COVID cases not dramatically rising with schools back in session, but experts say testing is down

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(NEW YORK) — Most children in the United States have returned to school for the year as districts aim to bring kids back to a setting that resembles the pre-pandemic normal.

Masks are now optional in most classrooms and, last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was no longer recommending schools use test-to-stay, which allowed students who were close contacts of those who tested positive for COVID-19 to continue to attend in-person classes if they remained asymptomatic and continued to test negative.

Dr. Greta Massetti, chief of the field epidemiology and prevention branch at the CDC, told reporters at the time that because unvaccinated and vaccinated people were no longer being advised to quarantine, test-to-stay was no longer necessary.

Cases and hospitalizations do not appear to be dramatically rising and adults have the highest rate of weekly cases per 100,000, per CDC data.

But experts said testing data is not robust as it was during the last two school years, making it difficult to compare current data to previous seasons.

“There’s good reason to be cautiously optimistic,” Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist in chief at Texas Children’s Hospital, told ABC News. “It’s important to point out that we have seen over the past several weeks a steady decline in COVID positivity and in COVID hospitalizations at Texas Children’s.”

He continued, “There’s more at-home testing available and we don’t have all the testing data, but we have enough data now to say confidently that positivity is down for COVID less than 5% in our latest rolling seven-day average and we also are now at single-digit hospitalizations, which is a big deal.”

Adults still make up most COVID-19 cases

According to CDC data, weekly cases per 100,000 are higher in every adult age group compared to children. Children aged 5-11 have the lowest rate at 15.6 per 100,000 compared to those aged 75 and older at 41.6 per 100,000 with the highest rate.

What’s more, the weekly case rate has massively declined since the summer. Just two months earlier, the case rate among 5 to 11-year-olds was 114.6 per 100,000.

Versalovic and other experts point out there are several reasons why there is not a major increase of COVID-19 cases seen among children during the new school year.

This includes less community spread in general; schools having better filtering of air; children being able to play outside, which is less risky for spread, before it gets cold; and vaccination.

Currently, 60.7% of 12-to-17-year-oids are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. This is in comparison with 47.7% fully vaccinated at the same time last year.

Meanwhile, 31.4% of 5-to-11-year-olds are fully vaccinated. While uptake in this age group has severely lagged older children, it’s a substantial increase from 0.4% this time last year.

“That was not the case a year ago,” Versalovic said. “One year ago, we were still trying to get vaccines to school-aged children. We’ve now had those vaccines available since last November and we’ve had boosters available throughout the summer.”

However, he said that vaccination rates, particularly among younger children have been lower than he’d like to see. Only 1.2% of children under age 2 and 2.3% of children aged 2 to 4 are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

“We cannot be complacent about it.” he said. “Vaccination rates have not been strong as we hoped. That gives us some pause as we look ahead to the winter.”

Testing is down from last year

Test is down because testing has dropped dramatically in health care settings and in schools, experts said. Schools are also no longer running test-to-stay programs, so cases could be circulating undetected. Additionally, many people do no report positive at-home tests to health officials.

“There are some important caveats,” Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor, told ABC News. “We know that overall testing, test volume is down. Incentives for testing have changed, we’ve seen that reduction in test-to-stay programs.”

“There is an argument to make that this could potentially be a calm before the storm as we approach colder months, more indoor activities, drier conditions that facilitate better transmission of respiratory viruses,” he added.

Low rates of testing could be hiding potential surges in classrooms or underreporting asymptomatic cases.

Brownstein said there is cause for optimism because a new variant has yet to emerge — the omicron variant and its subvariants have remained dominant for almost a year compared to 2021 when the dominant variant changed every few months.

“There’s a lot of room for optimism, even in the face of a surge, because of the availability of vaccines and treatments,” he said. “That being said, we’ve been surprised at every turn of the pandemic. And so, it absolutely makes sense for us to remain vigilant and utilize the best possible data to drive decisions.”

Experts stressed the importance of children getting vaccinated, especially in case COVID-19 infections do surge in the late fall and winter.

“The No. 1 tool that we have to prevent disease are vaccines,” Versalovic said. “These vaccines are safe and effective and, if anything, they’ve proven to be even more safe and effective than we ever could have imagined over the past year.”

Brownstein added that certain children, such as those who are immunocompromised or live with a family member at high risk of severe disease, may want to consider other prevention measures such as masking.

