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White House reveals winter COVID-19 plans, more free tests

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White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is once more making some free COVID-19 tests available to all U.S. households as it releases its contingency plans with coronavirus cases ticking upward this winter.

After a three-month hiatus, the administration is making four rapid virus tests available per household through covidtests.gov starting Thursday. COVID-19 cases have shown a marked increase after the Thanksgiving holiday, and further increases are projected from indoor gathering and travel around Christmas and New Year’s.

Cases are up across 90% of the country, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Thursday during a briefing. Deaths and hospitalizations are also on the rise, with nearly 3,000 deaths reported last week. Most of those have been concentrated in people age 65 and older, Jha said.

“We don’t want this winter to look like last winter or the winter before,” Jha said.

As cases begin to rise again, much of the United States is also dealing with other respiratory viruses heading into this winter with an influx of flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Jha told reporters he is confident that the worst of RSV — which hit young children particularly hard — is over, but that flu cases are only just spiking.

The administration is putting personnel and equipment on standby should they be needed to help overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes, as was necessary in earlier waves of the coronavirus. So far, there have been no requests for assistance, but surge teams, ventilators and personal protective equipment are ready, the White House said.

The administration is also urging states and local governments to do more to encourage people to get the updated bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, which scientists say are more effective at protecting against serious illness and death from the currently circulating variants. The administration is reiterating best practices to nursing homes and long-term care facilities for virus prevention and treatment and is urging administrators as well as governments to encourage vulnerable populations to get the new shots. Less than half of all nursing home residents have received the latest booster shot, Jha said.

The planning comes as the administration has struggled to persuade most Americans to get the updated boosters as cases and deaths have declined from pandemic highs and most people have embraced a return to most of their pre-pandemic activities. Less than 14% of people in the U.S. older than have gotten the most recent booster.

The White House said the new tests would come from the national stockpile, which still has reserves even after the administration shut off the at-home testing program in September, citing a lack of money from Congress. The administration is still asking Congress for billions more dollars for the virus response.

The pause on free at-home testing program this summer allowed the administration to save some free at-home tests for the surge in cases this winter, Jha said.

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West Virginia Health Children West Virginia GOP Legislature passes transgender care ban

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A bill that would ban evidence-based health care for transgender minors in West Virginia, the state estimated to have more transgender youth per capita than any other in the nation, is headed to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice.

The Republican governor has not taken a public stance on the measure and it’s unclear whether he will sign it into law. A spokesperson said he was unavailable for comment Saturday.

A 2017 study by UCLA Law’s The Williams Institute estimated West Virginia had the highest per capita rate of transgender youth in the country.

Every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association, supports gender-affirming care for youths.

But lawmakers in West Virginia and other states advancing bans on transgender health care for youth and young adults often characterize gender-affirming treatments as medically unproven, potentially dangerous in the long term and a symptom of “woke” culture.

The bill in West Virginia would outlaw those under 18 from being prescribed hormone therapy and fully reversible medication for suspending the physical changes of puberty, allowing patients and parents time to make future decisions about hormone therapy.

The legislation also includes a ban on gender-affirming surgery for minors, something medical professionals emphasize does not happen in West Virginia anyway.

The bill contains significant exemptions to the medication therapy ban for people under the age of 18 at risk for suicide, provisions added in the final week of the 60-day legislative session, which ended Saturday.

The changes, made at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, who is a physician, would allow some transgender youth to continue receiving medical interventions under certain circumstances, including hormone therapy if they experience severe gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is defined by medical professionals as severe psychological distress experienced by those whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.

During a speech on the Senate floor late Friday night, Takubo referenced 17 peer-reviewed studies showing a significant decrease in the rates of suicide ideation and suicide attempts among youth with severe gender dysphoria who have access to medication therapy.

“These kids struggle, they have incredible difficulties,” he said.

The rate of suicide ideation, or having suicidal thoughts or ideas, for transgender youth in Virginia is three times higher than the rate for all youth in the state, according to research complied by West Virginia University Medicine physicians using West Virginia Youth Risk Behavior Survey data.

