Dr. Oz joins crowded race for Pennsylvania Senate seat

It is shaping up to be one of the nation’s most watched midterm races.

Following weeks of speculation, Dr. Mehmet Oz officially declared his candidacy for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat on Tuesday.

In a Washington Examiner opinion column announcing the run, Oz highlighted his medical experience as the undercurrent for his campaign launch while also indicating a policy focus on the ongoing, national pandemic response.

“We have not managed our crises as effectively as past generations. During the pandemic, I learned that when you mix politics and medicine, you get politics instead of solutions. That’s why I am running for the U.S. Senate: to help fix the problems and to help us heal,” Oz said.

Although the column did not directly state Oz’s political affiliation, in a video posted to Twitter the same day, Oz said he is running as a conservative. A campaign website that briefly went live on Tuesday afternoon also outlined an affiliation with WinRed, a Republican fundraising platform.

Oz joins a crowded Republican primary in what is shaping up to be one of the nation’s most watched midterm races. As a pivotal 2020 campaign battleground that tipped the scales for President Joe Biden, Pennsylvania’s Senate race is now slated to help determine which party controls the Senate in 2022.

The current field of leading Democratic candidates includes Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, state representative Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, who is also a physician.

Oz’s splashy entrance to the Republican primary comes on the heels of a major shakeup that left the party without a likely frontrunner heading into a critical period of the election cycle. Last week, Sean Parnell — who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump — dropped out of the race after losing a contentious custody battle that raised allegations of domestic abuse.

Although Oz has his own ties to Trump given his 2018 appointment to the former president’s Council on Sports, so far, Trump has yet to announce whether he will endorse another candidate ahead of the primary.

The lack of a Trump-backed candidate opens the Republican field up for another hopeful to make his or her pitch to the party’s base supporters, but it remains to be seen how Oz’s name recognition sways voters. The combination of his celebrity status and focus on the pandemic is already opening the door to criticism linked to comments he made in 2020 about the risks associated with reopening schools amid the pandemic.

“We need our mojo back. Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble. I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity,” Oz said at the time during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Oz went on to reference a medical journal article “arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality. You know, that’s — any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into a school where they’re safely being educated, being fed, and making the most out of their lives, with the theoretical risk on the backside, it might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”

The comments were met with public backlash that accused Oz of using his fame to air misinformation. Oz later issued a video apology, saying he “realized (his) comments on risks around opening schools have confused and upset people, which was never (his) intention.”

“I misspoke,” he said.

Across the aisle, Democrats are seizing on Oz’s candidacy as an example of political messiness that could cost Republicans the race.

“Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary continues to descend into chaos. Mehmet Oz’s campaign announcement is the latest example of how this Senate race is a nightmare scenario for Republicans. It’s clear this GOP Senate primary will get nastier, more expensive — and whichever Republican candidate ultimately limps out of this intra-party fight will be deeply out of step with the Pennsylvania voters who will decide the general election,” Jack Doyle, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party said in a statement.

Owlet stops selling baby-monitoring smart socks after FDA warning

The socks are intended to measure a baby’s vital signs while they sleep.

A line of baby-monitoring socks, marketed to measure a baby’s vital signs while they sleep, has been discontinued after a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration.

Owlet, the maker of Smart Sock, has pulled its product from its website after the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter last month stating that the socks are medical devices that Owlet has sold without the FDA’s “marketing approval, clearance, or authorization,” according to the letter.

Owlet said in a statement on its website it plans to “pursue marketing authorization from the FDA for these features.”

The company said it also plans to “work toward the submission of a device application to FDA” to make the Smart Sock a medical device.

“As a result of the letter and in light of our plans to submit a device application to the FDA, we will no longer be selling the Smart Sock,” the company said in the statement. “We plan to offer a new sleep monitoring solution, which we believe will be available soon. We also plan to continue to support our current customers.”

Owlet also specifies on its website that the FDA’s warning letter is not a recall of the product and that no safety issues have been identified.

