Fecal fountains: CDC warns of diarrheal outbreaks linked to poopy splash pads

A 2-year-old enjoys the spray of water in a splash pad in Los Angeles on June 20, 2022.

Enlarge / A 2-year-old enjoys the spray of water in a splash pad in Los Angeles on June 20, 2022. (credit: Getty | Al Seib)

In this summer’s record-blazing heat, a spritz of crisp, cool water sounds like delicious bliss. Each drop offering brisk relief as it pitter-patters on your face, quenching your sizzling skin.

But if you find such euphoric respite at a children’s splash pad, that soothing spray could quickly turn to a sickening spew, as the drips and drops may be doused with diarrheal pathogens. Each patter may offer a splat of infectious germs that, if accidentally ingested, could transform you into a veritable fecal fountain in the ensuing days.

That’s the warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least. This week the agency published a report outlining two gastrointestinal outbreaks linked to a single recreational splash pad in Kansas. The two outbreaks, which days apart in June 2021, involved two different pathogens—Shigella bacteria and norovirus—and collectively sickened at least 27 people. Although some circumstances are specific to that particular splash pad in Kansas, the outbreaks highlight the common risk of such facilities, which are often unregulated.

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NY county with polio has pitiful 60% vaccination rate; 1,000s may be infected

Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1.

Enlarge / Transmission electron micrograph of poliovirus type 1. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The vaccine-derived poliovirus that left an unvaccinated US resident with the country’s first case of paralytic polio in nearly a decade has been genetically linked to spread in two other countries: the United Kingdom and Israel. Now that it has been detected in the US, health officials fear it has spread to hundreds or even thousands of people in a poorly vaccinated New York county.

On Monday, officials in New York urgently encouraged unvaccinated residents to get vaccinated “as soon as possible” to prevent further spread of the virus.

“Polio is very contagious, and an individual can transmit the virus even if they aren’t sick,” the New York State Department of Health said in a news release today. The virus spreads easily via a fecal-oral route through poor hygiene and sanitation. The virus transmits through direct contact with an infected person or contaminated food or water. “Symptoms, which can be mild and flu-like, can take up to 30 days to appear, during which time an infected individual can be shedding virus to others,” the health department added.

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As BA.5 continues to blaze across US, feds scrap summer booster plans

As BA.5 continues to blaze across US, feds scrap summer booster plans

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Federal officials have reportedly scrapped plans to expand access to second COVID-19 booster doses this summer, opting instead to pressure vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech to produce their next-generation BA.5-targeting boosters even faster than before, possibly in September.

Currently, people ages 50 and over, as well as those 12 and up with certain health conditions, can received a second COVID-19 booster dose. But, with the ultratransmissible BA.5 wave threatening more infections and reinfections at a time when vaccine protections are fading, officials earlier this month toyed with the idea of opening second boosters to all adults. At the time, they were expected to decide the matter within the following weeks.

That decision window has now closed. And although BA.5 is still raging, the Biden administration has reportedly abandoned the plan to instead focus on the new booster vaccines for those 12 and up, which were previously expected to roll out in October and November.

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Gulf Coast tests confirm deadly tropical soil bacterium now endemic to US

<Em>Burkholderia pseudomallei</em> grown on sheep blood agar for 24 hours. <em>B. pseudomallei</em> is a Gram-negative aerobic bacteria, and it's the causative agent of melioidosis.

Enlarge / Burkholderia pseudomallei grown on sheep blood agar for 24 hours. B. pseudomallei is a Gram-negative aerobic bacteria, and it’s the causative agent of melioidosis. (credit: Getty | CDC/Courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory)

For years, health officials in the US noted sporadic, mysterious cases of a foreign bacterial infection, called melioidosis. The infection—which is difficult to diagnose, tricky to treat, and often deadly—was thought to only strike travelers or those who came in contact with contaminated imported goods or animals. Yet, now and then, an American would inexplicably fall ill—no recent travel, no clear links.

Now, health officials have a definitive explanation. And it confirms a dreaded, long-held suspicion: The deadly bacterium is foreign no more. Rather, it’s a permanent US resident entrenched in American soil.

Three samples taken from soil and puddle water in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi tested positive for the bacterium, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday. The sampling was part of an investigation into two mysterious cases in the area that occurred in 2020 and 2022. The positive test results mark the first time that investigators have caught the deadly germ in US environmental samples, though they’ve been looking for it for years.

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Child’s monkeypox case raises alarm as WHO mulls declaring health emergency

A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid.

Enlarge / A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The World Health Organization is currently reconsidering whether to declare the booming multinational monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the agency’s highest level of alert.

The deliberations come as the global tally of monkeypox cases tops 16,000—and a new report of an unexplained case in a child in the Netherlands raises alarm over the potential spread of the virus.

On Thursday, the WHO’s emergency committee convened for seven hours to assess the state of the outbreak. It was the second time that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus convened the group of international experts. In the previous meeting nearly a month ago, the committee expressed concern about the situation but concluded overall that it had not yet risen to the level of a PHEIC.

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Polio detected in US—in same NY county with explosive measles outbreak in 2019 [Updated]

Kids line up to get their polio vaccines at the Woodbury Avenue School in Huntington, New York, on April 27, 1954.

Enlarge / Kids line up to get their polio vaccines at the Woodbury Avenue School in Huntington, New York, on April 27, 1954. (credit: Getty | Newsday LLC)

 Health officials in New York have detected a case of polio, marking the first case of the dangerous viral disease in the United States in years.

The case was detected in a Rockland County, which in 2019 struggled with an explosive measles outbreak fueled by pockets of the community with low vaccination rates. Health officials in Rockland, neighboring New York City, and the state are now urging unvaccinated residents, particularly children, to get vaccinated, and those vaccinated, but at high risk, to get boosted.

“Many of you may be too young to remember polio, but when I was growing up, this disease struck fear in families, including my own,” Rockland County Executive Ed Day said in a statement. “The fact that it is still around decades after the vaccine was created shows you just how relentless it is. Do the right thing for your child and the greater good of your community and have your child vaccinated now.”

