Health News

Federal government to relaunch free COVID tests program

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(WASHINGTON) -- The federal government program used for the last two winters to send free COVID tests to Americans' homes will get up-and-running once again in the coming days, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday.

Becerra made the announcement at a CVS drugstore in Washington, D.C., while getting his updated COVID shot and flu shot.

The site, CovidTests.Gov, will officially relaunch on Sept. 25 and each household will be able to order four free rapid tests, according to the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.

The site has had an on-and-off presence since the winter of 2022, when the omicron variant was ripping across the country.

At the time, President Joe Biden pledged to give out 1 billion free rapid tests.

But the site was temporarily shut down that fall as a political fight dragged on over COVID funding. Officials said they had to conserve tests in case they didn't get more money -- which they didn't.

Still, the site relaunched again in December as cases began to climb again, then shut down this past June.

The government will now relaunch CovidTests.Gov again in time for a surge in cases this winter.

"We want them to be able to use those tests during this viral season -- fall, winter, respiratory viral season," Becerra said.

The tests will come from a $600 million investment across 12 different domestic test manufacturers, which will yield around 200 million tests to boost the federal stockpile. Tests ordered from CovidTests.Gov will be pulled from that stockpile.

The funding for the free tests will come from money that was left over from a past supplemental COVID bill. Though the debt ceiling deal reached over the summer between President Joe Biden and Republicans did claw back about $30 billion in unspent COVID relief funds, officials said there was still enough left over to put toward replenishing the testing stockpile this fall.

Officials said they didn't have an estimate yet for how many they expect Americans to order the free tests given the shrinking demand for COVID precautionary measures. Roughly 755 million tests have been distributed through the website over the last two years.

But if there is high demand in the future, the $600 million investment toward test manufacturers will also serve to warm up the supply lines and get the production process underway ahead of a crunch in resources, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Dawn O’Connell said.

“Manufacturing COVID-19 tests in the United States strengthens our preparedness for the upcoming fall and winter seasons, reduces our reliance on other countries, and provides good jobs to hardworking Americans,” O’Connell said.

“ASPR’s investments in these domestic manufacturers will increase availability of tests in the future,” she said in a statement.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are continuing to climb in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the week ending Sept. 9, data showed that hospitalizations increased 7.7% from 19,068 to 20,538 weekly hospitalizations -- an estimate that's likely an undercount, due to less available data without the public health emergency still in place.

ABC News' Mary Kekatos contributed to this report.

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Mississippi sees 10-fold increase in babies born with syphilis since 2016: Report

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(JACKSON, Miss.) -- The number of babies born with syphilis in Mississippi has risen 10-fold over the last several years, according to a new report.

Between 2016 and 2022, congenital syphilis cases rose from 10 to 110, marking a 1,000% increase, according to a report from the John D. Bower School of Population Health at University of Mississippi Medical Center.

For the report, researchers looked at hospital discharge data from the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Hospital Association.

During the study period, 367 infants were hospitalized in Mississippi due to a diagnosis of congenital syphilis. The majority were identified at delivery while a few were admitted to the hospital post-delivery.

In addition to the number of cases rising, the hospitalization rate also increased from 2.0 per 100,000 in 2016 to 24.8 per 100,000, according to the report.

The report found a wide discrepancy when it came to breakdown by race. The overwhelming majority of infants were African American with 71.1% of all infants compared to 25.1% of infants being white.

Additionally, when it came to characteristics that put an infant more at risk for congenital syphilis, they included being covered by Medicaid and being older than 3 days old.

Infants with congenital syphilis were also significantly more likely than those without the disease to be born to mothers with illicit drug use.

Congenital syphilis occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy.

There has been a "sharp increase" in the number of babies born with syphilis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nationwide rate in just a year rose 30.5% from 59.7 per 100,000 live births in 2020 to 77.9 per 100,000 live births in 2021.

More than 2,000 cases of congenital syphilis were reported in 2021 alone, which is the highest number reported in one year since 1994, the federal health agency said.

Syphilis infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, and an infant with congenital syphilis can result in stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight or death shortly after birth.

Although babies born with syphilis may not show overt signs of the condition at birth, they need to be treated right away to avoid having serious health problems, according to the CDC.

Without treatment, the infection can lead to severe defects including low blood count, jaundice, skin rashes, deformed bones, blindness, deafness or meningitis, which is inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

The study found infants were more likely to suffer from severe complications including prematurity at 27% among babies with the disease compared to 12.7% for those without, and low birthweight at 17.9% compared to 9.7% for those without.

The average length of hospital stay for infants with congenital syphilis was 14.5 days and average charges were $56,802 compared to a 3.8 day-hospital stay and mean charges of $13,945 for infants without congenital syphilis.

"Although the upward trend was consistent with national-level surveillance data for CS, the upturn in Mississippi was even steeper," the authors of the report wrote. "This spike is troubling because decades of research have demonstrated the dire health consequences of CS, including prematurity, low birthweight, and death."

The authors said comprehensive public health policies must be implemented including more access to prenatal care and health care providers being informed about the need to ensure early diagnosis and treatment of syphilis during pregnancy.

