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Unvaccinated kids can stay in school after exposure if tested, CDC says; Pfizer trials suggest 2 doses not effective for kids under: Updates

With a potential surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, the Biden administration on Friday pressed its new strategy to reduce the time unvaccinated children miss in school after a virus exposure.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the "test to stay" strategy would increase testing of children and their close contacts after an exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in order to prevent the child from having to isolate at home and miss time in class.

The new guideline allows unvaccinated children to remain in school after an exposure under certain circumstances, including undergoing multiple tests. For children to remain in school, two negative tests within a week after the exposure are required.

CDC guidance does not require vaccinated people to isolate after a possible exposure.

Walensky said two studies in Los Angeles County and Lake County in Illinois showed promising results of the strategy working in conjunction with proper mask wearing and monitoring of symptoms and close contacts.

"These studies demonstrate that 'test to stay' works to keep unvaccinated children in school safely," Walensky said.

According to CDC data, about 12% of children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated and almost 53% of children ages 12-17 are, too. Walensky urged parents of eligible children to have them vaccinated. 

Also in the news:

► The NFL has moved three games to Monday and Tuesday because of high COVID cases. There are more than 20 Cleveland players on the COVID-19 list and there has been a "substantial increase in cases across the league," the NFL said in a statement.

► Pfizer and BioNTech on Thursday submitted paperwork to the Food and Drug Administration seeking a full license of its vaccine to expand its approval to include children ages 12 to 15.

►More than 100 Marines have been discharged for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, the Marine Corps said Thursday.

►Two South Florida men pleaded guilty in Ohio to leading a nationwide scheme to fraudulently obtain more than $35 million in COVID-19 relief loans.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 50.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 803,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 272 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 202 million Americans — 61% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we're reading: Flying into the United States? You could be met with a free COVID-19 testing kit upon arrival at certain airports.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's Coronavirus Watch free newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Federal court reinstates Biden vaccine-or-testing mandate for large firms

 A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a Biden administration rule requiring large companies to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or implement testing, though the ruling is unlikely to be the final word on the matter.

The Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit lifted another court’s order from November that blocked the mandate from taking effect. Businesses with 100 or more employees would be required under the rule to stand up vaccine or regular testing requirements by Jan. 4 or face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.

A 2-1 majority of the court found that OSHA was likely within its legal authority to implement the "emergency temporary standard" requiring vaccines or testing.

"Fundamentally, the ETS is an important step in curtailing the transmission of a deadly virus that has killed over 800,000 people in the United States, brought our healthcare system to its knees, forced businesses to shut down for months on end, and cost hundreds of thousands of workers their jobs," Judge Jane Stranch wrote for the court.

Stranch, nominated by President Barack Obama, and Judge Julia Gibbons, nominated by President George W. Bush, made up the majority. Judge Joan Larsen, nominated by President Donald Trump, dissented from the court's ruling. Read more here.

— John Fritze, USA TODAY

Ontario limits capacity at restaurants, retailers and venues at 50%

Canada's largest province announced Friday that it is cutting capacity at restaurants, bars, malls and retailers to 50% and limiting social gatherings inside restaurants to 10 people in an effort to slow the spread of the omicron variant.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said that other new pandemic restrictions will halt the sale of alcohol 10 p.m. and bar the sale of food and drink at sports events and movie theaters.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the coronavirus variant is unlike anything they have seen, saying Britain’s experience with surging infections is an urgent call for action. Ontario is Canada's most populous province, being home to about 40% of the country's people.

The new restrictions take effect Sunday and come after the provinces of Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba announced similar restrictions that will start next week.

In another blow to a league that relies heavily on ticket revenue, the new limits mean four of the five Canadian provinces with National Hockey League teams will be playing in arenas capped at 50% capacity fans. Only Alberta, home to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, had not announced a similar restriction. But in a separate issue, the Flames have already had their games on the schedule through Dec. 23 postponed

Over the past seven days, Canada has seen an average of 5,000 new coronavirus cases daily, 45% higher than the previous seven-day period.

Pfizer-BioNTech trials suggest 2 doses not effective for kids under 5

Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine trial in children ages 2-5 suggests the vaccine is safe but not effective enough to prevent infection with COVID-19, and the companies have decided to add a third dose to their trial. The move will push off the final results well into next year.

Pfizer’s head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, said that for children under 5, the company had settled on a dose of 3 micrograms — down from 10 micrograms in older children and 30 micrograms in adults. This dose was chosen, she said, because it reduced side effects, particularly fever, in small children.