“Even if masks or testing isn’t required, these are tools that can still be used as needed, depending on your sort of risk tolerance and the risk of family members,” he said. “Generally, we are at a good point right now where transmission is lower and we’re not facing the threat of a new highly transmissible variant, but we have to remember that we have to be flexible as we continue this school year.”

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Amid nationwide abortion debate, American Cancer Society warns fertility preservation for cancer patients could be at risk in the future

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(NEW YORK) — More than 32,000 young patients newly diagnosed with cancer now live in states that have imposed or have impending abortion restrictions, according to a new study published Monday in The Lancet Oncology.

Because many life-saving cancer treatments harm future fertility, many teens and young adults with cancer decide to freeze eggs, sperm or embryos in the hope of having a family later in life.

Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the American Cancer Society is warning that their fertility preservation options could be at risk in the future.

Possible ramifications for cancer patients could include potential restrictions on gene testing, storage and disposal of embryos, even those created in the laboratory, according to researchers from the American Cancer Society.

For now, these concerns are hypothetical. Recent legislation has focused primarily on restricting abortion, and laws regarding embryos or other fertility preservation methods are not explicit, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research organization.

However, Guttmacher and other abortion-rights advocates have raised it as a possibility in the future. And they argue that some state legislation refers to protecting an “unborn child” without clearly defining whether that might include an embryo. That could make it difficult for health care providers to know when they’ve run afoul of the law, they say.

Researchers at the American Cancer Society studied more than 120,000 young patients between the ages of 15 and 44 who were diagnosed with cancer in 2018, finding that more than 68% needed fertility preservation.

Of those, more than 32,000 patients — including over 20,000 women — were from the 22 states where abortion bans exist or are expected to be implemented, the study found. Texas, Ohio and Georgia were the states with the largest number of newly diagnosed young cancer patients whose fertility preservation care could be compromised.

“Ongoing monitoring of the health effects of the Supreme Court decision on cancer patients and their families is warranted,” said Xuesong Han, Ph.D., the lead study author, scientific director and health services researcher at the American Cancer Society.

The anti-abortion group Charlotte Lozier Institute called the American Cancer Society’s warning misleading.

“A plain reading of state pro-life laws shows this study is nothing more than scaremongering, which is a huge disservice to the medical community and American women,” the institute’s Tara Sander Lee, Ph.D., said

Researchers found that patients from 22 states with abortion restrictions were more likely to be living in non-metropolitan areas, belonging to the poorest counties, and were of white or Black ethnicities, compared to the patients from 28 states where abortion remained legal.

“We have not yet begun to see exactly how the Dobbs ruling impacts fertility; however, it is clear that there will be a monumental impact,” said Dr. Eleonora Teplinsky, head of breast medical oncology at Valley Health System and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Fertility preservation, though possible in a less restrictive state, will create new barriers and could widen geographic and socioeconomic disparities, according to the study.

“Traveling to another state to get fertility care will put undue burden especially on the most vulnerable of these patients — medical, financial and psychological,” said Dr. Sunita Nasta, professor of clinical medicine at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, adding that “compromised access to care leads to worse outcomes.”

“The treatment of aggressive cancers is usually urgent. Fertility preservation needs to be accomplished within a few days to weeks. If these procedures are limited by these bans, patients will face the burden of losing their fertility or delaying therapy,” Nasta said.

“Many patients make treatment decisions based on fertility concerns. If fertility preservation is further endangered as we suspect it will be, we likely will begin to see even more patients choosing not to go on life-saving cancer therapy,” Teplinsky said.

“The ability to protect their choices with appropriate fertility care gives these patients the freedom to be aggressive about choosing therapy for the best outcomes rather than what may affect their future fertility,” Nasta added.

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After his brother died by suicide, this teacher changed how he talks to students about mental health

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(NEW YORK) — Every day at the start of his classes, Nick Orr, a high school science teacher in Nevada, said he checks in with his students about their mental health.

It’s a practice Orr said he began doing after his own brother Anthony died by suicide shortly after graduating high school in 2020.

Orr said Anthony’s death came as a shock and made him realize his brother may have never felt there was a safe space to talk about his mental health.

“I didn’t think there was anything going on,” Orr told “Good Morning America.” “We had a wonderful relationship, but this is just something he never told anyone about, he never spoke about, he never asked for help and unfortunately, it was something that ultimately got the best of him.”