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BA.5 skyrockets in US, now accounting for 78% of cases

BA.5 skyrockets in US, now accounting for 78% of cases

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Spencer Platt)

The omicron coronavirus subvariant BA.5 is hurtling toward complete domination in the US, now accounting for an estimated 78 percent of the country’s cases—which are also on the rise.

The breakneck takeover is stunning, with BA.5 showing a significant growth advantage over all other lineages and sublineages. In the US, that seems to include BA.4, which shares the same spike protein mutations but has differing mutations elsewhere in its genome.

At the start of June, BA.5 accounted for less than 10 percent of cases, with BA.4 lagging slightly, accounting for an estimated 6.4 percent. Since then, BA.5 has blasted ahead to 78 percent, while BA.4 peaked at 14.4 percent early in July and has now declined to 12.8 percent.

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US monkeypox cases hit 1,470; CDC says more coming, and we’re short on vaccines

A vial of the Monkeypox vaccine is displayed by a medical professional at a vaccination site at the Northwell Health offices at Cherry Grove on Fire Island, New York, on July 13, 2022.

Enlarge / A vial of the Monkeypox vaccine is displayed by a medical professional at a vaccination site at the Northwell Health offices at Cherry Grove on Fire Island, New York, on July 13, 2022. (credit: Getty | James Carbone)

US monkeypox cases hit 1,470 this week, and federal officials reported Friday that they expect the tally to continue rising amid expanded testing, continued community transmission, and a current shortage of vaccines. The federal update comes as officials face growing criticism over their handling of the outbreak, and experts fear it may already be too late to contain the virus.

Overall, the multinational monkeypox outbreak has tallied nearly 13,000 cases, with the largest counts in Spain (2,835), Germany (1,859), and the UK (1,856). The US now ranks fourth worldwide. But, it could potentially move up in the ranks quickly.

“We anticipate an increase in cases in the coming weeks,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing Friday. Walensky laid out three reasons why they are expecting an upcoming rise.

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Novavax’s COVID vaccine finally wins FDA authorization for use in unvaccinated

Empty vials of the Novavax Inc. Nuvaxovid COVID-19 vaccine arranged at the Tegel Vaccine Center in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, March 7, 2022.

Enlarge / Empty vials of the Novavax Inc. Nuvaxovid COVID-19 vaccine arranged at the Tegel Vaccine Center in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, March 7, 2022. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg )

The US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday issued a long-awaited authorization for Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine. It is the fourth COVID-19 vaccine to gain authorization in the US, but it’s the first to use a more conventional protein-subunit design.

For now, the two-dose vaccine is mainly aimed at the roughly 72 million Americans who have yet to receive one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA’s emergency use authorization only allows for its use as a primary series, not a booster for those already vaccinated. Though Novavax is expected to seek booster authorization later, the company and the FDA hope that the vaccine’s traditional formulation will entice vaccination holdouts now, particularly as BA.5 sweeps the country.

Some consider the vaccine’s protein-subunit design as a more tried-and-true design relative to the newer mRNA-based platform used in the leading COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. While mRNA-based vaccines made their public debut during the pandemic, protein-subunit-based vaccines were already in use against various diseases, including hepatitis B, flu, pertussis (whooping cough), and meningococcal infections.

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Feds may expand 2nd boosters to all adults as anxiety surges over BA.5 wave

Feds may expand 2nd boosters to all adults as anxiety surges over BA.5 wave

Enlarge

The swift rise of omicron subvariant BA.5—with its increased immune-evading abilities and demonstrable growth advantage—has federal officials on edge. In a flurry of activity late Monday and early Tuesday, officials doubled down on pandemic measures, renewed calls for vigilance, and are considering expanding eligibility of second boosters to all adults.

In a press briefing Tuesday morning, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha outlined a battle plan against BA.5, which, as of today, is estimated to account for 65 percent of cases in the US. Jha highlighted efforts and tools to prevent another towering wave of infection as seen with the original omicron in January. The plan includes a stronger push to get Americans vaccinated and boosted, plus renewed encouragement to test, treat, mask, and improve indoor ventilation.

US COVID-19 cases are currently plateaued at a high level of around 117,000 new cases per day—but that’s likely a significant underestimate given that many Americans are testing at home and not reporting their cases. Hospitalizations and intensive care admissions, meanwhile, are rising, with 17 percent and 21 percent increases over the past two weeks, respectively, according to tracking by The New York Times. Generally, the daily average of hospitalizations has more than doubled since the end of May, with the current average nearing 38,000.

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Moderna to make two different omicron boosters: one for US, another for UK, EU

A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center. (credit: Getty | SOPA Images)

The type of COVID-19 booster dose you get later this year could depend on where you live.

Vaccine maker Moderna is working up two omicron-targeting boosters for different countries. If the company’s plans pan out, it will mark the first time that COVID-19 vaccines would target different versions of the pandemic coronavirus in different places. Until now, all vaccines, including boosters, have targeted the ancestral strain of SARS-CoV-2, first identified in Wuhan, China.

Both of Moderna’s next-gen booster candidates are bivalent vaccines, which target both the ancestral virus and some version of omicron. One booster option targets BA.1—the version of omicron that first burst out of South Africa last November, causing a towering wave of infection in the US in January 2022. That BA.1-based next-gen booster could be available in the EU, UK,  Australia, and elsewhere later this month or early August. Moderna’s other booster option targets BA.4/5 and is intended for use in the US. However, it likely won’t be ready until early to mid-fall.

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How hiring the wrong medical “expert” derailed US pandemic response

Image of a man speaking from behind a podium.

Enlarge / Scott Atlas, a White House adviser, used his position to advocate for allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread and tried to block testing for it, which would further that goal. (credit: MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images)

While one congressional committee seems to be grabbing all the headlines recently, other investigations of the Trump administration have continued in the background. One of them is trying to determine how the US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic went so wrong that the country ended up with over a million deaths and one of the worst per-capita death rates in the world. In its own words, the committee’s goal is “to ensure the American people receive a full accounting of what went wrong and to determine what corrective steps are necessary to ensure our nation is better prepared for any future public health crisis.”

