Hospitalizations of kids under 4 are increasing, CDC says; Supreme Court considers Biden vaccine mandates: COVID-19 updates – USA TODAY

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Hospitalization rates among the youngest children are reaching their highest levels yet as the omicron variant spreads and babies and toddlers remain ineligible to be vaccinated, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director, on Friday. 

Although hospitalization rates among the youngest children remain lower compared to many older Americans, data from the CDC indicate 4.3 per 100,000 children 4 years old and younger were hospitalized in the week ending Jan. 1. Children ages 5 to 17 had a hospitalization rate of 1.1, while adults ages 18 to 49 had a rate of 4.2. The rate among people 65 and older was 14.7 per 100,000, according to the CDC data.

Walensky said the agency was still probing how many of these pediatric hospitalizations were due to COVID-related admissions alone and how many were for young children being hospitalized for other reasons and then testing positive for COVID-19. Winter is a busy time for pediatric hospitalizations due to other respiratory viruses, Walensky added.

At the Friday news conference — the first held by the CDC without other agencies in months —Walensky addressed questions around the CDC’s revised guidelines that shortened the amount of time recommended to isolate or quarantine, which had drawn pushback. Some public health experts said people could still be contagious after five days of an infection and were worried about the high transmissibility of the omicron variant. 

Walensky said much of the decision to change the guidelines came from data analyses of the contagiousness of past variants, as similar analyses for omicron wouldn’t be ready for several weeks.

She also said that while people may leave isolation after their fifth day if they are symptom free, the recommendation that they wear a mask for five more days is because they may have some “residual contagion.”

Also in the news: 

► The Food and Drug Administration on Friday said the time needed in between completing the first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and a third, booster dose can be shortened to five months. A similar change was announced for Pfizer’s vaccine earlier this week.

► The United States is averaging more than 600,000 newly reported COVID-19 cases per day, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins shows. The average day now has more than twice as many cases as the highest week of previous waves of the coronavirus.

► On Friday, Chicago Public Schools were closed again for a third day as the city’s teachers union and district remain deadlocked over COVID-19 safety rules. A small number of schools may have some in-person learning and activities depending on how many employees report to work, the school district said in a message to parents Thursday.

► Several Canadian airlines are refusing to fly a group of passengers home after they filmed themselves partying maskless last week aboard a chartered Sunwing flight. The video prompted the airline to cancel the group’s flight home due to public backlash, and the group is stranded in Cancun.  

► COVID-19 indicators for New Hampshire have risen sharply in the last week after three weeks of steady declines. The number of new cases per day is now nearly double what it was at the peak of the first wave at the end of 2020.

► Alaska Airlines is cutting 10% of its remaining January flight schedule as it continues to struggle with COVID-19-related employee shortages and recent severe weather.

📈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 300 million cases and 5.4 million deaths. More than 207 million Americans – 62.4% – are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘What we’re reading: A new study says the technology used in the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines could also be used in the treatment of heart disease, offering hope to millions.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Supreme Court signals skepticism of Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing mandate

A majority of the Supreme Court signaled Friday it is skeptical of the Biden administration’s authority to require millions of Americans who work for large companies to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing, as the high court is poised to weigh in substantively on the issue of vaccine mandates for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the number of infections soaring because of the omicron variant, several of the court’s conservative justices indicated that while they believe states may have power to set vaccine requirements it is a different story for federal agencies. 

“This has been referred to — the approach — as a workaround,” Chief Justice John Roberts said of the requirements, adding that the decision is probably one for Congress. “This is something that the federal government hasn’t done before.”

Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch said states usually set health requirements. Meanwhile, the court’s three liberal justices pushed hard on both the need for Americans to get COVID-19 vaccinations but also the federal government’s authority to regulate the danger COVID-19 poses in the workplace and to the national economy. 

“It’s an extraordinary use of emergency power occurring in an extraordinary circumstance, a circumstance that this country has never faced before,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan said. 

