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Vaccinated Americans without risk factors immune to worst of virus, CDC study shows: Live COVID updates

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The skyrocketing number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and the increased frequency of breakthrough infections may be unsettling even for those who are vaccinated and boosted.

The latest research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should offer some reassurance.

A study of more than 1.2 million people who were fully vaccinated between December 2020 and October 2021 found only people with at least one risk factor had severe outcomes or death, and even among those the instances were rare, 1.5 per 10,000 participants.

Besides death (0.0033% of cases), severe outcomes included hospitalization with acute respiratory failure, need for ventilation or ICU admission. All 36 participants who died had four or more risk factors, such as being 65 and older, immunosuppression and  other underlying conditions.

The results underscore the notion supported by experts that healthy, vaccinated people under 65 have extremely high protection from COVID’s worst effects. 

The study was conducted before the discovery of the highly transmissible omicron variant in November, but also before the widespread administration of booster shots. Although omicron has proven more transmissible than previous strains of the coronavirus, it also appears to cause less harmful disease.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that in the last six months the U.S. has reduced the number of adults who haven’t received a single vaccine shot from 90 million to 35 million. Of course, that still leaves a significant chunk of the population exposed to COVID’s harshest impacts, despite the country’s abundance of vaccines.

There’s no excuse, no excuse for anyone being unvaccinated,” Biden said. “This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Also in the news:

►Vaccinated, masked New Orleans residents and tourists began ushering in Carnival season Thursday with a series of parties and a wary eye on coronavirus statistics. Carnival officially begins Jan. 6 – the 12th day after Christmas – and comes to a raucous climax on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which falls on March 1 this year.

►The American Medical Association said it welcomed the CDC recommendation to expand the use of Pfizer-BioNTech’s booster dose for kids ages 12-15.

►Several Canadian airlines are refusing to fly a group home from Mexico after they filmed themselves partying maskless last week aboard a chartered Sunwing flight. The airline canceled the flight home after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the group “idiots” and their behavior a “slap in the face.” 

►No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic was confined to an immigration hotel in Australia while trying to stave off deportation. He’s accused of failing to meet requirements for a medical vaccine exemption. The Australian Open begins Jan. 17.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 58 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 833,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 299.7 million cases and 5.4 million deaths. More than 207 million Americans – 62% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chicago, teachers union take legal action; classes canceled for third day

Friday’s classes were canceled in Chicago’s public schools, the third day in a row the nation’s third-largest school district called off instruction amid a standoff with the Chicago Teachers Union.

“However, a small number of schools may be able to offer in-person activities for students,” the district said in a statement Thursday evening. “Please do not plan to send your child to school unless you hear otherwise from your child’s principal.”

The union’s 25,000 members voted Tuesday to shift to remote learning until Jan. 18, or until the district implements additional safety measures. City officials say the action is an “illegal work stoppage,” and Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for most of the district’s 330,000 students – with no remote instruction.

Both parties filed complaints to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board on Thursday. The city alleges the union violated its collective bargaining agreement with the “strike” and called on the state board to issue immediate relief. In its complaint, the union said teachers have a “right to refrain from working in a dangerous workplace” and were illegally “locked out” of virtual classrooms.

School buildings stayed open Wednesday and Thursday for meal pickup in the school district, which has a large number of low-income students. Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said students may be able to start returning to schools on Friday for services such as tutoring or counseling if enough staff members show up.

One in ten teachers showed up to schools Wednesday, and one in eight showed up Thursday, the district said. Teachers that do not show up will not be paid, Martinez said.

4M cases reported in first 6 months of pandemic, now 4M in a week

It took six months for the U.S. to record its first 4 million cases of COVID-19. It took just seven days to reach the most recent 4 million, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. 

The country had 4.02 million cases in the seven-day period ending Wednesday, up 89% from the previous week. Twenty-nine states set weekly records. The U.S. is now averaging about 575,000 known cases per day, or 400 every minute. With asymptomatic cases, limited access to testing at facilities and home-testing results that are not reported, the real number could be far higher.

More than 121,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, up nearly 30% from a week earlier, Department of Health and Human Services data show.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said preliminary studies indicating the omicron variant now sweeping the nation is less severe in many patients than previous versions of the virus should not encourage complacency.