Anthony’s death came at the same time the school district where he attended high school experienced a wave of student deaths due to suicide, according to Orr.

He said the firsthand experience of seeing teenagers struggling with their mental health changed the way he approached it in his classroom.

“How much do we really want to put an emphasis on academic content standards and this rigor when these kids are so obviously hurting and struggling,” said Orr. “We can ask them to think about earth science for 80 minutes straight, but we know that that’s not going to happen.”

He continued, “There are going to be issues that promote emotional reactions for these kids and teaching them how to deal with their feelings as well as how to process their feelings. That’s how we set them up to be successful in their life.”

In Orr’s classroom, he began asking his students to confidentially give him a thumbs up or thumbs down sign at the start of class to let him know how they’re feeling.

He started holding what he calls “social-emotional conferences” with students as follow-ups. Orr also started helping students with their physical health as a way to improve their mental health, taking on classroom challenges to drink more water, get more sleep and eat breakfast daily, something he has his first period students do together as a class each morning.

Orr said he works hard to make sure each student knows that they matter and that help is available.

“My kids know that if they ever need me, I am a trusted adult that they can come to and that I’m here to help however I can,” said Orr. “I tell the kids that they all matter, that we don’t all have to dance to the same beat or do the same job or go down the same path, but we do all need to look out for each other and respect each other.”

Orr said that connecting with each student and looking out for their mental health is “no easy task” given all the other responsibilities he and other teachers have, but it is one he is committed to as a way to honor his brother.

He said both he and his parents talk openly about Anthony and mental health so that no other family has to suffer a similar loss.

“As suicide survivors, we don’t want anyone else to experience the pain that we’ve lived through and live through to this day,” said Orr. “It can be terrifying to ask for help, but so is what could happen if we don’t get help. Very few things are as permanent as suicide.”

Growing concerns over teens and suicide

Across the country, the suicide rate among young people has been on the rise, increasing nearly 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Data shows that in the U.S., suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people, and, more specifically, the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 14.

In 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic, there was an almost 51% rise in emergency department visits related to suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17, compared to the same time period in 2019, according to data released last year by the CDC.

Amid the pandemic, youth mental health was declared a “national emergency” by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued a 53-page advisory warning of a growing mental health crisis among young people, writing, “The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.”

Dr. Jenna Glover, a licensed psychologist and director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital of Colorado, said she has seen firsthand the mental health struggles among teens.

“In large part that’s just due to having increased pressures in our society and more access to information and connections to other people, which isn’t always a helpful thing,” said Glover. “I think we also have seen a small amount of that increase come just because we are identifying the problems so more people are more aware, but certainly kids are dealing with more stress and pressure relative to previous generations.”

Glover said teens today are connected online which means they face more stressors like bullying and the pressure to succeed as well as full access to information on societal struggles like wars, the pandemic and climate change.

“They’re experiencing a lot more stress than many of us did growing up,” said Glover, who said in her home state, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24.

The high rate of mental health struggles among her peers in Colorado is what prompted Aimee Resnick, 17, of Centennial, Colorado, to advocate for a now-state law that requires student ID cards to feature the state’s free, 24/7 mental health hotline.

It was that hotline that Aimee said saved her life when she called it for help at age 13 while struggling with suicide idealization.

Aimee said like many teens, she felt the pressures of school, including bullying, and said she suffered from an eating disorder.

Through the hotline, Aimee said she was able to get immediate help and was able to continue on with mental health services that gave her tools to cope.

“We need this information out here so that young people know who to call,” she said of her motivation to increase access to the mental health hotline.

According to Glover, teens could be at a higher risk of death by suicide relative to adults because their brains are still developing.

“I have a colleague who says teenagers are like Ferraris, where the engine and the gas pedal are put in but not the brakes,” she said. “They are experiencing a full range of emotions that they’ve never experienced before but they don’t have the same cognitive abilities to control those emotions that adults do.”

Glover said the part of the brain that manages emotions and inhibits strong behaviors is not fully developed until around age 25.

“It’s easy as parents to think, ‘Why can’t you mange this? It’s not that big of a deal,’ but they literally can’t see the world the same way that we can because we have a different part of our brain developed,” she said. “They’re going to experience stronger emotions without that brake pedal built in and then, in addition, they’re experiencing a lot more stress than many of us did growing up.”