But interim results in the research trial suggest two doses, given 21 days apart, do not generate enough protective antibodies believed necessary to prevent COVID-19 infection. Young children may need three shots at this dose to receive full protection, she said, with the third dose coming at least two months after the second.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech expect to file for emergency use of their vaccine in children under 5 in the second quarter of 2022, Jansen said. The companies are also evaluating a third vaccine dose in children ages 5 through 15, who are now authorized to receive only two doses.

— Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

Southwest CEO tests positive for COVID

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly has tested positive for COVID-19 after a high-profile Senate commerce committee hearing in Washington, D.C.

Kelly, who recently announced plans to retire in early 2022, tested positive after experiencing mild symptoms, Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said. She said he tested negative "multiple'' times before the Wednesday hearing. He is fully vaccinated and received the booster earlier this year, she said.

"Gary is doing well and currently resting at home,'' King said via email, adding that Kelly received his positive test result on Thursday.

Kelly drew some criticism at the meeting for his comments about the effectiveness of mask wearing on planes. Masks are mandated on planes and in airports, and the federal policy was recently extended into March.

"I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment," Kelly said during the hearing. "It is very safe and high-quality compared to any other indoor setting." 

– Dawn Gilbertson and Bailey Schulz

Omicron expected to 'become the dominant strain' in US

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday she expects the emerging omicron variant to become the dominant strain in the United States, similar to other countries.

"We are in the midst of a situation where we are now facing a very important delta surge and we are looking over our shoulder at an oncoming omicron surge," added Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser.

However, Walensky and Fauci, reassured those worried about upcoming holiday travel that vaccination plus boosters provide "optimum protection."

"We're in a very different place this year than we were last year and we really do want people to be able to gather and gather safely. We have the tools now to do it," Walensky said.

Biden asks SCOTUS to reinstate vaccine mandate for health workers

President Joe Biden's administration filed an emergency application in the Supreme Court on Thursday in an attempt to reinstate a vaccine mandate for health care workers at hospitals that receive federal money. 

The revived mandate would "save hundreds or even thousands of lives each month," the application reads, adding: "The vaccine requirement falls squarely within the plain text of the Secretary’s [of Health and Human Services] statutory authority and complies with all procedural requirements."

Federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana blocked the mandate in 24 states in November, and the Louisiana ruling was upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans on Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp in the Eastern District of Missouri wrote in his ruling that regulations handed down by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid were issued improperly. The agency did not get approval from Congress to mandate vaccinations for health care workers, Schelp wrote, which he argued was necessary given the mandate's "vast economic and political significance."

Full vaccination against COVID-19 and a breakthrough infection builds 'super immunity,' study finds

A study by Oregon researchers finds that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 who have a breakthrough infection end up with what the authors call "super immunity."

They caution that vaccinated people should not seek COVID-19 infection, but the "hybrid immunity" offers some solace for those who catch the virus despite having been vaccinated. 

"The bottom line of the study is that vaccine provides you with foundational immunity for whatever comes next," said Fikadu Tafesse, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Read more here.

— Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

CDC recommends Pfizer, Moderna COVID-19 shots over Johnson & Johnson

A CDC panel voted Thursday to recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines be preferred for adults over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to a small number of very rare but dangerous blood clots.

Out of approximately 17 million people in the United States who have gotten the J&J vaccine, there have been nine deaths from the condition called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices said Thursday.

The CDC acted hours later, accepting the panel's recommendation.

The cases of TTS have been reported in a wide range of individuals 18 years and older. The highest reporting rate was among women ages 30 to 49, where it was one case per 100,000 doses administered. Overall, 15% of TTS cases have been fatal, the Food and Drug Administration said.

While the 15% fatality rate for TTS sounds “scary,” “these are small numbers, it’s a rare event,” said Dr. Wilbur Chen, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a committee member.

Getting the J&J vaccine was still much safer than any risk of the rare side effect because getting COVID-19 is much more likely to cause severe disease or death, ACIP members said. Read more here.

— Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

Free at-home COVID-19 test kits available at select US airports

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week began distributing free at-home test kits at Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport, Miami International Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, as first reported by Thrifty Traveler.

“This initiative will quickly increase access to post-arrival COVID-19 testing for international travelers arriving in the United States,” CDC spokesperson Caitlin Shockey said in an emailed statement. "It is critical that travelers get tested 3-5 days after travel to help identify imported cases of COVID-19 and stop the spread of the virus."

The CDC did not say how many kits were available through this program, but plans to hand out "as many of these free test kits as possible.” 

Free test kits are set to roll out to additional airports “soon.” 

— Bailey Schulz, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press