When will vaccines be authorized for kids under 5? Here’s what we know

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(NEW YORK) — When a judge on Monday overruled the mask mandate on public transportation, parents with kids too young to be vaccinated felt renewed anxiety about the country moving too quickly toward pre-pandemic normalcy while they were still stuck in a pre-vaccine world.

But there is hope that parents will be able to vaccinate their kids under five years old soon — perhaps as early as June, according to top Biden administration officials.

Neither vaccine companies, Moderna or Pfizer, have fully submitted their data to the FDA yet, the FDA said on Thursday.

But Moderna, which has a two-dose vaccine for children under five, is expected to officially file a request for authorization with the Food and Drug Administration by the end of April, a spokesperson for the company confirmed.

And Pfizer, which has been conducting clinical trials on a three-dose vaccine for kids under five, is expected to have results by early May, which it will then turn over to the FDA. In a recent podcast interview, the company’s CEO said he expects an authorization sometime in June.

In the meantime, the Food and Drug Administration has already notified the members of its independent panel, which would review the vaccine data ahead of the authorization, to reserve time for a meeting as soon as June 1, according to a source familiar with the plans. However, the dates were flexible and could get pushed back.

The question, however, is whether regulators will authorize Moderna a few weeks ahead of Pfizer, or wait to authorize them at the same time — in June — in an effort to minimize confusion.

In an interview on Thursday with CNN+, White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that regulators will wait.

Fauci said that the purpose of authorizing both at once, rather than Moderna a few weeks ahead of Pfizer, would be to not “confuse people.”

“It’s going to be two separate companies, two products that are similar but not identical, particularly with regard to the dose,” he said, explaining that Moderna’s regimen for kids under five is two doses, while Pfizer’s is three doses.

“And what the FDA wants to do is to get it so that we don’t confuse people,” Fauci said.

Asked multiple times by CNN’s Kasie Hunt why parents couldn’t be expected to navigate having two options separately authorized around the same time, particularly for those who are eagerly waiting for a vaccine as soon as possible and would take whichever came first, Fauci said he couldn’t answer.

“I can’t really honestly answer that question because I don’t know the answer to that question. Because I don’t have all the data in front of me,” Fauci said, adding that the data before the FDA was confidential while it was under review.

Still, Fauci confirmed that Pfizer’s vaccine would likely be authorized in June, meaning the wait would only be a few weeks, at most.

It would be unusual for the FDA to make a decision based on expected vaccine uptake, though Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA’s vaccine chief, has said that it’s a priority to handle the authorization of vaccines for young kids with extensive care so parents trust the final product. In older age groups, like kids 5 to eleven, only around a quarter of kids have been vaccinated since it was authorized five months ago.

“We know that in this population, we have to do our job extremely well to … ensure that there is a very good evaluation of the safety and effectiveness, so that when we make our recommendation, people will trust that recommendation,” Marks said at a press conference last month.

On Thursday, the FDA said it would work with urgency to authorize vaccines for kids once the companies submit the data, while also “adhering to our rigorous standards for safety and effectiveness.”

The agency also said that lower case counts and hospitalizations since the omicron surge had no effect on the urgency of the process.

“It is inaccurate to say that minimal hospitalizations and death play a part in any timeline as one death of a young child is tragic,” FDA spokesperson Abby Capobianco said in a statement.

But questions remain about the potential for regulators to authorize both vaccines at once, which could mean parents have to wait a few weeks longer to vaccinate their young children.

Dr. Diego Hijano, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, cautioned against the FDA “overthinking” and trying to predict how people will take vaccine news.

When it comes to vaccine hesitancy, “most people have made their choice already,” said Hijano, who is also an investigator for the Pfizer vaccine trials.

“So the fact that we are still wondering how it will affect people’s confidence in the vaccine — people’s confidence in vaccine has not changed significantly over the last year,” Hijano said.

Instead, Hijano vouched for authorizing the Moderna vaccine as soon as its ready. Even if the vaccine is two shots now, he said he predicted that the Moderna shot, like the Pfizer vaccine, would eventually be a three-shot vaccine — as most vaccines now are with the addition of boosters — and they would be very similar.

“Today, there are no options,” Hijano said. “And the Moderna vaccine data, it’s really good. So why wouldn’t you offer that to parents that want something to protect their kids?”

But Hijano also stressed that the timeline for kids under five getting vaccinated has been unpredictable. To help with anxiety, he’s moved away from focusing on dates and advises parents to try to find ways to feel normal in the meantime.

“I think at this point, parents should just sit back and say the vaccine will be ready when it’s ready. We cannot plan around when the vaccine is going to be ready,” Hijano said.

