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A growing percentage of Americans dying from covid-19 are vaccinated

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Good morning, TGIF. I’m sorry to break it to you, but our preconceived notions about dogs’ personalities may be wrong. 

Today’s edition: The FDA proposed barring menthol in cigarettes and flavored cigars, but the ban could easily be two years away. An abortion ban modeled after Texas’s unique enforcement structure could be in effect soon in Oklahoma. But first …

New data underscores that age – even with vaccination – is a massive risk factor for covid death

A growing share of the pandemic’s victims are vaccinated, as covid-19 deaths grow among the oldest Americans.

While many worried the pandemic’s toll would shift toward younger people, the opposite actually occurred as the delta variant subsided and omicron surged.

There was a rise in deaths concentrated among the elderly, who have consistently been among the groups most vulnerable to the virus throughout the pandemic. While the vast majority of seniors are vaccinated, the shots’ potency wanes over time — particularly in older age groups.

That’s according to a story out this morning from our colleagues Fenit Nirappil and Dan Keating. The pair crunched nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and here’s what they found: 

  • Vaccinated people made up 42 percent of fatalities when the omicron variant was surging in January and February.
  • That’s compared with September, when vaccinated people comprised just 23 percent of deaths during delta’s peak.
  • The bulk of vaccinated deaths were concentrated in people who hadn’t gotten boosted.

It’s still true that unvaccinated people are at a much higher risk of dying from an infection. But the new data underscores the risks vulnerable Americans face when infections are at a high level in a community and the significant protection booster shots offer.

Experts said they’re not particularly surprised that vaccinated seniors are comprising a greater share of fatalities. As Fenit and Dan explain, the more people infected with the virus, the more people it will kill. And that includes a higher number of those who are vaccinated but are also among the most vulnerable based on age or health conditions.

Overall, deaths among seniors have increased in recent months. Nearly two-thirds of the people who died during the omicron wave were 75 and older, compared with one-third during the delta surge.

But it’s still much riskier to be unvaccinated. Let’s take a look at deaths during January and February, when the contagious omicron variant was surging across the country after the holidays. 

  • During that time, unvaccinated people died at about seven times the rate of those who were fully vaccinated.
  • People with booster shots were better protected. The unvaccinated died at 20 times the rate of those who received a booster shot, according to a study of deaths among the immunized from 23 state and county health departments.

The majority of vaccinated deaths were among people who didn’t get a booster shot, per state data provided to The Post. In two states — California and Mississippi — 75 percent of seniors who died in January and February weren’t boosted. Federal regulators recently greenlit second boosters for people 50 and older, but doctors say they’re still struggling to get people their first booster. 

The rising number of vaccinated people dying shouldn’t be a cause for alarm, experts say. Though the shots aren’t foolproof, the vast majority of people survive infections.

“It’s still absolutely more dangerous to be unvaccinated than vaccinated,” Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies covid-19 mortality, told Fenit and Dan. “A pandemic of — and by — the unvaccinated is not correct. People still need to take care in terms of prevention and action if they became symptomatic.”

For more, read Fenit and Dan’s piece here. (And scroll to the end of their story to dive into the methodology behind analysis)

FDA proposes ban on menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars

The Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars that — if finalized — would be the agency’s most aggressive action to regulate tobacco products to date, The Post’s Laurie McGinley reports. 

But the effective date for the long-awaited ban could easily be at least two years away. Court challenges are expected and could turn the prohibition into a protracted legal battle. The ban will not affect menthol-flavored e-cigarettes, which the agency is still reviewing.

Up next: The FDA is accepting public comments on the proposal between May 4 and July 5, and will hold two “listening sessions” in June. 

The proposal also tackles an equity issue that some advocates have urged the agency to address for nearly a decade. Many health and civil rights groups argue that the tobacco industry has a history of marketing menthol cigarettes to Black communities and causing severe harm, including higher rates of smoking-related illness and death.

But some prominent Black leaders and groups warn that a ban could single out Black smokers and puts them at risk of more confrontations with the police. The proposal would not bar individuals from possessing or using the products, but rather enforcement would focus on manufacturers, distributors and retailers, according to the FDA.

Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner:

Meanwhile … the Biden administration finalizes new rules of the road for Obamacare.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalized proposals aimed at making it easier for consumers to shop for care. The annual rule governing the health insurance marketplaces will require health insurers to offer standardized plan options — an effort to better help consumers compare other aspects of a plans’ offerings. 

The regulation is also mandating new reviews to ensure plans have adequate provider networks, and that a patient can reach a provider within a certain required time and distance. Read the fact sheet here.

Okla. legislature greenlights more abortion restrictions

Oklahoma’s GOP-led House gave final approval yesterday to a Texas-style abortion ban that prohibits the procedure after fetal cardiac activity is detected, our colleague Caroline Kitchener reports. 

The bill, which is already facing legal challenges, now heads to Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who has pledged to make Oklahoma “the most pro-life state in the country.” 

It’s the second abortion restriction to cross Stitt’s desk this month. The first made performing an abortion in the state a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and is set to go into effect this summer. 

  • But abortion rights activists said the newly passed bill is a far more immediate threat to abortion access. Not only would it go into effect immediately, the latest restriction will also be harder to challenge in court because it employs Texas’s novel legal strategy that empowers private citizens to enforce the law.

The effects of the law would be far reaching. Since Texas enacted a similar ban last fall, Oklahoma has absorbed nearly half of its patients crossing over state lines to have the procedure. Providers are already planning to send patients to Kansas, New Mexico or Colorado for the procedure.

Meanwhile … The Oklahoma Senate voted for a bill Thursday that would ban abortions in the state at all stages of pregnancy. It will now return to the House, where it is widely expected to pass, before heading to the governor.

What was Birx’s line in the sand?

Deborah Birx, former president Donald Trump’s coronavirus coordinator, said she would have quit her role if Trump had prevented her from communicating with governors about “what precisely they needed to be doing to control this pandemic state-by-state,” during a Washington Post Live event Thursday with our colleague Yasmeen Abutaleb. 

Here are more top takeaways: 

  • Birx said she wrote daily reports on the status of the virus across the country. But Birx said there was “direct blocking” within the administration preventing her from releasing the data analyses to the public once the White House’s near daily pandemic briefings ended. The data analyses were later quietly put online.
  • There was a “level of seriousness” in the Trump White House for the first few weeks following the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, but Birx said “we lost the president’s communication and focus on this by the beginning of April.”

A spokesperson for Trump didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Trump officials muzzled CDC on church covid guidance, emails show

New this a.m.: Officials in Trump’s White House overrode the public health agency’s advice urging churches consider virtual religious services in May 2020, delivering a message change sought by the president’s supporters, our colleague Dan Diamond writes. 

The CDC sent its planned guidance to the White House on May 21, 2020. But Trump officials wrote that they were frustrated by “problematic” advice the agency had already posted, such as recommendations for considering virtual or drive-in services, according to emails released today by the House committee probing the coronavirus response.

The result? A White House lawyer rewrote the CDC guidance to remove “all the tele-church suggestions,” according to an email obtained by the panel. The emails offer new details about the White House’s efforts to deliver a priority for faith communities who had been key supporters of Trump. 

Also released: Part of an interview with Robert Redfield, the former CDC director, who told the panel that the Trump administration refused to approve his agency’s requests to do briefings on the pandemic for six months. This was largely after Nancy Messonnier, who was then a senior CDC official, had warned that it was inevitable the virus would spread in the United States.

  • CDC officials announced the first human case in the United States of an H5 bird flu. The patient, who reported fatigue as their only symptom and has since recovered, was in close contact with poultry infected with the virus.
  • Plaintiffs claiming discrimination under the Affordable Care Act or the Rehabilitation Act cannot receive damages for emotional distress, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday, siding with a physical therapy provider against deaf and legally blind woman who said she was denied an American Sign Language interpreter, our colleague Robert Barnes reports.
  • Medicare Advantage plans, an increasingly popular coverage option among seniors, have “widespread and persistent problems” denying payments and services to patients, even when they should be covered, according to a new report from the inspector general’s office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Thanks for reading! See y’all Monday.