Gabriella Betance, now 22, of Lakewood, Colorado, said she had no idea how to handle the big emotions she felt as a teenager, a struggle that led to two hospitalizations after suicide attempts.

“When you start struggling with these big feelings, the first people you are going to talk to are going to be your peers and you’re all kids and don’t know how to handle it,” she said. “The two times that it was a serious, life-threatening moment, I was lucky enough to get the help that I needed.”

She continued, “But I feel like if we had the tools, if we had the conversations regularly about mental health, like check-ins and safe words, that I wouldn’t have felt the need to act in such a drastic way.”

How parents, teachers can help

One of the most important things that adults can do to support teens with their mental health is to have open and honest conversations, according to Glover.

She said parents in particular should not be afraid to talk directly about suicide with their child.

“It’s important for us to state it and say it because when we don’t, kids are worried that it’s not OK that they’re thinking that or feeling that, and it’s a fairly normal human reaction to have,” said Glover, adding that parents can open the conversation by asking their child if anything has been worrying or overwhelming them and then ask directly if the child has had any thoughts of killing or hurting themselves.

“Don’t worry that that is going to plant an idea,” she said of asking directly about suicidal thoughts. “If they’re not having those thoughts, they can just tell you no. But if they are, they will experience a huge amount of relief that you asked directly so they can get that outside of themselves and talk about their problems and usually when kids are able to talk about their problems, they are able to start seeing solutions.”

Glover said checking in and asking your teenager those questions every few months is important, even if a child is not showing symptoms of mental health struggles.

Just as Orr works with his students to make sure they are eating and sleeping well, Glover said access to good nutrition and getting consistent and good quality sleep can greatly improve mental health for teens in particular.

She said social connection is another important factor for preventing teen suicide and that includes both connections with their peers and with dependable adults.

“If a child can just develop one positive relationship with an adult outside of a parent in your life, that is a huge protective factor,” said Glover. “Getting kids involved in extracurriculars, having them have relationships in community, in church, with neighbors, all of those are going to serve as protective factors.”

For teens in need of help, pediatricians, school counselors and school psychologists are easily accessible resources for help, according to Glover.

She also recommends that parents program mental health help lines into their phones so they are easily accessible, saying, “When you are in a crisis, you don’t want to have to be Googling what to do. You want to have it immediately available.”

Glover also encourages parents of teens who struggle with mental health to practice calling a help line together, even if the child is not in crisis in the moment.

“You can absolutely do that and just say, ‘We’re just practicing calling in case we ever need to. We want to know what this is like,'” said Glover. “That practice might make it more likely that your child can use that in a moment when they are in crisis.”

If you are experiencing any thoughts about wanting to hurt yourself or anyone else, any thoughts of suicide, or any mental health crisis, please call or text 988. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org or dial the current toll free number 800-273-8255 [TALK].

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4.4 million Americans have received an updated bivalent COVID-19 booster

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(NEW YORK) — At least 4.4 million Americans have received an updated bivalent COVID-19 booster since the shots were rolled out at the beginning of September, newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

Nationally, a total of 109 million Americans have received their first booster dose — representing less than 50% of those who have been fully vaccinated. Just over a third — 35% — of the total U.S. population over the age of 5 has received their first booster.

In recent months, vaccination and booster uptake have slowed significantly, with fewer Americans willing to get their shots as pandemic and vaccination fatigue set in.

Following the federal green light of the new COVID-19 booster shots, data shows there was a significant uptick in the number of Americans getting vaccinated.

On average, approximately 390,000 shots are going into arms each day across the country.

On Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky became the latest American to get the new bivalent COVID-19 booster shot.

Walensky urged others to join her in getting the vaccine, stressing that it is important to get vaccinated now, ahead of the fall and winter, in order to prevent severe disease.

“I’m here getting my updated fall vaccine because I think it’s critically important to do,” Walensky told ABC News. “We are really encouraging everybody to roll up their sleeves and get this updated bivalent vaccine.”

On Thursday, Moderna also announced that it has submitted an emergency use authorization request to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the use of the company’s omicron-targeting bivalent COVID-19 vaccine in children and adolescents.

The company has completed submission of its EUA requests in adolescents ages 12 to 17 years old as well as in children ages 6 to 11 years old.

The application for the youngest Americans, ages 6 months to under 6, is expected to be completed later this year, according to the company.

