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With all the recent headlines about plane incidents, is flying safe?

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 18:26

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It has been 15 years since the last fatal crash of a U.S. airliner, but you would never know that by reading about a torrent of flight problems in the last three months.

There was a time when things like cracked windshields and minor engine problems didn't turn up very often in the news.

That changed in January when a panel plugging the space reserved for an unused emergency door blew off an Alaska Airlines jetliner 16,000 feet above Oregon. Pilots landed the Boeing 737 Max safely, but in the United States, media coverage of the flight quickly overshadowed a deadly runway crash in Tokyo three days earlier.

And concern about air safety — especially with Boeing planes — has not let up.

Is Flying Getting More Dangerous? 

By the simplest measurement, the answer is no. The last deadly crash involving a U.S. airliner occurred in February 2009, an unprecedented streak of safety. There were 9.6 million flights last year.

The lack of fatal crashes does not fully capture the state of safety, however. In the past 15 months, a spate of close calls caught the attention of regulators and travelers.

Another measure is the number of times pilots broadcast an emergency call to air traffic controllers. Flightradar24, a popular tracking site, just compiled the numbers. The site's data show such calls rising since mid-January but remaining below levels seen during much of 2023.

Emergency calls also are an imperfect gauge: the plane might not have been in immediate danger, and sometimes planes in trouble never alert controllers.

SEE MORE: Are Americans' thoughts on plane safety swayed by recent incidents?

Safer than Driving

The National Safety Council estimates that Americans have a 1-in-93 chance of dying in a motor vehicle crash, while deaths on airplanes are too rare to calculate the odds. Figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation tell a similar story.

"This is the safest form of transportation ever created, whereas every day on the nation's roads about a 737 full of people dies," Richard Aboulafia, a longtime aerospace analyst and consultant, said. The Safety Council estimates that more than 44,000 people died in U.S. vehicle crashes in 2023.

But a Shrinking Safety Margin

A panel of experts reported in November that a shortage of air traffic controllers, outdated plane-tracking technology and other problems presented a growing threat to safety in the sky.

"The current erosion in the margin of safety in the (national airspace system) caused by the confluence of these challenges is rendering the current level of safety unsustainable," the group said in a 52-page report.

SEE MORE: Plane lands safely in North Las Vegas after losing a door midflight

What is Going on at Boeing? 

Many but not all of the recent incidents have involved Boeing planes.

Boeing is a $78 billion company, a leading U.S. exporter and a century-old, iconic name in aircraft manufacturing. It is one-half of the duopoly, along with Europe's Airbus, that dominates the production of large passenger jets.

The company's reputation, however, was greatly damaged by the crashes of two 737 Max jets — one in Indonesia in 2018, the other in Ethiopia the following year — that killed 346 people. Boeing has lost nearly $24 billion in the last five years. It has struggled with manufacturing flaws that at times delayed deliveries of 737s and long-haul 787 Dreamliners.

Boeing finally was beginning to regain its stride until the Alaska Airlines Max blowout. Investigators have focused on bolts that help secure the door-plug panel, but which were missing after a repair job at the Boeing factory.

The FBI is notifying passengers about a criminal investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration is stepping up oversight of the company.

"What is going on with the production at Boeing? There have been issues in the past. They don't seem to be getting resolved," FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said last month.

CEO David Calhoun says no matter what conclusions investigators reach about the Alaska Airlines blowout, "Boeing is accountable for what happened" on the Alaska plane. "We caused the problem and we understand that."

Where do Design and Manufacturing Fit in? 

Problems attributed to an airplane manufacturer can differ greatly.

Some are design errors. On the original Boeing Max, the failure of a single sensor caused a flight-control system to point the nose of the plane down with great force — that happened before the deadly 2018 and 2019 Max crashes. It is a maxim in aviation that the failure of a single part should never be enough to bring down a plane.

In other cases, such as the door-plug panel that flew off the Alaska Airlines jet, it appears a mistake was made on the factory floor.

"Anything that results in death is worse, but design is a lot harder to deal with because you have to locate the problem and fix it," said Aboulafia, the aerospace analyst. "In the manufacturing process, the fix is incredibly easy – don't do" whatever caused the flaw in the first place.

Manufacturing quality appears to be an issue in other incidents too.

Earlier this month, the FAA proposed ordering airlines to inspect wiring bundles around the spoilers on Max jets. The order was prompted by a report that chafing of electrical wires due to faulty installation caused an airliner to roll 30 degrees in less than a second on a 2021 flight.

Even little things matter. After a LATAM Airlines Boeing 787 flying from Australia to New Zealand this month went into a nosedive — it recovered — Boeing reminded airlines to inspect switches to motors that move pilot seats. Published reports said a flight attendant accidentally hitting the switch likely caused the plunge.

SEE MORE: Boeing to add quality inspections on 737 Max after midflight blowout

Not Everything is Boeing's Fault

Investigations into some incidents point to likely lapses in maintenance, and many close calls are due to errors by pilots or air traffic controllers.

This week, investigators disclosed that an American Airlines jet that overshot a runway in Texas had undergone a brake-replacement job four days earlier, and some hydraulic lines to the brakes were not properly reattached.

Earlier this month, a tire fell off a United Airlines Boeing 777 leaving San Francisco, and an American Airlines 777 made an emergency landing in Los Angeles with a flat tire.

