Hospitals across nation under 'unprecedented strain'; COVID deaths pass delta's peak: Updates – USA TODAY

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Cases from the omicron coronavirus variant are falling in much of the nation, but the massive wave of infections continues to drive up U.S. death tolls from COVID-19, as hospitals nationwide are once again straining to keep up.
Since mid-November, seven-day rolling averages for new daily COVID-19 deaths nationwide have been rising. That figure hit 2,267 on Thursday, surpassing September’s peak of 2,100, when delta was the dominant variant.
While omicron symptoms tend to be milder than previous variants, its high transmissibility has caused more people to become infected and die of the virus. Experts have emphasized that omicron can still be deadly, especially for those who are unvaccinated.
In February, three military medical teams will be dispatched to support overwhelmed Oklahoma City hospitals, where COVID-19 hospitalizations this week hit an all-time high. Amid worsening staff shortages, the city’s four major health systems have said they have no open intensive care unit beds left.
Understaffed hospitals in Brevard County in Florida are also struggling against caseloads, despite drops in infections.
And in Tennessee’s Knox County, hospitalizations, deaths and case counts all shattered records in the past week with the county reporting almost 15,000 active cases this week, topping all previous surges. 
Hospital administrators said Knoxville region facilities are under “unprecedented strain” in a joint statement Wednesday.
“Our emergency departments are overflowing with these cases and other medical emergencies, leading to longer-than-usual wait times as we work to deliver care to all who are counting on us,” the statement said.
Also in the news:
►Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell said she’s pulling her music from Spotify in solidarity with Neil Young, who wrote an open letter this week demanding his songs be removed from the platform due to its spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
►One million at-home COVID-19 testing kits will hit liquor stores across New Hampshire in the next two weeks, Gov. Chris Sununu said. “In addition to tax-free liquor and lottery tickets, you’ll be able to grab a tax-free test!” he said on Twitter.
Pope Francis on Friday denounced COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, calling it a spreading “infodemic,” at a meeting with Catholic journalists who are part of a fact-checking network.
►Utah Sen. Mitt Romney tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, according to a statement from his office. He is asymptomatic and has been fully vaccinated and boosted, the statement said.
►At the Beijing Winter Olympics, 36 Games-related personnel have been infected with COVID-19 as daily COVID-19 infections jump to 19 on Friday among athletes and team officials, Reuters reported.
►San Francisco will allow vaccinated office workers, gym members, and other “stable cohorts” of people to stop wearing masks indoors on Feb. 1.
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 74 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 883,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 371 million cases and over 5.6 million deaths. More than 211 million Americans — 63.7% — are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
📘What we’re reading: The Biden administration’s mandate that began Jan. 15 calls for those with private health insurance to get a monthly allotment of free tests. Yet health experts say the ambitious federal plan to quickly extend home testing will be challenging because of the nation’s fragmented health care system.
Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.
A nationwide chain with hundreds of coronavirus testing sites is encouraging site operators to break off from Center for COVID Control management as the business suspends operations “indefinitely” and questions emerge about two other labs in the Chicago area.
Center for Covid Control founders Aleya Siyaj and Akbar Syed this week “encouraged the independent operators” of more than 300 of its affiliated collection sites to seek “affiliations with other vendors” and with a certified lab, a spokesperson said.
The corporate name shutdown and the branching off leaves open the possibility that the company, under investigation by the FBI after, may not be truly going away. The more than 300 testing sites formerly managed through CCC may begin working with other vendors and labs.
The news comes as Center for COVID Control and its primary lab, Doctors Clinical Lab, are under investigation by state and federal officials. The company and lab “provide inaccurate and deceptive” test results, fraudulently reported negative results and “represented to the federal government” that people with private or public insurance were actually uninsured, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office alleged in a complaint.
— Grace Hauck
A pirate-themed bar in the Seattle suburb of Lynwood faced a social media firestorm after advertising a show with discounted ticket prices for people infected with COVID-19.
“Come see the show, maybe catch the virus or just stay home and whine,” Vessel Taphouse posted to Facebook last Friday, according to the Daily Herald. “Tickets 10 bucks or 6 with proof of Omicron positive test!!”
The event, called the “I’m too sick to attend” show, led four employees to quit and three bands refuse to play at another show that weekend, the bar’s owner Steve Hartley told the newspaper.
A new study out of Israel found that unvaccinated children may get indirect protection from COVID-19 through their vaccinated parents.
Researchers studied households made up of two parents and unvaccinated children, estimating the effect of parental vaccination on unvaccinated children’s risk of catching COVID-19. The research was conducted during two periods in 2021, corresponding with the alpha and delta variant waves.
The study found that, regardless of household size, having one vaccinated parent decreased the risk of an unvaccinated child catching COVID-19 by 23.4% on average. Two vaccinated parents decreased the risk by an average of 64.9%, although the risk only decreased by 58.1% during the delta wave, compared to 71.7% during the alpha wave.
60M households have ordered at-home tests from federal government
Sixty million households have ordered free COVID-19 tests from the federal government since the Biden administration launched last week, White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday.
The website is part of the administration’s effort to make 1 billion rapid tests available as the highly contagious omicron variant continues to surge around the country. Americans are allowed to request four tests per household, which are supposed to be mailed by the Postal Service within seven to 12 days of ordering.
Tens of millions of tests have been shipped, Jean-Pierre said. Many have already arrived.
Among Americans who tried to get an at-home test over the past month, 6 in 10 said one was difficult to find, according to a survey released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health research organization.
Four in ten blamed President Joe Biden and test manufacturers for the limited availability. Slightly more said the Food and Drug Administration deserves at least a fair amount of blame. The Jan. 11-23 survey was still being conducted when Biden announced mid-month that free tests would be coming.
— Maureen Groppe
The government’s main health agency is failing to meet its responsibilities for leading the national response to public health emergencies including the coronavirus pandemic, extreme weather disasters and even potential bioterrorist attacks, a federal watchdog said Thursday.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said it is designating the Health and Human Services Department’s leadership and coordination of public health emergencies as a “high risk” area for the government signaling to Congress that lawmakers need to pay special attention to the agency’s operations.
Long-standing “persistent deficiencies” at HHS “have hindered the nation’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic and a variety of past threats,” the GAO said in its report.
The shortfalls include managing the medical supply chain, coordinating with federal and state agencies and providing clear and consistent communication to the public and the health care community, the GAO said.
— The Associated Press
The Food and Drug Administration pulled its authorization of two of the most used monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 this week, leaving doctors with fewer options to help their patients avoid the hospital.
Why did the FDA shut them down? Because the two, from drugmakers Regeneron and Eli Lilly, don’t work against the omicron variant that now causes more than 99% of coronavirus infections in the United States.
“All the data show that these older antibodies are ineffective against omicron,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
It was clear that for patients with omicron infections the monoclonals were “doing nothing,” said Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California. “There’s overpowering data (that these) monoclonals are unable to bind to omicron,” he added. 
— Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY
Contributing: The Associated Press; Dana Branham, the Oklahoman; Amira Sweilem, Florida Today; Vincent Gabrielle, Knoxville News Sentinel


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