“So the way we have been approaching this with parents is, ‘Okay, let’s just take a step back and say, what are the things we can do to protect kids under five? And when the vaccine becomes available, then you vaccinate them.’ But at this point, that’s very uncertain,” he said.

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Maine confirms deadly case of rare tick-borne illness

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(AUGUSTA, Maine) — A Maine resident has died from a rare but potentially dangerous tick-borne illness, health officials said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it has confirmed a fatal case of Powassan virus, an illness spread by the bite of infected deer (aka black-legged) or woodchuck (aka groundhog) ticks.

The person, a resident of Waldo County in south-central Maine, developed neurologic symptoms and died in the hospital, according to the Maine CDC. The person likely became infected in Maine, health officials said. No further details on the case were provided.

“Ticks are active and looking for a host to bite right now,” Nirav D. Shah, director of the Maine CDC, warned residents in a statement. “I urge Maine people and visitors to take steps that prevent tick bites.”

Cases of Powassan virus are very rare, with about 25 reported each year in the U.S. since 2015, according to the Maine CDC. Since 2010, Maine has identified 14 cases, the agency said.

Though rare, the number of reported cases of people sick from the virus has increased in recent years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases occur in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions from late spring through mid-fall, it said.

Many people infected with Powassan virus do not get sick, according to the Maine CDC. Symptoms can start one week to one month after the bite and can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, memory loss, slurred speech or seizures. The virus can also cause serious neurologic problems, like brain inflammation, known as encephalitis, which can be deadly.

There is no vaccine to prevent Powassan or medicine to treat the disease. The best protection against any tick-borne disease is to prevent tick bites in the first place.

Health officials advise avoiding tick habitats — wooded and bushy areas with tall grass — whenever possible and to stay in the middle of trails when hiking. People can further protect themselves with EPA-approved repellants on skin and clothing.

During tick season, people should perform tick checks on themselves every day, especially after leaving a tick habitat and upon returning home. They should also check their clothing, gear and pets for ticks.

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COVID outbreak as nearly 100 prom goers test positive

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(SAN FRANCISCO) — Dozens of high school students in California contracted COVID-19 after attending their prom.

San Mateo High School held the party on April 9 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, about 18 miles away. Following the event, however, 90 out of the 600 students who attended tested positive for the virus.

“I was not very sick. I had a sore throat for a couple of days, like two, and then congestion,” junior Parker Del Balso, one of the 90 to contract COVID, told local affiliate ABC 7.

According to San Mateo Union High School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly, all of the cases were mild.

The outbreak comes as several other superspreader events have been reported, mostly recently this month’s Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., that saw several high-profile politicians test positive for the virus including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.

However, the cases were all reported to be either asymptomatic or mild, and no one required hospital care.

Experts said these outbreaks are a sign that BA.2 — a highly infectious subvariant of the original omicron variant and the predominant variant in the U.S — is not having a major impact on hospitalizations or deaths.

“These events, either among students or politicians, we are seeing signs of superspreader events,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor. “But they’re not severe because of widespread vaccinations and people are overall protected from severe illness and death.”

Masks were optional at the event. However, according to guidance from the Department of Public Health in San Francisco, where the prom was held, masking is only required in high-risk settings such as health care facilities and homeless shelters.

In other settings, masking is only recommended based on individual risk tolerance, where there is high levels of community spread and if someone is at high risk of severe illness.

Despite the outbreak, school leaders and students said having the prom was worth it to provide a sense of normalcy during the pandemic.

“This has been a really hard year for kids, and we need to keep having as many activities as we can,” Skelly said.

Del Baso, the junior student, agreed, telling the local station, “Overall, I think it was worth it. It was a great, fun time.”

Skelly told ABC 7 that other schools in the district will be adding more mitigation measures to their proms so they don’t experience similar outbreaks.

“We’re going to be more careful about activities,” he said. “We’re going to test more students beforehand to make sure they’re not going into the dance COVID positive.”

Dr. Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, said the timing of the test before such events is very important.

“If you are doing a rapid PCR test and the event happens within two to three hours, that’s a good idea,” he told ABC News. “The timing and quality of the test will give you a good sense of security.”

He continued: “But if you get tested 48 hours before the event, you could catch the virus within that time and spread it.”

San Mateo Union High School District did not immediately return ABC News’ request for comment. The Asian Art Museum also did not reply to a request for comment.

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Kindergarten vaccination rates dip below target for 2020-2021

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(ATLANTA) — National vaccination coverage for kindergarteners during the 2020-2021 school year fell below the nationwide target of 95% coverage, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis.

This includes MMR, DTaP and varicella vaccines, which protect against multiple diseases including measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, whooping cough, tetanus and chickenpox. The analysis did not include COVID-19 vaccines, which were authorized for children 5 and older after the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Although the drop was small — down to 94%, representing a 1% drop from the prior school year — the CDC says the new analysis underscores growing concerns that pandemic disruptions could inadvertently lead to a growing number of vaccine-preventable illnesses among children.