“There has not been any change to your product’s functionality or a request from the FDA to exchange or return your product at this time,” the statement said. “We will notify customers of any updates to the Smart Sock products that have already been distributed. This action is specific to the U.S. only and no other countries or regions are affected by this.”

The company said it has sold over 1 million Smart Socks, which fit on an infant’s foot.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises against relying on home monitors and other devices that may be marketed to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.

“Do not rely on home heart or breathing monitors to reduce the risk of SIDS,” the AAP states on its website. “If you have questions about using these monitors for other health conditions, talk with your pediatrician.”

Here are five safe sleep practices for infants recommended by the AAP.

1. Place babies to sleep on their backs, on a firm surface.

2. Avoid use of soft bedding, pillows, crib bumpers or stuffed animals.

3. Co-sleeping is not recommended, but parents should co-share a bedroom with their infant preferably until the baby turns 1, but at least for the first six months. The APA says that room sharing decreases the risk of SIDS “by as much as 50 percent.”

4. Do not place a baby to sleep on a couch , sofa or armchair or on nursing pillows or pillow-like lounging pads.

5. Give your baby a pacifier at nap time and bedtime.

New York City allows the nations 1st supervised consumption sites for illegal drugs

A drug user prepares to inject himself with heroin inside VANDU’s supervised injection room in Vancouver, Canada. Similar sites to the ones implemented in New York have proven successful in Canada.

Rafal Gerszak for NPR

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Rafal Gerszak for NPR

A drug user prepares to inject himself with heroin inside VANDU’s supervised injection room in Vancouver, Canada. Similar sites to the ones implemented in New York have proven successful in Canada.

Rafal Gerszak for NPR

Officials in New York City say the first government-approved supervised drug injection sites in the nation began offering services to people with addiction on Tuesday.

The program, backed by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, is part of the city’s “harm reduction” strategy designed to reduce an unprecedented surge of overdose deaths.

“After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city,” DeBlasio said in a statement on Nov. 30. “Overdose prevention centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis.”

Dr. Dave Chokshi, NYC health commissioner, told NPR on Tuesday that arrangements have been made with the NYPD and other law enforcement so that people with addiction can use the sites without fear of arrest.

“We are confident these are spaces that will be allowed to operate for what they are,” Chokshi said. “They’re clinical, safe, hygienic spaces where people can go to access care and seek treatment.”

According to city officials, more than 2,000 people in New York City died from fatal overdoses in 2020. The safe drug consumption sites will be operated at sites that also offer clean needles and other services.

A feasibility study conducted by the NYC Health Department found the program could save “up to 130 lives a year.”

The centers located in the Manhattan will be operated by a new nonprofit group called OnPoint NYC formed by two organizations focused on harm reduction.

“Being the 1st OPC site in the US is an honor & incredible step forward in ending the opioid crisis,” the group said in a tweet Tuesday morning.

People with substance use disorder will be able to inject heroin and other illicit drugs under the care of medical professionals. They will also be offered access to addiction treatment and other healthcare.

Similar sites in Australia and Canada have proven successful at preventing overdoses, reducing drug use in public places, and promoting safer injection practices that reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

Supervised injection sites have been proposed in cities including Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. But drug war-era policies and legal challenges have long delayed creation of safe drug consumption programs in the U.S.

Officials in New York City told NPR they are unaware of any legal challenges filed to block this program.

Following New York City’s announcement Tuesday, the Baltimore city public health department praised the decision in a tweet: “We’re proud of you, New York.”

Kassandra Frederique, who heads an advocacy group called the Drug Policy Alliance, said she hopes other cities across the U.S. will follow New York City’s lead.

“I think that’s going to give folks courage,” Frederique told NPR. “I think there are a lot of phone calls happening right now with folks figuring out, OK, like can we do this as well?”

In January, a panel of federal judges blocked creation of a supervised injection site proposed in Philadelphia. “[T]he opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions…[but] local innovations may not break federal law,” judges with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded.

In the months since that ruling, drug overdose deaths have continued to surge nationwide, with more than 100,000 Americans in a single 12-month period for the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month the Biden administration declined to endorse safe drug use sites as a strategy for reducing fatal overdoses.