In its latest report, released on Tuesday, the committee details the White House career of Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no infectious disease experience. Atlas’ hiring by the White House was expected to be so controversial that he was initially instructed to hide his staff ID from the actual government public health experts. Yet he quickly became a driving force for the adoption of policies that would achieve herd immunity by allowing most of the US population to be infected—even as other officials denied that this was the policy.

How’d this guy get here?

Atlas’ lack of relevant expertise raises questions as to why he was hired in the first place. The new report details that he wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions about the pandemic response, making multiple TV appearances to complain about the policies advocated by actual public health experts. He also directly reached out to a senior government official, calling the US’s response “a massive overreaction” to a virus he estimated “would cause about 10,000 deaths.”

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Poliovirus may be spreading in London; virus detected in sewage for months

A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a child out of Kabul Afghanistan on May 17, 2016.

Enlarge / A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a child out of Kabul Afghanistan on May 17, 2016. (credit: Getty | Anadolu Agency)

A vaccine-derived version of poliovirus has repeatedly surfaced in London sewage over the past several months, suggesting there may be a cryptic or hidden spread among some unvaccinated people, UK health officials announced Wednesday.

No polio cases have been reported so far, nor any identified cases of paralysis. But sewage sampling in one London treatment plant has repeatedly detected closely related vaccine-derived polioviruses between February and May. This suggests “it is likely there has been some spread between closely-linked individuals in North and East London and that they are now shedding the type 2 poliovirus strain in their feces,” the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.

Though the current situation raises alarm, the agency notes that it’s otherwise common to see a small number of vaccine-like polioviruses pop up in sewage from time to time, usually from people who have recently been vaccinated out of the country. This is because many countries use oral polio vaccines that include weakened (attenuated) polioviruses, which can still replicate in the intestines and thus be present in stool. They can also spread to others via poor hygiene and sanitation (i.e., unwashed hands and food or water contaminated by sewage), which can become concerning amid poor vaccination rates.

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EU warns of BA.4/BA.5 uprising, braces for next wave of cases

Members of the public queue outside a pharmacy to receive COVID-19 antigen tests in Paris on January 6, 2022.

Enlarge / Members of the public queue outside a pharmacy to receive COVID-19 antigen tests in Paris on January 6, 2022. (credit: Getty | LUDOVIC MARIN)

Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are on the rise in the European Union, spurring officials there to warn that a surge of COVID-19 cases will likely follow in the coming weeks.

In an alert Monday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control cautioned that various factors would influence how bad the expected BA.4/BA.5 wave will be. Those factors include the extent of vaccination and past infection in the population, as well as timing since those events because protection from both wanes over time.

BA.4 and BA.5 are clumped together because they share the same mutations in the genetic coding for their spike proteins, though they have differing mutations elsewhere in their genome. Both have a transmission advantage over the initial omicron subvariant, BA.1, as well as subvariants BA.2 and BA.2.12.1.

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Monkeypox spreading via direct, physical contact, CDC says as US cases hit 45

Monkeypox spreading via direct, physical contact, CDC says as US cases hit 45

(credit: CDC | UK Health Security Agency)

The US has now identified 45 monkeypox cases scattered across 15 states and the District of Columbia, while the multinational outbreak has reached more than 1,300 confirmed cases from at least 31 countries. No deaths have been reported.

In a press briefing Friday, US health officials provided updates on efforts to halt the spread of the virus and dispel unfounded concerns that the virus is spreading through the air.

To date, no cases of airborne transmission have been reported in the outbreak, which has almost entirely been found spreading through sexual networks of men who have sex with men. Monkeypox may spread through large, short-range respiratory droplets, and health care providers are encouraged to mask and take other precautions during specific procedures, such as intubation. But the general potential for spread via smaller, long-range aerosols is more speculative and theoretical.

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BA.4, BA.5 gain ground in US, pose higher risk of breakthrough infections

A person holds a positive SARS-CoV-2 rapid test on February 17, 2022 in Berlin, Germany.

Enlarge / A person holds a positive SARS-CoV-2 rapid test on February 17, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (credit: Getty | Thomas Trutschel)

Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 has overtaken BA.2 as the dominant version of the pandemic coronavirus in the US, now accounting for an estimated 59 percent of cases nationwide. But BA.2.12.1’s reign may end as quickly as it began, with yet another batch of omicron subvariants gaining ground—BA.4 and BA.5—and threatening to cause more breakthrough infections.

BA.2.12.1 has a transmission advantage over BA.2, which itself has an edge over the initial omicron subvariant, BA.1, that caused a towering surge of US cases in mid-January. BA.2 peaked in mid-April, accounting for 76 percent of US cases at its height. But then came BA.2.12.1, which is named for being the 12th lineage stemming from BA.2 and the first branch of that BA.2.12 lineage.

When BA.2 peaked in mid-April, BA.2.12.1 accounted for about 18 percent of cases. It reached about 43 percent prevalence by mid-May and has since overtaken BA.2, which currently accounts for only about 35 percent of cases. BA.2.12.1 is dominant in every region of the country, except for the Northwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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US officials monitoring over 400 people for monkeypox; 21 cases confirmed

A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid.

Enlarge / A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

Health officials in the US have confirmed 21 cases of monkeypox across 11 states amid a multinational outbreak that has grown to more than 800 cases in over two dozen countries.

In a press briefing Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed details of the 17 US cases that officials have clinical data. The officials noted that genetic sequencing from some of the cases revealed two distinct lineages of the monkeypox virus, which may indicate that monkeypox has been quietly spreading among humans for much longer than previously known. It also deepens concern over whether the current outbreak can be contained entirely.

Low risk overall

So far, there have been no deaths reported in the US or multinational outbreak. Among the 17 well-documented US cases, all patients are reported to be doing well and are isolating.

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Experts warn of continued monkeypox spread as hundreds of cases found worldwide

A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid.

Enlarge / A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The multinational monkeypox outbreak continues to pose a low risk to the general public, and, for now, it seems unlikely that cases will mushroom into a global pandemic, according to the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But, experts are concerned that the virus could continue to spread and that transmission may escape containment without an urgent and thorough public health response.