A piece of the aluminum skin was discovered missing when a United Boeing 737 landed in Oregon last week. Unlike the brand-new Alaska jet that suffered the panel blowout, the United plane was 26 years old. Maintenance is up to the airline.

When a FedEx cargo plane landing last year in Austin, Texas, flew close over the top of a departing Southwest Airlines jet, it turned out that an air traffic controller had cleared both planes to use the same runway.

Separating Serious From Routine

Aviation industry officials say the most concerning events involve issues with flight controls, engines and structural integrity.

Other things such as cracked windshields and planes clipping each other at the airport rarely pose a safety threat. Warning lights might indicate a serious problem or a false alarm.

"We take every event seriously," former NTSB member John Goglia said, citing such vigilance as a contributor to the current crash-free streak. "The challenge we have in aviation is trying to keep it there."

Inside the Race: Reproduction rights in focus

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 17:52

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On this edition of “Inside the Race Weekend,” Politico National Political Reporter Natalie Allison and Politico Health Care Reporter Alice Ollstein join Scripps News Legal Affairs Correspondent Ava-Joye Burnett and "The Warning" Founder Steve Schmidt, and host, Joe St. George to discuss political debates over reproductive rights. 

Allison highlighted former President Donald Trump's shift in his campaign from leaving states to decide abortion rights to potentially supporting a 15-week ban at the federal level. 

Ollstein discussed how suburban women play a crucial role in the presidential election, particularly when it comes to abortion issues. 

Burnett explained the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to review a lower court decision that would make mifepristone, a commonly used abortion pill, less accessible. 

Schmidt said he believes the president who understood the issue of abortion best and came closest to the American sensibility on it was former President Bill Clinton. He believed abortions should be safe, legal and rare.

SEE MORE: Inside the Race: Will a ban on TikTok have an impact on the election?

Biden signs $1.2 trillion funding package after narrow shutdown threat

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 17:33

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President Joe Biden on Saturday signed a $1.2 trillion package of spending bills after Congress had passed the long overdue legislation just hours earlier, ending the threat of a partial government shutdown.

"This agreement represents a compromise, which means neither side got everything it wanted," Biden said in a statement. "But it rejects extreme cuts from House Republicans and expands access to child care, invests in cancer research, funds mental health and substance use care, advances American leadership abroad, and provides resources to secure the border. ... That's good news for the American people."

It took lawmakers six months into the current budget year to get near the finish line on government funding, the process slowed by conservatives who pushed for more policy mandates and steeper spending cuts than a Democratic-led Senate or White House would consider. The impasse required several short-term spending bills to keep agencies funded.

The White House said Biden signed the legislation at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, where he was spending the weekend. It had cleared the Senate by a 74-24 vote shortly after funding had expired for the agencies at midnight.

But the White House had sent out a notice shortly after the deadline announcing that the Office of Management and Budget had ceased shutdown preparations because there was a high degree of confidence that Congress would pass the legislation and the Democratic president would sign it Saturday.

The first package of full-year spending bills, which funded the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture and the Interior, among others, cleared Congress two weeks ago with just hours to spare before funding expired for those agencies. The second covered the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State, as well as other aspects of general government.

When combining the two packages, discretionary spending for the budget year will come to about $1.66 trillion. That does not include programs such as Social Security and Medicare, or financing the country's rising debt.

On Ukraine aid, which Biden and his administration have argued was critical and necessary to help stop Russia's invasion, the package provided $300 million under the defense spending umbrella. That funding is separate from a large assistance package for Ukraine and Israel that is bogged down on Capitol Hill.

Biden, in his statement, again pressed Congress to pass additional aid.

"The House must pass the bipartisan national security supplemental to advance our national security interests. And Congress must pass the bipartisan border security agreement — the toughest and fairest reforms in decades — to ensure we have the policies and funding needed to secure the border. It's time to get this done."

SEE MORE: Senate passes $1.2 trillion funding package, ending shutdown threat

A bipartisan border package collapsed last month when Republican senators scuttled months of negotiations with Democrats on legislation intended to cut back record numbers of illegal border crossings.

To win over support from Republicans, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., pointed to some of the spending increases secured for about 8,000 more detention beds for migrants awaiting their immigration proceedings or removal from the country. That's about a 24% increase from current levels. Also, GOP leadership highlighted more money to hire about 2,000 Border Patrol agents.

Democrats are boasting of a $1 billion increase for Head Start programs and new childcare centers for military families. They also played up a $120 million increase in funding for cancer research and a $100 million increase for Alzheimer's research.

The spending package largely tracks with an agreement that then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California worked out with the White House in May 2023, which restricted spending for two years and suspended the debt ceiling into January 2025 so the federal government could continue paying its bills.

Prospects for a short-term government shutdown had appeared to grow Friday evening after Republicans and Democrats battled over proposed amendments to the bill. But shortly before midnight, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced a breakthrough.

"It is good for the country that we have reached this bipartisan deal. It wasn't easy, but tonight our persistence has been worth it," Schumer said.

The House passed the legislation Friday morning by a vote of 286-134, narrowly gaining the two-thirds majority needed for approval.

The vote tally in the House reflected anger among Republicans over the content of the package and the speed with which it was brought to a vote. Johnson brought the measure to the floor even though a majority of Republicans ended up voting against it. He said afterward that the bill "represents the best achievable outcome in a divided government."