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Wildfires in recent years have reversed some of the progress made in eliminating air pollution, new study suggests

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(NEW YORK) -- The smoke from wildfires in recent years has been so intense that it is decreasing air quality in the majority of the U.S., reversing some of the improvements made to air quality in the last several decades, according to new research.

Wildfire smoke in the U.S. had a "notable influence" on recent air quality trends in nearly 75% of states in the continental U.S., despite air quality that has been steadily improving over the past several decades, largely due to policies like the Clean Air Act, according to a study published in Nature on Wednesday.

Wildfires have been increasing in size, frequency and intensity in recent years -- at the same time that progress in air quality improvement has stagnated across much of the U.S., with some regions reporting rising levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the study found.

The biggest surprise for the researchers was the extent of the influence of wildfires on diminishing air quality throughout the country, even reversing the progress made in recent decades in some regions, Marshall Burke, associate professor at Stanford University's Doerr School of Sustainability and lead author of the study, told ABC News.

"What we found was a pretty substantial and widespread fingerprint of wildfires on air pollution trends in the U.S.," he said.

Researchers combined air pollution data from ground and air sensors between 2000 and 2022 to determine the contribution of wildfire smoke to PM2.5 trends and found pollution was declining in 41 of the 48 states before 2016.

That decline has since slowed in 31 states and begun to reverse in 11 states, according to the paper.

Smoke from just six years of wildfires in North America, from 2016 to 2022, was found to have eroded nearly 25% of the air quality progress made in the U.S. since the start of the century, Burke said.

"All of this success we'd had before is being rapidly unraveled, at least in some parts of the country, by wildfires," he said. "And that's a that's a concern."

Fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, is 30 times smaller in diameter than a human hair and cannot be seen by the naked eye. Exposure to concentrated amounts of PM2.5 can cause both short-term effects such as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; coughing, sneezing; and shortness of breath, and long-term effects such as worsening of conditions such as asthma and heart disease, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The severity of the wildfires in recent years are a result of a combination of a century of fire suppression, which has left more fuel on forest floors to ignite, and global warming, which is creating drier landscapes that amplify a spark of flames, Burke said.

The study data doesn't even include the wildfires that have been burning in 2023, including the unprecedented wildfire season in Canada, Burke said.

While the West Coast has been dealing with acute events of dangerous air quality in recent years, the Northeast and even some parts of the South experienced toxic levels of air pollution in June.

More of these extreme air pollution events could continue in the future if severe wildfires continue to burn unabated, Burke said.

"I would be surprised if we didn't see more events analogous to this in future years," he said.

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Hispanics experience higher risk of heart disease, stroke while facing language barriers

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(NEW YORK) -- When Jose Montijo sought treatment for shortness of breath, doctors realized he was experiencing heart failure.

"They told me your heart is working at 20% and you are a candidate for a heart attack," the Puerto Rican dishwasher from New York recalled in Spanish.

Montijo is among the many Hispanic people in the United States impacted by cardiovascular disease. It is the leading cause of death among the population, according to a study published last year in the journal Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports. Roughly 43% of Hispanic women and 52% of Hispanic men in the U.S. live with the illness, according to the study.

Stroke is also one of the leading causes of death in the Hispanic community, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, and language barriers may be a factor.

Dr. Claudia Serrano-Gomez, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health, spoke about communication challenges in an interview with "Good Morning America."

"They don't speak the language," she said about many Hispanic immigrants, noting the difficulties they experience in adjusting to an American lifestyle.

"They don't know how to manage themselves out in the street," she said. "They are not aware of how to change from their lifestyle in their countries to the lifestyle here."

Experts say the numbers reflect other issues like immigration status, socioeconomic standing and lack of cultural nuance in health care.

Underscoring the importance of diversity in medicine, Cynthia Lebron, assistant professor and prevention scientist at the University of Miami, said doctors will not be able to give patients the best care if they don't understand them.

"It's not just language," she said. "It's cultural."

Lebron also noted that good relationships between physicians and patients result in better health outcomes.

To help people spot the warning signs of a stroke, the American Stroke Association urges people to learn the acronym F.A.S.T., which stands for "face drooping," "arm weakness," "speech difficulty" and "time to call 911." The ASA is also launching a new campaign spotlighting the Spanish acronym R.Á.P.I.D.O., so non-English speakers can better remember the signs too.

Dr. José Biller, an ASA volunteer expert and chair of Neurology at Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine, said in a statement that "R.Á.P.I.D.O. is a tool that can help save lives."

"The language barrier is among the most significant barriers to health care access and quality," he continued. "Understanding which Spanish acronym resonated best with Spanish-speaking communities addresses this barrier while increasing stroke awareness and improving outcomes for all."

Montijo, who has given up drinking coffee due to his heart condition, is now on the mend. But he isn't planning to rest any time soon.

His daughter Mariel Miranda said she "thinks that it's just part of the Latino culture to continuously work because retirement sometimes isn't an option for us."

ABC News' Aisha Frazier contributed to this report.


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Soap opera star dies by suicide: What to know about bipolar disorder

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(NEW YORK) -- The death of 43-year-old Billy Miller, an actor best known for his role in the soap opera The Young and the Restless, was due to suicide, his mother has confirmed.

Patricia Miller wrote in a statement shared on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that her son suffered from bipolar disorder, noting that "in the end the disease won the fight."