The outbreak tally continues to increase rapidly, with hundreds of cases now reported across at least 23 countries. In an update released Sunday, May 29, WHO reported 257 confirmed cases and around 120 suspected cases from 23 countries. Those figures are already significantly outdated. As of Monday, Our World in Data reported 555 confirmed cases worldwide. On Tuesday, the United Kingdom reported 190 cases, up from the 106 that WHO reported Sunday. Likewise, the US total has increased to 15 cases, up from 10 reported last week.

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CDC presumes community spread of monkeypox; 9 cases now in 7 states

A 2003 photo of the arms and legs of a 4-year-old girl infected with monkeypox in Liberia.

Enlarge / A 2003 photo of the arms and legs of a 4-year-old girl infected with monkeypox in Liberia. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

Monkeypox is presumed to have spread within the US, and nine cases have now been identified in seven states, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky.

In a press briefing Thursday, Walensky said the nine cases were from Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Utah, Washington, California, and Virginia. Most of the nine cases had recent international travel to areas with active monkeypox cases, but not all.

“We need to presume that there is some community spread,” Walensky said. “But there is active contact tracing that is happening right now to understand whether and how these cases might have been in contact with each other or with others in other countries.”

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More than 1 in 5 COVID survivors may develop long COVID, CDC study suggests

A woman breathes into a tube while a health care worker looks on.

Enlarge / A long-COVID patient in Germany takes a pulmonary function test at Hufeland Clinic’s Center for Pneumology. (credit: Getty | picture alliance)

More than one in five adults in the US who have recovered from COVID-19 may end up developing a long-term condition linked to the viral infection, according to a study published this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The post-COVID conditions span heart, lung, kidney, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological, and mental health conditions. Overall, COVID survivors had nearly twice the risk of developing respiratory and lung conditions, including pulmonary embolisms, compared with uninfected controls. The most common post-COVID conditions were respiratory conditions and musculoskeletal pain.

Among COVID survivors, people ages 18 to 64 were more likely than older survivors to develop cardiac dysrhythmia and musculoskeletal pain. The risks for survivors 65 and up were greater for kidney failure, blood clots, cerebrovascular disease, muscle disorders, neurological conditions, and mental health conditions.

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Everything CDC wants you to know about monkeypox and the current risk level

A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid.

Enlarge / A negative stain electron micrograph of a monkeypox virus virion in human vesicular fluid. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today provided an update on the monkeypox situation in the US, which is connected to a growing multinational outbreak. It also used the time to address open questions and calm some unfounded fears.

To date, there are five confirmed and probable cases in the US. The one confirmed case of monkeypox in the US was identified last week in a Massachusetts man who had recently traveled to Canada. The four probable cases include one in New York City, one in Florida, and two in Utah.

Those four cases are probable because they all tested positive for an orthopoxvirus, the family of viruses that includes monkeypox and smallpox. They are considered presumptive monkeypox cases and are being treated as such while the CDC carries out secondary testing to confirm monkeypox.

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Sixth child in US dies of unexplained hepatitis as global cases top 600

Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

Enlarge / Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

A sixth child has died in the United States from puzzling liver inflammation—aka hepatitis—and the number of unexplained cases has risen to 180 across 36 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest death was announced in a press briefing Friday, led by CDC Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases Jay Butler, who said it was reported to the agency Thursday. He did not indicate in which state the death occurred.

In addition to the deaths, 15 of the 180 cases required liver transplants, Butler reported. The cases all occurred in children under the age of 10 but skewed to preschool-age children, with the median age being around 2 years.

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Monkeypox outbreak erupts; US, UK, Spain, Portugal, and more report cases

A 2003 photo of the arms and legs of a 4-year-old girl infected with monkeypox in Liberia.

Enlarge / A 2003 photo of the arms and legs of a 4-year-old girl infected with monkeypox in Liberia. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

A growing outbreak of monkeypox cases has spread across several countries, including the US, suggesting that the animal-transmitted disease that occurs in forested areas of Central and West Africa has been quietly spreading undetected.

So far, the US has reported one case in a Massachusetts man who had recently traveled to Canada, which, as of Thursday, reported 17 suspected cases in Montreal. The United Kingdom has identified nine cases, one of which is connected to recent travel to Nigeria, where monkeypox is endemic. But the other cases appear to have been infected within the UK and are all not linked to the travel-related case by contact or timing. Portugal is investigating more than 20 cases, Spain is reportedly investigating 23 cases, and Italy and Sweden have each reported at least one case.

Disease origins

Monkeypox is a relative of smallpox and produces similar symptoms, but it causes a milder disease than that of the eradicated virus. There are two clades of monkeypox: the West African clade and the Congo Basin clade. The West African clade, which is what has been detected in the UK, is the milder of the two. It is usually a self-limiting infection, though it can cause severe disease in some cases. The case fatality rate has been estimated at about 1 percent. The Congo Basin clade, meanwhile, has an estimated fatality rate of as high as 10 percent. For both clades, children are among those at high risk of severe disease, and infection can be particularly dangerous during pregnancy, causing complications, congenital conditions, and stillbirth.

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FDA obliterates formula maker’s defense of contamination linked to baby deaths

The Abbott manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, on May 13, 2022.

Enlarge / The Abbott manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, on May 13, 2022. (credit: Getty | Jeff Kowalsky)

Formula maker Abbott continues to firmly deny that its infant formulas sickened four babies, killing two. The denial is despite the same dangerous bacteria that sickened the infants—Cronobacter sakazakii—being found at the company’s formula factory in Sturgis, Michigan, which the Food and Drug Administration alleges was producing formula “under insanitary conditions.” And at least one container of Abbott’s formula tested positive for the same Cronobacter sakazakii strain found infecting one of the infants.

Still, Abbott argues that the link hasn’t been confirmed, and its formula isn’t to blame. In a lengthy Twitter thread on May 13, the company made the blunt assertion: “The formula from this plant did not cause these infant illnesses.”

But that is a brazen and misleading claim, according to the Food and Drug Administration. In a press briefing Monday evening, agency officials thoroughly dismantled Abbott’s defense.

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Kids 5 to 11 get FDA OK for COVID-19 booster doses

A boy gives a nurse a high five before receiving a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site for 5-11 year-olds at Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs, Florida.

