said Llanes on Thursday.

Llanes told "World News Tonight" Friday that the community's motto, "Decide to rise," can be applicable to anyone.

"Life is going to throw obstacles at you -- do not let those obstacles get in your way," she said. "Have faith, have courage, have hope, overcome those obstacles and never forget to decide to rise."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US regulators weigh whether people can mix COVID booster shots

MarsBars/iStock

(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. regulators are considering revising the rules for COVID-19 vaccines to allow people to opt for a different type of shot for their booster than what they originally received, a move that would enable people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to receive the Moderna or Pfizer dose as their next shot.

Likewise, a person who got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine might be able to boost with J&J or the other mRNA shot.

No decision has been made, and it's not clear how soon mixed doses could happen.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would need to amend its authorizations of the three vaccines available to Americans, and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention would have to endorse the idea.

But in a meeting Friday with independent advisers, senior government officials suggested they were open to the idea.

"It does seem like there's some consensus that this is an important option for people to have," said Dr. Peter Marks, a senior FDA official who oversees vaccine regulation.

Amanda Cohn, a senior adviser for vaccines at CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said having "allowable language" from the FDA would be helpful from a public health perspective. One concern, she said, are the 15 million people who have received the J&J shot but either might not have access to a second dose or are concerned about the risk of rare but serious blood clots that the vaccine poses to women of childbearing age.

"If there's not any allowable language in the FDA factsheets or EUA authorization, then those individuals are left behind," she said.

While Marks said providing regulator flexibility was possible, he asked the advisory panel to weigh in on what data might be needed to make such a decision. He didn't offer a timetable and suggested he would be interested in collecting more real-world data first.

"We don't know from the short studies what the longer-term effects of mix and match will be. And we just don't have those data," he told the advisory panel.

Early results from a recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that boosting with a different shot than what was received the first time around appears to be safe and effective. What's more is that the study found J&J recipients wound up with higher antibody levels if they were boosted with Moderna or Pfizer.

The ability to mix vaccine brands also could be of interest to male teens and young adults, who are more likely to experience heart inflammation following a shot of Moderna or Pfizer. While treatable and typically mild, there have been reports of hospitalization among that population.

Cohn said there do not appear to be any safety concerns with mixing booster doses of any type.

"I think the safety data that has been presented today is very supportive, especially in light of the culmination of the millions of doses of these products that we've seen given and the safety evidence from all of those vaccines," she said.

Dr. Ofer Levy of Boston Children's Hospital, a panel member, said the government should be ready to move forward quickly to allow for mixed boosters.

"In the real world, all these kinds of combinations or extra boosters are already happening," he said.

ABC's Sony Salzman contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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