“This might not sound like much, but it amounts to at least 35,000 more children across the United States that entered kindergarten without documentation of complete vaccinations against common diseases,” said Dr. Georgina Peacock, director of the Division of Human Development and Disability at the CDC.

Researchers attributed the drop in vaccination rates to pandemic-related causes, including lower school enrollment, missed pediatrician appointments and lower data reporting from schools.

In addition to the 35,000 children who entered school without completed vaccinations, remote and in-person school enrollment was approximately 10% lower than the previous year, according to data from 48 states and Washington, D.C.

“This means around 400,00 fewer children entered kindergarten than expected. Those children also might not be up to date on their routine vaccinations,” said Peacock.

Mississippi had some of the highest vaccine coverage rates, with over 95% for MMR, DTaP, varicella, while Washington, D.C., had some of the lowest reported coverage rates, with 78-79% coverage per vaccine.

During the 2020-2021 school year, fewer states were able to report data back to the CDC due to pandemic-era capacity problems. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia contributed to the new analysis, but Alaska, Illinois and West Virginia did not report vaccination coverage data due to the impact of COVID-19 on data collection, and were excluded from the analysis.

Some states allowed for eased vaccination requirements for remote learners and reduced submission of documentation by parents. This meant less time for school nurses to follow-up with students missing documentation or vaccines, fewer staff members to conduct kindergarten vaccination coverage assessment and reporting activities, and lower response rates from schools.

“This is further evidence of how the pandemic-related disruptions to education and health care could have lingering consequences for children. The good news is, routine vaccination coverage remains high and we can recover ground loss during the pandemic,” said Peacock.

Despite concerns about rising vaccine hesitancy, the rate of children with religious or medical exemptions remained low, at 2.2%, and the percentage of exempt children actually decreased in 37 states.

The report noted that more than half of the states’ schools are allowing under-vaccinated children to attend school under provisional enrollment, which allows a student without complete vaccination or an exemption to attend school while completing a catch up vaccination schedule or with a grace period status, which is a set number of days during which a student can be enrolled and attend school without proof of complete vaccination or exemption, according to Dr. Shannon Stokely, associate director for Science at the Immunization Services Division of the CDC.

“[With] most schools back to in-person learning, extra effort is needed to catch up children who missed vaccines and to maintain high levels of routine childhood vaccinations and equitable coverage to help protect children, their families and their communities against vaccine preventable diseases,” said Peacock.

Dr. Grace Cullen is an internal medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a contributor on the ABC News Medical Unit.

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Almost half of Americans breathing more unhealthy air than ever before: Report

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(NEW YORK) — Almost half of Americans — 137 million people — are experiencing more days of “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality than in the previous two decades combined, according to a report published this week by the American Lung Association.

The annual “State of the Air” report looked at Americans’ exposure to two types of air pollution: ozone, also known as “smog,” and particle pollution, also known as “soot.” It found that over 63 million Americans are now impacted by deadly particle pollution, an increase of nearly nine million people from previous years.

This particle pollution or “particulate matter” comes from wildfires, wood-burning stoves, coal-fired power plants and diesel engines, and can cause multiple health problems, including asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. With repeated exposure, it can cause lung cancer.

“We’ve seen much better air quality in most areas today than when we started the report. But over the last five years, we’ve seen an uptick, and we attribute a lot of that to climate change. We’ve had some of the hottest years on record — creating dry conditions that lead to drought and wildfires,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of public policy for the American Lung Association.

Last summer, over 100 wildfires in the West carried smoke and ash thousands of miles, affecting places as far as New York City, where the air quality index (AQI) for fine particulate matter reached levels greater than 150, which is 10 times above health exposure recommendations, according to the World Health Organization’s 2021 updated Air Quality Guidelines. The new guidelines reflect strong evidence that air pollution can have major health consequences, including premature death, at even lower concentrations than previously understood.

Dr. John Balmes, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California in Berkeley and a volunteer medical spokesperson for the ALA, has studied the effects of California’s air pollution for over three decades and said all the progress in the Mountain West “has pretty much been undone by wildfires.”

Fresno, California, displaced Fairbanks, Alaska, as the metropolitan area with the worst daily spikes in particle pollution, and Bakersfield, California, continued in the most-polluted slot for year-round particle pollution for the third year in a row.

Balmes said his wife has “fairly severe asthma,” and because of the wildfires in California, they’ve had to increase the central filtration in their ventilation system and now have two portable HEPA filters.

“She always wears an N95 when she goes out during wildfires, and she tries not to go out,” he said.

