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Boston hospital denies heart transplant to man who hasn't gotten COVID-19 vaccine

Boston Globe via Getty Images

(BOSTON) -- The family of a Boston man is speaking out after they say their 31-year-old son was struck from a waitlist for a heart transplant because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

DJ Ferguson, who was diagnosed with arrhythmia four years ago, was admitted to Brigham and Women's Hospital after suffering heart failure this winter, his parents told ABC News. But after reviewing Ferguson's medical history, which showed he had not received a coronavirus shot, hospital staff told Ferguson that his vaccination status made him ineligible for a new heart, according to his parents.

Tracey and David Ferguson insisted their son does not oppose vaccines; he just worries the COVID-19 shot would complicate his heart condition, they said.

"He's not an anti-vaxxer. He has all of his vaccines, and he's an informed patient who is concerned because of his current cardiac crisis," Tracey Ferguson said.

However, doctors say the risk of severe illness and inflammation of the heart from contracting COVID-19 is much more likely than the low risk of heart inflammation from the vaccine, which is usually temporary.

National transplant associations recommend the COVID-19 vaccines before transplants, as do many medical centers, because after a transplant, the patient’s immune system can become compromised from medications necessary to keep the organ and the patient alive, making the individual at risk for severe illness and death if they become infected with COVID-19.

The coronavirus vaccine is just one of several vaccinations required for patients who receive a transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a spokesperson at the facility told ABC News. These requirements "create both the best chance for a successful operation and optimize the patient's survival after transplantation, given that their immune system is dramatically suppressed," spokesperson Serena Bronda wrote in an email.

Since only about half of people waiting for an organ transplant will receive one, according to the hospital, doctors try to ensure that the organs go to people with the best chance of survival after the operation.

While the hospital could not comment on Ferguson's case, citing HIPAA privacy law, Bronda said that all patients seeking transplants undergo a "comprehensive evaluation" to determine if they are eligible for the operation.

Transplant seekers are also screened for certain "lifestyle behaviors" that might disqualify them, such as substance use and active smoking, she added.

Evaluating patients seeking organ transplants is a common practice in most hospitals -- and a necessary one, experts told ABC News, as there are not enough organs for everyone who needs one.

"You're trying to get the most life saved with a very, very scarce resource," Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, said. "This is not about discrimination."

Jennifer Miller, a bioethicist at Yale, told ABC News that hospitals must "allocate prudently" when it comes to organ transplants. "If you end up giving a heart to somebody who then dies, not only that person died, another person didn't get that heart," she said.

On Tuesday, DJ Ferguson was in open-heart surgery to receive a mechanical heart pump, called a left ventricular assist device, which should keep him alive for up to five years, according to his parents, who worry about the toll the device will have on their son's quality of life.

"For the foreseeable future, he won't be able to shower, he won't be able to swim. He won't be able to have a life," David Ferguson said.

Tracey Ferguson said it was "devastating" when she learned that her son was not eligible to receive a new heart.

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Scientists monitoring new omicron subvariant BA.2

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(GENEVA) -- Even as the omicron COVID-19 variant continues to sweep the globe, scientists are now monitoring a new mutation of omicron, dubbed BA.2.

The World Health Organization maintains that BA.2 is not a "variant of concern," meaning there is no current evidence to suggest this new subvariant will worsen COVID-19 transmission, illness severity, or efficacy of vaccines and public health efforts like masking and social distancing.

BA.2 numbers around the world are rising, with at least 40 countries reporting cases to a global variant tracking database, but the subvariant has spread rapidly in Denmark and the UK, with almost half of recent cases in Denmark attributed to BA.2.

The subvariant has already been detected in several U.S. states, with Washington State confirming two cases Monday.

While over 8,000 BA.2 cases have been identified since November 2021, it is unclear where BA.2 originated. Even though the first sequences were submitted from the Philippines, numerous cases have since been detected in various places, from Europe to South Asia.

Given the rising numbers, health care organizations, like the WHO, are asking scientists to watch and study the new subvariant separately from omicron, to see if it behaves differently.

"It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it's to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic goes on," said Dr. Meera Chand, the COVID-19 incident director at the UK Health Security Agency, in prepared remarks. "So far, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether BA.2 causes more severe illness than Omicron BA.1, but data is limited."

The evolution of COVID-19 subvariants is not new. The delta variant also had several subvariants, but scientists referred to all of them as delta. BA.2, however, has earned its own designation due to rising numbers across several nations.

Although it's been called the "stealth" omicron variant, the new subvariant, "can absolutely be detected through traditional surveillance mechanisms whether through rapid testing or PCR," said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Harvard University's Boston Children's Hospital and ABC Medical Correspondent.

Conventional COVID-19 tests can show a positive or a negative result, but they can't determine specific variants. For that, scientists need to do additional genetic sequencing. Conveniently, the omicron variant has a particular genetic signature that allows scientists to quickly and easily determine if the sample is omicron or not.

The new BA.2 subvariant does not have that feature, meaning scientists can no longer use this shortcut -- though they can still identify the subvariant using genetic sequencing technology. Because of this, the BA.2 subvariant has sometimes been referred to as the "stealth" variant. But for the general public, conventional COVID-19 tests will still work to detect the new subvariant.