During a press conference earlier in month, Dr. Rahul Gupta head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said the matter would be decided by the courts.

“We cannot address this specifically around overdose prevention sites primarily because of ongoing litigation,” he said.

On Tuesday a spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment on New York City’s overdose prevention program.

It’s unclear whether New York City’s safe injection program will face opposition and legal challenges. De Blasio has acknowledged the possibility of a federal crackdown.

In April, he and other mayors sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to issue a statement on behalf of the DoJ saying the enforcement of federal law against supervised injection facilities would not be a priority.

Although he never received that assurance, de Blasio said last month he was optimistic the centers would be allowed to keep their doors open.

“We have a new administration in Washington, a new administration in Albany,” de Blasio said on Oct. 26. “It was the right time to do something on this topic while we could finally have the kind of potential cooperation we need.”

Since announcing his support for the project in 2018, the de Blasio administration has also been working with the NYPD and district attorneys to ensure the sites can operate without the interference of local municipal law enforcement.

Spokespeople for the Manhattan and Brooklyn DA’s confirmed to WNYC/Gothamist their support for overdose prevention centers. WNYC/Gothamist did not get a response from Bronx DA Darcel Clark, who has previously spoken out against the facilities.

“Government should not be involved in taking on that type of liability,” Clark said in 2019. The NYPD did also not respond to a request for comment.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul also continues to hedge on the issue.

“Gov. Hochul is deeply and personally committed to combating the opioid epidemic, and all options are on the table to save lives,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office told WNYC/Gothamist.

Mayor-elect Eric Adams, who takes office in January, has made it clear he supports overdose prevention centers.

Caroline Lewis of WNYC/Gothamist contributed to this report.

NASA delays International Space Station spacewalk over debris risk

The source of the space debris has not yet been confirmed.

A spacewalk by two U.S. astronauts was called off on Tuesday morning due to the risk of space debris, NASA announced in a statement.

NASA astronauts Kayla Barron and Thomas Marshburn were scheduled to leave through the International Space Station’s Quest airlock at 5:30 a.m. EST to replace a part on the space station, according to a NASA blogpost.

“Marshburn and Barron will work at the Port 1 truss structure, where the antenna is mounted. The antenna recently lost its ability to send signals to Earth via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System,” NASA said in the blog.

However, four hours before the scheduled spacewalk, the ISS tweeted that the repair would be delayed until more information was available.

The source of the debris hasn’t been confirmed. Two weeks ago Russia had conducted an anti-satellite test that created a “dangerous” debris field in the orbit.

The spacewalk was scheduled to last 6 1/2 hours and be Barron’s first and Marshburn’s fifth spacewalk, NASA said.

De Blasio opening first legal shooting galleries for drug users in the US

With just four weeks left in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio is opening the country’s first supervised shooting galleries in Upper Manhattan — amid a spike in overdose deaths and disturbing scenes of junkies shooting up on public sidewalks.

“Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible,” de Blasio said in a statement Tuesday.

The nonprofit-run centers, in East Harlem and Washington Heights, are expected to open as early as Tuesday.

The locations were chosen based on “health need and depth of program experience,” according to the Health Department. The sites will provide clean needles and social services, but users must bring their own drugs.

Last year, over 2,000 New Yorkers died of drug overdoses, the highest since the city started tracking the figures in 2000. The most common drug involved in the fatalities is opioids. Between January and March this year, another 596 people lost their lives due to addiction. A city Health Department study found that the sites could save up to 130 people a year.

A kit of supplies containing syringes, adhesive bandages and antiseptic pads waits to be used by a drug addict inside a safe injection site known as Insite on Vancouver, British Columbia's eastside
A kit of supplies is seen inside a safe injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has been at the forefront of the centers in North America.

The mayor tried to push the controversial proposal to open a total of four sites before, but was blocked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump, who both opposed the plan.

City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) was skeptical about the program’s effectiveness.

“British Columbia has led North America in safe injection sites, all while crossing overdose death milestones every month. How anyone can see this as a solution to a serious problem is beyond me, never mind the concerns of the neighbors,” Borelli told The Post Tuesday.