The version of the bill first passed by West Virginia’s Republican supermajority House of Delegates last month contained no exemptions for mental health.

The House on Saturday unanimously approved the Senate’s changes. The amended bill then passed 88-10, with all ‘no’ votes coming from the body’s shrinking delegation of Democrats.

Democratic Del. Ric Griffith, who was the only legislator who spoke on the floor about the measure, voiced support for the mental health exemptions and was later one of only two lawmakers in the minority party to vote for the amended bill.

“We talk a lot about, ‘Parents know what’s best for their children,’” the Wayne County lawmaker said. “This is a fairly narrow allowance when a child could potentially be suicidal.”

Under the amended bill, a person below the age of 18 would need to be diagnosed with severe gender dysphoria by at least two medical or mental health providers to gain access to medication therapy, including a mental health provider or adolescent medicine specialist.

The dosage must be the lowest possible necessary to “treat the psychiatric condition and not for purposes of gender alteration,” according to the bill.

Providers must be specifically trained to diagnose and treat severe gender dysphoria in adolescents and provide written testimony saying medical interventions are necessary to prevent or limit possible or actual self-harm. The minor’s parents or guardians would be required to give written consent to the treatments.

Hormonal therapy could not be provided to minors before the age of puberty, something West Virginia physicians say doesn’t happen anyway.

The bill includes exceptions originating in the House version for individuals born with a “medically verifiable disorder,” including people with ambiguous “external biological sex characteristics” and for people taking treatments for infection, injury, disease or disorder that has been “caused by or exacerbated by the performance of gender transition procedures.”

People also can access treatment if they are in “imminent danger of death, or impairment of a major bodily function unless surgery is performed.”

The vote to send the bill to the governor came two days after a crowd of protesters descended on the state Capitol, where cries of “trans kids matter” could be heard from the Senate chamber as lawmakers debated bills.

Democratic Del. Danielle Walker, the Legislature’s only openly LGBTQ member, led chants of the state motto: “Mountaineers are always free.”

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States move to crack down on nurses with bogus diplomas

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Medical licensing officials in multiple states are scrambling to stop nurses with fraudulent academic credentials from caring for patients, after three Florida schools were accused of selling thousands of bogus diplomas.

New York regulators told 903 nurses in recent weeks to either surrender their licenses or prove they were properly educated. Delaware and Washington state officials have yanked dozens of nursing licenses. Texas filed administrative charges against 23 nurses. More actions in additional states are expected.

In some cases, lawyers for the nurses contend states are questioning the credentials of caregivers who earned diplomas legitimately. But there’s wide agreement in the industry that nurses with fraudulent degrees need to be rooted out.

“The public needs to know that when they’re the most fragile, when they’re sick, when they’re in a hospital bed, that the individual who is at their bedside has gone through the required training,” said Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, president of the American Nurses Association union.

States are acting in the wake of Operation Nightingale, a federal investigation into what officials say was a wire fraud scheme in which several now-closed Florida nursing schools sold phony nursing diplomas and transcripts from 2016 to 2022. Twenty-five defendants, including school owners and alleged recruiters, have been charged, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe announced in late January. Those cases are pending.

About 7,600 students paid an average of $15,000 for bogus diplomas, according to prosecutors. Around 2,400 of those people then passed a licensing exam to obtain jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical nurses or vocational nurses in multiple states, prosecutors say.

How did so many test takers pass without the required classroom and clinical work? In some cases, they were experienced L.P.N.s seeking to become R.N.s. Some had been health care providers in other countries.

The nurses got jobs across the country, including at a hospital in Georgia, Veterans Affairs medical centers in Maryland and New York, a skilled nursing facility in Ohio, and an assisted living facility in New Jersey, according to court filings.

Students came not only from Florida, but also New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Delaware. Many of the students took their licensing exam in New York, where they can sit it multiple times, according to investigators.

Investigators identified the Florida nursing schools as the Palm Beach School of Nursing; Siena College, a school in Broward County that wasn’t related to the college of the same name in New York; and the Sacred Heart International Institute, which was also based in Broward County and had no relation to a university with a similar name in Connecticut.