Ultimately, while scientists and public health officials are urging continued research and surveillance, experts say there is little reason to worry.

"BA.2 is important from a public health perspective, but it doesn't fundamentally change at this moment, how we think about the impact in the population," Brownstein said. "A lot more work needs to be done to understand severity, breakthrough infections, and immunizations before you can make any statement about clinical relevance."

"While it's important to understand that in the family of omicron, there is a sub-lineage that is potentially more transmissible, it's not necessarily a cause for panic," Brownstein added.

Nitya Rajeshuni, M.D., M.S., a pediatrics resident at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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'Don't Weigh Me' cards designed to empower people to skip the scale at the doctor's office

Ginny Jones

(OMAHA, Neb.) -- Dani Donovan, a 30-year-old woman from Omaha, Nebraska, said she spent the better part of a decade going to different doctors to seek help for chronic pain.

At each visit, according to Donovan, she would be told she needed to lose weight, a discouraging cycle that she said kept her from seeking more medical care.

"I was in pain and all doctors would say to me is that I need to lose weight," Donovan told "Good Morning America," noting the experience would often lead her down a cycle of binge eating due to her frustration and pain." "I felt like doctors wouldn’t listen to me and it was making me not go to want to see the doctors."

That changed in December, according to Donovan, when she went to a new primary care physician.

While in the waiting room at that doctor's office, Donovan saw what are called "Don't Weigh Me" cards, business cards that are designed for a patient to hand to a nurse or doctor.

The cards read on the front, "Please don't weigh me unless it's (really) medically necessary. If you really need my weight, please tell me why so that I can give you my informed consent."

On the back of the card is a list of reasons why a person may not want to be weighed, including the risk of weight stigma and stress and that "most health conditions can be addressed" without knowing a patient's weight, according to the card.

The cards were a game-changer for Donovan, who said she felt empowered to stand up for herself and not have her weight be the focus of the doctor's appointment.

"I had heard online that you could ask doctors not to weigh you, but I still felt really intimidated to say that out loud," said Donovan. "You're used to going to the doctor's office and them herding you onto the scale. It's just part of the routine."

"I was able to just show the card to the woman who was bringing me back and it was like OK and we continued on," she said.

Donovan said she went onto have an hourlong appointment with the doctor, who sent her to a specialist, whom Donovan said ultimately diagnosed her with Ehlers Danlos syndromes, a a group of inherited connective tissue disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"It just made a huge difference to have been heard," said Donovan, adding that she now feels comfortable going to see her doctors.

It was a similar experience with weight stigma at doctors' offices that led Ginny Jones to create the "Don't Weigh Me" cards nearly four years ago.

Jones, the founder of, an eating disorder-focused resource for parents, said she suffered from an eating disorder and began asking to not be weighed at doctors' offices when she started her recovery.

"I decided I would not be weighed unless it was necessary," said Jones, explaining that at first she told her doctors verbally. "Very interestingly, in many, many years of asking not to be weighed, it's never been required for my care."

"I'm open to it if it is required for my care, but so far it really hasn't been an issue for me," she said.

Jones said that as she began working with parents and people in recovery from eating disorders, she saw she was not alone in not wanting weight to be the focus of doctors' appointments. She launched the cards as a way for people to have something in their pocket they could just easily hand to a doctor or nurse.

"I posted them on my website kind of thinking maybe a couple people would be interested," said Jones. "And they have had a huge demand."

The cards, which are available for sale on Jones's website, have been purchased by not just individuals but also therapists, dietitians and doctors, according to Jones.

Dr. Lesley Williams-Blackwell, an Arizona-based family medicine physician and eating disorder specialist, carries the cards in her office so that patients can take them and use them with other doctors.

Williams-Blackwell said she started doing automatic blind weights -- meaning the patient is weighed but the number on the scale is not shown to them -- after one incident in which a patient fled the office after being weighed.

"She was so upset that she fled the office," said Williams-Blackwell. "That just illustrated for me that you don't know, especially if it's your first time meeting someone, how [weight] being the first piece of data that they're presented with, even before you have an opportunity to meet them, could be very triggering or upsetting."

Williams-Blackwell said when she takes her three children, ages 9 to 12, to doctors' appointments, she asks that their weights not be shown or discussed.

She said, in her experience, it is important for doctors and patients to look beyond a single number when it comes to someone's health.

"I really would challenge people to look at health in a more holistic way and to not feel that they have to get so pigeonholed into weight as the sole marker of how healthy someone is," said Williams-Blackwell. "Because the reality is that there's so much more to health."

Chelsea Kronengold, a spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association, said doctors' focus on weight can often not only miss other conditions that may be present, but can also lead to weight stigma and eating disorder behaviors.

"Weight stigma is discriminating or stereotyping someone based on their weight, which we know that medical providers frequently do, as well as the general public," said Kronengold. "And weight stigma can increase body dissatisfaction, which is a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders."

Nearly 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and over the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic, eating disorders have been on the rise in the U.S., according to NEDA.