In a sign of the conservative frustration, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., initiated an effort to oust Johnson as the House began the vote but held off on further action until the House returns in two weeks. It's the same tool that was used last year to remove McCarthy.

The vote breakdown showed 101 Republicans voting for the bill and 112 voting against it. Meanwhile, 185 Democrats voted for the bill and 22 against.

Kamala Harris to tour Florida's blood-stained Parkland school building

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 16:49

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As part of the Biden administration's focus on gun violence in the U.S. amid the president's race for a second term in the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled for a highly anticipated tour of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the site of the 2018 shooting where 17 people were murdered. 

Vice President Harris was expected to meet with families of victims and walk through the halls and tour classrooms in a school where blood still stains some areas where the massacre happened. 

In July of last year, Court TV was there when victims' families got a first look inside the school after the shooting. Those private visits for shooting survivors and the families of the victims started on July 5, inside the building where the gunman killed 17 and injured another 17 on Valentine's Day in 2018. 

On Saturday, Vice President Harris was expected to focus on how the administration plans to address gun violence. 

Those touring the school with the vice president will also include U.S. Representative Jared Moskowitz, State Attorney Harold Pryor, and members of the Broward County State Attorney’s Office, the White House said. 

Vice President Harris will announce the launch of a new resource center focused on the implementation of red flag laws called the National Extreme Risk Protection Order Resource Center. The White House said it's the first of its kind. 

Also expected is a call to urge states to pass and implement similar legislation including red flag laws, and to urge the use of federal funding including $750 million for state crisis intervention programs.

SEE MORE: School building where Parkland massacre happened will be demolished

Combating gun violence has been one of the top priorities expressed by the Biden administration. Last year the White House announced the creation of the Office on Gun Violence Prevention which would be overseen by Vice President Harris as part of the administration's work to reduce gun violence.

President Joe Biden has called on Congress for further action to find a way to lessen gun violence, including a push to try and ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines; and by passing universal background checks.

As Scripps News' Haley Bull noted on Saturday while at the school, the freshman building of the high school has been preserved as evidence since the shooting happened on Feb. 14, 2018. That is the area where 14 of the students and three staff members were killed. 

In 2022, during the penalty phased of the trial, a jury viewing was carried out in the 1200 building of the school's campus where a small number of journalists were allowed to view the area. Valentine's Day flowers, essays, writings, books and other details that were left seemingly frozen in time after the deadly shooting still remained in place, according to jury notes. 

The 17 people killed at the school included, Alyssa Alhadeff, a teacher named Scott Beigel, Martin Duque, Nicholas Dworet, a foodball coach named Aaron Feis, Jaime Guttenberg, Athletic Director Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup and Peter Wang. Each of their families told of how they were great siblings; sons and daughters, some mothers and fathers. Their families loved them deeply and still advocate for measures to quell gun violence in the United States so that other families don't have to experience the same grief and pain. 

The building is scheduled to be demolished in the summer of 2024, according to Broward Schools

In 2022, Lori Jane Gliha reported on federal funds that were expected at the time to be used to pass red flag laws, and how states were dealing with gun violence. In Denver, police used Colorado's red flag laws to prohibit potentially dangerous individuals from gaining possession of firearms. Under the state's law, a judge can grant an Extreme Risk Protection Order to temporarily block possession of firearms if the judge believes a person poses a danger to themselves or others. 

Russia detains suspects in concert hall attack that killed over 115

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 11:30

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Russian authorities detained 11 people, state media reported Saturday, after gunmen stormed a concert hall in Moscow in a grisly attack that left at least 115 people dead.

Russia's Investigative Committee said four of those detained were directly involved in the attack that left the sprawling shopping mall and music venue smoldering with a collapsed roof.

Russian agencies appeared to suggest the attack was linked to Ukraine even though the Islamic State group claimed responsibility in a statement. A U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press that U.S. agencies had confirmed that that group was responsible for the attack.

The four suspects were stopped in the Bryansk region of western Russia, "not far from the border with Ukraine," Russia's Investigative Committee said. They planned to cross the border into Ukraine and "had contacts" there, state news agency Tass said, citing Russia's FSB. The head of the FSB briefed President Vladimir Putin on the arrests on Saturday, according to Tass.

The attack came just days after Putin cemented his grip on power in a highly orchestrated electoral landslide. The attack was the deadliest in Russia in years and came as the country's fight in Ukraine dragged into a third year.

Shortly after the attack, some Russian lawmakers pointed the finger at Ukraine. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied any involvement.

"Ukraine has never resorted to the use of terrorist methods," he posted on X, formerly Twitter. "Everything in this war will be decided only on the battlefield."

Images shared by Russian state media Saturday showed a fleet of emergency vehicles still gathered outside the ruins of Crocus City Hall, which had a capacity of more than 6,000 people in Krasnogorsk, on Moscow's western edge.

Videos posted online showed gunmen in the venue shooting civilians at point-blank range. The roof of the theater, where crowds had gathered Friday for a performance by the Russian rock band Picnic, collapsed in the early hours of Saturday morning as firefighters spent hours fighting a fire that erupted during the attack.

In a statement posted by its Aamaq news agency, the Islamic State's affiliate in Afghanistan said it had attacked a large gathering of "Christians" in Krasnogorsk. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the claim.