It was not entirely clear how many of the roughly 2,400 nurses with credentials from these schools are currently employed, or where.

Federal officials shared information so states could pursue nurses with phony academic credentials. Some states have taken action.

The Washington State Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission rescinded the R.N. licenses of 17 people and denied license applications for four. The Delaware Board of Nursing annulled 26 licenses. The Georgia Board of Nursing asked 22 nurses to voluntarily surrender their licenses.

The 23 nurses facing possible license revocations in Texas can continue working while their disciplinary cases are pending. Texas Board of Nursing general counsel James “Dusty” Johnston said more charges could come as officials develop “the necessary information for each individual.”

A spokesperson for Veterans Affairs said it removed 89 nurses “from patient care” nationwide last year immediately after being notified by federal officials. The agency has not found any instances of patients being harmed.

New York’s Office of the Professions posted on the state education department’s website that it expects some of the 903 licensees who attended the schools “did, in fact, attend required hours and clinicals and are properly licensed.” Those people are being asked to have a qualified nursing program submit verification.

Attorneys for some of the nurses in New York and Georgia say nurses who legitimately earned diplomas are getting caught up in the investigation.

“There are obviously people who bought transcripts who are fraudulent and should not be practicing nursing under any circumstances,” said Atlanta attorney Hahnah Williams. “But there are also people who went to those schools legitimately and did nothing wrong. And they are somehow being lumped together with the fraudulent nurses.”

Williams said her clients are hardworking immigrants who went to schools that were accredited at the time and have since worked for many years without incident.

Similarly, attorney Jordan Fensterman in New York said he has clients who attended classes at one of the schools to finish up their R.N. degrees and then worked during the pandemic. He said those nurses deserve due process now.

The state board actions are taking place as hospitals across the nation try to deal with chronic staffing challenges.

“Hopefully, the number is smaller once the authorities sort things out,” said Kennedy, the American Nurses Association president.

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‘Diamond’ of pro-Trump commentary duo dies of heart disease

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lynette Hardaway, a zealous supporter of former President Donald Trump whose death had prompted widespread speculation over its cause, died earlier this month of a heart condition, according to a death certificate obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

Known by the moniker “Diamond” of the conservative political commentary duo Diamond and Silk, Hardaway, 51, died Jan. 8 of heart disease due to chronic high blood pressure.

Hardaway and her sister, Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, found internet stardom as Black women who ardently backed Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. After making several campaign appearances with the former president, the two leveraged their notoriety to land regular commentator roles at Fox News. Their promotion of coronavirus falsities eventually got them dropped, but they landed at the far-right cable and digital media platform Newsmax.

The cause of Hardaway’s death, which was not released by the family, had become a topic of widespread speculation. A torrent of social media users suggested COVID-19 was to blame.

Many of the posts were based on an unsourced, and since-deleted, online report from November that claimed Hardaway had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Both Diamond and Silk vehemently denied that the virus had put Hardaway in the hospital.

COVID-19 was not listed as a cause or contributing factor on her death certificate, which was provided to the AP by the Hoke County Register of Deeds and was signed by a local doctor. No autopsy was performed.

A memorial ceremony held in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and streamed online Saturday renewed speculation when Richardson suggested her sister’s death was somehow linked to the COVID-19 vaccine. She insinuated Hardaway may have been “poisoned” by another person who had been vaccinated, amplifying the false notion that recipients can affect those around them.

At the memorial, Richardson mentioned people “dying suddenly,” a reference that has become shorthand among some anti-vaccine activists for deaths they say were caused by COVID-19 shots, despite studies showing the vaccines are safe and effective.

Joined on stage at the memorial by Trump, Richardson said her sister died after returning to her North Carolina home from a relative’s birthday celebration. Richardson noticed her sister looking strange and Hardaway suddenly said: “I can’t breathe,” Richardson recalled. She and her husband performed CPR on the kitchen floor as they waited for emergency services.

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Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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