In this June 26, 2017 photo, booths line the Cactus "safe injection site," where drug addicts can shoot up using clean needles, get medical supervision and freedom from arrest, in Montreal. More than a dozen other potential sites are being considered across Canada federal officials say.
Booths inside a “safe injection site” in Montreal.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s past proposals for safe injection sites were blocked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump.
Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), whose district includes Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn, called on the Department of Justice to block the sites, noting that under former President Trump the DOJ said such sites would violate the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Malliotakis wrote U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland Tuesday urging him to “take swift action to enforce federal law.”

The congresswoman cited a Jan. 2021 Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that determined it was a federal crime for a supervised injection site run by a Philadelphia nonprofit to allow consumption of illegal drug use at its location.

People hang out in a plaza on East 149th street and Bergen Avenue in the South Bronx
Between January and March this year, another 596 people lost their lives due to addiction.
Stephen Yang
drug use NYC
A city Health Department study found that the supervised injection sites could save up to 130 people a year.
Stephen Yang

“Instead of focusing on the root cause of the drug epidemic, Mayor de Blasio is enabling drug cartels that continue to break our laws, smuggle illegal drugs over our border, and prey on our children,” Malliotakis said.

“Crime and fentanyl use are at record highs because of open borders, botched bail reform, and anti-police policies that keep releasing criminal drug dealers back onto our streets. Opening taxpayer-funded heroin shooting galleries is not a proper solution. These centers not only encourage drug use but they will further deteriorate our quality of life,” she said.

De Blasio has largely turned a blind eye to daytime drug sprees in major city hubs like the Garment District and the Triangle Plaza Hub in the Bronx.

Homicide ruled in Nevada students death after fraternitys fight night

Attorney for student’s family said safety precautions were overlooked.

Homicide has been ruled in the death of a University of Nevada, Las Vegas student who collapsed after participating in a charity amateur “fight night” organized by his fraternity, authorities said.

The death of 20-year-old Nathan Valencia was determined through an autopsy to be a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head, but a spokesperson for the agency told ABC affiliate station KTNV that simply means he died at the hands of another and not necessarily as a result of a criminal act.

Valencia’s distraught relatives have hired a lawyer to get to the bottom of how UNLV’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was permitted to host the off-campus amateur boxing match they claim was sanctioned by the university and is held annually.

“We will leave no stone unturned to determine how a 20-year-old ended up in a school-sanctioned amateur fight that cost him his life,” Valencia’s family said in a statement.

Valencia, a junior studying kinesiology, participated in the “Kappa Sigma Fight Night” held on Nov. 19 at the Sahara Events Center in Las Vegas.

A cellphone video of Valencia’s boxing match obtained by KTNV appeared to show him and an opponent wearing protective headgear and boxing gloves as Valencia took several punches to the face and head during the three-round bout in front of what appeared to be a large and boisterous crowd.

Minutes after the fight, Valencia collapsed and was taken to a hospital where he died four days later, his family said.

Nick Lasso, an attorney for the Valencia family, told KTNV that medical help for the student was not immediately available at the event. He also said the referee of the fight was not a professional.

“Our preliminary investigation reveals mistakes were made and safety precautions overlooked,” the family’s statement reads. “We will be completing a full investigation to determine how UNLV and the Kappa Sigma Fraternity could allow and promote an event like this to take place.”

The family added: “College students should not be placed in a situation where they are pitted against each other for combat.”

Lasso said it appears that the match between Valencia and his opponent was billed as the main event despite Valencia having no previous experience as an amateur boxer.

UNLV president Keith E. Whitfield released a statement on Valencia’s death, saying, “We are shocked and heartbroken as we mourn the loss of one of our own.”

“UNLV is committing all available resources to review the incident and determine how off-campus events like these can be as safe as possible,” Whitfield’s statement reads.

Mitchell B. Wilson, the executive director of Kappa Sigma, told the New York Times the fraternity was “greatly saddened by the loss of Nathan Valencia” but declined to respond to further questions on the student’s death.