Enlarge / A boy gives a nurse a high five before receiving a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site for 5-11 year-olds at Eastmonte Park in Altamonte Springs, Florida. (credit: Getty | SOPA)

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday authorized booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 through 11, the first booster dose for the age group intended to revive waning immune protection.

The authorization comes as the US continues to see COVID-19 cases rise due to the extremely transmissible omicron coronavirus subvariants, specifically BA.2 and BA.2.12.1, which now account for an estimated 51 percent and 47.5 percent of all reported cases, respectively. Transmission levels are considered high in just over 50 percent of US counties, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The seven-day average of new daily cases is nearly 96,000, up 57 percent in the last two weeks, according to data tracking by The New York Times. Hospitalizations are around 22,000, up 26 percent. Daily deaths are averaging around 300.

But some experts highlight that data on the current omicron-subvariant wave is muted because testing sites have shuttered, and many people are relying on at-home testing results that are largely not reported. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, tweeted over the weekend that the current wave could rival that of the original omicron wave in January. He strongly urged Americans to get vaccinated and boosted and to vaccinate their children.

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Baby formula shortage worsens as national out-of-stock rate hits 43%

A nearly empty baby formula display shelf is seen at a Walgreens pharmacy on May 9, 2022 in New York City.

Enlarge / A nearly empty baby formula display shelf is seen at a Walgreens pharmacy on May 9, 2022 in New York City. (credit: Getty | China News Service)

Shortages of infant and specialty formulas continue to worsen in the US, with the national out-of-stock rate hitting a high of 43 percent in the first week of May, according to data released this week from Datasembly, which tracks retail information.

With bare shelves in stores, purchase limits, and online price gouging and scams, parents across the country are struggling to feed formula-fed babies and children with medical conditions that necessitate specialized formulas. News reports are filled with parents driving hours to search stores for formula or posting pleas online. Some are even watering down formula or turning to recalled batches contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

The dire shortage is due to a combination of factors, including pandemic-related supply chain issues, product recalls, and inflation, according to Datasembly CEO Ben Reich.

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450 cases, 11 dead worldwide in growing child hepatitis mystery

Adenoviruses remain the leading suspect, though no cause has been identified.

Enlarge / Adenoviruses remain the leading suspect, though no cause has been identified. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The global tally of unexplained hepatitis cases in children has reached about 450, including 11 reported deaths, according to an update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The cases come from more than two dozen countries around the world, with about 14 countries reporting more than five cases. The countries with the largest case counts so far are the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the UK, officials have identified 163 cases in children under the age of 16, 11 of whom required liver transplants. Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control reported 109 cases under investigation in children under the age of 10 from 25 states. Of those cases, 14 percent required liver transplants, and five children died.

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Puzzling cases of hepatitis in kids leaps to 109 in 25 states, CDC reports

Huge facade for CDC headquarters against a beautiful sky.

Enlarge / Signage outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (credit: Bloomberg | Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now investigating 109 cases of unexplained liver inflammation—hepatitis—in young children from 25 states over the past seven months. Of the 109 affected children, five have died, and 15 (14 percent) required liver transplants. The children were all under the age of 10, and 90 percent were hospitalized.

The CDC’s announcement Friday marks a dramatic uptick in the US’s reported cases, which was limited to nine confirmed cases in Alabama just three weeks ago. The cases also add to a mounting global tally, which reached upward of 300 cases from more than two dozen countries.

But, despite the boom in cases, CDC and international health investigators are still puzzled about the cause of the illnesses. Severe hepatitis is rare in young children, and unexplained cases of severe hepatitis are rarer.

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FDA puts the brakes on J&J vaccine after 9th clotting death reported

Boxes of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Florida.

Enlarge / Boxes of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Florida. (credit: Getty | Paul Hennessy)

The US Food and Drug Administration limited the use of the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) COVID-19 vaccine late Thursday, citing the risk of a very rare but severe clotting disorder called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS).

From now on, the J&J vaccine is only to be used in people ages 18 and up who are unable or unwilling to receive an alternative COVID-19 vaccine. That includes people who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, people who have personal concerns about mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and would otherwise not get vaccinated, and people who don’t have access to mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

The limitation comes as the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been closely monitoring people who received J&J COVID-19 vaccinations for TTS. To date, the agencies have identified and confirmed 60 cases of TTS linked to the vaccine, including nine deaths. That represents a rate of 3.23 TTS cases per million doses of J&J vaccine administered, and a rate of 0.48 TTS deaths per million doses of vaccine administered, the FDA said Thursday.

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Details of 9 puzzling hepatitis cases rule out SARS-CoV-2 as culprit, CDC says

Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

Enlarge / Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ruled out the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, as a possible cause of the puzzling, international outbreak of severe hepatitis (liver inflammation) in children, according to a statement released Friday.

The outbreak has sickened more than 170 children in more than a dozen countries in recent months, with case counts ticking up by the day. Around 10 percent of the children—mostly under the age of 10—have required liver transplants. The World Health Organization has reported one death.

In the US, officials in at least five states have reported at least 25 confirmed or possible cases: Alabama (9), North Carolina (2), Wisconsin (4), Illinois (3), and California (7). At least three of the US cases have required liver transplants and officials in Wisconsin are investigating a possible death linked to the outbreak.

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First possible US death reported in international outbreak of child hepatitis

First possible US death reported in international outbreak of child hepatitis

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Barcroft)

Health officials in Wisconsin are investigating what could be the first child death in the US—and the second worldwide—linked to a growing international outbreak of unexplained liver inflammation, aka hepatitis, in children.

In a health alert Wednesday, Wisconsin health officials said they are investigating four cases of unexplained hepatitis in children that match the profile of the outbreak cases. Two of the cases were severe, with one leading to a liver transplant and the other being the fatality.

Wisconsin is at least the fifth US state to report cases of mysterious and severe hepatitis in children. Earlier this month, Alabama health officials initially reported nine cases, which occurred between October 2021 and February 2022. Five of the cases occurred last November in the same large children’s hospital in the state, and three of those cases involved acute liver failure.

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75% of US children have now had COVID, up from 44% due to omicron

A child arrives at an elementary school vaccination site for children ages 5 to 11 in Miami in November 2021.