Jones said she hopes the conversation around weight changes in society to the point that it puts her "Don't Weigh Me" cards venture out of business.

"My dream and my vision is that we actually live in a society that respects bodies regardless of weight, and that being weighed at the doctor's office is not an assumed first step," she said. "I don't want to be in business in 10 years selling cards. My vision is actually that we change the conversations at a much deeper level, and that doctors start to recognize the harm that being weighed [in their offices] can cause."

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COVID-19 vaccines do not affect fertility for women or men, study finds

Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- A new study adds to the growing evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are safe for both pregnant people and people hoping to become pregnant.

The study, which looked at more than 2,000 couples in the United States and Canada, found "no adverse association" between getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and fertility, for both men and women.

On the other hand, men who contract COVID-19 may experience a temporary reduction in fertility. Couples who had a male partner test positive for COVID-19 within 60 days of their partner's menstrual cycle were 18% less likely to conceive in that cycle, according to the study, published on Jan. 20 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

"The findings provide reassurance that vaccination for couples seeking pregnancy does not appear to impair fertility," Dr. Diana Bianchi, director of the National Institute of Health's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the study, said in a statement. "They also provide information for physicians who counsel patients hoping to conceive."

The myth that COVID-19 vaccines may negatively impact fertility was one that was spread largely on social media.

More and more research has now shown that not only do the vaccines not affect fertility, they also do not impact pregnancy.

A study released Jan. 4 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found no increased risk of preterm or low-weight birth among babies born to pregnant people who got a COVID-19 vaccine shot, compared to babies born to unvaccinated pregnant people.

The study's researchers at Yale University looked at the health data of more than 40,000 pregnant women and did not identify any safety issues with getting vaccinated while pregnant, no matter which trimester a woman was in when vaccinated, or how many vaccine doses she got during her pregnancy. Researchers noted most of the women included in the analysis were vaccinated in the second or third trimester, and the study didn't include booster doses.

In a health warning issued in September urging pregnant people to get vaccinated, the CDC said data shows there is also no increased risk for miscarriage linked to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

"Miscarriage rates after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine were similar to the expected rate of miscarriage," the CDC said at the time. "Additionally, previous findings from three safety monitoring systems did not find any safety concerns for pregnant people who were vaccinated late in pregnancy or for their babies."

In addition, two studies released last summer found Pfizer and Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines appear to be safe and effective for pregnant people, and were also found to likely offer protection to infants born to a vaccinated person.

In August, the CDC strengthened its recommendation for COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy, citing new evidence of safety with the vaccines.

The nation's two leading health organizations focused on the care of pregnant people -- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) -- also issued new guidelines calling on all pregnant people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also says pregnant people can be vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Limited data are currently available to assess the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in pregnancy. However, based on what we know about the kinds of vaccines being used, there is no specific reason for concern," the WHO says on its website. "None of the COVID-19 vaccines authorized to date use live viruses, which are more likely to pose risks during pregnancy."

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology, which does not enter the nucleus of the cells and doesn't alter the human DNA; instead, it sends a genetic instruction manual that prompts cells to create proteins that look like part of the virus as a way for the body to learn and develop defenses against future infection.

They are the first mRNA vaccines, which are theoretically safe during pregnancy, because they do not contain a live virus.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses an inactivated adenovirus vector, Ad26, that cannot replicate. The Ad26 vector carries a piece of DNA with instructions to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that triggers an immune response.

This same type of vaccine has been authorized for Ebola, and has been studied extensively for other illnesses -- and for how it affects women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The CDC has concluded that pregnant people can receive the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine after reviewing more than 200 pages of data provided by the company and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Vaccine experts interviewed by ABC News said although pregnant women are advised against getting live-attenuated virus vaccines, such as the one for measles, mumps and rubella, because they can pose a theoretical risk of infection to the fetus, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine doesn't contain live virus and should be safe.

The COVID-19 virus has also proven to be more dangerous for pregnant people, especially if they are not vaccinated.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 causes a two-fold risk of admission into intensive care and a 70% increased risk of death for pregnant people.

A study led by researchers in Scotland, and published this month in Nature Medicine, found that unvaccinated pregnant people who contracted COVID-19 not only were at risk of more severe illness themselves, but also were more likely to experience pregnancy loss or preterm birth compared to other women.

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Hospitals in Seattle are at their breaking point amid COVID crush of patients


(SEATTLE) -- Seattle doctors say hospitals are reaching their breaking points as they deal with a crush of COVID-19 patients amid the latest surge fueled by the omicron variant.

Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 19, there has been an average of 64 new hospitalizations per day with a total of 449 during the week, according to county health department data.

This is a 460% increase from the 80 hospitalizations that were occurring over a one-week period just a month ago.

Additionally, 19.9 per 100,000 residents have been hospitalized over the seven-day period, according to health data.

As of this weekend, UW Medicine -- which has four hospitals across its system -- reported more than 200 COVID-19 patients for the first time ever.

By comparison, at the end of November, there were about 30 patients infected with the virus across the system, according to Dr. John Lynch, an infectious disease expert at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and UW Medicine medical lead for the COVID-19 response.

"I think we're closer now to a crisis -- like a true crisis in health care -- we're closer than we've ever been during this entire pandemic," Lynch told ABC News.