A spokesperson for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said the agency investigated the licensing of the boxing charity event and has uncovered “no information that there is any criminality on the part of the venue.”

The Nevada State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing in the state, announced it has launched an investigation of the Kappa Sigma charity event.

“The NSAC takes this tragedy seriously, and our hearts go out to Mr. Valencia’s family and loved ones,” Stephen J. Cloobeck, chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said in a statement.

Valencia’s girlfriend, Lacey Foster, told KTNV that she attended the event and got a “really weird feeling” as soon as she entered the venue.

“I remember in one of the fights, someone’s headgear fell off,” Foster said. “During Nathan’s fight, you could see that he was just trying to get away to catch a breath.”

Hurricane season ends with 21 named storms, using all the names for a second consecutive year

Tuesday marked the end of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season.

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season ended on Tuesday after 21 named storms, continuing a record-breaking pattern from 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This year’s storms used each of the names from the tropical cyclone list, marking the first time in recorded history the list has been exhausted two years in a row, NOAA said. Storms are named when wind speeds hit 39 mph.

This was also the seventh year in a row that a named storm formed before the official start of the season on June 1, NOAA said.

Before the season began, NOAA predicted a 60% chance that the season would be busier than usual, but said it would not surpass 2020’s historic level of activity. Seven of the named storms in 2021 were classified as hurricanes.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season had 30 named storms, the most in recorded history, with two more than in 2005, which included Hurricane Katrina. Six of 2020’s storms were designated as hurricanes.

The effects of climate change already may be evident in the behavior of recent hurricane seasons.

The increase in activity in the past two years can be attributed to higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds and an enhanced west African monsoon, NOAA scientists said.

Although most of the storms stayed out in the open ocean, 2021 proved to be more costly than 2020.

Total losses due to property and infrastructure damage this year have totalled about $105 billion — eclipsing $100.2 billion in 2020, according to NOAA.

Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana in late August and tracked northeast to New York City before exiting into the Atlantic Ocean, was responsible for about $60 billion in damage alone, according to NOAA.

El Chapos wife sentenced to 3 years in prison

The Justice Department initially asked for four years in prison.

The wife of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison for conspiring to distribute cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana for import into the U.S; money-laundering and helping run the Mexican drug cartel in which her husband was the boss.

Emma Coronel Aispuro will also serve 48 months of supervised released.

The Justice Department initially asked for four years in prison.

In June, she pleaded guilty, and voluntarily forfeited $1.5 million to the government.

She was arrested in February 2021 at Dulles International Airport, just outside the nation’s capital.

She was also accused of conspiring with others to assist El Chapo in his July 2015 escape from Altiplano prison and prosecutors said she also planned with others to arrange another prison escape for the drug kingpin before his extradition to the U.S. in January 2017.

“The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager” a Justice Department prosecutor told the judge during sentencing on Tuesday, calling her the “cog” in a very large criminal machine.

Aispuro, through an interpreter begged for forgiveness, vowing she will teach her daughters right from wrong.

“I beg you to not allow them to grow up without the presence of a mother,” she said.

Guzman was found guilty in February 2019 of running an industrial-sized drug trafficking operation, the Sinaloa cartel, one of the world’s largest, most profitable and most ruthless drug smuggling organizations.

He was sentenced to life in prison, and has since tried to appeal the conviction.

Roe v. Wade on the line as Supreme Court takes up Mississippi abortion rights case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider a case that could fundamentally transform abortion rights in America by overturning Roe v. Wade and clearing the way for stringent new restrictions on abortion in roughly half the country.

“This is the most important Supreme Court case on abortion since Roe in 1973, and I don’t think it’s particularly close,” said Sherif Girgis, Notre Dame law professor and former clerk to Justice Samuel Alito.

The justices will hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health over a Mississippi law that prohibits termination of pregnancies after 15 weeks. Lower courts have found the ban plainly unconstitutional under the half century of legal precedent since Roe and put it on hold.

Fetal viability outside the womb — around 24 to 26 weeks, according to medical experts — has been the long-standing line before which states cannot ban abortions. Mississippi is asking the justices to eliminate that standard and allow each state to set its own policy.