SEE MORE: Islamic State claims responsibility for deadly Moscow terror attack

A U.S. intelligence official told the AP that U.S. intelligence agencies had gathered information in recent weeks that the IS branch was planning an attack in Moscow, and that U.S. officials had privately shared the intelligence earlier this month with Russian officials.

The official was briefed on the matter but was not authorized to publicly discuss the intelligence information and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Messages of outrage, shock and support for those affected have since streamed in from around the world.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council condemned "the heinous and cowardly terrorist attack" and underlined the need for the perpetrators to be held accountable. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the terrorist attack "in the strongest possible terms," his spokesman said.

Meanwhile, in Moscow itself, hundreds of people stood in line Saturday morning to donate blood and plasma, Russia's health ministry said.

Putin, who extended his grip on Russia for another six years in this week's presidential vote after a sweeping crackdown on dissent, had publicly denounced the Western warnings of a potential terrorist attack as an attempt to intimidate Russians. "All that resembles open blackmail and an attempt to frighten and destabilize our society," he said earlier this week.

In October 2015, a bomb planted by the Islamic State downed a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, killing all 224 people on board, most of them Russian vacation-goers returning from Egypt. The group, which operates mainly in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Africa, has claimed several attacks in Russia's volatile Caucasus and other regions in the past years.

Opposing bills on LGBTQ+ representation in schools advance in 2 states

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 02:13

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One country, two states — displaying polarizing views on the role LGBTQ+ representation has in the public classroom.

This week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed into a law a bill that creates a state mandate to include teachings about the contributions and history of LGBTQ+ people in schools.

Washington state Sen. Marko Liias was a co-sponsor of the bill, saying that adding historical figures who are part of the LGBTQ+ community into education allows kids to see themselves and learn about people different from them.

"There are students in our schools right now who this is their lived experience, and we need to do a better job of meeting those students where they're at and showing them that they are valued and included members of the community," he said.

Sen. Liias stated that this is about making kids feel safe as well as seen. According to a 2023 study by The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ middle and high schoolers who had access at school to one of what they call school-related protective measures — which include gender-neutral bathrooms, history that discusses LGBTQ+ people or teachers that respect pronouns — had 26% lower odds of attempting suicide. 

Washington joins 6 other states with state-mandated LGBTQ+ curriculum requirements. The vote came down, unsurprisingly, along party lines — the main Republican argument being the bill strips power away from school districts.

"It seems like the trend is to take more and more discretion away from the local communities and force-feed stuff from the legislature on to all 295 school districts," said Washington Republican state Sen. Brad Hawkings during the floor debate for the bill in January.

SEE MORE: Sexual orientation, gender identity can be discussed in Fla. schools

Across the country, Alabama's state legislature advanced further current restrictions on its standing ban on teacher-led discussions on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"This will send the message that it is inappropriate for the instructors, the teachers to teach sexual orientation and gender identity," said Republican Alabama state Rep. Mack Butler during a hearing of the House Education Policy Committee.

The Alabama bill would expand those restrictions from grades K-5 to all grades. It would also ban Pride flags from being displayed in the classroom.

The bill passed the House Education Policy Committee after tense debate between Butler and Democratic Alabama Rep. Barbara Drummond.

"We had a lady sharing with us about her grandson that was literally indoctrinated and became a girl, that he's identifying as a girl and she felt like it was the teacher that did it and that was just today," said Butler.

"What if that is who she is and mentally that's who she is? What is she to do? Is she to cease from existing?," said Drummond. 

"Absolutely not, we're to—" said Butler.

"Well then, I mean, what kind of message are we sending here?" Drummond asked.

Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and North Carolina have passed similar measures after Florida passed a measure critics described as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.

This month Florida reached a settlement with civil rights attorneys, clarifying its law does not prohibit discussing LGBTQ+ people or the creation of gay-straight alliance groups.

Sen. Liias hopes that Washington's new law can help counter the rhetoric seen in other states.

"I want to continue to send this message that we are a beacon of inclusion, we're a beacon of opportunity, and the two go hand in hand," he said.

State Farm discontinues 72,000 home policies in California

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 01:36

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State Farm will discontinue coverage for 72,000 houses and apartments in California starting this summer, the insurance giant said this week, nine months after announcing it would not issue new home policies in the state.

The Illinois-based company, California's largest insurer, cited soaring costs, the increasing risk of catastrophes like wildfires and outdated regulations as reasons it won't renew the policies on 30,000 houses and 42,000 apartments, the Bay Area News Group reported Thursday.

"This decision was not made lightly and only after careful analysis of State Farm General's financial health, which continues to be impacted by inflation, catastrophe exposure, reinsurance costs, and the limitations of working within decades-old insurance regulations," the company said in a statement Wednesday.

"State Farm General takes seriously our responsibility to maintain adequate claims-paying capacity for our customers and to comply with applicable financial solvency laws," it continued. "It is necessary to take these actions now."

The move comes as California's elected insurance commissioner undertakes a yearlong overhaul of home insurance regulations aimed at calming the state's imploding market by giving insurers more latitude to raise premiums while extracting commitments from them to extend coverage in fire-risk areas, the news group said.

SEE MORE: People in this state pay 121% more for car insurance than US average

The California Department of Insurance said State Farm will have to answer questions from regulators about its decision to discontinue coverage.