“A certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe,” Fauci said. “So don’t take this as a signal that we can pull back from the recommendations … for vaccination, for boostering, for wearing masks and all the other CDC recommendations.”

Boston Marathon bomber’s $1,400 stimulus should go to victims, prosecutor says

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be forced to use a $1,400 COVID-19 stimulus payment he received to help cover the millions of dollars he was ordered to pay his victims, prosecutors say.

Tsarnaev, 28, was convicted in 2015 of 30 charges for his role in the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line that killed three people and wounded more than 260. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison – and ordered to pay more than $101 million in criminal restitution. Tsarnaev, being held at the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, has paid about $2,200 so far, U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell says in his filing.

Tsarnaev received the stimulus payment last June and has a total of less than $4,000 in his inmate account. Prosecutors want all of it funneled to the bombing victims, saying he has been giving money to relatives and others but has not been paying down the restitution. 

“In light of the defendant’s payment history and incarceration status, the United States requests that this court enter an order authorizing the (Bureau of Prisons) to turn over all funds held in the defendant’s inmate trust account … as payment toward the outstanding criminal monetary penalties,” Mendell wrote.

If you aren’t boosted you are not ‘up to date,’ CDC says

The CDC has changed its recommendations for vaccinated Americans, now saying that “up to date” on COVID-19 shots means getting a booster shot. 

“CDC surveillance data and other studies from around the world have demonstrated the benefit of a booster dose after receiving only a primary series, including decreased risk of infection, severe disease and death,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a White House news briefing. More than 72 million Americans have received a booster dose, according to CDC data.

However, health officials said Wednesday that they are not changing the qualifications for being “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19. The decision to keep the initial definition, established more than a year ago when the vaccines first rolled out, means that federal vaccination mandates for travel or employment won’t require a booster dose.

Non-teachers fill in as substitutes amid staff shortages 

The people instructing children at some public schools across the country may be employees of the school district, but not necessarily teachers.

The current surge in coronavirus infections nationwide is exacerbating a staffing crunch at schools, forcing principals, superintendents and counselors to fill in for teachers.

In Cincinnati, dozens of employees from the central office were dispatched this week to schools that were at risk of having to close because of low staffing. The superintendent of Boston schools, Brenda Cassellius, tweeted Wednesday she was filling in for a fifth- grade teacher. San Francisco’s school system asked any employees with teaching credentials to be available for classroom assignments.

Staff absences and the omicron variant-driven surge have led some big districts including Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee to switch temporarily to virtual learning. Where schools are holding the line on in-person learning, getting through the day has required anyone capable of instructing to pitch in.

“Trying to fix everything, trying to be everything for everyone, is more and more exhausting all the time,” said Meghan Hatch-Geary, an English teacher at Woodland Regional High School in Connecticut.

Those vaccinated with J&J await green light for third dose

The 16 million people who received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine find themselves in a gray zone. While health officials encourage those who’ve gotten the double-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna series to get a third shot, J&J recipients are limited to their original one and a single booster. About 3.5 million of them have gotten boosted, according to the CDC, but they can’t go beyond that.

“I suspect there are thousands of J&J recipients in my situation who are questioning our protection,” said Donna Alston, 61, of Philadelphia. “I went to my pharmacy last week to see if I could sign up and they said no. Barring additional guidance from the CDC, I’m prohibited from getting additional vaccine.” 

CDC chief endorses plan for youths age 12-15 to get booster shot

CDC chief Rochelle Walensky cleared the way Wednesday for extra booster doses to be given right away to people ages 12 to 15. A CDC advisory panel earlier in the day had voted 13-1 in favor of recommending that children in that age group get a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and Walensky quickly endorsed the suggestion. The extra shot may be given at least five months after conclusion of the original two-dose regimen.

The committee also strengthened its recommendation that 16- and 17-year-olds also should get a booster. Previous guidance said that age group “may” get a shot.

“It is critical that we protect our children and teens from COVID-19 infection and the complications of severe disease,” Walensky said. “This booster dose will provide optimized protection against COVID-19 and the omicron variant.” 

The Food and Drug Administration authorized the booster earlier this week, basing its decision largely on data from Israel that found no new safety concerns when 6,300 12- to 15-year-olds got a Pfizer booster five months after their second dose.

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