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CDC advisory panel backs COVID-19 booster shots for high-risk adults

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CDC advisory panel backs COVID-19 booster shots for high-risk adults

WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 stood on the verge of a major new phase as government advisers Thursday recommended booster doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for millions of older or otherwise vulnerable Americans — despite doubts the extra shots will do much to slow the pandemic.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have risky underlying health problems. The extra dose would be given once they are at least six months past their last Pfizer shot.

But deciding who else might get one was far tougher. While there is little evidence that younger people are at risk of waning immunity, the panel offered the option of a booster for those 18 to 49 who have chronic health problems and want one.

Still, getting the unvaccinated their first shots remains the top priority, and the panel wrestled with whether the booster debate was distracting from that goal.

All three of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. still are highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, even amid the spread of the extra-contagious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, just 55% of the population.

“We can give boosters to people, but that’s not really the answer to this pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University. “Hospitals are full because people are not vaccinated. We are declining care to people who deserve care because we are full of unvaccinated COVID-positive patients.”

Thursday’s decision represented a dramatic scaling back of the Biden administration plan, announced last month, to dispense boosters to nearly everyone to shore up their protection. Late Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration, like the CDC, signed off on Pfizer boosters for a much more targeted slice of the American population than the White House envisioned.

It falls to the CDC to set final U.S. policy on who qualifies for the extra shot.

Still, even a limited rollout of boosters marks an important shift in the nation’s vaccination drive. Britain and Israel are already giving a third round of shots over strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries don’t have enough for their initial doses.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky opened Thursday’s meeting by stressing that vaccinating the unvaccinated remains the top goal “here in America and around the world.”

Walensky acknowledged that the data on who really needs a booster right away “are not perfect.” “Yet collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, “and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic.”

The CDC panel stressed its recommendations will be changed if new evidence shows more people need a booster.

The CDC advisers expressed concern over the millions more Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots early in the vaccine rollout. The government still hasn’t considered boosters for those brands and has no data on whether it’s safe or effective to mix-and-match and give those people a Pfizer shot.

“I just don’t understand how later this afternoon we can say to people 65 and older you’re at risk for severe illness and death but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University.

But for most people, if you’re not in a group recommended for a booster, “it’s really because we think you’re well-protected,” said Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “This isn’t about who deserves a booster, but who needs a booster.”

The CDC presented data showing the vaccines still offer strong protection for all ages, but there is a slight drop among the oldest adults. And immunity against milder infection appears to be waning months after people’s initial immunization.

Among people who stand to benefit from a booster, there are few risks, the CDC concluded. Serious side effects from the first two Pfizer doses are exceedingly rare, including heart inflammation that sometimes occurs in younger men. Data from Israel, which has given nearly 3 million people — mostly 60 and older — a third Pfizer dose, has uncovered no red flags.

The panelists also wrestled with how to even tell when a booster is needed. While an extra dose revs up numbers of virus-fighting antibodies, those naturally wane over time and no one knows how long the antibody boost from a third Pfizer dose will last — or how much protection it really adds since the immune system also forms additional defenses after vaccination.

The U.S. has already authorized third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and transplant recipients. Other Americans, healthy or not, have managed to get boosters, in some cases simply by asking.

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Judge directs that name be disclosed of witness who claims former Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle said, ‘I did it. She’s gone,’ after girlfriend’s death

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Judge directs that name be disclosed of witness who claims former Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle said, ‘I did it. She’s gone,’ after girlfriend’s death

The identity of a newly disclosed witness in the Marni Yang case should be disclosed, a Lake County judge said Wednesday in a ruling Yang’s attorney described as a “minor setback.”

The witness, Yang attorney Jed Stone said in court filings, would testify that former Chicago Bear Shaun Gayle made incriminating statements about the death of his girlfriend, Rhoni Reuter, several hours after Reuter was fatally shot in her Deerfield condo in 2007.
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Marni Yang was convicted of murdering Reuter and her unborn child, in what authorities said was a crime motivated by Yang’s jealousy of Reuter’s relationship with Gayle. Yang is seeking a hearing as part of her attempt to get a new trial.

Stone disclosed in December that a new witness had been discovered who would testify that an agitated Gayle appeared at a North Chicago barbershop hours after the pregnant Reuter was shot, and told the owner, “I did it. She’s gone.”

Authorities said in the weeks after the shooting that Gayle had been ruled out as a suspect.

The new witness has completed an affidavit that Stone has shared with Lake County prosecutors. However, the attorney had asked that the court either file the affidavit under seal or, alternately redact the witness’s name for privacy reasons and the witness’ protection.

But Judge Christopher Stride ruled against the motion Wednesday. Case law, the judge said, carried a presumption that court records remain public whenever possible. Stone’s motion, the judge said, did not provide a compelling enough legal reason to seal the affidavit.

Stone said he would file a motion to reconsider, and said he was discussing an option with prosecutors to make the affidavit public, but redact the name.