At this time, children over the age of 12 are eligible to receive Pfizer’s bivalent booster and adult Americans can receive an updated booster at least two months after their last shot.

Pfizer is expected to submit a request to add authorization for children ages 5 to 11 to its offerings of bivalent boosters by the end of month.

The FDA could authorize the updated booster shots for people as young as 5 in the coming weeks and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may recommend them for the younger age groups shortly after.

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Should masks return in fall and winter to prevent a COVID surge?

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(NEW YORK) — As the United States heads into the fall and winter, questions are arising about whether the return of masks is needed to stem a potential COVID-19 surge.

Evidence has shown COVID cases and hospitalizations tend to rise during the colder months when people congregate indoors. Some health officials warn the virus could surge again in December and January.

Currently, cases and hospitalizations are on the decline in the U.S. after having peaked in late July, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those who are vaccinated and boosted are at much lower risk of falling severely ill and dying from COVID-19. CDC data shows unvaccinated Americans have a five times higher risk of dying compared to those who’ve received just a primary series and a seven times higher risk of dying compared to those who also received at least one booster dose.

Experts told ABC News that while vaccination is the best protection against COVID-19, some people may need to consider masking to protect themselves in case infections rise.

“My recommendation to people would be to mask when in indoor crowded spaces,” Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News. “I’ve spent a great deal of time with patients who have COVID and have not contracted the infection from what I can tell, both from antibody testing and from a lack of syndrome.”

Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told ABC News that masks have helped reduce COVID transmission in health care settings.

“I’ve worked in a respiratory infection clinic with COVID patients at the height of their contagiousness and they’re breathing in my face, and I haven’t gotten COVID from patients,” she said. “I really do believe that PPE works, that masks work.”

However, experts admitted it will be hard to convince Americans to wear masks again after so many cities and states have done away with mandates.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver remain the three biggest cities in the U.S. where masks are still required on public transit. In most cities, only health care environments still require mask mandates.

Ray said he believes a surge, similar to those caused by the delta and the omicron variants, would be the only thing drum up support of mandates.

“I think that people are really tired of this pandemic and there is, culturally, very little appetite for mandates, for masking,” Ray said. “And so, it’s a steep climb to tell people unless there’s a particular context in which it’s important, like a health care setting when there are many vulnerable people.”

He added, “If we were to come into a highly disruptive surge, then the appetite for a mandate might change, because people realize that a bunch of essential services are being disrupted. If hospitals got stressed by the surge, then I think we might see mandates returned.”

Doron said that although she supports masking, she doesn’t believe that cities and counties should reinstate mask mandates because many people take them off indoors for prolonged periods of time anyway, increasing the risk of transmission.

“In the community, we had mask mandates where you wear masks unless you’re eating or drinking and if you’ve ever traveled in an airport or on an airplane, where there when there was a mask mandate, you know that, you know, people are pretty much eating and drinking the entire time,” Doron said. “And so, it just doesn’t have the ability to do what it’s meant to do.”

In the absence of mask mandates, the experts said people may need to assess their individual risk level and decide if wearing a mask will help protect themselves and those around them.

“You to weigh your own susceptibility, your own tolerance for the risk of the long-term complications, which are still somewhat unknown and the risks that you might pose to people you care for either professionally or personally at home,” Ray said. “Now, some people may decide — and this is the judgment part — that they just don’t care that they don’t think that this is a big deal, and that they’ll just get infected and that they’re likely not to be hospitalized.”

Dr. Thomas Murray, an associate professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, said assessing the risk level also applies to kids in school, where many mask mandates have been lifted.

“Children who have higher risk, like asthma, might be an example of that,” Murray said. “What we’re really trying to balance is having kids enjoy a normal in-person school experience with the risks that go with congregating in classes when we have lots of respiratory viruses circulating.”

He said if schools don’t reimplement masking, other strategies “become critically important” for children, such as screening, testing and keeping them home if they have symptoms.

However, not all masks are created equally. For those who plan to keep wearing masks or choose to start wearing them again heading into the colder months, the experts recommend wearing a high-quality mask.

“I think that single-layer cloth masks really don’t provide much protection,” Ray said.

Doron said if you cannot get a N95 or KN95, or cannot wear one for long periods of time, a surgical mask will provide protection.

“The surgical mask does provide protection, especially if it fits you well,” she said. “And then there are ways to make it fit better, ways to fold it or and tuck it and tie the strap for your ears.”