"He fought a long hard valiant battle with bipolar depression for years. He did everything he could to control the disease," she wrote. "He loved his family, his friends and his fans but in the end the disease won the fight and he surrendered his life."

The statement was shared on X by Billy Miller's manager, who on Sunday publicly announced his death in a statement to Variety.

Sunday would have been the actor's 44th birthday.

According to the magazine, Billy Miller died Friday in Austin, Texas.

In addition to his role on Young and the Restless, for which he won three Emmys, Billy Miller also starred on TV shows including General Hospital, Suits, Ray Donovan, NCIS and Truth Be Told.'

What to know about bipolar disorder

In battling bipolar disorder, Billy Miller was far from alone: Nearly 3% of adults in the United States live with the condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In recent years, high-profile figures including singers Mariah Carey, Selena Gomez and Bebe Rexha, former NBA player Delonte West and college basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie have all publicly revealed their own battles with the mental health condition.

Bipolar disorder is defined by the NIMH as a "mental illness that causes unusual shifts in a person's mood, energy, activity levels, and concentration" that are more severe than the usual ups and downs that people experience.

The condition has three different types -- bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder and cyclothymic disorder.

All three types involve drastic changes in moods ranging from very up and energized, called manic episodes, to very down and sad, known as depressive episodes, according to the NIMH.

The different moods and frequency of changing moods can impact a person's day-to-day functioning, as well as their sleep and activity levels.

According to the NIMH, bipolar disorder is most commonly diagnosed during the late teen years and early adulthood.

It is a condition that requires lifelong treatment, which can include everything from medication to professional talk therapy.

The NIMH notes that for people with bipolar disorder, in many cases, they also have other mental health conditions like anxiety disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and may struggle with drug or alcohol abuse or eating disorders.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder include noticeable changes in mood, sleep and activity levels, and swings in mood changes, ranging from manic to depressive, according to the NIMH.

People who have concerns that they or a loved one may be struggling with bipolar disorder or another mental health condition should reach out to a medical professional for help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 or chat at Free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You are not on your own.

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Weekly COVID hospitalizations reach 20,000 for 1st time since March but new vaccine could help: Experts

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(NEW YORK) -- COVID-19 hospitalizations are continuing to climb in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the week ending Sept. 9, hospitalizations increased 7.7% from 19,068 to 20,538 weekly hospitalizations.

This marks the first time COVID hospitalizations have surpassed 20,000 since mid-March, when the figure hit 20,170.

However, COVID figures are at relatively low levels overall compared to the peak of the omicron wave in winter 2021-22 when weekly hospitalizations hit 150,674 the week of Jan. 15, 2022.

Although increasing, the number of weekly hospitalizations remains less than hospitalizations at the same time in previous years. At the same period throughout the pandemic, weekly hospitalizations sat at 24,504 in 2020, 80,166 in 2021 and 31,571 in 2022.

"Hospitalizations [are] still a fraction of where we were in last winter and last summer," Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News. "I think it's not surprising, but it's still not like before -- in terms of a surge -- overwhelming resources. However, it is a siren call for the winter, when we have other things that cause people to go to hospital as well."

He said with other viruses, including flu and RSV, expected to uptick this fall and winter, the health care system could be really strained if COVID hospitalizations keep increasing.

"If you bring too many people together and hospitalize them, it really strains the system and makes it hard for people who have other conditions to come into the hospital," Chin-Hong said.

Additionally, 2.3% of all deaths in the U.S. last week were linked to COVID-19, according to CDC data. Although deaths have increased over the past few weeks, they still remain at their lowest levels since the pandemic began.

It comes as an updated COVID vaccine for everyone aged 6 months and older becomes more available across the country.

The updated vaccines, formulated by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are formulated to target variants that are currently circulating, which are related to XBB -- an offshoot of the omicron variant.

Recent data has indicated the updated vaccines could offer additional protection against currently circulating variants and especially protect against severe disease and death, particularly for those who are elderly or immune compromised.

Data published from Moderna showed its updated vaccines generated a nearly nine-fold increase in antibodies against the newer subvariant BA.2.86 in a lab-based study.

There are about 14 cases of BA.2.86 in the U.S., according to the open global genome sequencing database GISAID. it does not appear to cause more severe disease.

There are at least 19,000 sites nationwide that have received the updated vaccines, according to ABC News medical contributor John Brownstein.

Chin-Hong said the vaccine could help stem any potential surge, but that it depends on how many people get the new vaccine and how quickly they get it.

"That's kind of the interesting thing, we are predicting what will happen in winter, yet the active actors in the play are, you know, haven't performed yet, which is people's behavior in terms of getting the vaccine," he said.

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Over 58K pounds of raw ground beef recalled in multiple states

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a recall on approximately 58,281 pounds of raw ground beef due to possible E. coli contamination.

American Foods Group and business operator Green Bay Dressed Beef announced a recall Friday after a sample collected by a state public health official notified the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services that some products may be contaminated with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O103.

The recalled products included three specific 10-pound plastic tubes, known as “chubs."