Enlarge / A child arrives at an elementary school vaccination site for children ages 5 to 11 in Miami in November 2021. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

At least 75 percent of US children have now been infected with the pandemic coronavirus, up from roughly 44 percent before the omicron wave, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children in the age groups of 0 to 11 and 12 to 17 have the highest infection rates and saw the most significant increases during the omicron wave compared with any other age group. About a third of all children in the country were newly infected during the omicron wave. Together, the data showcase just how poorly the country has done at shielding children—including those not yet eligible for vaccination—from the pandemic virus.

The new data dovetails with a study published by the CDC in February, which found that the peak rate of pediatric hospitalizations during the omicron wave was four times higher than the peak seen during the delta wave last fall. The largest increase was seen in children ages 0 to 4, who had a peak hospitalization rate five times higher than the peak amid delta.

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CDC raises alarm of mysterious hepatitis cases in kids; 2 states report cases

Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C.

Enlarge / Liver lesions in patient with chronic active hepatitis C. (credit: Getty | BSIP)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a health alert Thursday notifying clinicians of a US-based cluster of unexplained cases of liver inflammation in young children, which appear to be part of a puzzling international outbreak that now spans at least 10 countries and two US states.

According to the CDC, Alabama has seen nine cases of unexplained liver inflammation—aka hepatitis—in children between the ages of one and six since October of last year. Two of the cases resulted in liver transplants, though no deaths have been reported. Health officials took notice of the unexplained illnesses after a cluster of five cases presented at one children’s hospital in the state last November, with three of those cases involving acute liver failure. The state has since identified four other cases through February, 2022.

According to reporting by Stat News, North Carolina is also investigating two cases in school-aged children, neither of which required transplants.

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Fate of travel mask mandate in limbo as CDC decides whether to appeal

Fate of travel mask mandate in limbo as CDC decides whether to appeal

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Spencer Platt)

The Department of Justice late Tuesday announced that it disagrees with a Florida judge’s ruling that abruptly nixed the federal travel mask mandate. However, the department said it would not immediately seek an appeal or a stay that would keep the mandate in place while litigation continued.

Instead, the DOJ said that it is now up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine if the mask mandate “remains necessary for the public’s health.” If the CDC determines that it is necessary, the DOJ will appeal the decision.

The CDC is reportedly undecided on the matter. On April 13, just before the mask mandate was set to expire, the CDC extended it for 15 days so it could assess the state of the pandemic and decide if the mandate was still necessary. The agency noted the recent—and continuing—uptick in cases driven by the BA.2 omicron subvariant. “The CDC Mask Order remains in effect while CDC assesses the potential impact of the rise of cases on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths and healthcare system capacity,” the agency said at the time. “[The Transportation Security Administration] will extend the security directive and emergency amendment for 15 days, through May 3, 2022.”

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“Wearing a mask cleans nothing:” Florida judge vacates CDC travel mask mandate

A sign advises people to wear a mask and stand six feet apart as travelers make their way through Miami International Airport on December 28, 2021.

Enlarge / A sign advises people to wear a mask and stand six feet apart as travelers make their way through Miami International Airport on December 28, 2021. (credit: Getty | Joe Raedle)

A federal judge in Florida on Monday struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate for public transit and travel hubs.

The abrupt ruling throws passenger requirements into tumult when Americans are resuming pre-pandemic travel levels and while cases of the omicron subvariant BA.2 have begun ticking upward.

It’s unclear if or when the Department of Justice will appeal the judge’s order and seek a stay to reinstate the mandate until the matter is litigated further. According to the latest reports, administration officials confirmed that the mandate is no longer in place, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends the use of masks on public transit. The administration is said to be reviewing the next steps.

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Puzzling cases of severe liver disease in children spark international probe

A baby being treated with blue light, a jaundice-prevention measure.

Enlarge / A baby being treated with blue light, a jaundice-prevention measure. (credit: Getty | Picture Alliance)

Health officials in Scotland on Thursday published early findings from a burgeoning international investigation into dozens of puzzling cases of severe liver inflammation among children. A few cases have already led to acute liver failure and liver transplants.

Thursday’s report detailed 13 severe cases in Scotland, mostly in children between the ages of 3 and 5 and nearly all occurring in just March and April this year. Scotland usually tallies fewer than four such cases of unexplained liver inflammation—aka hepatitis—in children over the course of an entire year. Of the 13 cases this year in Scotland, one has led to a liver transplant and five are still in the hospital. No deaths have been reported.

Meanwhile, health officials in England reported approximately 60 unexplained severe hepatitis cases in 2022, most of which were in children ages 2 to 5. Some of those cases progressed to acute liver failure, and a few have also led to liver transplantation. Again, no deaths have been reported.

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Pfizer CEO pushes for fourth shots as anxiety over BA.2 subvariant rises

A man in an open-collared suit addresses a woman in a matching chair.

Enlarge / Pfizer Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla speaks onstage at the 2022 SXSW Conference at JW Marriott Austin on March 14, 2022 in Austin. (credit: Getty | Chris Saucedo)

While US health experts closely monitor upticks of COVID-19 cases in Europe as well as the global rise of the omicron subvariant BA.2, Pfizer is renewing calls for fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

In an interview Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said that a fourth dose—aka a second booster—is “necessary.”

“The protection what we are getting from the third [doses], it is good enough—actually, quite good for hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr. Bourla said. But, “it’s not that good against infections” with omicron, and “it doesn’t last very long.” He reported that Pfizer is “working very diligently” to come up with a new dose that will protect against all variants and provide longer-lasting protection.

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The rat problem in Washington, DC, is so bad, two people got hantavirus

A rat drinks water in a back alley in the Park View neighborhood near a construction site on Saturday, September 10, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Enlarge / A rat drinks water in a back alley in the Park View neighborhood near a construction site on Saturday, September 10, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (credit: Getty | The Washington Post)

Many people might already think of the nation’s capital as a political rat’s nest, teeming with rat-related features, like underground networks and crowded backrooms where any faint smell of betrayal could send lawmakers scurrying. But Washington, DC, is also a den of literal rats. And it’s creating a concerning risk of viral spillover for residents.