He said this is due to several factors, including the number of patients getting sick, hospitals reaching capacity, an exhausted health care workforce and the frustration of COVID patients being admitted to hospitals who are unvaccinated.

Before the omicron surge, unvaccinated King County residents were nine times more likely to be hospitalized and die, according to Public Health Seattle. During the omicron surge, unvaccinated people are now 12 times more likely to be hospitalized and 20 times more likely to die.

"We have these incredible vaccines that are so good at protecting us from serious disease and death, and yet people continue to ... not get vaccinated and that ends up leading to them in the hospital," Lynch said. "Health care workers don't want to see people suffer and it is just so hard to see a big group of folks in the ICU because of something that was completely preventable."

Lynch said most hospitals across Washington state were already very full when the omicron surge struck compared to other times during the pandemic, making it even more challenging to find enough beds, secure enough resources and prevent understaffing.

"My facility at Harborview, we were already about 100 patients over our normal capacity when the omicron surge hit," he said. "Then the omicron surge came and so you basically had to absorb all these more patients, all of whom required precautions."

Lynch urged residents to help ease the burden on hospitals by wearing masks indoors, getting vaccinated and boosted and avoiding large gatherings so they don't potentially contract the virus and get seriously ill.

"We need your help in health care right now, in hospitals, in clinics, in emergency departments," he said. "We need to slow down the number of new cases of COVID-19. That means please take every precaution not to get infected, not to end up in the hospital."


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LA schools mandating non-cloth masks with nose wire, Atlanta district makes masks optional

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(LOS ANGELES) -- Students in Los Angeles public schools must wear a non-cloth mask with a nose wire at all times, including during sports, beginning Monday, the district announced in a letter to families this weekend.

Schools will give surgical-style masks to students and employees who need them, Los Angeles Unified's interim superintendent, Megan K. Reilly, wrote on Saturday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this month that loosely woven cloth masks provide the least amount of protection.

LA County schools will also continue weekly testing for students and staff through February, Reilly said.

The interim superintendent said "in-school case rates dropped 7% since our baseline testing and current rates of students and staff are half of those in the general community due to the safety measures in place."

COVID-19 cases in LA County remain high, with 39,117 new daily cases reported Saturday.

As Los Angeles County schools ban cloth masks, masks will be optional starting this week at Fulton County schools in Atlanta.

In-person learning resumed in Fulton County last week.

"Maintaining face-to-face instruction is a top priority for our district," the school system said. "Though some employees have been out due to COVID, we intend to stay open, providing we have the staff to safely operate our schools."

Of everyone PCR tested in Fulton County between Jan. 3 and Jan. 16, 2022, 25.2% were positive, according to county data.

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Fauci optimistic omicron will peak in February


(NEW YORK) -- Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist, said Sunday he is "as confident as you can be" about the prospect of most states reaching a peak of omicron cases by mid-February.

"You never want to be overconfident when you're dealing with this virus," Fauci told ABC This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz, adding that the COVID-19 virus has "surprised us in the past."

"Things are looking good. We don't want to get overconfident, but they look like they're going in the right direction right now," he said.

Fauci said there are states in the northeast and in the upper midwest where cases have already peaked and declined "rather sharply" but that cases are still rising in southern and western states.

"There may be a bit more pain and suffering with hospitalizations in those areas of the country that have not been fully vaccinated or have not gotten boosters," he warned.

When Raddatz asked "what should life look like" going forward and about the "long-term strategy" for dealing with future peaks and variants, Fauci said the hope is the level of infection will be below what he calls an "area of control."

"Control means you're not eliminating it, you're not eradicating it, but it gets down to such a low level, that it's essentially integrated into the general respiratory infections that we have learned to live with."

Fauci said the aspiration is that future variants won't "disrupt society" or "create a fear of severe outcomes that are broad" but that the country should still be "prepared for the worst-case scenario."

"We'd like it to get down to that level where it doesn't disrupt us in the sense of getting back to a degree of normality. That's the best-case scenario."

As the Biden administration begins to ship out free COVID-19 tests to Americans and provide free masks across the country, Fauci told Raddatz these kinds of protections could help keep future variants at a "lower level."

"What about the next booster shot?" Raddatz pressed, noting that it's now been five months since some Americans received their booster. "How soon should we get another one?"

"We don't know," Fauci responded, adding that it's unclear whether an additional booster shot will be recommended since scientists are still trying to determine how much protection is provided by the first booster. But, he said, it's "quite conceivable, and I hope it's true, that the third shot boost will give a much greater durability of protection."

"We may need to boost again, but before we make that decision, we want to determine what the durability is," Fauci added.

Data released on Tuesday shows that nearly 1 million children tested positive for COVID-19 last week, according to new a weekly report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, and 28.8 million eligible children still remain completely unvaccinated.

Some schools in the U.S. are opting to remove mask mandates, and when asked by Raddatz if it is "safe to send your kids back to school without masks," Fauci stressed their importance, along with other mitigation efforts.