"One of our roles as the insurance regulator is to hold insurance companies accountable for their words and deeds," Deputy Insurance Commissioner Michael Soller said. "We need to be confident in State Farm’s strategy moving forward to live up to its obligations to its California customers."

It was unclear whether the department would launch an investigation.

Last June, State Farm said it would stop accepting applications for all business and personal lines of property and casualty insurance, citing inflation, a challenging reinsurance market and "rapidly growing catastrophe exposure."

The company said the newly announced cancellations account for just over 2% of its California policies. It did not say where they are located or what criteria it used to determine that they would not be renewed.

Runway near misses and addictive THC | Scripps News Investigates

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 01:30

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On this episode of Scripps News Investigates: We uncover the troubling rise of runway near misses at U.S. airports, find out why a warning system to prevent disasters was quietly shelved by the FAA and get a firsthand look at the latest runway safety technology — that U.S. carriers are not being required to use.

Then, we investigate the potency of today’s pot and explore how highly addictive legal cannabis may be harming the brains of teenagers.

Runway near misses

A clear warning sign: That’s how the head of the National Transportation Safety Board describes the rise in serious close calls on U.S. runways. These near misses are raising alarms that the aviation industry is under strain. We wanted to know what’s being done to prevent potentially disastrous incidents on the ground. And we were surprised to discover that the FAA quietly killed the development of a cockpit safety system designed to help pilots avoid runway collisions.

The surge in near misses has captured the attention of airlines, regulators and Congress. One of the leading concerns Scripps News heard is that pilots don’t have enough technology to avoid ground collisions. But we discovered runway safety features are already being built into new planes  — they just aren’t being activated because the FAA doesn’t require their use. 

Industrial-strength marijuana

Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in nearly half the country — but we’re learning that today’s marijuana isn’t what it used to be. Legal retailers are making power-packed versions of THC oils, gummies and even sodas that doctors are discovering are highly addictive and capable of causing brain damage in some teens and young adults. 

Scripps News San Diego’s senior investigative reporter Jim Avila digs into the dangers of potent new marijuana products.

SEE MORE: Scripps News Investigates: A shadow market for diet drugs

Doctors are less likely to respond to Black patients, study finds

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 01:29

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If you're trying but failing to reach your doctor through a patient portal, your race may be at play.

That's the finding from a new study published in JAMA Network Open, which suggests patients who belong to minority racial and ethnic groups are less likely to receive a response from a physician. Instead, these patients will more likely hear back from nurses, which the study says insinuates a "lower prioritization during triaging."

Researchers came to this conclusion after examining the patient portal messages of 39,043 Boston Medical Center patients in 2021. After 11 months, their data showed the likelihood of receiving any response was similar regardless of race, but it was the type of health care professional responding that differed.

Namely, Black patients were nearly 4 percentage points less likely to get a response from an attending physician and about 3 percentage points more likely to hear from a registered nurse, the study shows. Asian and Hispanic patients saw similar but smaller results, with the former being 2.11 points less likely to receive a physician's response and the latter 2.32 points less, the study shows.

Meanwhile, White patients, being only 21.1% of the studied group, received 46.4% of all physician responses, the researchers said.

SEE MORE: How growing up in a majority White state shaped their health careers

The finding comes as online patient portal use has been on the rise in recent years, particularly due to the pandemic. A report from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology showed nearly 40% of Americans accessed a patient portal in 2020, marking a 13 percentage point increase since 2014, as patients' ability to get face-to-face health services was disrupted. 

But a previous JAMA study showed that although the portals gave patients a secure place to access health information at any time, there are still disparities hindering greater adoption into the health care industry. These include health literacy, socioeconomic status, education levels and other related demographics that subsequently resulted in lower portal access and use for patients in racial and ethnic minority groups.

It wasn't until this study, published Monday, that researchers looked into whether there were differences in experiences for the patients in minority groups who did access and use their portals. 

But where difference in use was attributed to the demographics listed above, researchers say message-response disparities could be attributed to racial bias within health care. They note national surveys have shown nearly 20% of patients have reported experiencing racial discrimination in health care communications. 

The study suggests the triaging nurses who decide to forward messages to attending physicians may send fewer from patients in minority groups, either due to a difference in communication style, the "underlying message request" or implicit bias.

That's where health literacy may again play a role, according to the study. Researchers said a lower level of overall health literacy may reflect in the type and manner of request made through the portal, which could impact the health care professional's response.

SEE MORE: Mental health program aims to break down barriers for Hispanics

The researchers in the study acknowledge there may be limitations to their findings, like its inclusion of only one single health care system. This may be too focused to apply to the industry as a whole.

And while not all portal response variability is a cause for concern, the study suggests further work should be done to determine the root of the disparities between whether a nurse or physician responds to a patient belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group.

Is baseball star Shohei Ohtani a victim of theft, or is he in trouble?

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 00:51

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Sports’ highest-paid player in history is finding himself in hot water as MLB announced Friday it is launching a formal investigation into Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani. The move comes from claims that Ohtani used money to pay down gambling debts for his interpreter.

No charges have been filed in the case, but it comes in a sport that has had its fair share of controversy surrounding sports betting.