Echoing earlier research, the report also found that people of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant. Balmes said that because of where they live, “Low-income communities of color have the highest exposure to diesel exhaust” and often do not have “ventilation and filtration appliances to reduce exposure in their homes.”

Dr. Franziska Rosser, assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pulmonary medicine at University of Pittsburgh, researches the effects of air pollution on children with asthma. She recommends that parents of children with asthma check the AQI by going to AirNow.gov and to either avoid outdoor air pollution exposure when it reaches unhealthy levels or choose activities where kids are not breathing as heavily.

But when it comes to creating real change, Rosser said, “Personal interventions for air pollution are unfair. Air pollution cannot be controlled by one person. It is a societal problem and a global problem. The absolute best interventions for air pollution are policy.”

Balmes said it’s time to double down on climate emergency solutions, which includes reducing reliance on fossil fuel for transportation and power generation. He also recommends more investment in forest management.

“We’ve long advocated for much more protective standards,” Billings added, noting that the organization is asking the Biden administration to strengthen the national limits on particulate matter air pollution.

“The public has a right to know when air pollution threatens their health and the health of their children, seniors and families,” he said.

In a statement, the Environmental Protection Agency said, “Improving air quality is a major priority for EPA and we appreciate the ALA’s focus and attention on air quality and health.”

To learn more about U.S. air quality, go to the EPA website AirNow.gov or download the AirNow.gov app, which contains air pollution forecasts on the local level and historical air pollution data.

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FDA issues warning about false results with prenatal genetic screening tests

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(WASHINGTON) — Common prenatal tests done to test for genetic abnormalities are the subject of a new warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA issued a notice Tuesday warning people about the risk of “false results, inappropriate use and inappropriate interpretation of results” from non-invasive prenatal screening tests, also called non-invasive prenatal tests and cell-free DNA tests.

The tests are used to screen for possible genetic abnormalities in fetuses that could indicate the possibility of a health condition like Down syndrome, a condition in which a person has an extra chromosome, which changes how a baby’s brain and body develop, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In its new warning, the FDA reminds people that the prenatal tests are screening tests, not diagnostic tests that would confirm a health condition.

“While genetic non-invasive prenatal screening tests are widely used today, these tests have not been reviewed by the FDA and may be making claims about their performance and use that are not based on sound science,” Jeff Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement. “Without proper understanding of how these tests should be used, people may make inappropriate health care decisions regarding their pregnancy.”

“We strongly urge patients to discuss the benefits and risks of these tests with a genetic counselor or other health care provider prior to making decisions based on the results of these tests,” said Shuren.

The prenatal screening tests that are the subject of the FDA’s warning are standard in prenatal care in the United States, according to Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent and a board-certified OBGYN.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that prenatal genetic screening options should be made available to “all pregnant patients regardless of maternal age or risk of chromosomal abnormality.”

In the U.S., 25% to 50% of pregnancies undergo non-invasive prenatal screening tests, according to data published in the medical journal Obstetrics & Gynecology

The screening tests, which are up to 99% accurate for screening out diseases like Down syndrome, are done by taking a blood sample from the pregnant woman. An ultrasound of the fetus is typically done in conjunction with the screening tests, according to Ashton.

If the tests flag an increased risk that the fetus may have a problem with its chromosomes, more testing will be done, either via an amniocentesis — a procedure in which a small sample of amniotic fluid is removed for testing — or chorionic villus sampling (CVS), in which a small piece of tissue is removed from the placenta for further testing.

Ashton said the FDA’s warning centers on the fact that the initial screening tests are not 100% accurate, explaining, “What the FDA is worried about is that women may make incorrect decisions about continuing their pregnancy based on this result.”

Both Ashton and ACOG stress that the results of non-invasive prenatal screening tests should be analyzed by a qualified medical provider, and that pregnant women should be in close touch with their provider about the results.

“This is a perfect example — anyone can do a test. It’s using the results of that test, which requires medical credentials and judgment and experience, that matters,” said Ashton. “So a woman should talk to their midwife, their obstetrician about what to do with the results of this test.”

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What to know about COVID-19 risks as travel mask mandate is lifted

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(NEW YORK) — Confusion abounded after a federal judge in Florida struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel mask mandate Monday.

The mandate, first announced in January 2021, required travelers to wear masks on airplanes, in airports and other travel hubs, and while riding public transit.

But Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle for the Middle District of Florida wrote in her ruling that the mandate was “unlawful” and that the CDC exceeded its authority when the policy was implemented.

While many Americans are excited, others are attempting to figure out what the new rules mean about their risk of contracting COVID-19 while in transit and how to limit their exposure to the virus.