"You surround the children with people who are vaccinated. For the children who are eligible to be vaccinated, get them vaccinated. And provide in the school masks where you can have children protected, as well as ventilation to make sure that you can get a respiratory infection at its lowest level of infectivity. All of those things go together. And masking is a part of that."

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Minnesota COVID patient, transferred to Texas after judge prohibited doctors from taking him off ventilator, dies

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(HOUSTON) -- Battle against omicron variant pushes hospitals, health care workers to the brink
COVID-19 cases have soared to new records with nearly 800,000 new infections per day.

A 55-year-old Minnesota man, who was transferred to a Texas hospital earlier this month, after a judge blocked a local hospital from taking him off a ventilator, died on Saturday, at a hospital in Houston, a family attorney has confirmed to ABC News.

"On behalf of the family of Scott Quiner, I would like to thank the public for the outpouring of love and support during this difficult time. The family now requests privacy as they grieve the loss of their beloved husband and father," Marjorie J. Holsten, the Quiner’s family attorney, told ABC News on Sunday.

Eleven days ago, Scott Quiner's wife, Anne, was granted a temporary restraining order against Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, preventing the hospital from taking her husband off a ventilator, after healthcare providers advised her that they “intend[ed] to take actions on Thursday, January 13, 2022, that [would] end [her] husband’s life.”

Representatives from Allina Health, which operates Mercy Hospital, told ABC News on Sunday that they are saddened to hear about Quiner's death.

"We are saddened to hear about the passing of Scott Quiner and our deepest condolences go out to family, friends and loved ones. His passing marks yet another very sad moment as collectively we continue to face the devastating effects of the pandemic," a representative said.

Previously, an Allina Health representative told ABC News that they had "great confidence" in their team's work.

The family attorney told ABC News last week that legal action against the hospital had "not been ruled out."

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COVID hospitalizations and deaths surge in Los Angeles County


(NEW YORK) -- As the recent COVID-19 wave begins to ebb on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Los Angeles County is still being battered by the virus.

The county reported 102 new COVID deaths Thursday, the highest number recorded in a single day since March 10, 2021, and more than double the 45 fatalities reported one week ago.

The majority of deaths occurred in people aged 50 and older, according to a news release from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

More than 90% of the deaths reported Thursday were among residents who contracted the virus after Christmas Eve, indicating a high likelihood they were infected with the omicron variant, the department said.

Dr. Jeffrey Smith, executive vice president of hospital operations and chief operating officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said the rise in the total number of deaths is not because omicron is more deadly than previous variants.

"We're still seeing a mortality rate of about 1.4%. It's just the sheer number of people who are infected is extremely high so 1.4% of a very, very large number gives you a higher number of absolute deaths," he told ABC News.

COVID hospitalizations are also on the rise, with 4,814 recorded Thursday, a figure not seen since Feb. 2, 2021. Of those patients, nearly one-third are in intensive care units, an increase from the week before.

Smith said Cedars-Sinai currently has about 220 COVID-19 patients, making up 25% of total patients.

"That had dropped as low as probably 5% to 10% prior to this most recent peak," he told ABC News.

Smith added that, of the people in the ICU, almost all of them are unvaccinated or have not yet been fully vaccinated, meaning two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The surge has caused many hospitals in Los Angeles to face staffing shortages, either because there are not enough health care workers to take care of patients or because so many workers have gotten sick and need to stay home.

"It's a dual crisis because staff have been furloughed or told to stay home because of positive tests, and then you have people who are unvaccinated, who have succumbed to infection and need hospitalization," Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told ABC News.

He continued, "And then you have this third piece of people coming in for a stroke or heart attack or something and then they test positive. But, because of the staffing crisis, the hospital is unable to see as many people as it typically would."

According to LA Public Health, about 50% of patients statewide were admitted for non-COVID reasons and only found out they were infected while undergoing routine testing.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted during a virtual media briefing Thursday that whether originally admitted due to the virus or not, the high number of COVID patients puts a strain on hospital staff and resources.

"It limits where people can be housed, what room they can be in, it limits some staffing, it changes the kind of medical and doctor interventions because people still have to practice infection control for an airborne pathogen," Klausner explained.

Meanwhile, the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases sits at 33,000.

While the daily test-positivity rate declined from more than 20% in late December to 18.5% Thursday, it still means about 1 in 6 people in LA County are testing positive for COVID-19.

The figure is also eightfold higher than the positivity rate of 2% that was being recorded a little over one month ago.

Klausner said until LA County and California come out of this wave, people with COVID symptoms should get tested and, if they do test positive, seek early treatment.

"We actually just did a survey of 10,000 people who tested positive and 25% of people stopped treatment and, of the treatments they stopped, the overwhelming majority were getting vitamins," he said. "That's really disappointing when we have known, proven interventions that can reduce people's risk of going to the hospital."

Smith also stressed the importance of testing -- but urged people not to visit already overcrowded emergency rooms -- as well boosting and mask-wearing.

He said he's been encouraged by declining COVID-19 rates in places such as New York City and hopes Los Angeles isn't far behind.

"We've seen rates declining in some parts of the country and we're hoping that our experience will be similar to what was seen in South Africa or the U.K., where the rates dropped almost as quickly as they rose," Smith said.