In December, Ohtani made international headlines for money going into his account — a reported $700 million for a 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, allegedly used $4.5 million of Ohtani’s money to pay off gambling debts to a suspected illegal bookmaker in California. According to ESPN, Ohtani had learned of the debts and agreed to bail him out by wiring funds to an associate of Mizuhara’s alleged bookmaker. Soon after that, Mizuhara retracted that version of events, according to ESPN, and said Ohtani had no knowledge of his gambling debts and had not transferred money on his behalf.

“Professional athletes don’t monitor their bank accounts, especially someone who’s got up to a $700 million contract over the next couple of years,” said Jeff Ifrah, a former federal prosecutor who now represents professional athletes as an attorney.

As federal prosecutors look into what might have happened, Ifrah says Ohtani’s camp distanced themselves from his interpreter due to optics, saying the money was stolen from his account. There have been no allegations that betting occurred on baseball games.

 “I think they were a little too quick to react to this and they really underestimated what the media and public’s response would be to it, and it only gets worse when you leave it fester,” said Ifrah.

Baseball has come under intense scrutiny for betting after would-be Hall of Famer Pete Rose was banished from the game for allegedly betting on games he had played in — one of the reasons this case has gotten so much attention, says Ifrah.

According to the Los Angeles Times, evidence on what really happened has been slow to materialize and Ohtani’s camp has not responded to questions about the alleged nature of the theft.

“As it becomes more common in the U.S. to have regulated sports betting, I think the reaction to someone being involved in gambling might be a little less shocking,” said Ifrah.

SEE MORE: Shohei Ohtani's interpreter fired after allegations of theft, gambling

Vice President Kamala Harris talks hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 00:36

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Vice President Kamala Harris visited Puerto Rico on Friday to discuss its ongoing recovery from back-to-back major hurricanes that affected the island in 2017.

This is Harris’ first visit to the island as vice president. She visited once following the hurricanes while she was a U.S. senator.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Department of Housing and Urban Development Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman went with Harris on the visit.

Harris visited a residential home in Canóvanas which was rebuilt after its destruction by Hurricane Maria. There, she discussed $140 billion in administration investment in the island to rebuild and upgrade homes and technology.

This includes new solar panel technology meant to better resist hurricane forces and deliver more consistent energy for users.

An allocation of $3 billion has gone specifically to fund this more resilient energy mix, including rooftop-mounted solar panels and high-capacity generators.

“(This) is about an upgrade on quality of life and just the well-being and dignity of each family to be able to satisfy their basic needs," Harris said of the effort.

HUD Deputy Secretary Todman said since Maria, more than 6,000 homes have been repaired and more than 3,500 new ones have been built.

Energy Secretary Granholm discussed plans to expand renewable power generation, saying this upcoming summer would be the “summer of solar.”

SEE MORE: Texas led the US in new solar power installation in 2023

Harris then visited Goyco Community Center in San Juan to hear performances by local artists and meet with community organizers.

Demonstrators protesting the U.S. and Israel held signs outside, one of them calling the countries “genocidal.” Some present chanted “Yankee go home,” while others chanted “U.S.A.!”

At a later campaign event, Harris discussed Puerto Rico’s recovery from the storms, the administration’s infrastructure investments and work to lower insulin costs.

Regarding the 2024 presidential election, Harris said “What we are looking at is fundamentally an election that’s going to require us each to answer a question: 'What kind of country and world do we want to live in?'" she said.

Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States and vote in presidential primary contests, but they do not vote in the general presidential election.

More Instagram users note platform limits political content by default

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 00:22

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Instagram users have been posting more and more complaints about the social platform's practice of limiting political content by default. 

The site and app, owned by Facebook parent company Meta, appears to have quietly posted guidance online in early February on how political content will be limited unless a user goes in and manually changes a setting not to limit the content. 

Instagram said in the post, "If you decide to follow accounts that post political content, we don’t want to get between you and their posts, but we also don’t want to proactively recommend political content from accounts you don’t follow."

SEE MORE: Social media influencer charged with joining Jan. 6 attack on Capitol

Some users have chosen to post their grievances on X, formerly called Twitter — with some accusing the platform of limiting political content while allowing other offensive content to flourish. 

Other users are posting tutorials showing how to update the setting to allow more political content to show up in feeds. 

Tech and investment outlet Ars Technica accused Instagram of not expressly notifying its users of such a big and important change to the platform, which came during a key election year in the United States. 

A spokesperson for Instagram, Dani Lever, responded to the outlet telling them the change doesn't "impact posts from accounts people choose to follow." 

Lever said the change "impacts what the system recommends, and people can control if they want more."

Instagram said on their website that the change will also roll out to Facebook "at a later date."

To update your account on Instagram, the platform says users should navigate to the "Suggested content" screen and then choose "Political content." From there users can choose to either "Limit" political content, or "Don't limit," as options. 

Graphic warning labels on cigarettes are constitutional, court says

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 23:55

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A federal requirement that cigarette packs and advertising include graphic images demonstrating the effects of smoking — including pictures of smoke-damaged lungs and feet blackened by diminished blood flow — does not violate the First Amendment, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The ruling from a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a partial victory for federal regulators seeking to toughen warning labels. But the court kept alive a tobacco industry challenge of the rule, saying a lower court should review whether it was adopted in accordance with the federal Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the development of regulations.

The 5th Circuit panel rejected industry arguments that the rule violates free speech rights or that it requires images and lettering that take up so much space that they overcome branding and messaging on packages and advertisements.