CDC still recommends wearing masks

Dr. Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said even though the travel mask mandate has been lifted, it doesn’t mean people aren’t allowed to wear face coverings when traveling.

In fact, he noted that the CDC still advises wearing masks in indoor public transportation settings.

“People should recognize that this does not mean the CDC is not recommending the masks in public,” he said. “So, I think people should pay attention to that advice.”

The lifting of the mandate comes as cases rise in the U.S., in part due to the BA.2 variant, a highly transmissible subvariant of the original omicron variant.

New COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have reached their highest point in more than a month, and in the last week, 34 states and territories have seen increases of about 10% or more.

Ray said the combination of increasing cases and the lifting of mandates will result in more spread, so even people who are not high risk or are younger may want to consider still wearing masks when they travel.

“As long as infection rates seem to be rising, I think it’s wise to think about protecting yourself even if you don’t have special vulnerability,” he said.

What people at high risk for severe COVID-19 should consider

The ruling also has implications for people who are at high risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death, including immunocompromised people, those with underlying conditions, older people and those who are pregnant.

Currently, the CDC recommends these high-risk individuals wear a mask in public indoor spaces in areas with high transmission and to speak to their doctors about face coverings in areas with medium transmission.

Ray said the mandate being lifted “raises the temperature for risk” for these groups and they may want to consider taking precautions.

This could mean avoiding travel for the time being or making sure to wear a high-quality mask, such as an N95, when traveling to avoid infection.

“These people need to be that much more careful that they have a good mask, that they change it on a regular basis as recommended, that they take those measures, because others will be less likely to be wearing a mask and preventing spread,” he said.

Increased importance of testing

Ray also said now that the mandate has been lifted, it will be more important for people to get tested after traveling somewhere.

He recommends that people take a rapid test after arriving at their destination and before they gather with others.

“We may want to make sure that we have rapid tests available because, right before the gathering, we can use those to mitigate the risk of transmission,” Ray said.

Ray added that testing ahead of a gathering should be essential when people at risk of severe COVID-19 or who are immunocompromised are in attendance.

“The importance of that increases when there are more vulnerable people and, of course, it’s hard to just look at someone and tell whether or not they’re vulnerable,” he said.

More long-term consequences

Another concern experts such as Ray have is that more people sitting in close proximity to each other unmasked on subways, trains or planes may result in more people who develop long-term problems from COVID-19 simply because more people will become infected.

This could mean more people with “long COVID,” which occurs when patients who have recovered from the virus continue to experience symptoms weeks, or sometimes months or even years, after testing positive.

Other problems include heart and kidney damage, blood clots or Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Ray said he thinks the U.S. can balance these concerns about more people developing long-term complications “by being more cautious on a voluntary basis in the absence of the mandate.”

He continued, “It’s of course possible that the immunity we’ve built up is going to mitigate those long-term complications, but we won’t know that for some time, and making decisions looking backward is always hard.”

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These airlines, companies have ended mask mandates after federal ruling

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(NEW YORK) — After a federal judge struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel mask mandate Monday, several airlines and companies moved to act.

All major airlines, including American, United, Southwest and Delta, said face coverings will now be optional for travelers.

Ride-share companies, such as Uber and Lyft, also said they will not require riders to wear masks as did Amtrak, the passenger railroad service.

Several airports across the company have also dropped their mandates and the Transportation Security Administration said it will not enforce a mask mandate on planes and other public transportation.

Here are some of the companies that have dropped mask mandates so far:

United Airlines

United was among the first airlines to announce it would be dropping its mask mandate following the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Mizelle.

In a Twitter post, the company shared two photos of the model of the 72-foot-long Brachiosaurus skeleton at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where United is headquartered — one with and one without a mask.

“More comfortable keeping yours on? Go right ahead … the choice is yours (you look dino-mite either way)!” the statement read.

American Airlines

Similarly on Monday night, American dropped its mask mandate for customers and team members.

The airline said customers may still choose to wear masks and thanked its staff for enforcing the mask mandate since it went into effect in January 2021.

“American Airlines has prioritized the health and safety of its team members and customers throughout the pandemic and has supported the federal government’s measures to slow the spread of COVID-19,” the statement read. “We are deeply grateful to our team members for their enforcement of the mandate, and will share more information about this transition in the coming days.”

Southwest Airlines

Southwest announced Monday it would be mask-optional going forward and welcomed those who decide to keep wearing masks.

“We encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing and to check local airport mask policies when traveling,” a statement read.

The airline also said its planes have “additional layers of protection” to keep passengers and employees safe, including HEPA filters that remove 99.7% of airborne particles.

Delta Air Lines

Delta announced in a statement Monday night that masks would be optional for passengers and employees “effectively immediately.”