The raw ground beef items produced on Aug. 14, 2023, have an establishment number "EST. 18076" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Three products are subject to the recall:

Approximately 80-lb. cases containing 10-lb. plastic tubes (chubs) of "90050 BEEF FINE GROUND 81/19" with lot code D123226026.
Approximately 80-lb. cases containing 10-lb. plastic tubes (chubs) of "20473 BEEF HALAL FINE GROUND 73/27" with lot code D123226027.
Approximately 80-lb. cases containing 10-lb. plastic tubes (chubs) of "20105 BEEF FINE GROUND 73/27" with lot code D123226027.

The now recalled food items had been shipped to distributors in Georgia, Michigan and Ohio, the USDA said.

There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

A representative for American Foods Group did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for additional comment.

The USDA said "many clinical laboratories do not test for non-O157 STEC" because it's "harder to identify than STEC O157:H7."

Distributors and customers who may have purchased these products are urged by the USDA not to use them or distribute them further.

"These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase," the agency stated.

People can become ill one to 10 days after consumption of STEC bacteria. Symptoms of E. Coli bacteria include vomiting or diarrhea (sometimes bloody) that worsens over several days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people recover within a week; some may develop a more severe infection.

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What to know about Nipah virus amid outbreak in India


(LONDON) -- India's southern state of Kerala is currently facing an outbreak of the rare, but potentially serious Nipah virus with at least two deaths so far, according to local reports.

Health officials have closed schools and offices in Kerala and hundreds of residents are being tested.

Despite Nipah virus's high fatality rate and no specific treatments available, experts said it's very unlikely the virus will lead to a global emergency and that it's a reminder of how habitat destruction has led to animals transmitting the disease to humans.

Here's what you need to know about the virus, including signs and symptoms, how the virus is transmitted and what treatments are available.

What is Nipah virus?

Nipah virus is a type of zoonotic disease, meaning it's primarily found in animals and can initially spread between animals and people.

It was first discovered in 1999 after a disease affected both pigs and people in Malaysia and Singapore, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus is most often spread by fruit bats, also known as flying foxes, and it can spread through direct or indirect contact.

"People can become infected if they have close contact with an infected animal or body fluids such as, for example, the fruit bat saliva on a fruit, and then it flies off and then a person eats the fruit," Dr. Diana Finkel, an associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told ABC News.

The virus can also spread from person to person by being in close contact or coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms typically occur between four and 14 days after exposure. The most common symptom is fever followed by headache, cough, sore throat, difficulty breathing and vomiting.

Diagnosing the virus in the early stages is often difficult because the symptoms resemble many other illnesses, the CDC said.

The virus can lead to severe symptoms, including disorientation, drowsiness, seizures or encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain. These can progress to a coma within 24 to 48 hours, according to the CDC.

Deaths range anywhere between 40% and 75% among all cases, the federal health agency said. Some permanent changes among survivors have been noted, including persistent convulsions.

What are the treatments available?

Currently there are no specific treatments available for Nipah virus with treatment limited to supportive care, including rest and fluids.

Experts said there are treatments currently under development. One is a monoclonal antibody, which is are immune system proteins that are manufactured in a lab and mimic the antibodies the body naturally creates when fighting the virus.

Finkel said the drug has already completed phase I clinical trials and is currently being used on a compassionate basis.

Researchers are also studying the potential benefit of remdesivir -- the intravenous medication used to treat COVID-19 -- which has been shown to work well in nonhuman primates with Nipah virus.

What is the likelihood of Nipah virus spreading?

Experts said that while anything is possible, it's very unlikely that the outbreak in India will lead to global spread.

There has been limited person-to-person spread amid the outbreak in India.

"The world is small, but the likelihood that somebody's infected, or an infected fruit bat with Nipah virus would be here, right now, is very unlikely," Finkel said.

She said when people are exposed in the healthcare settings, it's often because proper standard precautions were not followed such as not wearing gloves or masks.

Experts say the outbreak is also a reminder of the potentially devastating effects of habitat destruction and climate change, possibly leading to more interaction between infected animals and humans.

"If you take this current outbreak in Kerala, as an example, you have to think about why are fruit bats that harbor this Nipah virus, why are they coming into contact with people?" Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, director of the University of Washington Center for One Health Research, told ABC News. "What is changing in terms of the movement of the bat populations? Are they leaving [a] habitat where there were not very many people? Are they now spending more time close to people?"

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New app will allow New Yorkers to avoid commuting through the poorest air quality


(NEW YORK) -- For those who need to commute when air quality is poor, a new technology will make it possible to use the safest route possible for their health.

Airways, a new map--based app launched on Monday at the start of Climate Week NYC, will provide routes with the cleanest air for those traveling within New York City.

Air quality in major cities has been worsening in recent decades for various reasons, including additional pollution from growing populations as well as climate change-related impacts, such as an increase in large wildfires and seasons with higher pollen counts, Purvi Parikh, allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health, told ABC News.

Air pollution is the fourth-leading cause of death globally, accounting for nearly 7 million deaths in 2019, according to research conducted by State of Global Air, which publishes a report card on air pollution exposures and their impacts on human health.

Constant exposure to air pollution increases inflammation in the body, and can cause short-term symptoms such as itchy, watery eyes, nasal congestion, headaches, shortness of breath, coughing and skin irritation, Parikh said.

Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, very young or pregnant women, and those with pre-existing populations like asthma, chronic lung or heart disease or allergies could suffer on days when air quality is poor, Parikh said. Taking alternate routes could prevent the symptoms from exacerbating.

"They can prioritize their health by choosing those routes with cleaner air," she said.

In addition, those who are concerned about traveling when air quality is poor should limit their time outside to what is absolutely necessary and wearing a medical grade mask, like N95 or kn95 masks, Parikh said. If possible, they should also run a HEPA air purifier indoors.

The user-friendly map highlights the intersections between air pollution and pollen along city routes, providing information to users that essentially identifies a cleaner-air commuting route, as well as the routes to avoid.

After entering the start and end destination, the tool populates the lowest pollution route based on the real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) and levels of common pollens, such as ash, grass and ragweed. Users can then populate the cleanest route into their Google Map or Apple Map to navigate to their destination.

"It's as simple as if you want to walk from one point to the other or want a bike from one point to the other," Jaideep Singh, co-founder at Ambee, told ABC News.

The app, a partnership between environmental intelligence agency Ambee and Allegra, the allergy medicine company, is launching the beta platform in New York City this week and will continue to roll the technology to locations throughout the U.S. in 2024, Singh said.

The creators behind Airways believe the technology will empower people to prioritize their health by choosing routes with the cleanest air.

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Former Florida surgeon general rebukes DeSantis administration's claims on COVID vaccines

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(NEW YORK) -- A former Florida surgeon general is rebuking claims by the DeSantis administration that updated COVID-19 vaccines have "not been proven to be safe or effective" and that the shots should not be recommended for individuals under the age of 65.

The COVID vaccines remain "very, very safe, and have a really proven efficacy, particularly against preventing severe disease," Dr. Scott Rivkees, the former Florida surgeon general during the initial years of the pandemic, told ABC News.

"If they say that COVID vaccines are not safe and that they are not effective, the onus is on them to show those data," Rivkees said.

Everyone over the age of 6 months is recommended to receive an updated COVID vaccine, according to recommendations made by federal health authorities this week.

"I will not stand by and let the FDA and CDC use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective," Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement Wednesday. "Once again, Florida is the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on truth, not Washington edicts."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Mandy Cohen defended the updated COVID-19 vaccines saying in a statement that the shots "are proven safe; they are effective, and they have been thoroughly and independently reviewed by the FDA and CDC."

"Public health experts are in broad agreement about these facts, and efforts to undercut vaccine uptake are unfounded and dangerous," the statement added.

The Food and Drug Administration told ABC News in a statement that these were not new vaccines being offered.

"To clarify, these are not "new vaccines"...COVID-19 vaccines have undergone—and continue to undergo—the most intense vaccine safety monitoring in U.S. history. Additionally, COVID-19 vaccines have an established track record of safety and effectiveness, from the large-scale clinical trials conducted prior to initial authorization and licensure to real world evidence following their use," the FDA said in part of a statement provided to ABC News.

Rivkees points to CDC data showing that about 25% of COVID deaths in the state of Florida were in individuals under the age of 65. While there remains a lower risk of severe illness in younger populations, the benefits of protection from a vaccine outweigh any potential risks, federal health authorities say.

"When you look at the data, particularly the pediatric data of younger individuals who gets severe COVID to the point where they can succumb to the virus, more than half of those individuals don't have underlying medical conditions," Rivkees said.

Last October, current Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo wrote on X that an analysis by the Florida Department of Health "showed an increase risk of cardiac-related death among men 18-39 following COVID vaccinations."

The analysis came under scrutiny within the scientific community, with many vaccine experts calling the study poorly designed and dangerously misleading.

Ladapo came under further scrutiny earlier this year after the Tampa Bay Times obtained drafts of his analysis indicating Lapado allegedly omitted data to suggest vaccines pose a higher health risk for young men than they really do.

At the time, Ladapo released a statement to Politico, which also published the drafts, reading: "To say that I 'removed an analysis' for a particular outcome is an implicit denial of the fact that the public has been the recipient of biased data and interpretations since the beginning of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine campaign."

Ladapo had also issued guidance last year that children may not benefit from COVID vaccines due to limited risk of severe illness, existing immunity, and the potential risk of myocarditis.

"It's not clear that the previous concerns expressed by Ladapo about myocarditis have solid footing," Rivkees added.

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle, according to the CDC. It has been rarely reported and has typically occurred in young adult males within several days after COVID vaccination, according to the agency.

"The data clearly showed that in individuals, risk of myocarditis is much, much greater from COVID, than from the vaccine. And the data that were recently presented at the [CDC] meeting, show that with the boosters that were out this last fall that the risk of myocarditis was extraordinarily rare," Rivkees said.

More than 80,000 people have died in the state of Florida from COVID-19, and some of those deaths could have been prevented by vaccines, Rivkees said.

"Those of us in public health, those of us in health care should do everything we can to keep individuals safe and healthy, especially when these vaccines have such a great safety profile," Rivkees said.

ABC News' Will McDuffie and Hannah Demissie contributed to this report.

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Several states issue West Nile virus alerts after detecting cases in residents

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(NEW YORK) -- Health officials in several states are raising concerns about West Nile virus after detecting cases among residents, including some deaths.