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Nearly 225,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of 2022 despite viral declines, data shows

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(NEW YORK) — Although the daily death rates have ticked down slightly from August, updated federal data shows that the U.S. is still losing hundreds of Americans to COVID-19 every day, and 225,000 people in the U.S. have been lost to the virus since the start of 2022.

On average, more than 350 American deaths related to COVID-19 are still reported each day, and over the last seven days, the U.S. has reported nearly 2,500 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, totals remain much lower than during prior COVID-19 surges, such as in January 2021, when an average of 3,500 people were reported lost to the virus on a daily basis.

The reaching of yet another grim milestone follows President Joe Biden’s remarks on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, during which he said “the pandemic is over.”

“We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s — but the pandemic is over,” Biden said.

Earlier this week, public health experts pushed back on the president’s assertion, telling ABC News that that pandemic is not over yet, and that Biden’s comments may be somewhat premature.

In an interview with ABC News on Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky was reluctant to directly agree with the president’s assertion that “the pandemic is over,” but with hospitalization and case rates falling, and vaccines and treatments available, she said that “we’re in a different place.”

“I think if we look at the big picture, things are very different,” she said. “We’re in a different place. Schools are open and businesses are open. We have a lot of population immunity out there right now.”

However, Walensky said that even though there are currently fewer people dying from the virus on a daily basis in the U.S., hundreds of Americans are still dying of COVID-19 every day — a fatality rate that remains too high.

“Three hundred fifty deaths a day is still too many as far as I’m concerned, but we’re in a very different place,” Walensky added.

As the U.S. heads into the fall, wastewater levels in some parts of the country have indicated a slight upturn in the percentage of COVID-19 virus in samplings. Even so, the daily average of new infections continues to hover around 55,000 cases.

However, dozens of states have moved to shutter public testing sites, with more at-home COVID-19 tests now available. Most Americans are not reporting their results to officials, and thus, experts suggest that infection totals are likely significantly undercounted.

COVID-19 testing levels have also plummeted to their lowest point since the onset of the pandemic, with approximately 350,000 tests reported each day, compared to more than 2.5 million tests reported daily at the nation’s peak in January of this year.

In recent weeks, virus-related hospitalizations have continued to fall — with 30,000 virus-positive Americans receiving care in the U.S., down from about 33,000 patients in the hospital last week, according to data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of virus-positive Americans — 4,100 — currently entering the hospital each day is down by 6.8% in the last week.

Overall, the total remains significantly lower than at the nation’s peak this past January, when there were more than 160,000 patients hospitalized with the virus.

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CDC director weighs in on whether pandemic is over, says bivalent COVID shot is ‘critically important’

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(WASHINGTON) — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky became the latest American to receive the new bivalent COVID-19 booster shot on Thursday, telling ABC News that, thus far, “millions” of Americans have now gotten an updated vaccine.

“There have been millions,” Walensky said ahead of the CDC’s official release of the data.

Walensky, after receiving her shot of Moderna’s bivalent booster at a CVS location in Brookline, Massachusetts, urged others to join her in getting the vaccine, stressing that it is critical to get vaccinated ahead of the fall and winter, in order to prevent severe disease.

“I’m here getting my updated fall vaccine because I think it’s critically important to do,” Walensky said.

“All the data from this new bivalent vaccine have demonstrated that it will protect you against — more likely protect you — against the strains that we have circulating right now, those Omicron BA.5 strains, as well as keep you well protected, because we’ve seen that some of that protection can wane over time. So, we are really encouraging everybody to roll up their sleeves and get this updated bivalent vaccine,” she said.

In recent months, vaccination and booster uptake has slowed significantly, with fewer Americans willing to get their shots. As of Sept. 14, approximately 109.2 million Americans have received their first booster — representing less than 50% of those who have been fully vaccinated.

Walensky reiterated that she is still strongly encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated and boosted.

“We will wait to see what the FDA says about an updated booster vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds, and we’ll make some decisions soon thereafter,” she said.

On the heels of President Joe Biden’s remarks during his appearance on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, when he stated that “the pandemic is over,” Walensky said that the U.S. is certainly in a “very different place” than one or two years ago, thanks to prior vaccination coverage.

Walensky was reluctant to directly agree with the president’s assertion that “the pandemic is over,” but with hospitalization and case rates falling, and vaccines and treatments available, “we’re in a different place,” she said.