The airline said customers should expect “inconsistent enforcement” for the next day until the news reaches all employees.

“Given the unexpected nature of this announcement, please be aware that customers, airline employees and federal agency employees — such as TSA — may be receiving this information at different times,” the airline said.

Alaska Airlines

In a statement Monday, Alaska Airlines said it would be implementing a mask-optional policy.

“Face masks have been like boarding passes for nearly two years — you couldn’t fly without one,” a blog post on the company website read. “But, as of today, masks are optional in airports and onboard aircraft, effective immediately.”

Alaska also encouraged customers to show kindness to those who decide they still want to wear face coverings onboard planes.

“Safety is always our highest priority, so while we love to see your smiling faces in the airport and on board, we respect your decision to keep using this added layer of protection,” the blog post continued. “Above all, we hope you’ll treat each other with kindness and respect throughout the travel journey and beyond.”

JetBlue Airways

On Monday night, JetBlue Airways announced it was updating its policy to make mask-wearing optional.

“While no longer required, customers and crewmembers are welcome to continue wearing masks in our terminals and on board our aircraft,” a statement read.

The airline recommended that passengers and staff traveling internationally carry masks with them in case they are required at their destination.

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian, the largest operator of flights to and from Hawaii, announced Monday it is dropping its mask mandate for passengers and staff.

“Effective immediately, face masks are optional for our guests and employees onboard Hawaiian Airlines flights,” a statement read. “We ask for our guests’ patience and understanding as we update all our communications and announcements to reflect this change.”

Spirit Airlines

Spirit was among the last airlines to reveal it would be dropping its mask mandate, announcing the news on Twitter shortly after midnight Tuesday.

“Face coverings are now optional for Spirit Team Members and Guests onboarded our flights following the federal court ruling and TSA guidance,” the statement read. “We understand some Guests may want to continue to wear face coverings on flights, and that’s perfectly fine under our optional policy.”

Frontier Airlines

Frontier also announced similar news early Tuesday morning, attributing a statement to Crockett the Racoon, an animal that appears on the tail of one of the company’s aircraft.

“To mask or not to mask, the choice is yours,” the statement on Twitter read. “Masks are now optional on domestic flights, however, certain airports or countries may still require masks, so check the policy at your destination prior to departure and we’ll see you in the sky.”

Allegiant Air

Ultra low-cost carrier Allegiant shared the news Tuesday afternoon on Twitter, posting a photo of one of its aircraft at Syracuse Hancock International Airport in New York.

To mask or not to mask, that is your choice,” the tweet read. “Consistent with TSA guidance, all Allegiant customers and team members may wear a mask if they choose to, but are no longer required while traveling with us.”

Sun Country Airlines

Sun Country shared a statement Monday night that it would no longer require masking on planes, and thanked passengers for wearing masks in the past.

The airline also encouraged guests to be respectful of those who continue to wear face coverings.

“We look forward to seeing your smiles on board & encourage kindness & respect for those who continue to mask,” the statement read.

Uber

Uber was the first ride-share service to announce that riders and drivers would not be required to wear masks.

However, the company echoed CDC guidance to wear masks if people are at high risk of severe disease or if they live in an area with high transmission, and to be respectful of people who choose to wear masks.

“Remember: many people still feel safer wearing a mask because of personal or family health situations, so please be respectful of their preferences,” the statement said. “And if you ever feel uncomfortable, you can always cancel the trip.”

Uber also said it would no longer require people to sit in the back seat, but asked riders to only do so due to the size of their group.

Lyft

Riders and drivers are also no longer required to wear masks while using Lyft but warned masks may still be required by law in some areas.

Additionally, rides will not be allowed to be canceled on account of someone not wearing a mask.

“While riders and drivers can always cancel any ride they don’t wish to take, health safety reasons — like not wearing a mask — will no longer appear as cancellation options in the app,” a statement read.

The company urged people not to use the service if they have COVID-19 or are experiencing any similar symptoms.”

Amtrak

Amtrak announced on Twitter that it would no longer require passengers and employees and passengers to wear masks while aboard trains or in stations.

However, the company said it would “encourage” anyone who needs or feels that they need to wear a mask.

“Masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19,” the Twitter statement read. “Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so.”

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport

The Metropolitan Airport Commission originally announced Monday night masks would continue to be required after the federal ruling.

But following the TSA saying it would no longer enforce mask-wearing, the policy was changed for Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Travelers will not be required to mask in terminal or other airport facilities or at any of the six general aviation airports.

Portland International Airport

The Oregon airport released a brief statement Monday that masks would no longer be required or enforced .

“Local TSA just advised us they will no longer be enforcing the directive that requires masking in the airport,” the statement read. “Tat means that face coverings are no longer required at PDX.