At an online news conference later Wednesday, Stone called the ruling a minor setback, and said it will not slow momentum in his attempt to secure an evidentiary hearing for Yang.

“When we get there, we think the judge will find that Marni Yang has proven her actual innocence and is entitled to a new trial,” Stone said.

At the online news conference, Stone and his team said they will soon make public a video shot with Yang at the Logan Correctional Facility, where she discusses the incriminating audio recording a friend made of Yang while they were eating at a restaurant.

At her trial, prosecutors said it proved Yang’s guilt. But her defense team said she made up the things on the tape to draw police attention away from her then teenage son as a potential suspect.

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Avalanche’s remaining schedule: NHL releases new dates for postponed games

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Epic hockey at Ball Arena: Avalanche, Maple Leafs treat crowd of 17,334 to spectacular showing

The NHL on Wednesday released an update to the 2021-22 regular-season schedule that includes new dates for the 98 games postponed due to COVID-19, including seven that Colorado was forced to push back in December.

The Avs’ make-up dates are primarily placed during the 16-day window that was previously left open for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

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Marshall fire, omicron prompt a special health insurance enrollment period in Colorado

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Marshall fire, omicron prompt a special health insurance enrollment period in Colorado

The Marshall fire displaced thousands of Coloradans just as the omicron surge began sweeping through the state, so health insurance was likely not on many people’s minds when the regular enrollment period for the state’s health insurance marketplace ended Jan. 15.

But now, because of those twin emergencies, everyone in Colorado will get another chance to sign up.

State officials on Wednesday launched a special marketplace enrollment period, through March 16, open to all uninsured Coloradans regardless of whether they’ve been directly affected by the fire or the COVID-19 surge.

The Marshall fire started on Dec. 30, just two weeks before the deadline to sign up for a 2022 plan. The fires destroyed more than 1,000 houses and businesses, quickly becoming the state’s most destructive fire by the number of structures lost.

“It’s such a disruption to people’s lives,” Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway said. “It’s not just the people who lost their homes — it’s across the board, affecting the entire community.”

Meanwhile, the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus caused COVID cases to spike to record levels in January, stressing hospitals and health systems.

“These folks are just trying to put their lives back together,” said Kevin Patterson, CEO of Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s health insurance marketplace, created under the Affordable Care Act. “So giving them some additional time seemed like a reasonable and thoughtful thing to consider.”

In addition to providing immediate relief to Coloradans in a crisis, the move underscores how much industry attitudes toward the Affordable Care Act have changed. Insurance companies were initially skeptical about the financial risks and worried that consumers would game the system. But the insurers have largely embraced the exchanges and are working to sign up as many people as possible. After experiencing few problems during the special enrollment period held last year because of COVID, health plans have agreed to the removal of safeguards — such as a limited window of time to sign up for coverage — that regulators once required.

“Amid the recent COVID-19 surge and tragic wildfires, it is important that people in Colorado have the opportunity to obtain health care coverage,” Patrick Gordon, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Health Plans, said in an email.

Special enrollment periods have been used in California because of wildfires, in Maine when strong winds knocked down power lines, and in Gulf states hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Such periods have often been limited in scope and sometimes required people to provide proof they had been affected.

Colorado state officials are taking a different route. They opted to make signing up for coverage as easy as possible and are not requiring consumers to demonstrate they qualify.

“It didn’t seem like something that was necessary, especially when we look at our experience over the last year,” Conway said. “The vast majority of the year was effectively a special enrollment period, and there wasn’t that much disruption in the market.”

Insurance analyst Charles Gaba said there are three primary reasons for limiting health plan sign-ups to an open enrollment period.

The first is that deadlines spur people to sign up. Each year, enrollment numbers spike in the final days of the sign-up period.

Second, insurance companies need time to analyze their revenue and costs to set premiums for the following year. That process, Gaba said, typically begins in March.

Third, and most importantly, insurance companies initially lobbied for a limited open enrollment period to keep people from waiting until they are sick to buy insurance. That changed during the pandemic. Colorado and most other states that run their own exchanges held special enrollment periods in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID. When the Trump administration declined to do the same for the federal exchange, health insurance trade groups urged it to reconsider. The incoming Biden administration agreed and extended the enrollment period through August 2021 — and more than 2.8 million additional Americans signed up for coverage.

Conway said no evidence exists that consumers waited until they were sick to buy coverage last year. With so many consumers eligible for no-cost or low-cost plans because of more generous subsidies, there is little reason for them not to sign up immediately.

“As health policy folks, sometimes we get into our heads and we see monsters under the bed that simply are not there because of the complexity of the system,” Conway said.

Health plans in Colorado were largely supportive of the move. John Roble, president of Cigna’s Mountain States market, said the company is allowing early prescription refills and is working with local hospitals to transfer patients to help alleviate crowding at overwhelmed facilities.

Past special enrollment periods largely attracted a healthier population than standard open enrollment periods. Those with chronic health conditions, who face the potential of high medical bills, usually enroll early in the standard open enrollment period.

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