Counties in Georgia, Maryland and Texas have detected their first infections this year. Kansas is putting nearly the entire state on high alert.

The Maryland Department of Health announced this week that an adult living in the Eastern Shore region, part of the Delmarva Peninsula, was positive for the virus.

"We are in the season when the West Nile virus can spread in Maryland," Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman said in a statement. "We urge people to be vigilant and take steps to avoid infection and eliminate standing pools of water where mosquitoes can breed. Our teams are continuing to monitor mosquito activity across the state."

Similarly, in Atlanta, the DeKalb County Board of Heath said it's investigating three cases of the virus, including one among a man in his 20s. The Galveston County Health District in Texas confirmed a case in a woman in her 60s.

Dekalb County's board said crews are applying larvicide, an insecticide that targets the larval stage life of a mosquito, in low-lying areas and storms drains.

"Larvicide keeps young mosquitoes from becoming flying, biting adults," the board said.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Department of Health has put five of the state's six regions in the high-risk category, meaning residents have high odds of being bitten by an infected mosquito.

Kansas has seen 22 cases this year, including 17 neuroinvasive cases -- meaning the virus has affected the nervous system. Three deaths have been reported.

"We're right in the middle of our peak timeframe for WNV transmission here in Kansas, and with more widespread virus activity this year than in the previous several years, it's important to take mosquito bite prevention measures to protect yourself, your family, and livestock against all mosquito-borne illnesses," Dr. Erin Petro, the state's public health veterinarian, said in a statement.

West Nile virus is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the contiguous United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It was first introduced in the Western Hemisphere during the summer of 1999 after people were diagnosed in New York City.

Mosquitoes typically become infected with the virus after feeding on infected birds and then spread it to humans and other animals, the federal health agency said.

The majority of people with the virus do not have symptoms, but about one in five will experience fever along with headaches, body aches, joint pain, diarrhea, vomiting or a rash. Most symptoms disappear but weakness and fatigue may last for weeks or months.

About one in 150 will develop severe disease leading to encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain, or meningitis, which is inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord -- both of which can lead to death.

There are currently no vaccines or specific treatments available for West Nile virus. The CDC recommends rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications. For those with severe illness, patients often need to be hospitalized and receive support treatments such as intravenous fluids.

To best protect yourself, the CDC suggests using insect repellant, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, treating clothing and gear and taking steps to control mosquitoes. This last step includes putting screens on windows and doors, using air conditioning and emptying out containers with still water.


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COVID guide: What to know about symptoms, testing, treatment and vaccines


(NEW YORK) -- As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise across the United States and a new updated vaccine becomes available, many have questions on how to best keep their families safe.

Much has changed over the last three years including testing, treatment availability and even who is eligible for vaccines.

"Over the last several years, the fall and early winter seems to be the time when COVID has a tendency to have a larger surge and we're kind of entering that right now," Dr. Frank Esper, a physician in the center for pediatric infectious diseases at the Cleveland Clinic, told ABC News. "We are seeing an uptick in COVID at this time, and we don't know if this is going to be a minor blip or a major surge."

So what might your symptoms look like? How do you interpret test results? Here's everything you need to know about COVID at this point.

What symptoms might COVID cause?

Symptoms can range from mild to severe and appear between two and 14 days after being exposed to COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They are wide-ranging and can include fever or chills, coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, body aches, sore throat, runny nose, sudden loss of taste and smell, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

However, this list is not exhaustive, according to the CDC. Symptoms may change with new variants or depending on vaccination status.

What testing is available?

There are two types of tests available: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and rapid at-home antigen tests.

PCR tests, usually available in hospitals and doctors' offices, look for genetic material from the virus and take several days to return results.

Meanwhile, at-home tests look for antigens, or proteins from the virus. They are readily available -- and the most used at this point -- and can typically return results within 15 minutes.

Public health experts and the CDC say you should test right away If you are experiencing symptoms or five full days after you last interacted with someone who tests positive.

"I would suggest that if people are worried about having COVID, then the best way to make use of [the at-home tests] is to use them before you go into an environment where you really would not want to introduce the virus," Dr. Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told ABC News. "And that could be if you're visiting grandparents or people who are otherwise sick."

If a box of tests indicates the expiration date has passed, experts say to check the lot number on the FDA website before throwing the box away because the date may have been extended by the federal government.

How do I interpret my test results?

If you are positive, the CDC recommends you stay home and isolate for at least five days. Isolation can end if there are no symptoms, symptoms are improving or if you are fever-free for 24 hours without medication.

If you test negative and you have symptoms, the CDC recommends testing again 48 hours later. If you test negative and don't have symptoms, it's recommended to test 48 hours after the first negative test and then 48 hours after the second negative test.

The CDC also recommends wearing a mask for 11 days when indoors and around other people after testing positive and for 10 days if you were exposed to COVID.

You can use the CDC's calculator to figure out how long you need to quarantine or isolate for.

Additionally, experts say that people should avoid spreading a virus around even if it isn't COVID.

"So, if you test negative, but you're just feeling like you're infected, you know that you've got a cold or a flu, you should still act as if you are infectious with something, even if it isn't COVID, because you don't want that virus spreading around," Esper said.