Tampa International Airport

A statement on the airport’s Twitter account announced mask mandates would be dropped for travelers and staff.

“Per TSA’s removal of its federal mask mandate, masks are now optional at Tampa International Airport, effective immediately,” the tweet read. “Passengers, employees and guests are no longer required [to] wear masks or face coverings in any of the facilities or terminals at TPA.”

 

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Americans suffer deadly fentanyl overdoses in record numbers

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(NEW YORK) — In the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of Americans died from drug overdoses. Although months of data is still incomplete, statistics show that most of the deaths involve the potent drug fentanyl.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. In the new series “Poisoned,” which explores the devastation caused by fentanyl, ABC News Live examines how many parents are learning the deadly reality of the drug only after their children have suffered a fatal overdose.

Romello Marchman grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. His mother said that he was a typical 22-year-old man who loved video games and cars.

“He was a young man like so many others out there,” said Tanja Jacobs. “They are stressed, they are worried. The pandemic keeps them away from their friends. They can’t go to school.”

During the pandemic, Romello Marchman died from cocaine laced with fentanyl, according to Jacobs.

“He got it from his friends. And it’s the only reason why he took it, is because he did get it from his friends and he did trust them,” said Jacobs.

Last year, Tennessee had the third highest overdose death rate in the country, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

“In the Nashville area, between 75% and 80% of our fatal overdoses will involve fentanyl at this point in time,” said Trevor Henderson, a public health analyst at the CDC Foundation.

That statistic accounts for the death of Frankita Davis.

Betty Davis said her daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was 17 years old and that doctors had prescribed her pain medication. One day, a friend offered her daughter a pain-reliever pill that they did not know was laced with fentanyl, the mother said.

“She chose to take a pill, but she didn’t choose to die,” said Davis.

Fentanyl, which was originally made for sedation during surgery, is one of the most powerful opioids ever created. Fentanyl-related fatalities began to skyrocket nationwide after drug dealers and cartels began to lace the chemical into drugs that they were already selling, often targeting addicted users looking for a more powerful high, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

“A few grains of fentanyl will make you high. A couple more will kill you,” said Sam Quinones, who authored a book on the U.S. opioid crisis. “It’s just so potent and so profitable… Dealers are seeing that this is something they could sell in all manner of ways and to all manner of customers.”

Candice Sexton, a Nashville coroner, keeps a growing list of people dying with fentanyl in their systems. In 2016, her office noted 102 deaths related to fentanyl in middle Tennessee alone.

Every year since, those numbers have nearly doubled, Sexton said.

“It was just mind boggling,” she added.

In 2021, Sexton’s office reported nearly 1,200 fentanyl-related deaths. She said she expects 2022 to be even higher.

“We are on track for it to be worse,” said Sexton. “We have outgrown our cooler. We have a FEMA trailer that they’re allowing us to use as well for additional storage.”

Phil Bogard is a program administrator at Rock to Recovery, a recovery clinic in Nashville for women suffering from addiction.

”In 2018, I remember people coming in for heroin,” said Bogard. “Now nobody’s coming in saying, ‘I’m here for heroin.’ People are walking in the door saying ‘I’m here for fentanyl.’”

Naloxone, otherwise known as Narcan, reverses an opioid overdose. First responders said they are often administering multiple doses of Narcan just to resuscitate one person.

In Nashville, Henderson leads a small team of five people monitoring the fentanyl epidemic. One of their main goals is to distribute Narcan in parts of the city that have high numbers of overdoses.

“We can identify hotspots of activity. So we can look at ZIP codes that are hit particularly hard,” said Henderson.

Unfortunately, the growing number of fentanyl-related deaths is not unique to Nashville, but a scene playing out across the country. Like many other parents, Jacobs has been trying to spread the word about the dangers of fentanyl.

She said she is against the use of the word “overdose” and prefers to use the word “poison.”

“If you take too much of something, you overdose. You might or might not die,” she said. “But once that fentanyl is in there, if you get something you haven’t asked for and then you die from it – it’s poisoning, which makes it a murder.”

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2-year-old ‘miracle’ girl back at home after 848-day hospital stay

Courtesy Aliesha and Chris Smith

(SAN DIEGO) — A 2-year-old girl who spent the first two years of her life in the hospital is back home with her parents and younger brother in California.

It was a joyous homecoming for Addy Smith, who left the hospital on April 5 after 848 days of treatment at two different San Diego hospitals.