“Roe v. Wade has hindered a healthy political dialogue about abortion, and perhaps most importantly, about how we as a society care for the dignity of women and children,” said Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who is leading defense of the state law.

The case will be heard by a court whose conservative majority of justices is widely viewed as more sympathetic to opponents of abortion rights than any in a generation. The three most recently appointed justices were all elevated to the high court by former President Donald Trump with the express purpose of overturning Roe.

​​”The new crop of quite conservative justices on the court seems to put special stock in how wrong a previous opinion was, and they all think that Roe was very, very wrong,” said Cardozo Law professor and ABC News legal analyst Kate Shaw. “I think that will be an important factor in their decision whether to revisit it.”

The fact that the court decided to take up the case — without a clear conflict among lower courts or ambiguity in legal precedent — suggests to many legal scholars that a decision favoring Mississippi is highly likely.

“The court has long surprised us,” said Shaw, “but it seems to me a vanishingly slim chance that the court will strike down the Mississippi law.”

A decision upholding the state’s 15-week abortion ban would implicitly reverse nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and open the door to state restrictions much earlier in pregnancy.

“You cannot uphold Mississippi’s 15-week ban on abortion and continue the precedent of Roe v. Wade. They’re not compatible,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is leading the legal battle against the law. “There is no middle ground.”

Majorities of Americans support the Supreme Court upholding Roe v. Wade and oppose states making it harder for abortion clinics to operate, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll this month. Three in four Americans, including majorities of Republicans, independents and Democrats, say the decision of whether or not to have an abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor.

University of California, Berkeley Law professor Daniel Farber said the legal options before the court are stark and extreme. “I think between those two options, I think overruling Roe would win the day,” Farber said.

Some abortion law scholars believe the justices may attempt a more moderate approach — at least in appearance — by upholding the Mississippi law while explaining that they are changing, rather than overturning, the standard set by Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

“The court might say, ‘We are not finding that there’s no constitutional protection for abortion, only that these earlier decisions didn’t give sufficient weight to other kinds of state interests,'” said Shaw. “So, perhaps states may be able to ban abortions prior to viability, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to ban all abortions.”

Mississippi has just one remaining abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health, that only provides abortion services up to 16 weeks of pregnancy. The state argues that a ban starting at 15 weeks would not impose a significant burden on most women.

While Americans are broadly supportive of abortion rights, they appear more sharply divided on the type of ban at issue in Mississippi. A Marquette University Law School poll this month found 37% favored upholding a 15-week ban, with 32% opposed

Overshadowing the case is the Supreme Court’s still-pending decision in a separate dispute over Texas’ unprecedented six-week abortion ban, SB8, which has been in effect for nearly three months and dominated national headlines.

“SB8 has the effect of making the Mississippi statute look quite moderate,” said Julia Mahoney, a law professor at the University of Virginia. “So in a sense, upholding the Mississippi statute looks now like kind of a middle ground.”

The justices gave the Texas law a highly expedited hearing, during which a majority appeared skeptical of its enforcement scheme that encourages citizens to sue anyone who aids or abets an unlawful abortion for the chance at a $10,000 bounty. Many observers assumed the court would quickly move to put the law on hold, but it has not done so.

Girgis said the delay suggests the justices “hit some snags” in their negotiations and may have decided to resolve the dispute in tandem with the Mississippi case.

“If they end up reversing Casey and Roe, then obviously the question of the constitutionality of SB8 becomes a lot easier,” Girgis said.

In the meantime, access to abortion care for millions of women in the nation’s second-most populous state remains on hold and could be suspended for months longer. The court is not expected to issue a decision in the Mississippi case until June.

“We’re waiting on tenterhooks to hear from the court,” said Northup of Texas law SB8. “But it is just quite unconscionable that we’re so many months in, allowing this law to be in effect when it clearly violates Roe v. Wade.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh could be the key vote to watch in both cases, analysts said. He sided with the majority more than any other justice last term and notably broke with Chief Justice John Roberts in September to allow SB8 to take effect.