What treatments are available?

Treatment is currently recommended for those are at higher risk of severe illness including those with underlying conditions, who are immunocompromised or who are young or aged 65 and older.

"I think your run-of-the-mill young, healthy person who has symptoms, for the most part, will be able to, to weather the storm of COVID with just over-the-counter fever-reducing medicines, nasal congestion, and so on," Dr. John Coleman, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Medicine, told ABC News.

There are three treatments commonly available. Paxlovid and Lagevrio (molnupiravir) are oral medications taken at home for five days while Veklury (remdesivir) is an intravenous mediation given a health facility for three days.

Experts recommend getting the treatment as soon as possible because it is most effective when taken early. For Paxlovid and Lagevrio, the CDC recommends within five days of symptoms starting and for Veklury, the CDC recommends seven days.

Can I get the updated vaccine?

The FDA has approved and authorized an updated vaccine for all Americans aged 6 months and older, which was then recommended by the CDC.

Experts say it more closely matches currently circulating variants and protects against severe disease and hospitalization.

For adults and children aged 5 and up -- regardless of previous vaccination-- are eligible to receive one updated vaccine dose at least two months after the last COVID dose.

For children aged 6 months to 4 years who have previously been vaccinated, they are eligible to receive one or two vaccine doses. For the same group that is unvaccinated, they are eligible to receive three vaccine doses of Pfizer or two vaccines doses of Moderna.

Dr. Otto Yang, an infectious disease physician-scientist at UCLA Health, told ABC News that he recommends people get the updated vaccine to also prevent long-term complications including blood clots and long COVID, because they can occur even when a person has mild symptoms.

"[The vaccine is] not just limited to preventing you from dying," Yang said. "So, people, will look at it and say, 'Well, you know, I'm young, I'm healthy, and I've already had COVID, I should have immunity, I'm definitely not going to die from this. I didn't die before.' But on the other hand, there's much more to COVID than just death."


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Donated organs likely caused Legionnaires' disease in 2 lung transplant recipients: CDC

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(NEW YORK) -- The first cases of patients likely contracting Legionnaires' disease from transplanted organs have been identified in a new report.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health was informed in July 2022, that two patients who recently received lung transplants both had the disease, according to the report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

The patients had each received a single lung from the same donor and had their operations performed at the same hospital.

The donor was a man between ages 30 and 39 who fell into a river and was submerged for five minutes or longer, according to the report. Despite attempts to resuscitate him, the man suffered an anoxic brain injury -- a complete lack of oxygen to the brain -- and was declared brain dead.

His organs were recovered for donation within seven days of his death. At the time, exposure to Legionella bacteria was not suspected and no testing occurred, the CDC said.

However, following the infections, an investigation team -- led by the CDC -- became suspicious that perhaps the patients had contracted the bacteria from the donor.

The first patient was a woman between ages 70 and 79 who received a right lung transplant in May 2022. Nine days later, laboratory results revealed elevated white blood cell counts -- a sign of infection, inflammation or injury -- and testing later identified Legionella bacteria.

The second patient, a man between ages 60 and 69, received a left lung transplant on the same day and from the same donor.

Unlike the first patient, the man suffered from several post-operative complications, including the need for an ECMO machine, which is when blood is pumped outside the body to remove carbon dioxide and allows the heart and lungs to rest,, as well as treatments for renal failure. It was only revealed he had a Legionella bacterial infection after the first patient tested positive.

The investigation found no other cases of Legionnaires' disease among patients who received other organs -- including heart, liver and right kidney -- from the same donor. No exposure at the hospital was seen in the six months before or after the two cases.

Additionally, infection from water exposure at the hospital was eliminated as a likely cause after data showed water quality fell within expected ranges.

"Although laboratory testing did not confirm the source of recipient infections, available data suggest that the most likely source was the donor lungs," the authors wrote in the report. "This cluster highlights the need for increased clinical awareness of possible infection with Legionella in recipients of lungs from donors who drowned in freshwater before organ recovery. "

Legionnaires' is a severe form of pneumonia caused by inhaling the bacteria in small droplets of water or accidentally swallowing water containing Legionella.

Legionella bacteria are found naturally in freshwater but typically grow best in warm water and in warm to hot temperatures, the CDC said.

The disease is not contagious, but outbreaks can spread if the bacteria get into a building's water supply, including in shower heads, sink faucets, hot water tanks, heaters and other plumbing systems.

Legionnaires' had increased in prevalence over the last decade, reaching a peak of 2.71 cases per 100,000 in 2018, the CDC said.

Although most people recover from Legionnaires' disease with antibiotics, certain patients -- including those who are immunocompromised or who suffer from chronic lung diseases -- can develop complications that can be fatal.

In the case of the two patients from the report, the female patient received the antibiotic doxycycline and fully recovered. The second patient received the same antibiotic and although he initially experienced a recovery, he died about six months after the transplant after a buildup of mucus in the lungs led to respiratory failure.


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DeSantis' administration advises against updated COVID shots for people under 65

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(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration on Wednesday advised against the updated COVID-19 shots for people under the age of 65 -- a rebuke to federal agencies, which greenlit the shots for anyone 6 months and older earlier this week.