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Peanut allergy treatment effective on toddlers, study finds


(NEW YORK) -- A peanut allergy treatment often used on children 4 years old and up in the U.S. appears to be safe for toddlers too, a new study has found.

Around 2% of children in the country suffer from the allergy, some to a debilitating degree, which is why the discovery is "extremely exciting," said Dr. David Stukus, professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Food Allergy Treatment Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

In the study, conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases across multiple hospitals, researchers added powder containing peanuts to the daily diets of children, and found that over time, a large majority of them became desensitized to peanuts.

A smaller group of children even achieved full remission, meaning they were no longer allergic to peanuts at all.

While almost all the children studied had reactions to the peanut products, most were mild to moderate in severity, experts said.

The study also found that the younger the patients were when they started the treatment, the better they were able to tolerate peanuts, and the more likely they were to achieve full remission.

This means the treatment may be more effective if started while children's immune systems are still developing.

"This suggests that if we do start treatment younger, there is a potential to help some children become non-allergic," said Dr. Lisa Wheatley, section chief at the NIAID Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation.

Pediatric immunology experts interviewed by ABC News said they believe the study marks an important step in allergy research; still, they said more studies are needed to better understand young children's immune systems and how they change.

The experts said children with a history of severe allergic reactions were excluded from the study, and warned that adding peanut products to the diets of children with known peanut allergies can cause serious reactions and should only be done under the guidance of a physician.

They added that while the study's findings are promising, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan for children with peanut allergies, and parents must weigh the risks, benefits and expectations before letting their kids receive a treatment of any kind.

Aubrie Ford is an emergency medicine resident at Northwell Health, in New York, and a contributor to the ABC News Med Unit.

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Finding a therapist can be difficult. Experts explain how to find right one for you

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(NEW YORK) -- There's no denying therapy can be a valuable resource for guiding you through life's ups and downs.

However, it's also important to recognize that your first meeting with a therapist may not feel like the perfect match for your needs.

For Emily Maldonado, a 27-year-old New York City-based public relations and marketing manager, it took almost a year before she realized her first therapist was not a good fit. After opting to discontinue services, she realized what she actually was looking for in therapy, and that helped her evaluate other therapists with a clearer direction.

"Now, I love my therapist and we've been going strong for over a year," said Maldonado. "My original therapist just listened, but now I know I'm the type that appreciates action items and homework."

She added, "My current therapist is also Latinx like me so there are some things she just gets.”

Licensed therapist, relationship expert and New York Times bestselling author Nedra Glover Tawwab told Good Morning America the process of finding the best therapist can be done like speed dating.

"It's a way for you to figure out pretty quickly, in 15 or 20 minutes by phone or video, if this person will be a good fit," said Tawwab. "You just talk for 15 or 20 minutes and sort of figure out if it would be a good situation -- and yes, you can talk to a few therapists within the same week to figure out who might be the best fit."

What to know before you go to your first therapy session

Experts agree that nerves are normal as you're talking to a stranger and telling them very deep, personal information.

"There is no other space in which we do that, so there's nothing to compare it to. So it is an awkward and uncomfortable encounter, initially," said Tawwab.

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan advised that you shouldn't expect immediate resonance in the beginning.

"It takes time to acquire a good fit with a therapist, so an openness to feeling emotionally challenged can help navigate whatever is causing tension," she said.

Kate Rosenblatt, another Talkspace therapist, suggested doing a pre-interview to ask questions such as, "What would our therapy look like together? And have you worked with other people in a similar situation? How were the outcomes?"

It's generally recommended to attend a minimum of three sessions before evaluating if a therapist is or isn't right for you.

Once you've had a few sessions, and you are unsure if your therapist is the right fit, Rosenblatt shared that there are quite a few factors to consider before choosing to "break up" with your therapist.

Three key questions to ask yourself before moving on

1. Am I making progress in therapy?

"If you're not where you want to be, and you've brought this up to your therapist and you've tried something new in therapy, but nothing has changed, it might be time to consider finding a new therapist," said Rosenblatt. Or, alternatively, if you have made incredible progress, she suggests letting your therapist know it might be time for a break.

2. What do I want more of in therapy that I'm not currently getting?

It's common for your focus to change throughout therapy, but it's important to work with someone qualified to support the specific needs you'd like to focus on.

"If you speak with your therapist about your needs, and your therapist cannot adequately meet them, it might be time to find a therapist who can best support you," said Rosenblatt.

3. Is therapy in general making me feel uncomfortable, or am I feeling uncomfortable with my therapist?

As therapy can bring up some difficult memories or experiences, Rosenblatt highlighted that you're not going to leave every session feeling better immediately. However, she also advised that it is important to distinguish between your experience in therapy versus with your therapist.

"If your therapist has said or done things that feel unprofessional, uncomfortable or demonstrate a lack of cultural competency, see if it would feel right for you to address these with your therapist and then go from there," she recommended.

After closely examining your experience, and coming to the conclusion that you'd prefer to move on from your therapist, Tawwab said that it's truly a matter of preference when it comes to "breaking up" and your therapist, as a professional, is prepared for your relationship to end on your terms. "Believe it or not, therapists are ghosted all the time," she said.

