Health Highlights: Dec. 21, 2020

Below are newsworthy items compiled by the HealthDay staff:

Trump Appointees Tried to Interfere With Coronavirus Response: Investigators

Evidence that Trump administration political appointees tried to tamper with scientific findings about the coronavirus pandemic has been uncovered by a U.S. House of Representatives panel.

On Monday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said his coronavirus subcommittee investigators uncovered information about a "political pressure campaign" to "bully" professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a possible attempt to "cripple the nation's coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity," the Associated Press reported.

Most public health experts reject the notion of herd immunity, the name given to a theory that suggests it's possible to protect society by allowing younger people to get infected and thereby develop natural immunity before vaccines become widely available.

Clyburn accused Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield of stonewalling his investigation, and issued subpoenas to force them to hand over large numbers of documents and emails by Dec. 30, the AP reported.

The subpoenas were issued in part because there's evidence suggesting attempts to destroy records at the HHS, Clyburn said.

HHS officials claim there was no political interference.

"While the administration is focused on vaccination shots, the subcommittee is focused on cheap shots to create headlines and mislead the American people, the agency said in a statement, the AP reported.

46 Tons of Lean Cuisine Baked Chicken Recalled Due to Plastic Contaminants

More than 92,000 pounds of Lean Cuisine Baked Chicken meals have been recalled because they may contain pieces of plastic, Nestle Prepared Foods says.

The recall is for 8 5/8-oz (244g) carton trays of "Lean Cuisine Baked Chicken, white meat chicken with stuffing, red skin mashed potatoes and gravy" that were produced and packaged on September 2, 2020.

They have a lot code of 0246595911 and a "Best Before" date of October 2021, and were shipped across the United States.

It's believed that the mashed potatoes in the meals had white pieces of plastic from a conveyor belt that broke during production.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service said it hasn't received any reports of injury or illness caused by the recalled meals. Consumers with questions about the recall can contact Nestlé Prepared Foods, at (800) 993-8625.

U.S. Army Researchers Analyze New Coronavirus Variant

The new coronavirus variant in the UK that appears to spread faster is being studied by U.S. military scientists to determine if it might be resistant to vaccines.

The team at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is checking genetic sequences of the mutated virus variant posted online by British researchers, CNN reported.

While they expect vaccines will be effective against the new variant, they should know for sure within a few days, according to Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

The new variant is rapidly spreading in parts of England, CNN reported.

Congress Strikes Deal on Economic Relief Package

A deal on a $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package was reached Sunday by the U.S. Congress.

It includes $600 direct payments to individuals making less than $75,000 a year or couples making less than $150,000, and $300 in enhanced unemployment for the next 10 weeks, CBS News reported.

There's also $25 billion in direct rental assistance and the eviction moratorium is extended until January 31, the same day the moratorium on student loan payments ends.

Other measures include $82 billion for education funding, $45 billion for public transit systems and $13 billion for increased food stamps and child nutrition benefits, CBS News reported.

The deal also includes more than $30 billion to acquire and distribute coronavirus vaccines and $27 billion for testing and state health care programs.

Low U.S. Flu Rates Seen as Pandemic Rages

Higher flu vaccination rates are one reason why flu cases are way down in the United States, experts say.

Seasonal flu activity is lower than normal for this time of year, with 0.3% of specimens testing positive at clinical laboratories last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many more people are getting flu shots to avoid the risk of getting both the flu and COVID-19, CBS News reported.

The CDC said more than 190.4 million flu vaccines have been distributed across the country this season -- the highest ever in one flu season -- and flu shots among adults rose 46%, from 31.1 million doses to 45.3 million as of Nov. 28.

Other factors contributing to the sharp fall in flu cases this season include pandemic-related use of face masks, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, school closures and much less international travel, CBS News reported.

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