The ruling overturns a lower court order from a federal district court in Texas, where a judge found the requirements violate the First Amendment.

"We disagree," Judge Jerry Smith wrote for the 5th Circuit panel. "The warnings are both factual and uncontroversial."

While reversing the lower court's First Amendment finding, the panel noted that the judge had not ruled on the APA-based challenge. It sent the case back to the district court to consider that issue.

The images in question include a picture of a woman with a large growth on her neck and the caption "WARNING: Smoking causes head and neck cancer." Another shows a man's chest with a long scar from surgery and a different warning: "Smoking can cause heart disease and strokes by clogging arteries."

Nearly 120 countries around the world have adopted larger, graphic warning labels. Studies from those countries suggest the image-based labels are more effective than text warnings at publicizing smoking risks and encouraging smokers to quit.

In addition to Smith, who was nominated to the court by former President Ronald Reagan, the panel included judges Jennifer Walker Elrod, nominated by George W. Bush, and James Graves, nominated by Barack Obama.

SEE MORE: This country is banning disposable vapes to curb surge in youth vaping

Medical board tries to clarify exceptions to Texas' ban on abortions

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 23:33

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Several Texans are fighting to clarify the state's restrictive abortion law that some lawyers argue is so unclear, it could kill people.

The Texas medical board met Friday to discuss a proposed rule to provide clearer guidance to doctors about which medical exceptions exist for an abortion as multiple women sue the state for denying them abortion care amidst dangerous pregnancies.

Two Texas attorneys and lobbyists, Amy and Steven Bresnen filed a petition to the Texas medical board to create clearer guidance as to when the state would allow abortions under its restrictive laws. Doctors currently face criminal prosecution if they perform an abortion once they find a heartbeat.

"I'm talking about abortions where there is no choice, the mother will die," said Amy Bresnen. 

"They're facing death and they're scared to death," her husband, Steven Bresnen, followed.

The Bresnens filed their petition after Texas' Supreme Court denied Kate Cox's request for an abortion despite doctors warning her fetus would not survive pregnancy. Cox had no choice but to leave the state to get the procedure.

But in its ruling, the Texas Supreme Court asked the medical board to issue clearer guidelines.

On Friday, Texas' medical board proposed a general definition for a "medical emergency," calling it "a life-threatening condition aggravated by, caused by or arising from a pregnancy that is certified by a physician places the woman in danger of death or a serious impairment or a major bodily function unless an abortion is performed."

SEE MORE: Abortions increase in 2023 despite Roe v. Wade reversal

The board also deferred to doctors to use their best "medical judgment made by a reasonably prudent physician knowledgeable about a case and the treatment possibilities for the medical conditions involved."

The board also listed ways doctors could prove an abortion was necessary, through testing, second opinions and failed alternative treatments.

But some argue the definition isn't specific enough and won't do enough to change conditions.

The Center for Reproductive Rights says the board's current proposal falls short of clarifying medical exceptions to Texas's abortion ban and contains "more of the same rhetoric" they've heard for years.

"The proposed rules also create a new and extremely burdensome documentation system that physicians must use when providing abortions under the exception. This is not what medical providers and patients need," Molly Duane, a senior staff attorney told Scripps News in a statement. 

Scripps News reached out to Attorney General Ken Paxton for comment on the board's proposed rule but has not heard back yet.

Taylor Edwards is one of 20 women and two doctors suing Texas over being denied abortion care during dangerous pregnancies. She told the board her fetus was also given a fatal diagnosis, but her doctors said they were unable to give her an abortion because they risked life in prison, forcing Edwards to find care in another state. 

"The last two years, our doctors have no guidance on what to do, [and it] has caused so much suffering," Edwards said through tears.

Anti-abortion activists, like Rebecca Weaver with Texas Right to Life, also say doctors need clearer rules on when exceptions don't violate Texas' abortion ban.

"This confusion is unnecessary, and we are pleased you have chosen to help clear the confusion," Weaver said.

The Texas public now has 30 days to submit comments before the medical board decides on a final rule. They'll likely revisit the rule in June.

Supreme Court set to hear arguments about abortion pill

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 23:20

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The issue of abortion is back at the Supreme Court, but the case is about more than that. On Tuesday, the justices will hear arguments about the FDA's approval of the abortion medication mifepristone, and the court's decision could drastically change the drug's availability — and the FDA's authority.

Since 2000, mifepristone has been an FDA-approved drug used to induce an abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy. After reviewing usage and safety data, the FDA updated the guidelines in 2016 and again in 2021. In 2016, the FDA started allowing doctors to prescribe it up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy, and then in 2021 the agency removed the in-person requirement. That opened the door to telehealth appointments, allowing patients to receive mifepristone in the mail, and allowing pharmacies to fill a doctor's prescription for the drug. The availability of mifepristone is also subject to state regulations.

The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine opposes abortion access and filed a lawsuit to block mifepristone from the market. The group argues in its filing with the Supreme Court that the "FDA removed key safeguards it originally thought necessary to ensure mifepristone's safe use."

SEE MORE: Abortions increase in 2023 despite Roe v. Wade reversal

The FDA says medical evidence and studies prove the safety and effectiveness of using mifepristone under the updated guidelines, but lower courts sided with the Alliance. Opponents of those rulings from the district and appeals courts argue this case isn't just about mifepristone, but that it's also about judges undermining the scientific expertise of the FDA.