“From a tea leaf reading standpoint, we’re watching Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett,” said Mary Ziegler, Florida State Law professor and a leading abortion law historian.

“I think she may have some incentive, certainly not to save Roe, but to take her time in unraveling Roe rather than kind of delivering an immediate death blow,” Ziegler said of Barrett, the court’s newest and youngest member. “We don’t know what Brett Kavanaugh, who is no longer beholden to John Roberts to get the deciding vote, will say about abortion.”

The abortion rights battle at the Supreme Court comes as Republican-led states have enacted more than 100 new abortion restrictions so far this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. Twenty-one states have laws in place that would quickly impose abortion bans in the event the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Fourteen states plus Washington, D.C., have laws explicitly protecting access to abortion care, according to Guttmacher.

“If the court follows the rule of law, we will prevail,” Northrup said. “But we are ready to fight on every front if there should be a reversal of Roe.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations climb in Michigan as nation braces for emerging omicron variant

As Michigan hospitals confront a still worsening coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant, concern grows across the state and nation about omicron, another mutation of the virus first identified in South Africa that’s now spreading around the world. 

“Sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” President Joe Biden said Monday in an address to the nation. “We’ll have to face this new threat just as we have faced those that have come before it.”

He and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer both stressed that vaccination is key in protecting lives — no matter the type of variant that’s circulating. 

“These vaccines still hold up well against all the variants that have come and gone, but viruses mutate,” Whitmer said following a Monday morning meeting in Taylor on the global semiconductor shortage.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the media about COVID-19 in Michigan after she joins a roundtable with local and federal leaders including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 to discuss the CHIPS Act at the UAW Region 1A Stephen P. Yokich Auditorium in Taylor.

More:Feds to send staff to Michigan hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients as pandemic rages

More:85% of Michigan’s hospital beds are full, some patients are being turned away

“The nature of this virus changes, right? And so I can’t tell you what six months from now is going to look like. I can tell you the more people that get vaccinated the better outlook we have.”

Scientists still don’t know many key details about the omicron variant, how contagious it is or whether it causes more severe disease. It’s also unclear how well the current vaccines will protect people from hospitalization and death from the omicron strain.  

“We’re learning more about this new variant every single day,” Biden said. “And as we learn more, we’re going to share that information with the American people candidly and promptly.”

After reanalyzing the genetic sequencing data from 31,000 positive coronavirus testsamples sequenced in the state Bureau of Laboratories, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported Monday that the omicron variant has not been detected in the state. 

Cases of the variant have been identified in neighboring Canada. 

“It’s still early, and there is much that we need to learn about the Omicron variant,”Dr. Alexis Travis, senior deputy director of MDHHS’s Public Health Administration, said in a statement.

The World Health Organization declared omicron a variant of concern.

More:With EMS staffing crisis brewing for decades, COVID pushes shortage into danger zone

More:Michigan kids hospitalized with COVID-19 nears peak. Doctor: ‘We’re a little bit on edge.’

Omicron could strike as Michigan remains in the throes of what’s shaping up to be the state’s worst-yet pandemic surge, and as hospitals remain overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and those with other illnesses.

“Worst-case scenario, if we get a lot more cases of COVID because of omicron and we get influenza outbreaks at the same time, that could really stretch our capacity and challenge our ability to care for patients,” said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention for Henry Ford Health System.

More than 4,200 patients were hospitalized across Michigan Monday with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Among them were 48 children. About 84% of the state’s 3,114 intensive care unit beds were full, according to state data

Nine Michigan hospitals were at 100% capacity Monday and 20 more were reporting they were 90% or more full.

Munson Healthcare is operating at “Pandemic Level Red Status,” making COVID-19 patients its top priority, while postponing nonurgent procedures and surgeries “on a case-by-case basis to shift staff and resources to where they are needed most.”

Spectrum Health hit a record number of patients in its hospitals last week and has been unable to accept patients who need to be transferred from smaller, regional hospitals for a higher level of care.

A new patient is brought in by ambulance as other patients are stationed in beds lining some of the hallways in the emergency area of Sparrow Hospital.

