In states with laws that criminalize performing abortions, physicians are facing the dilemma of having to wait until a pregnant patient’s death is imminent to perform a potentially lifesaving procedure. Reporting from STAT News reveals how these laws are disrupting care. A physician in Missouri, which outlaws all abortions unless the life of the mother is in danger, described having to spend hours getting clearance from a hospital ethics team to perform the procedure on a patient with an ectopic pregnancy.
Even non-pregnancy care is being impacted. An arthritis patient taking methotrexate, which can also be used for abortion, was told by her doctor that all prescriptions for the drug are on pause due to legal uncertainty.
The Gist: Doctors and hospital legal counsel are dealing with a new legal landscape, marked by restrictive, ill-defined anti-abortion laws that fail to clarify what constitutes a medical emergency.
Physicians are forced to interpret unclear laws, often written without help from medical professionals, and many feel compelled to wait until patients are in dangerous, life-threatening situations to provide care—the opposite of what was instilled in them during years of training.
The COVID-19 vaccine strategy for the fall remains beset with unanswered questions after an FDA expert panel on Tuesday spent hours debating how and whether to update the shots.
Why it matters: Time is running short to develop a game plan with existing vaccines losing effectiveness against new variants and more than half of Americans still without a booster dose.
Driving the news: The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted 19-2 to recommend an Omicron-specific update to COVID-19 booster vaccines expected to be rolled out within the next few months.
But key questions were left unanswered:
- The panel didn’t formally decide whether to update shots with the prevalent Omicron strain in circulation, currently the fast-spreading BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, or the BA.1 lineage that emerged late last year, as the World Health Organization recommended.
- The consensus appeared to be for a bivalent, or combination, booster combining the original COVID-19 strain that emerged in late 2019 with BA.4 and BA.5.
- The FDA will continue to evaluate what to do about the primary series of vaccines for the fall.
- Experts were split on whether there was enough data to recommend the updated shots for kids, or whether more studies are needed on dosage and possible side effects.
- There also were concerns about what effect an updated vaccine would have on developing nations’ willingness to use older COVID shots to inoculate their populations.
- And above all, it’s unclear whether all the questions about who gets which shot when will add to public confusion and apathy that’s dogged the vaccination effort in recent months.
What they’re saying: “None of us has a crystal ball and we’re trying to use every last ounce of what we can from predictive modeling and data that’s emerging to try to get ahead of a virus that’s very crafty,” said top FDA vaccine regulator Peter Marks.
- “Unfortunately, looking in the past doesn’t help us a great deal to look in the future for [a] virus that has baffled a lot of us and made predictions almost irrelevant,” said acting panel chairman Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan epidemiologist.
The timetable: Pfizer-BioNTech said an updated mRNA vaccine could be ready in October if regulatory uncertainties are ironed out. Moderna said it could have large amounts ready in late October or early November. Novavax is still awaiting emergency use authorization for its protein-based shot, but said it could have an updated vaccine by the fourth quarter.
The delta variant of the coronavirus is sweeping through the United States, raising the average number of cases to 30,000-per-day, crowding hospitals in areas with large number of unvaccinated people and spurring questions about the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
Stocks tanked on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial average dropping 725 points after being down more than 900 points at one time.
It was the worst one-day performance in the Dow since last October, and followed losses in markets around the world as investor fears about how the delta virus might slow both the health and economic recovery took hold.
Health officials have described the latest stage of the coronavirus as a pandemic of the unvaccinated while emphasizing that those who have had their shots are relatively safe.
Yet Los Angeles County on Saturday reinstated a mask mandate for indoor public settings, a sign that local communities may decide to reimpose restrictions as a safety measure.
An Olympic gymnast and an Olympic women’s basketball player both announced they had tested positive as they prepared for the Games, which is being held in a state of emergency in Tokyo where the rate of vaccinations is behind the United States.
Canada had also been well behind the U.S. in its vaccination rate but surpassed its southern neighbor on Monday, a sign of how much more slowly the vaccination rate now is in the United States. A big reason is that many people who are unvaccinated do not want to get the vaccine, something the Biden administration has increasingly blamed on social media and some conservative media outlets.
While the 30,000 cases per day on average is more than double the 13,000 average at the end of June, that rate is still well below highs from last fall and earlier this year.