“I think if we look at the big picture, things are very different,” she said. “We’re in a different place. Schools are open and businesses are open. We have a lot of population immunity out there right now.”

However, Walensky noted that even though there are currently fewer Americans dying from the virus on a daily basis, hundreds of Americans are still dying of COVID-19 every day — a fatality rate that remains too high.

Although reported COVID-19 infection rates have remained stable in recent weeks, there are preliminary indicators that the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater levels has increased in some parts of the country. In the greater Boston area, where Walensky received her shot, viral sampling in local wastewater has reached its highest level since July.

Ahead of the fall, the CDC is also closely monitoring the genomic surveillance to surveille the potential emergence of any new variants of concern.

“We will be ready to step up to the plate,” Walensky said, adding that the vaccines will “hopefully not” have to be amended.

“We’ve seen time and time again is [that] our vaccines are working pretty well against severe disease, hospitalization and death, even when variants emerge, which is why it’s so very important to go ahead and get your updated vaccine now,” she said.

There are also growing concerns among health officials over the potential of a severe influenza season, prompting Walensky to remind Americans to “protect yourself” now, in order to “prevent getting sick in the future,” by also getting a flu shot in addition to the new COVID-19 booster.

“We know over the last several years is some people did not elect to get their flu shot,” Walensky explained. “We’ve had decreased rates of flu over the last several years and probably due to many of the mitigation strategies that we have in place for COVID. When that happens, we have decreased levels of population immunity, which raises the concern that the next year, you might have a higher, larger flu challenge. We can’t predict what a flu season will look like, but we have concerns.”

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Some school uniforms were found to have high levels of potentially harmful PFAS chemicals

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(NEW YORK) — High levels of chemicals called per-and polyfluoroalky substances (PFAS) were detected in water-proof or stain-resistant school uniforms in the United States and Canada, according to a new study published Wednesday in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.

PFAS chemicals, often called “forever chemicals” because of their slow breakdown, are widely used for their non-stick properties. They are ubiquitous and found in a range of everyday products such as non-stick cookware, stain and water repellants on carpets, food packaging and personal care products such as shampoos and cosmetic products.

Researchers studied more than 72 products from nine different brands, finding that school uniforms had high amounts of these potentially harmful chemicals. The highest levels were detected in clothing that was labeled as 100% cotton or cotton/spandex.

Due to widespread use and their slow breakdown, these chemicals can build up in humans and the environment over time. Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may cause a range of health problems, from delays in development in children to increased risk of some cancers, with the highest risk associated with drinking or eating contaminated food over an extended time. Scientists, however, are continuing to learn about the health effects of exposure to different types and levels of PFAS.

Researchers are especially concerned about possible high exposure, especially for children.

“Our findings are concerning as school uniforms are worn directly on the skin for about eight hours per day by children, who are particularly vulnerable to harmful chemicals,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, a study co-author and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

It’s not clear if PFAS chemicals cause health problems if exposed on the skin, but researchers who led the study said that they may end up in children’s bodies through skin absorption, eating with unwashed hands, hand-to-mouth behaviors and mouthing of fabric by younger children.

“These chemicals are not well studied. We still have a lot to learn and we are not sure what harmful effects, if any, these chemicals have by skin exposure and clothing,” said Dr. Stephanie Widmer, a medical toxicologist and an emergency medicine physician.

According to the study, the PFAS levels in some uniforms exceeded the tolerable daily intake set by European regulators. In the United States, regulators have yet to set similar allowable limits for clothing. But given these concerns, bills in New York and California that require the phasing out of PFAS in textiles, including school uniforms, by Jan. 1, 2025, were passed by state lawmakers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said exposure to PFAS chemicals may be associated with increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreases in infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in kids, increased risk of birth complications in pregnant women and increased risk of some cancers.

“The reality is the health concerns that have been reported in association with PFAS cannot be ignored, and while we are learning more about PFAS and their potential dangers, we should all try to limit our exposures as much as reasonably possible,” said Widmer.

Added Blum: “Concerned parents should check if any of their children’s uniforms are labeled ‘stain-resistant.’ If so, they should ask school administrators to update their uniform policies and when purchasing new uniforms, specify PFAS-free uniform options.”