— John Fritze, USA TODAY

Peru reports ‘flurona’ death: What you need to know about co-infection

Peru reported a death from “flurona,” a co-infection of the coronavirus and influenza, the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio reported Thursday. The fatality occurred in an 87-year-old man with co-morbidities who had not been vaccinated against either the flu or COVID-19, the newspaper reported.

While co-infections involving the flu are rarer than other viruses, health experts still expect to see rising cases of “flurona” as the U.S. approaches peak flu activity.

It’s unclear if “flurona” causes more severe disease, but vaccination against both viruses can help provide protection, health experts say. In general, immunocompromised people and younger children, whose immune systems are unfamiliar with many common viruses, are more at risk for co-infections. Read more about flurona here.

— Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine delayed for youngest kids 

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine won’t be available anytime soon for kids younger than 5 years old.

In early tests, the lower dose given to 2- to 5-year-olds didn’t produce as much immune protection as did shots given to other age groups, a Pfizer scientist said at a federal advisory committee meeting Wednesday, expanding on information provided late last year. 

The company hopes a third dose of vaccine eight weeks after the first two shots will provide the desired effectiveness, Dr. Alejandra Gurtman, vice president of vaccine clinical research and development for Pfizer said at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

But that means waiting until late March or early April for results, she said, allowing time for children in the trial to get a third shot and then have their immune responses tested.

“This might be a three-dose vaccine,” Gurtman said, adding that Pfizer-BioNTech is testing a third dose in children ages 5 to 12, as well.

The vaccine has been shown to be safe in younger children, she said, as it was for older children and adults.

Boosters offer ‘potent’ protection against omicron, study says 

New evidence underscores the importance of boosters against omicron, with an mRNA vaccine booster offering the best protection against the fast-spreading variant.

People who got either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna two-dose COVID-19 vaccine series and then a booster achieved “potent” neutralization against omicron, a paper published Thursday in the journal Cell found.

The initial two-dose vaccine regime does not produce antibodies capable of fully recognizing and neutralizing the omicron variant, the researchers found. But they noted that while omicron is better at getting past vaccine-created immunity, people who have breakthrough cases do have milder disease, potentially due to the long-term immunity created by their initial vaccination.

“Even if antibodies can’t keep us from getting infected with omicron, other aspects of the immune response may keep us from becoming very sick,” said Alejandro Balazs, who investigates how to engineer immunity against infectious diseases at the Ragon Institute and is the paper’s senior author. Read more here.

— Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

WHO: Record weekly global case count, but fewer deaths

The World Health Organization said Thursday that the world reported a record 9.5 million COVID-19 cases over the last week, a 71% increase from the previous week.

But unlike the rapidly rising case counts, which the WHO likened to a “tsunami,” the number of weekly reported deaths declined. 

“Last week, the highest number of COVID-19 cases were reported so far in the pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. He added that the WHO was certain that was an underestimate because of a backlog in testing around the year-end holidays.

The U.N. health agency said the weekly COVID-19 case count reached 9,520,488 new cases. 41,178 deaths were recorded last week, compared to 44,680 in the week prior.

Mayo Clinic fires 700 workers who missed vaccine mandate deadline

The Mayo Clinic, one of the top health care systems in the United States, fired 700 employees this week who didn’t follow an organization mandate to get vaccinated by Monday, Jan. 3. 

Mayo said the workers would lose their jobs for not meeting the company deadline, which stipulated getting one dose of a vaccine or not being overdue for a second dose. Mayo said it had granted a majority of medical and religious exemption requests, according to the New York Times.

Last summer, New York state imposed the vaccine mandate for health care workers which allows for medical exemptions, but not those based on religious objections. 

In October 2021, New York care provider Northwell Health announced 1,400 employees would be leaving their jobs after refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health care workers in New York sued, saying in a lawsuit that the lack of a religious exemption violated their First Amendment right to practice religion. But in December, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the state’s mandate to remain in place without a religious exemption.

Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; The Associated Press