In a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DC health officials ratted out the first two known cases of hantavirus spillover in the city. The virus festers quietly in rats and other rodent populations, but in humans it can cause potentially deadly respiratory and hemorrhagic diseases. Humans pick up the infection by direct contact with rodent urine or nest dust or by breathing in aerosolized viral particles from urine, droppings, or saliva. There’s also the possibility that the virus can spread from rat bites, but this is less common. Once in a human, the virus almost never jumps from human to human.

Fortunately for DC residents, the type of hantavirus found in the city is one of the milder types: an “Old World” hantavirus called the Seoul virus. Old World hantaviruses cause a disease called Hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome. HFRS can start out like a generic infection with fever, chills, nausea, and headache. But it can progress to low blood pressure, acute shock, vascular leakage, and acute kidney failure, the CDC notes. The severity of HFRS varies by which hantavirus you catch, but fatality rates can reach up to 15 percent. The Seoul virus is one of the milder forms, with a fatality rate of only about 1 percent. As such, in both of the cases reported by DC health officials, the infected individuals recovered.

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43% of Americans—140 million—have had COVID, CDC estimates

A plastic tray holds vials of blood upright.

Enlarge / Blood samples for COVID-19 antibody testing. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

An estimated 140 million people in the US—around 43 percent—have had COVID-19, according to the latest analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using data from the end of January.

The estimate of people infected with COVID-19 is nearly double the CDC’s cumulative tally of cases reported at the end of January, which totaled around 74 million. These numbers are expected to differ because many COVID-19 cases are not detected or reported—i.e., people may not get tested at all or take a home-test that is not reported. That means officials case counts are expected to be a significant undercount of actual infections. However, case reports can also include infections in people who have tested positive multiple times, effectively counting some people more than once.

The CDC has been estimating actual infections over time, which provides more insight into the recent tsunami of cases from the ultratransmissible omicron variant. Based on data from the end of November, the CDC estimates that about 37 million people became infected with the pandemic coronavirus in December and January. The number of cases reported to the CDC during that time frame was around 26 million.

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CDC issues new guidance on mask use

Image of a color-coded map of the US.

Enlarge / The new standards place most of the country in a state where mask use is optional. (credit: CDC)

In a widely expected move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines for the use of masks and other precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. While the precautions people should take—vaccinations and mask use—are largely unchanged, the metrics that will trigger changes in suggested precautions will shift from being focused purely on case counts to including information on the severity of cases and hospital capacity.

The move had been hinted at for weeks, and it comes in response to a wide range of pressures. These include the rapidly falling numbers of new cases following the peak of omicron infections earlier this year, changes made in policies at the state level, and a general fatigue regarding pandemic precautions among the public. During a press call announcing the changes, however, CDC head Rochelle Walensky said the agency had been considering the changes for some time.

What’s new

Walensky announced the changes by saying, “We’re in a stronger place today,” before elaborating that this is because, “with widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is lower.” Given that situation, the CDC has decided to shift the focus of its advice to cases of severe illness and the strain those put on the health care system.

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CDC wants to “give people a break” from masks, says new guidance coming

Paper print-out taped to glass door.

Enlarge / Signage on a window of a coffee shop informs customer of their masking policy in San Francisco, California, US, on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. The state’s indoor mask requirement, which requires everyone to wear face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status, expired on Wednesday. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

With national cases of COVID-19 dropping precipitously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon release new guidance on how states and local governments can ease out of health restrictions, including indoor mask wearing. According to news reports citing unnamed officials, new guidance could come as early as next week.

The CDC’s guidance will arrive well after several states and local governments charged ahead with plans to pull back pandemic restrictions, particularly indoor masking. The moves have left some questioning whether the CDC is, once again, struggling to keep up with the pandemic’s shifting conditions.

In a press briefing last week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stood by the current guidance, noting that “our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high.” While the agency was “encouraged” by current downward trends, “we are not there yet,” Dr. Walensky said of easing guidance.

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Booster protection from omicron hospital stay dips from 91% to 78%

A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center. (credit: Getty | SOPA Images)

COVID-19 booster doses are largely holding up against the ultratransmissible omicron variant, despite the fact that protection inevitably wanes over time, according to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, with the boosters’ inevitable waning and omicron’s ability to dodge some immune responses, fourth doses may be needed in the future to sustain or improve protection against COVID-19, the study authors note.

The study, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, estimated booster effectiveness against severe disease and hospitalizations. It charted a slight decline in booster effectiveness from less than two months after a booster dose to over four or five months after the third jab. The latter time frame is the latest for which there is available booster data, based on when the shots became widely offered. The study collected data from patients in 10 states, including from over 240,000 visits to emergency rooms or urgent care centers and more than 93,000 hospitalizations.

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As states drop masking, CDC stands by guidance: “We are not there yet”

A masked woman in a business suit gestures while speaking into a microphone.

Enlarge / Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (credit: Getty | Pool)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is standing by its mask guidance, despite more and more states easing recommendations as the wave of omicron cases continues to recede.

The CDC’s current mask guidance says that people who are up to date on their vaccinations (i.e., vaccinated and boosted if eligible) should wear a mask in indoor public settings in any area that has substantial or high transmission. The agency defines substantial transmission as having between 50 to 99.99 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. High transmission is having 100 or more new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days.

Currently, 99.1 percent of counties in the entire country have high transmission. Thus, per CDC guidance, nearly the entire country should continue to recommend masking indoors.

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CDC turns to poop surveillance for future COVID monitoring

Aeration System, Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant, Camarillo, Ventura County, California.

Enlarge / Aeration System, Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant, Camarillo, Ventura County, California. (credit: Getty | Universal Images Group)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday announced it is now publicly logging levels of SARS-CoV-2 found in sewage from around the country. The announcement elevates a growing system for wastewater surveillance that the CDC says will eventually be aimed at other infectious diseases.

The system began as a grassroots research effort in 2020 but has grown to a network of more than 400 wastewater sampling sites nationwide, representing the feces of approximately 53 million Americans. The CDC is now working with 37 states, four cities, and two territories to add more wastewater sampling sites. The health agency expects to have an additional 250 sites online in the coming weeks and more after that in the coming months.

