Health Highlights: March 18, 2021

Xavier Becerra Confirmed as HHS Secretary

Xavier Becerra was confirmed as secretary of health and human services by the U.S. Senate on Thursday.

The vote was 50 to 49, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to support his confirmation, The New York Times reported.

Becerra is a son of Mexican immigrants who became a member of Congress and California's attorney general.

He'll become the first Latino to oversee the HHS, and takes charge as the Biden administration leads the nation out of the coronavirus pandemic, which has already caused more than half a million deaths and has hit people of color particularly hard, the Times reported.

AstraZeneca Vaccine Safe and Effective, European Medicines Agency Says

The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, the European Union's drug regulator said Thursday.

Officials hope the announcement from the European Medicines Agency will ease concerns about possible rare side effects involving blood clots that have prompted more than a dozen countries -- mostly in Europe -- to temporarily suspend use of the vaccine, The New York Times reported.

No causative link between the vaccine and blood clots or severe bleeding has been shown, and most of the countries that halted use of the vaccine said they would start using it again once the agency gave the green light.

However, the pause in the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine could have significant consequences in Europe, where many countries have rising rates of infections. While the vaccine accounts for less than 20% of the hundreds of millions of doses ordered by the European Union, it was a vital part of early vaccination rollout plans, the Times reported.

The vaccine, sold without the goal of earning a profit, is a keystone of the World Health Organization's efforts to protect poor and middle-income countries.

"In extensive vaccination campaigns, it is routine for countries to signal potential adverse events following immunization," the WHO said Wednesday. "This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to vaccination itself, but it is good practice to investigate them. It also shows that the surveillance system works and that effective controls are in place."

Florida Baby First in U.S. Born With COVID-19 Antibodies

A Florida baby is believed to be the first in the United States to be born with COVID-19 antibodies after its mother was vaccinated, doctors report.

The mother, a frontline health care worker in South Florida, received her first shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine when she was 36 weeks pregnant and gave birth three weeks later to a healthy baby girl, CBS News reported.

Doctors analyzed blood taken from the baby's umbilical cord immediately after birth and before placenta delivery and found that the infant had COVID-19 antibodies.

"We have demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 IgG antibodies are detectable in a newborn's cord blood sample after only a single dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine," Dr. Paul Giblert and Dr. Chad Rudnick wrote in a preprint study that hasn't been peer-reviewed. "Thus, there is potential for protection and infection risk reduction from SARS-CoV-2 with maternal vaccination."

The doctors noted that further research is needed to confirm the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy, CBS News reported.

One expert said the finding is promising.

"It really starts aligning the COVID vaccine with those vaccines that we already use in pregnant women like the flu vaccine," Dr. Neeta Ogden, an internal medicine specialist and immunologist, told CBS News on Wednesday. "We really need, and it is clear that we need, significant data on how safe it is in pregnant women."

These early results may help give pregnant women more reason to get the vaccine, she added.

"This also is hopeful because it offers a level of protection to one of the most vulnerable populations, the newborn," Ogden said.

School Distancing Guidance May be Changed

Guidance encouraging U.S. schools to keep students and staff six feet apart is being revisited, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky said there's now new evidence that three feet of distance may be adequate, the Washington Post reported.

"As soon as our guidance came out, it became very clear that six feet was among the things that was keeping schools closed," Walensky told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "And in that context, science evolves."

Last month, the CDC issued guidelines for reopening schools, saying in-person schooling can be safe with measures including mandatory masks and distancing.

But when six feet of distance between people is required, it is difficult to reopen with all students present at the same time. Ironically, the CDC was encouraging schools to remain partially shut at the same time Biden was encouraging them to fully open, the Post reported.

The CDC guidance offered flexibility when infection rates in the community are low, saying six feet of distance should be maintained "to the greatest extent possible." But some school officials say they are not sure what that means.

The recommendation pushed some districts to pull back on plans to fully reopen, and some experts criticized the rules as being too strict, the Post said.

But President Biden has made reopening schools a top priority, saying he wants most K-8 schools open five days a week by the end of April, the Post reported.

On Wednesday, the Education Department said it also would distribute $122 billion to public K-12 schools by the end of April to help them reopen. The Department of Health and Human Services said $10 billion would be distributed for school-based COVID-19 testing by early April.

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