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Updated boosters for elementary school-aged children ‘weeks’ from authorization: FDA vaccine chief

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(NEW YORK) — New boosters for 5- to 11-year-olds are just weeks away from authorization, the vaccine chief at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Peter Marks, said Tuesday.

While primary vaccines are already authorized for children 6 months and older, the FDA has yet to authorize the newly updated booster shots — designed specifically to combat currently circulating omicron subvariants — for the youngest Americans.

Those boosters, which were authorized at the beginning of the month for everyone 12 and older, will next be authorized for children in the elementary school age range, and then later be authorized for kids under 5.

“I’m confident that we’re only a matter of weeks away” from authorizing the 5-11 age range, Marks said during an event with the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project. Marks said that the youngest age group, kids under 5, was still “a few months away” from authorization.

“Tailoring a vaccine against the most widely circulating variant is a similar approach used against the influenza virus, and I would not be surprised if this is an approach we see, seasonally, with COVID-19,” said Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health and an ABC News medical contributor.

But kids under 5 were just recently authorized for primary vaccines, Marks said, so many are still in the process of getting their first doses and not yet in need of boosters.

Fewer than 40% of 5- to 11-year-olds and 10% of younger children 6 months to 4 years old have started their primary COVID-19 vaccination series, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Marks urged parents to generally get their kids vaccinated because the updated boosters cannot be given to people who haven’t yet received a primary series.

“There are a lot of kids ages 5 to 11 out there who haven’t had their primary series, so you can’t get the updated booster until you’ve had the primary series. So it’s a good idea to think about getting your child vaccinated against COVID-19,” Marks said.

“It’s critical parents not only get their children vaccinated but stay up to date about news on upcoming boosters,” Patel said. “While data and information becomes available regarding the omicron-specific booster for kids, I would encourage parents to make sure their kids have completed their primary vaccine series to prevent any delays.”

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Cancer deaths in US declined by 2% every year since 2016, report says

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(NEW YORK) — Cancer deaths in the United States are continuing to decline, according to a new report from the American Association for Cancer Research.

The report, published Wednesday, found that deaths from cancer have decreased by 2.3% every year between 2016 and 2019.

Overall, there has been a 32% reduction in the U.S. cancer death rate since 1991, which translates into approximately 3.5 million lives being saved, the report said.

Additionally, in 2022, there are more than 18 million cancer survivors living in the U.S., equivalent to 5.4% of the population, the report found. Fifty years earlier, there were just 3 million cancer survivors.

According to the report, the decreasing number of deaths is due to “unprecedented progress” made against cancer within the last decade.

This includes eight new anticancer medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between August 2021 and July 2022 as well as 10 previously approved medications that have been expanded to treat other types of cancer.

Another reason is due to the decline in smoking, the report says. Rates of smoking among U.S. adults have also decreased from 42% in 1965 to 12.5% in 2020.

The report also highlights the importance of cancer screenings, which can determine if a person has precancerous lesions or cancer in its early stages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Colorectal Cancer Control Program — which aims to rise cancer screening rates among people between 45 and 75 years of age — saw an average increase of 8.2 percentage points and 12.3 percentage points among clinics that participated in the program for two and four years, respectively, according to the report.

“Basic research discoveries have driven the remarkable advances that we’ve seen in cancer medicine in recent years,” Dr. Lisa Coussens, the president of AACR, said in a statement.

“Targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and other new therapeutic approaches being applied clinically all stem from fundamental discoveries in basic science,” the statement added. “Investment in cancer science, as well as support for science education at all levels, is absolutely essential to drive the next wave of discoveries and accelerate progress.”

However, because cancer continues to be the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. — with an estimated 600,000 lives expected to be lost this year — the AACR is calling on Congress to increase funding for the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health and for the FDA, which oversees the regulation of anticancer medication.

The group also called for more support for programs such as President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, which was relaunched in February 2022, with a goal of slashing the national cancer death rate by 50% over the next 25 years.

The good news comes despite a recent report that cancers among adults younger than age 50 have “dramatically increased” globally over the last several decades.

Researchers from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital said the sharp rise of several cancers including breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, liver and pancreas began in the early 1990s.

The Brigham study found the rise is partially attributable to early screenings for some of these cancers. Early life exposures such as people’s diet, weight, lifestyle, environmental exposure, and microbiome may factor into what’s contributing to early-onset cancer, but more information on individual exposures is needed, the study said.

ABC News’ Dr. Evelyn Huang contributed to this report.

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