In a press briefing Friday, Dr. Amy Kirby, the CDC’s program lead for the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS), called the sampling a critical early warning system for COVID-19 surges and variants, as well as “a new frontier of infectious disease surveillance in the US.”

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Unvaccinated 5X more likely to get omicron than those boosted, CDC reports

A tray of prepared syringes for booster vaccinations with Moderna's vaccine.

Enlarge / A tray of prepared syringes for booster vaccinations with Moderna’s vaccine. (credit: Getty | Picture alliance)

Amid the stratospheric rise of the omicron variant, real-world data on the effectiveness of COVID-19 booster doses is now rolling in—and it is only looking up for boosters.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported three studies Friday, two published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) and another, appearing in JAMA, by CDC scientists.

One of the MMWR studies looked at the vaccination status of nearly 10 million COVID-19 cases from 25 state and local health departments. CDC scientists and health officials compared weekly rates of COVID-19 infections between unvaccinated people, fully vaccinated people, and fully vaccinated people who were also boosted. In the month of December, as cases of the ultra-transmissible omicron variant skyrocketed, unvaccinated people were nearly three times more likely to report a case of COVID-19 than people fully vaccinated. Compared with fully vaccinated and boosted people, the unvaccinated were five times more likely to report a case.

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CDC to update advice on best masks—but just wants you to wear one, any of them

A masked woman in a business suit.

Enlarge / Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2022 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty | Shawn Thew)

As cases of the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus variant continue to increase in the US, many experts have pushed for Americans to upgrade their masks to better protect themselves—i.e., ditch the handmade cloth masks that were fashionable in spring 2020 for options like the high-quality N95s and KN95s that are now more available.

Taking note of the shift, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today that it is working to update the mask guidance on its website, which hasn’t been refreshed since last fall, prior to omicron’s rise. Meanwhile, the White House is actively considering providing high-quality masks to Americans.

In a press briefing Wednesday, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients offered little detail on what a federal mask distribution program might look like or when it could come, noting only, “We’re in the process right now of strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans.”

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CDC head talks screwups, 4th doses, omicron’s wave in long-awaited briefing

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters stands in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

Enlarge / The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters stands in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday held its first COVID-19 press briefing in over a year. The briefing covered a wide range of pandemic-related topics, from the rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases to the trajectory of the omicron wave and the agency’s own missteps in communicating with the public.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky fielded most of the questions herself during the roughly 35-minute phone conference, as reporter after reporter expressed the need for more briefings and thanked her for being available today. Walensky noted that she had been in over 80 COVID-19 briefings held by the White House. However, the CDC had not given its own briefing on its pandemic-related work since January 6, 2021.

In the intervening year, the CDC has experienced periodic missteps and has taken heavy criticism for muddled messaging around ever-evolving pandemic guidance. The latest such episode unfolded last week after the agency said that certain individuals infected with COVID-19 could leave isolation periods early without having to test negative. The agency has stood by the decision, despite science-based criticisms and concerns that the CDC’s decision was influenced by political interests, namely avoiding the problem of test shortages.

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CDC muddles message on rapid tests while defending controversial guidance

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021.

Enlarge / CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate committee hearing in July 2021. (credit: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday offered mixed messages on the use of at-home rapid tests as the agency continued to defend its controversial recommendation that people with COVID-19 can leave isolation early without testing.

The CDC updated its guidance on isolation and quarantine periods last week. It shortened isolation periods for infected people from 10 days down to only five if their symptoms have cleared or are resolving by then and if they wear a mask for five days afterward. Notably, the agency did not hinge the recommendation on people getting tested after five days and only ending their isolation early if they receive a negative result.

The omission drew swift criticism from experts who argue that testing is vital to shortening isolation periods safely. Harvard epidemiologist and rapid-test advocate Dr. Michael Mina called the move “reckless,” and virology expert Angela Rasmussen called the agency’s reasoning “bullshit.”

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FDA authorizes booster doses for 12- to 15-year-olds, shortens interval for adults

A health worker administers a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to an elderly resident at Ichilov medical center in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021.

Enlarge / A health worker administers a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to an elderly resident at Ichilov medical center in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

As the ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus variant bears down on the US, the Food and Drug Administration on Monday announced a set of sweeping changes to the availability of Pfizer-BioNTech booster doses.

The regulator expanded access to third doses by authorizing their use for kids 12 to 15 years old. The agency also shortened the interval at which adults and children 12 and up can get a booster after their second dose—moving the time from six months to only five months. Last, the FDA made third doses available to immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11 who may not mount a strong response from only the first two doses.

The FDA’s moves are motivated by omicron and backed by data from Israel, which has a booster program further along than that of the US. In fact, Israeli officials on Monday began offering fourth doses (second booster doses) of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to people ages 60 and over in an effort to sustain high levels of protection in the population. The omicron variant, which is currently powering a vertical rise in cases in the US, has been found to thwart protection from only two vaccine doses, but it can still be defeated with booster doses.

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Children’s hospitals are filling nationwide amid tidal wave of omicron

A Boston Medical Center pediatrician performs a checkup on an 8-month-old while her father provides her comfort in a pediatrics tent set up outside of Boston Medical Center in Boston on April 29, 2020.

Enlarge / A Boston Medical Center pediatrician performs a checkup on an 8-month-old while her father provides her comfort in a pediatrics tent set up outside of Boston Medical Center in Boston on April 29, 2020. (credit: Getty | Boston Globe)

The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the US is skyrocketing amid the omicron wave, with new admissions up 66 percent in the last week and now past the all-time record high for the pandemic.

The surge in pediatric hospitalizations comes amid a record-smashing vertical rise in overall cases, which is being driven by the ultratransmissible omicron coronavirus variant. Though preliminary data continues to link omicron waves to milder disease and fewer hospitalizations compared with previous variants, it’s still unclear if the variant is intrinsically less virulent in people generally, and specifically children, specifically.

Laboratory studies continue to indicate that omicron causes milder lung disease in rodents than previous variants. But, mild omicron waves in humans have largely been seen in populations with high levels of preexisting protection from prior COVID-19 infection and/or vaccination. Such populations are expected to have less severe disease overall.

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