Still, deaths are also ticking back up, at around 240 per day.
Because vaccinated people are still overwhelmingly protected, especially from severe outcomes, case and death numbers are likely to stay well below the worst of last winter’s surges, before vaccines were widely available.
But unvaccinated people are at increasing risk, especially given the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant, and the vaccination campaign is hitting a wall, leaving more than 30 percent of adults without any shots and exposed to the full dangers of the virus.
States with lower vaccination rates are seeing the worst outbreaks. Arkansas, Missouri, Florida and Louisiana are the four states with the highest per capita new cases per day, according to data from the Covid Act Now tracking site. The percentage of the population with at least one shot in those states is 44 percent, 47 percent, 56 percent, and 40 percent, respectively.
In contrast, Vermont and Massachusetts, where the vaccination rate is over 70 percent, are faring much better.
Vaccine resistance among some leading conservative commentators and lawmakers is raising fears that many of the remaining unvaccinated may never get the shots.
Sten Vermund, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said he is “not particularly worried” about COVID-19 for himself, because he is fully vaccinated.
“What worries me is my fellow Americans who for a variety of reasons choose not to get vaccinated; they continue to be in harm’s way,” Vermund said.
In the rare instances where vaccinated people do get COVID-19 cases, symptoms are likely to be much milder.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday that 97 percent of people entering the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, part of why she said it “is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Conservative resistance to vaccination is stiffening. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this month found that 47 percent of Republicans said they were unlikely to get vaccinated, compared to just six percent of Democrats. Among Republicans, 38 percent said they definitely would not get the shots.
Former President Trump has previously encouraged people to get vaccinated, though he has not made a forceful push, for example by recording a public service announcement or getting his own shots in public.
On Sunday, though, Trump appeared to justify people not taking the vaccine, blaming President Biden.
“He’s way behind schedule, and people are refusing to take the Vaccine because they don’t trust his Administration, they don’t trust the Election results, and they certainly don’t trust the Fake News, which is refusing to tell the Truth,” Trump said in a statement.
Asked if Biden would request Trump film a public service announcement on vaccination, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said “we don’t believe that requires an embroidered invitation to be a part of.”
“Certainly any role of anyone who has a platform where they can provide information to the public that the vaccine is safe, it is effective, we don’t see this as a political issue,” Psaki said. “We’d certainly welcome that engagement.”
She also emphasized, though, that the administration is focusing on local doctors and community leaders to try to boost vaccination rates, not national officials.
The effort is hitting its limits, though. The pace of vaccinations has fallen to around 500,000 per day, down from over 3 million at the peak in April, according to Our World in Data.
“I’m not that hopeful that we’re going to get to people who have refused to be vaccinated,” said Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan.
Experts increasingly say the best remaining hopes of reaching the remaining unvaccinated are school and employer mandates for their workers or students to get vaccinated.
France is experiencing a surge in vaccinations after President Emmanuel Macron announced this month that proof of vaccination, or a negative test, would be required for everyday activities like going to restaurants. The Biden administration has repeatedly ruled out a national vaccine passport in the U.S., though, and Republicans have rebelled against the idea.
Full approval of the vaccines from the Food and Drug Administration, as opposed to the current emergency authorization, could also help assuage some people’s fears, and some experts have called on the FDA to move faster on issuing a full approval.
The Biden administration has stepped up its calls for Facebook and other technology companies to do more to fight vaccine misinformation on their platforms.
Biden on Friday said social media companies are “killing people” with misinformation. On Monday, though, he dialed the criticism back down, instead pointing to 12 people responsible for much of the disinformation.
“Facebook isn’t killing people, these 12 people are out there giving misinformation,” Biden said.
“My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally, that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous misinformation about the vaccine,” Biden added. “That’s what I meant.”
For its part, Facebook said over the weekend, before Biden’s walk-back, that the administration was “finger pointing” and the company was not the reason the president’s goal of getting 70 percent of adults at least one shot by July 4 was missed.
Los Angeles County’s move to return to an an indoor mask mandate, even for vaccinated people,
got mixed reviews from experts, but either way, it is unlikely to be replicated in places that are the hardest hit, given that places that are resistant to vaccines tend to also be resistant to masks.
“Vaccines are really the only way out,” Malani said. “We can’t live in masks forever.”