Health Highlights: July 16, 2020

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Record Number of Overdose Deaths in U.S. Last Year

The U.S. reached a grim record last year with nearly 71,000 drug overdose deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The preliminary numbers on death tolls show that fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids accounted for 36,500 overdose deaths, and that deaths involving cocaine and methamphetamine are also on the rise, the Associated Press reported.

The data show “a very disturbing trend,” Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir said.

“We understand that there is an extraordinary amount of work to do, especially now as we are also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that could markedly affect our nation’s mental health and risk of substance use,” Giroir said in a statement, the AP reported.


Younger Children Should Attend School When Possible: Expert Committee

Younger children and those with special needs should attend school in person whenever possible, because online learning is mostly ineffective for these children, according to a committee that advises the U.S. on science-related issues.

The report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine offers advice for school districts on whether and how to reopen as the coronavirus pandemic rages nationwide.

Committee member Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, said “it should be a priority for districts to reopen for in-person learning, especially for younger ages,” The New York Times reported.

School reopening precautions recommended by the committee include: hand-washing; physical distancing; minimizing group activities, including lunch and recess; having all teachers and staff wear surgical masks during school hours; having all students wear cloth face coverings; and regular symptom and temperature checks.

The committee also said that schools will have to upgrade ventilation and air-filtration systems in coming years, and that those improvements should be funded by federal and state governments, The Times reported.


U.S. Must Spend $75 Billion to Improve COVID-19 Testing, Report Says

The U.S. faces “an impending disaster” from the coronavirus pandemic and should spend $75 billion to improve its diagnostic testing system for COVID-19, a Rockefeller Foundation report says.

It warned that the “extraordinary scale of the Covid-19 crisis is evident in the growing deaths and economic losses the pandemic has wrought in every state,” and added that this “terrifying tragedy was not and is not inevitable,” STAT News reported.

The authors include several former Food and Drug Administration commissioners and leading experts on pandemic preparedness and diagnostic testing.

While U.S. laboratories are conducting 4.5 million COVID-19 tests a week, it takes seven days or longer for many patients to get their test results, making the findings almost useless.

“This is just unacceptable, because by the time you get test results back, you’ve already infected many, many people,” said report co-author Mara Aspinall, professor, College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University, STAT News reported.

Previously, the committee said the U.S. needed to conduct 3 million diagnostic tests a week this summer and increase that to 30 million tests a week by October, when flu season begins.

It now says the rate of testing must be boosted even faster by using multiple strategies, STAT News reported.


Coronavirus Vaccine Initiative May Favor Rich Countries

A global coronavirus vaccine initiative has been formed with the objective of ensuring fair distribution of vaccines worldwide, but it may benefit rich countries more than poor nations.

The vaccines alliance Gavi said Wednesday that 75 wealthy nations have said they’d join the initiative, along with 90 low-income countries that hope to receive donated vaccines, the Associated Press reported.

When it sought donor nations last month, Gavi told them that if it develops an effective COVID-19 vaccine, all member nations will receive enough to cover 20% of their populations, including rich countries that may have their own stockpiles of other vaccines.

Gavi said countries would be encouraged, but not required, to give up any doses they might not need.

That may mean that rich countries could stockpile coronavirus vaccines, while fewer doses would be available for low-income countries, the AP reported.


Childhood Vaccinations Decline During Coronavirus Pandemic

There’s been a decrease in childhood vaccinations during the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations says.

A May survey of 82 countries suggests that there’s less than a 20% chance that a child born today will have all recommended vaccines by the age of 5, the AP reported.

More than 30 measles campaigns around the world have been, or are at risk of being, halted, which is likely to worsen outbreaks of the highly contagious disease.

“The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunizations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the AP reported.