Addy was born via cesarean section on Dec. 10, 2019, at 27 weeks and four days at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns in San Diego, where she first received treatment. She was small for her age and according to her parents, was diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction while still in the womb. IUGR, also known as fetal growth restriction or FGR, is a condition where a baby doesn’t grow at a normal rate in the womb and can lead to a lower weight at birth, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Addy’s parents, Aliesha and Chris Smith, had struggled for seven years with infertility, and at one point were told they weren’t able to have children. They tried several intrauterine insemination procedures that were unsuccessful but then got pregnant one month before they were supposed to begin the in vitro fertilization process.

“We had tried so long. It was never ever on the table, never an option to not see things through with her and not give her a chance,” Chris Smith, 36, recalled to ABC News’ Good Morning America. “The OB (obstetrician) had told us, she just painted a picture of what it would be like for the next, at least couple years, and the rest of her life and we were really like, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s saddle up and this is what was meant to be.'”

At Sharp Mary Birch, Addy seemed to be making progress, despite her underdeveloped lungs, moving from a ventilator to a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine to help her breathe. But three months after her birth, Addy took a turn for the worse, when she stopped breathing.

“The doctors did not think she was going to make it and we were getting ready to say our goodbyes,” Aliesha Smith, 35, recalled to GMA.

Doctors had to work on Addy for over an hour to resuscitate her, but the team at Sharp Mary Birch told Aliesha and Chris that in order to give Addy a fighting chance, she’d have to be transferred to Rady Children’s Hospital.

Addy was quickly admitted to Rady’s neonatal intensive care unit in March 2020, the same month when COVID-19 was declared a national emergency. Aliesha and Chris Smith also moved into a friend’s recreational vehicle so they could split up time with Addy after the hospital changed their protocols due to COVID-19 and only allowed one parent to stay at Addy’s bedside at a time.

“She was so critical, so critical, that we had a friend that let us use their RV. And so we parked on the street and that’s where one of us would be when one of us would be up by her room,” Aliesha explained, adding that Addy coded two more times on her first two days at Rady.

Dr. Sandeep Khanna, a pediatric intensivist and the medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Rady Children’s Hospital, treated Addy, who had chronic lung disease and had trouble breathing on her own, for over a year in the PICU.

“She was a challenge,” Khanna told GMA. “She was having periods when the air exchange was very difficult on her and we had to give her heavy amounts of sedation to relax her, and sometimes even the heavy, heavy amounts of sedation did not work.”

“The only thing which helped us through was that we had to give her a paralyzing medication after heavy sedation,” Khanna continued. “It was tricky because sometimes those episodes would resolve [after] maybe 30 minutes or an hour. But sometimes she would have periods of those episodes maybe 10 times a day and she would continue to have it for like seven to 10 days. And it was hard to wean her from heavy sedation and muscle relaxation medications. And that’s why she was stuck in the hospital.”

For months, Addy was on some form of paralytic drug, but the Smiths never gave up on Addy, even when her care team, like Khanna, didn’t have any clear answers or solutions.

“I was sitting with [Chris] in the room and I said, ‘Look, the way things are going, Chris, I don’t know when she will go home. I think this might take years. It might take decades, even,'” Khanna recalled. “We are not saying we’re quitting but I’m just telling you that you should be prepared for that. And he said, ‘Well, she’s driving the bus. Keep doing it.’ So we did it.”

“We were always on the same page,” Aliesha added. “We always knew what the end goal was, which was to get her home. And we always made an agreement, Addy is going to tell us when she’s not ready. And if we started questioning that and we would pray about it and say like, ‘God, please give me a sign, tell me if it’s time to stop or if it’s time to keep going.'”

Khanna said there were many factors in Addy’s case but letting her grow in the PICU under the care of her nurses and medical team seemed to help with her breathing episodes, as her lungs continued to develop. Physical therapy also helped with her muscle rigidity and her lungs seemed to improve as her muscles strengthened. By February and March 2022, Addy didn’t have any bronchoconstriction, or muscle spasms in the lungs, when she couldn’t breathe.

The last two years have been extremely difficult for the Smiths but one of their bright spots was finding out they were expecting again. The couple welcomed their second child, a healthy baby boy named Aiden, last year.

Aiden was able to join his parents and accompany his older sister home two weeks ago and they’re getting to know each other already.

“She starts cracking up when he’s laughing or when he’s screaming. She cracks up and it’s funny to see them interact,” Aliesha said. “We’ve taken them on walks together out in the neighborhood, which has been so fun to do.”

Even though Addy still needs to use a ventilator at home for now, Aliesha and Chris are full of hope for their oldest child and want to pass along their hope to others.

“It’s been miracle after miracle with her,” Chris said. “We’re both so excited to see where she goes and what she can do. And I know she’s always going to continue to blow us away and surprise us.”

“I’m hoping we can give another family hope. We felt very alone during this whole thing and if her story can give another family that may be going through something so similar … if we can give them that little peace, I know it would have meant everything to us, as well,” he added.

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