Lack of COVID tests could jeopardize school safety; e-cigarette use remains high during pandemic: Today’s updates – USA TODAY

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Senators on both sides of the aisle on Thursday grilled Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona about the lack of available and affordable rapid COVID-19 testing options, pointing to testing as key to keeping students and staff safe in schools during the pandemic.

“It’s not true that there’s an adequate supply of affordable tests,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said at a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee meeting. The cheapest over-the-counter rapid COVID-19 tests in the U.S. go for $12 for a two-pack, Kaine said.

“In Germany, you can get a rapid COVID test at the grocery store for less than $1,” he said

The Biden administration has said it plans to spend nearly $2 billion on home tests. But experts say the administration’s purchase of 280 million non-laboratory tests won’t be enough to meet testing needs as private employers, K-12 schools and a delta-variant-driven testing surge make it harder to find timely tests.

Becerra said his department was planning to work more closely with industry, state and local partners “to make sure there is always sufficient supply for every state.”

About 96% of school districts are fully re-opened for in-person learning, but a handful are using hybrid or remote models for brief periods to contain outbreaks, Cardona said. Still, nearly 2,200 schools across 539 districts in 43 states have temporarily closed in-person learning because of outbreaks so far this school year, according to Burbio, a New York-based data service that is tracking K-12 school reopening trends.

Becerra encouraged parents to make sure their children follow public health guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Fifty years ago, some people protested using seat belts. Today, we don’t. We know how safe and effective they are. Same thing with vaccines. Same thing with masks,” Becerra said, adding, “I would just tell each and every parent, please use common sense. Don’t let anyone stop you from protecting your kids.”

Also in the news:

►The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose for the third straight week, a sign that the highly contagious delta variant may be slowing a recovery in the job market.

►The World Health Organization says just 15 of Africa’s 54 countries have reached the global target of fully vaccinating 10% of their population by the end of this month.

►Primetta Giacopini, 105, who was 2 when her mother died of the Spanish flu, has died in California of COVID-19, her daughter Dorene Giacopini said.

►Organizers for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics detailed new COVID-19 protocols for the games, including a 21-day quarantine for non-fully vaccinated athletes, daily testing for vaccinated people and that no tickets would be sold to anyone living outside China. 

Zac Brown Band has canceled a planned Thursday show at DTE Energy Music Theatre near Detroit following a positive COVID-19 test for frontman Brown.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 43.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 695,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 233.3 million cases and 4.7 million deaths. More than 184 million Americans – 55% of the population – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we’re reading: Pregnant people face a “severe risk of severe disease” from COVID-19. But, that’s still not motivating them to get vaccinated. Only about 20% of those who are pregnant have gotten a dose of the vaccine, the CDC says. Read more on this issue. 

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

E-cig use among youth is ‘serious’ health concern amid pandemic

More than 2 million U.S. middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than eight in 10 of those youths reported using flavored e-cigarettes, according to a new study Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

At a time “when many students were in remote learning environments that might have affected their access to tobacco products,” an estimated 11.3% of high school students and 2.8% of middle school students reported current e-cigarette use, the FDA said in a statement.

The finding was based on the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which was self-administered in various locations because of the pandemic. The CDC said the survey cannot be compared to findings from previous years because, prior to the pandemic, the survey was conducted in person, in the classroom.

“This study shows that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, e-cigarette use among youth remains a serious public health concern,” Karen Hacker, director of the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said in a press release. “It’s critical we continue working together to protect young people from the risks associated with tobacco product use, including e-cigarettes.”

Once heroes, some health care workers now live in fear

More than a year after U.S. health care workers battling in the front lines were saluted as heroes during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are now being issued panic buttons in case of assault and ditching their scrubs before going out in public for fear of harassment. Across the country, doctors and nurses are dealing with hostility, threats and violence from patients angry over safety rules designed to keep the scourge from spreading.

“A year ago, we’re health care heroes and everybody’s clapping for us,” said Dr. Stu Coffman, a Dallas-based emergency room physician. “And now we’re being, in some areas, harassed and disbelieved and ridiculed for what we’re trying to do, which is just depressing and frustrating.”

Cox Medical Center Branson in Missouri started giving panic buttons to up to 400 nurses and other employees after assaults per year tripled from 2019 to 2020 to 123, a spokeswoman said. One nurse had to get her shoulder X-rayed after an attack. Hospital spokeswoman Brandei Clifton said the pandemic has driven at least some of the increase.

“So many nurses say, ‘It’s just part of the job,’” Clifton said. “It’s not part of the job.”