"It's a part of the culture. We know everyone won't come back," added Tawwab. Still, she suggests that it is helpful to give feedback to aid the therapist in understanding where things might not have aligned.

Once you've parted ways with your initial therapist, there are a few tips to help navigate the process of finding someone new without getting discouraged.

Rosenblatt's best practices to keep in mind include being clear on your priorities in what you want, sourcing therapist referrals from your communities and doing your own research.

With patience and hope, many people have found amazing therapists after some trial and error, and experts concur that one bad experience shouldn't be the end-all when it comes to taking care of your mental health.

"Meeting the right therapist is like any sort of relationship where you're learning someone else," said Tawwab. "If you're in school, it's going to be 20 people in your class and you may have one to two friends."

"If you're dating, every relationship won't work out and it's that same sort of thing," she continued. "You keep going. Hopefully, you don't give up on dating or making friends or any of these sort of things, so please don't give up on finding the right therapist."

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Inside Oklahoma's surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children

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(OKLAHOMA CITY) -- Oklahoma doctors say they are seeing a massive surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children -- more than during any previous wave of the pandemic.

Between Jan. 9 and Jan. 15, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 tested positive for COVID-19, making up 18.7% of all cases in the state that week, according to a weekly epidemiology and surveillance report from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

That's a 138% increase from the 6,700 children who contracted the virus the week before and a 566% spike from the 2,400 children who tested positive for the virus the week before Thanksgiving.

"If l look back just to two months ago -- kind of October, November -- that number tended to be between five and 10," Dr. Cameron Mantor, acting chief medical officer at OU Health, told ABC News. "In the past three weeks now, we've just seen it continue to skyrocket."

At Oklahoma Children's Hospital OU Health, more than 50 pediatric patients are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 for the first time ever -- a tenfold increase from just two months ago and three times as high as last winter's surge.

Kids of all ages have been admitted, from as young as 2 weeks old up through teenagers, according to Mantor.

He said it's not clear whether more children have been hospitalized because the omicron variant -- which is fueling the recent wave -- causes more severe illness or because the number of children being infected is so high that, naturally, the hospitalization rate will rise too.

Compared to adults, though, children with COVID-19 at Oklahoma Children's Hospital have required intensive care treatment at lower rates, he said.

About 10% of children who have been admitted to intensive care units need oxygen support or mechanical ventilation compared to 25% of adults at OU Health.

However, even though most children recover from COVID-19, this doesn't mean they don't suffer complications.

Mantor said more kids have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, during this wave than in previous waves.

MIS-C is a condition in which different body parts can become inflamed, such as the heart, lungs and kidneys, and is often seen in children after they are diagnosed with COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, during an OU Health roundtable discussion held on Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Stephanie DeLeon, inpatient medical director at Oklahoma Children's Hospital OU Health, said the hospital has recently seen children diagnosed with COVID encephalitis, meaning these patients have inflammation in their brains and have symptoms including altered mental states and seizures.

Health officials have stressed the importance of vaccinating children.

The weekly report from the OSDH shows that as of Jan. 8 -- the latest date for which data is available -- there were 32 children aged 17 and younger hospitalized statewide over the last 30 days.

Of those children, 31 were unvaccinated, including 17 children aged 5 and older who are eligible to receive vaccines.

Just one fully vaccinated child was hospitalized and no partially vaccinated children were admitted to hospitals.

"When we look at the state of Oklahoma, around 60% have had at least one vaccine dose, but the kids 5 and older who can get vaccinated, that percentage is still very small," Mantor said.

Only 33.6% of Oklahoma children between ages 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the OSDH report. For kids aged 5 to 11, just 9% are fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccines for children under age 5 have not yet been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"It's the same old message that we've been preaching for two years now that to try to prevent the transmission of the disease, both amongst our pediatric patients but also from our pediatric patients to mom and dad and to grandma and grandad, is we have to get vaccinated," Mantor said."The kids that haven't been vaccinated have to get vaccinated. It's safe, it's effective, it works."

He added, "It's not perfect. People are still getting infected with the virus but their likelihood of requiring hospitalization or becoming severely ill is much, much less if you're fully vaccinated, so vaccines are so important. We need to really continue to push that in our aged 5 and older patients."

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CDC urges Americans to get moving, but there's no simple solution

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(NEW YORK) -- While the benefits of exercise are becoming increasingly well known, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that more than one-fifth of Americans remain physically inactive.

In the study, being physically inactive meant no physical activity at all over the past month -- anything from running to gardening.

"Getting enough physical activity could prevent 1 in 10 premature deaths," Dr. Ruth Peterson, director of CDC's Division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, said in prepared remarks. "Too many people are missing out on the health benefits of physical activity such as improved sleep, reduced blood pressure and anxiety, lowered risk for heart disease, several cancers and dementia."

The CDC specifically warned about higher rates of inactivity in the South compared with the rest of the country. Meanwhile, more than 29% of Hispanic, African American and Native American adults were inactive compared to 23% of non-Hispanic white adults.

But doctors said that for many Americans, getting more active isn't as simple as it sounds.