“I will not stand by and let the FDA and CDC use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective,” the governor said in a statement Wednesday. “Once again, Florida is the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on truth, not Washington edicts.”

At a virtual roundtable discussion DeSantis hosted Wednesday with State Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo and outside health experts, Ladapo said he has already taken action on the Governor’s words.

Ladapo has espoused vaccine-skeptical ideas and landed in hot water earlier this year for allegedly altering data to suggest vaccines pose a higher health risk for young men than they really do. At the time, Ladapo released a statement to Politico reading: “To say that I ‘removed an analysis’ for a particular outcome is an implicit denial of the fact that the public has been the recipient of biased data and interpretations since the beginning of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine campaign.”

At Wednesday’s roundtable, Ladapo explained what he is having his department do.

“What I have directed our department to do is to provide guidance that really recommends and advises against the use of these mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for anyone under 65,” Ladapo said.

“I just think that at this point, with the amount of immunity that’s in the community, with virtually every walking human being having some degree of immunity, and the questions we have about safety and about effectiveness – especially about safety – my judgment is that it is not a good decision for young people and for people who are not at high risk, at this point in the pandemic,” he added.

Florida is defending its position because the updated shots “recommendation was based on the fact that the newly FDA approved COVID boosters lack a human clinical trial and evidence of benefit or efficacy,” according to the Florida news release.

Similar to the flu shot, the updated COVID vaccines were adjusted to match current subvariants -- the safety profile of the vaccines is based on rigorous clinical trials with tens of thousands of participants conducted in 2020 and continuous safety monitoring since then.

On Wednesday night, Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Mandy Cohen responded to Florida’s surgeon general’s comments, calling the boosters shots “proven safe,” “effective,” and “thoroughly and independently reviewed by the FDA and CDC.”

“Public health experts are in broad agreement about these facts, and efforts to undercut vaccine uptake are unfounded and dangerous," she said in a statement.

COVID vaccines have been through rigorous safety and efficacy standards through clinical trials involving tens of thousands of participants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The shots have also been under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history, and millions of people have been vaccinated, the agency says.

"The public can be assured that these updated vaccines have met the agency's rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality. We very much encourage those who are eligible to consider getting vaccinated," Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.

Florida’s guidance comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the shots for kids 6 months to 11 years old and approved it for those 12 years and older, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended it for Americans at least 6 months old.

“Vaccination remains critical to public health and continued protection against serious consequences of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death,” Dr. Marks said in a statement after the agency approved the booster.

Florida’s guidance could prove politically timely for DeSantis, a presidential candidate who fueled his rise in the Republican Party largely by bucking federal guidance on COVID-19.

On the campaign trail, he vows to bring “accountability” to the agencies and officials who advocated for COVID mitigation policies DeSantis disagreed with.

“We are going to usher in a reckoning for the federal government and its associated agencies’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said at an event in Gardnerville, Nevada, in June.

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COVID-19 shots will be free for most, regardless of insurance

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(NEW YORK) -- The latest, updated COVID-19 vaccines should soon be available to everyone and offered largely free of cost, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health authorities recommend that everyone over the age of 6 months should get the shot, which is designed to offer additional protection against current sub variants.

Though it's the first season that COVID vaccines will no longer be covered by the government, insurance companies as well as government-run programs like Medicaid and Medicare are expected to cover the shot. Pfizer and Moderna had both previously announced the vaccines would be listed at between $120 to $130 after they switched to the private market -- but that's a price nobody is expected to have to pay.

The estimated 25-30 million adults without insurance or with limited insurance plans will still have access to the vaccines for free through a CDC initiative called the Bridge Access Program. The program is designed to provide vaccines through local health care providers and health centers, and select pharmacies.

“HHS is working to ensure COVID-19 vaccines will be widely available nationwide beginning as early as this week to help protect the American public from the most severe outcomes of COVID-19 as we head into the fall and winter months,” said Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“Our message is simple: Don't wait. Get an updated COVID-19 vaccine. It's safe and effective,” Becerra added.

An estimated 85% of adults without insurance live fewer than five miles from a site offering free vaccines for the uninsured, according to the CDC. However, that number drops to 39% in rural areas.

Uninsured children will also be able to access vaccinations through the Vaccines for Children program, which offers them at no cost to eligible kids through a national network of participating health care providers. To qualify, one must be under the age of 18, American Indian or Alaska Native, Medicaid-eligible, or be under-insured or uninsured, according to the CDC.

Both CVS and Walgreens plan to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses at select store locations. The retailers plan to have vaccines available in more meaningful supply starting early next week.

“Individuals will be able to schedule appointments immediately, with available appointments starting nationwide on Monday, September 18,” Walgreens said in a statement. ”Earlier appointments may be added on a rolling basis as stores receive vaccines this week.”

CVS likewise declared in a statement on Sept. 13: “Pharmacies and retail medical clinics will begin receiving the new vaccine and will continue to receive inventory on a rolling basis throughout the week. All CVS Pharmacy locations are expected to have the vaccination in stock by early next week.”

Experts were initially concerned that there would be a delayed vaccine rollout for the uninsured, yet officials at HHS and the CDC shared that both people with and without insurance should be able to receive the shots on the same timeline.

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