$54,000 bill for COVID test ‘corrected’

A Texas man was charged $54,000 for his COVID-19 tests at an emergency room says he negotiated it down to about $16,000 and his insurance company paid the full bill. Travis Warner told NPR his and his wife’s June 2020 visit to the free-standing ER at Lewisville’s SignatureCare Emergency Center was, at first, a relief because he could return to work once he tested negative. Warner received PCR diagnostic tests for COVID-19, plus the less-accurate rapid antigen tests because of time sensitivity in wanting to return to work. Warner is self-employed and has his own health care plan with Molina Healthcare. Molina Healthcare told NPR in a statement: “This matter was a provider billing error which Molina identified and corrected.”

Scott Gleeson

Sex and the pandemic: Things have changed

Here’s a stunner: The pandemic has changed our sex lives, studies show. While some people have reported more sexual activity, many saw a decline. Other studies show a spike in people trying a new experience. Experts say lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were a time for many to bond with their spouse or partner. But for others, sex was the last thing on their mind as they navigated new health precautions, getting vaccinated and more.  

“This pandemic wasn’t experienced the same way by everyone,” said Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and the host of the “Sex and Psychology” podcast. Lockdown restrictions varied, he said, as did the “degree of personal concern people had about COVID.” Read more here.

Marina Pitofsky

National school board group asks Biden to help stop threats

A group representing school board members around the country asked President Joe Biden on Thursday for federal assistance to investigate and stop threats made over policies including mask mandates, likening the vitriol to a form of domestic terrorism. Parents and community members have been disrupting meetings and threatening board members in person, online and through the mail in a trend that merits attention from federal law enforcement agencies, the National School Boards Association said in a letter to Biden.

“Whatever you feel about masks, it should not reach this level of rhetoric,” NSBA Interim Executive Director Chip Slaven

‘Her name is Teresa Makenzie Sperry’: Mom pays homage to daughter, 10

The mother of a 10-year-old Virginia girl who died this week of COVID-19  criticized Suffolk Public Schools for releasing a “sorry excuse of a letter” announcing the death without talking to her or naming her child.

“Her name is Teresa Makenzie Sperry,” Nicole Sperry wrote on Facebook. “My beautiful girl was taken from me because people are too damn selfish to care about what could happen to others.”

Terry died Monday, just days after her symptoms appeared. Sperry wrote that those wishing to honor Teresa should get vaccinated, wear masks and socially distance.

“And most importantly stop complaining and keep your sick kids at home,” Nicole Sperry wrote. “Because in the end you will still get to hug yours.”

Beijing Olympics to allow Chinese spectators

The International Olympic Committee has released a first glimpse of the COVID-19 protocols that will be in place at the upcoming 2022 Winter Games in Beijing – including lengthy quarantines for unvaccinated participants, daily COVID-19 testing and the absence of international spectators. Unlike in Tokyo, where athletes mostly competed behind closed doors, Beijing 2022 organizers said some Chinese fans will be permitted to attend their Games, as long as they follow to-be-determined protocols.

Foreign spectators, including athletes’ family members and friends, will once again be barred from attending. The IOC and International Paralympic Committee said in the news release that they support local organizers’ decision to sell tickets to Chinese residents.

– Tom Schad

Reopening of ‘Aladdin’ on Broadway halted by COVID-19 cases

The hit Broadway show “Aladdin” was canceled Wednesday night when breakthrough COVID-19 cases were reported within the musical’s company, a day after the show reopened, a worrying sign for Broadway. 

“Through our rigorous testing protocols, breakthrough COVID-19 cases have been detected within the company of ‘Aladdin’ at the New Amsterdam Theatre,” the show announced on social media. “Because the wellness and safety of our guests, cast and crew are our top priority, tonight’s performance, Wednesday, Sept. 2, is canceled.”

It was the first Broadway COVID-19 cancellation since shows resumed with Bruce Springsteen’s concert in July and “Pass Over” as the first play to debut in August.

The pandemic forced Broadway theaters to abruptly close on March 12, 2020, knocking out all shows and scrambling the spring season. Several have restarted, including the so-called big three of “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “The Lion King.”

Alabama House approves $400M in COVID money for prison construction

The Alabama House of Representatives Wednesday approved a measure to take $400 million in money aimed at COVID relief and put it toward prison construction, a move drawing national attention. The legislation now goes to the Senate. Supporters of the prison construction bill, including House Ways and Means General Fund committee chair Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, say the use of the money from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) will lower the amount of money the state needs to borrow for the $1.3 billion project and allow construction to begin immediately. 

“It will help defray interest costs,” Clouse said after the vote on Wednesday. “It goes a long way (to) getting us started, and a lot earlier.”

The use of the money has drawn criticism from national and state Democrats. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, the chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the Department of the Treasury urging the department to disallow the use of the money for prisons, saying the ARP money “should not be used to worsen our national problem of over-incarceration.”

– Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser

Contributing: Associated Press