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Detroit-based Henry Ford has cut back on some elective procedures, Cunningham said.

“Henry Ford is at 98% occupancy with 95% of our critical care beds filled,” he said. “So we can still care for more patients, but we’re getting close to the point where we really have to change some of the things we’re doing to handle additional patients.

“If numbers keep going up, we’ll just divert resources where we need them. … If we need to, we’ll cut more of those elective procedures. We will do whatever is needed to care for COVID in our communities, and we have a team that’s meeting pretty much every day so that we can look at this and make sure we’re planning and anticipating everything.”  

The U.S. Department of Defense deployed two emergency medical teams this week to hospitals in Dearborn and Grand Rapids to help manage the coronavirus surge. They include doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists who will remain in the state for 30 days. 

Cunningham said he’s concerned the omicron variant could lead the state from a bad surge into one that’s even worse.

“This could cause our current surge to just go much higher,” Cunningham said, noting that the omicron variant quickly edged out delta as the predominant strain of the virus spreading in South Africa. “It has more mutations than any other of the variants we’ve seen,” he said. “To put it in perspective, delta had nine mutations in the spike protein. This one has 30 or 32 mutations in the spike protein alone. Some of these mutations we’ve seen before — the ones that make it more contagious … spread more easily.

Close up image of the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

More:Michigan is now worst COVID-19 hot spot in nation; hospitals pushed to capacity

“There’s also a bunch of mutations (for which) we don’t know the complete significance. Some of the computer modeling of these structural changes or mutations suggests that the vaccines will still work but may not work as well.”

Still, Cunningham said: “We know vaccines are better than natural immunity at preventing reinfection. It looks like natural immunity or past infection may not protect against omicron. Again, it’s been small numbers of patients reported. There’s going to be a lot more information coming out in the next week.”

As that data emerges, Cunningham said the nation will be able to better assess just how much of a threat omicron may truly be. 

“The best-case scenario would be that it’s infectious, but it’s not going to cause as much severe disease,” he said. “There’s initial reports in South Africa that people coming down with omicron tended to be less severely ill — mostly fatigue, headache, just being tired was really predominant.

“South Africa has a pretty high rate of vaccination. So the question is, is it more mild because so many people there are vaccinated or is it really an easier variant? That’s what we’re gonna find out over the next two weeks.”

In the meantime, health experts agree the best way for people to protect themselves is by getting vaccinated. 

“The virus is exploding in the unvaccinated,” said Robert Bensley, a professor of public health at Western Michigan University. 

“And we know that only about 54% of our population in Michigan is vaccinated. So we’ve got this huge group that is just there, waiting for COVID to infect them.”

Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department registered nurse Dawn Hynds draws a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine during a community vaccination event at Northport Public School in Northport on September 16, 2021.

The state’s plan, Bensley said, should be to pull out every stop to get people to take the vaccines — including boosters for all who are eligible. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Monday, suggesting all U.S. adults who are at least six months past the last dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months post-Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a boost. 

“That is our No. 1 defense,” he said. “Get vaccinated and stop going to county health meetings and threatening public health officers. And stop going to school board meetings and demanding masks be removed from all schools.

“If we do all the mitigation — the mask wearing, the vaccine, the booster, social distancing — all those things are very simple concepts. That’s our best shot, right there, to do something about reducing hospitalizations.”

But if people continue to refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks despite the statewide public health advisory, and ignore other public health guidelines, Bensley said he fears people will continue to get sick — and the consequences are worrisome.

“We can only do so much,” he said.

Hospital beds and health care workers are a limited resource. There may come a point, he said, when care may have to be rationed.

“It would not be pretty. All of a sudden, who’s determining whether you’re a star-bellied sneetch so you survive or you’re plain-bellied sneetch so you don’t survive?” he said, referencing a Dr. Seuss story in which the star-bellied bird-like creatures are given preference over the plain.

“It’s a big nightmare. But our first step … is get the vaccine.”

Free Press staff writer Eric D. Lawrence contributed to this report.

Contact Kristen Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

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