"What this map shows us is that there are disparities, but we have to be better about tailoring our strategies to different populations," said Dr. Alok Patel, an ABC News special correspondent and a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford Children's Health.

"It's important that any message we send is met with equity, inclusiveness and relatability, so that individuals can understand how to adopt and integrate practices into their own unique lives," Patel added. "Even a walk in the neighborhood can be sufficient, but not everyone has access to safe environments. I can't tell you how many times I've had a teenage patient tell me there's no park within a mile of where they live."

This is partly why experts including Patel emphasize that public health and community-based programs need to be individually tailored. Language barriers and cultural beliefs play an integral role as well. Early education though school-based programs and community-based research used to shape public health initiatives can prove especially critical.

And, Patel said, programs able to "listen" to their communities are at the crux of improving health literacy: "It's not a one-size fits all solution."

Nitya Rajeshuni, M.D., M.S., a pediatrics resident at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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Many COVID-19 vaccine side effects caused by placebo effect: Study

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(NEW YORK) -- Many continue to worry about experiencing side effects from vaccines -- especially the COVID-19 vaccines -- but new data from a comprehensive meta-analysis suggests there is little to fear.

The study from Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center found that a large number of side effects reported by patients after receiving their shot can be attributed to the placebo effect.

Researchers examined 12 vaccine safety trials, involving thousands of people, and compared rates of side effects reported between those who received a placebo shot and those who received a real shot. They found that after the first shot, two-thirds of people experienced side effects like headache and fatigue, which the researchers said were attributable to the placebo effect. Shockingly, nearly a quarter of the people -- some who received the placebo shot -- experienced side effects like a sore arm, also attributable to the placebo effect.

What is the placebo effect?

The placebo effect occurs when people anticipate a medical treatment will have certain effects, so much so that they perceive the outcomes they were expecting after the treatment.

It is a well-known phenomenon among scientists and is important to investigate when developing vaccines and medicines, according to Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University.

"After the injection, people are more aware now that they think they might have gotten a vaccine. They're more likely to tell their doctor about things," Schaffner said. "Never underestimate the power of the human mind."

Experts say the placebo effect is a powerful example of the connection between our minds, bodies and circumstances.

In the study, the amount of side effects attributable to the placebo effect decreased to about half after the people studied received a second shot. Frequency of side effects was lower among placebo recipients after the second shot, while the opposite was true for vaccine recipients. This helps reinforce the placebo effect phenomenon, experts said.

Researchers noted one caveat is that the studies examined included different phases of clinical trials, and results were not standardized throughout.

Experts address vaccine hesitancy

With the omicron surge still straining hospitals across America, addressing vaccine hesitancy remains a crucial discussion.

Experts interviewed by ABC News said that if more people knew that experiencing side effects from the COVID-19 vaccines is not as common as they think, more people may be encouraged to get vaccinated.

"When people are armed with information, they are better suited to identify and manage their symptoms," Dr. Simone Wildes, infectious disease physician at South Shore Health, said. "This might also help those who are reluctant to get vaccinated."

Aubrie Ford, D.O. is an emergency medicine resident at Northwell Health in New York and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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Vaccinated people with prior COVID infection had strongest protection during delta, CDC study finds

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(ATLANTA) -- Both vaccination and a prior infection provided protection against another infection and hospitalization due to COVID-19 during the United States' delta wave, according to a study released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between May and November 2021, researchers analyzed data from New York and California to determine the impact of vaccination and previous COVID-19 infection on cases and hospitalization rates.

The study focused on four core groups of people -- those who were unvaccinated, without a previous infection; those who were unvaccinated, with a previous infection; vaccinated people, without a previous infection; and vaccinated people, with a previous infection.

The analysis found that before delta became the predominant variant in June, vaccination offered better protection against breakthrough infections than prior infection offered against reinfection. But after delta became dominant, this trend shifted, with prior infection offering slightly better protection. However, this also coincides with a time when many Americans were several months out from their shots, and before boosters were authorized.

Notably, the study was conducted prior to the emergence of the omicron variant, and before the widespread availability of booster shots, thus, researchers warned that results cannot be directly applied to the nation's current surge. In addition, the analysis did not include data pertaining to the severity of initial infections, and hospitalization data was only pulled from California.

During the delta wave, two doses of a vaccine offered excellent protection against hospitalization, and notably, researchers stressed that getting vaccinated remains a safer option than contracting COVID-19.

Vaccine immunity does fade over time, the study found, and the further out an individual is from one's last vaccine shot, or a prior infection, the more likely it is that they will experience a breakthrough infection.

When asked repeatedly on Wednesday during a press briefing whether the data were showing that when delta was prominent, having had an infection provided greater protection against a subsequent infection than from being vaccinated, a CDC representative insisted that vaccination is still the safest way to protect oneself.

Scientists also suggest the study reinforces the evidence that "vaccination remains the safest strategy for protecting against COVID-19."

The CDC also cited a recent study, which demonstrates that as time increases after an infection, vaccination still provides greater protection against COVID-19 compared to prior infection alone, thus underscoring "the importance of being up to date on COVID-19 vaccination."

Later this week, the CDC said it will publish additional data on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters while omicron has been circulating.

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