"I would like to see a clear statement that, you know, best case scenario, FDA is the scientific arbiter here and their evaluation really shouldn't be second-guessed in the courts. That's not, that's not the court's job," said Eva Temkin, the chair of FDA practice at the Paul Hastings law firm.

Tuesday's case before the Supreme Court is considering a preliminary injunction, not a final ruling from the lower courts — so depending on how the justices rule, this case could be far from over.

"We've started in district court on a preliminary injunction, we've gone up to the 5th Circuit, and now we're up in the Supreme Court. And we've already done this ping pong with the stay motions and the emergency proceedings. And depending on what the Supreme Court says, We may just be kind of looping around back to the district court for further consideration," said Temkin.

The Supreme Court put a hold on the lower courts' injunctions; so for now, mifepristone can be used up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy, and without needing an in-person appointment, if state laws are in agreement. But that could change when the high court rules this time around. That opinion will come down sometime in the next three months.

Members of House GOP protest 'morally dubious' IVF access for veterans

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 22:53

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A group of House Republicans are expressing their "strong objections" to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' recent decision to expand access to IVF services to eligible unmarried veterans and those in same-sex relationships.

In a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, Reps. Matt Rosendale of Montana, Mary Miller of Illinois, Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma and Bob Good of Virginia called IVF "morally dubious" and said the fertility treatment should not be "subsidized by the American taxpayer."

Namely, the group questioned how the expanded benefits will affect the resulting "surplus of embryos after the best ones are tested and selected," their letter states. 

Prior to the VA's expanded rule, IVF services were only available to legally married veterans who could produce gametes — both eggs and sperm — within their relationship. Now they can access IVF benefits no matter their marital status or if they need to use donor eggs, sperm or embryos to conceive.

"These embryos are then frozen — at significant cost to the parents — abandoned, or cruelly discarded. Parents' uncertainty of what to do with the additional embryos and inclination to leave them frozen for many years rather than discarding them points to their inherent humanity," the letter reads.

The four Republicans went on to ask McDonough for a response on six different questions, including what the VA will do with the "surplus embryos," how many embryos has the VA "already destroyed or frozen," the cost of the expanded access and how the VA had the authority to make the decision.

SEE MORE: VA expands IVF access to single veterans, same-sex couples

"The VA must focus on providing world-class healthcare and benefits to veterans, not trying to remake the nuclear family," the letter concludes. "We appreciate your attention to this letter and eagerly await your reply."

All four Republicans who signed the letter are members, with Good being the chair, of the Freedom Caucus, which is generally considered to include the most conservative members of the House. And as many other House Republicans have vehemently expressed their support for IVF treatments in the wake of Alabama Supreme Court's ruling last month, this represents a rare example of the party's agreement with the controversial decision. 

The ruling, which stated that embryos are considered children, left many IVF programs in limbo in the state, while Republicans became divided in their support. Some moved to protect the treatment by law, while others blocked a bill that would have established federal protections for the practice. And many of those who did express their support came under scrutiny last month after backing a bill that declares life begins at conception with no exception for IVF.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has expressed his support for IVF, saying in a post on Truth Social last month, "Under my leadership, the Republican Party will always support the creation of strong, thriving, healthy American families. We want to make it easier for mothers and fathers to have babies, not harder!"

Democrats and President Joe Biden have done the same, proposing measures to secure legal protections for the practice as it's become part of the party's central mission.

2 killed and dozens injured in school bus crash outside Austin, Texas

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 21:59

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A cement truck veered into a school bus carrying more than 40 pre-K students returning from a field trip to a Texas zoo Friday, killing a boy on the bus and a man in another vehicle, authorities said.

Officials said the bus rolled over on the highway in the rural outskirts of Austin, where a heavy presence of emergency vehicles shut down traffic for hours. The roof of the bus was crumpled, and much of another vehicle nearby was pulverized. Personal items were strewn across the road.

Four people in critical condition were airlifted from the crash site. Six others with potentially serious injuries were transported by ambulance, said Kevin Parker, division chief Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.

An ambulance bus transported about 10 other patients to a children’s hospital with minor injuries, Parker said. Passengers on the bus included 44 students and 11 adults, according to the Hays Consolidated Independent School District.

The child who died “was a precious young boy” who was a pre-K student at Tom Green Elementary School in Buda, according to Eric Wright, school district superintendent. The child's name was not released.

Wright said in addition to the two people who died, 51 others were injured, including the bus driver.

“This is a horrible and tragic day for our school district,” Wright said.

The bus was struck at about 2 p.m. when the concrete truck, which was traveling in the opposite direction, veered into the bus' lane, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Deon Cockrell said. He added that authorities told him initial information indicated the truck hit the bus head-on, causing it to roll over.

The man who was killed was in a vehicle that either ran into the back of the bus or maybe part of the concrete truck, Cockrell said. There was one person in the truck and one man in the other vehicle. Cockrell didn’t know how fast the vehicles were going.

Parents of the students on the bus were notified of the crash and all the children were reunited with their families by the evening, Wright said.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener, whose district includes Buda, said in a post on Facebook that her heart goes out to the families affected.

“In this terrible moment, our community must come together to support those who’ve lost loved ones and those who are recovering,” she wrote, also thanking first responders and school district employees who she said “saved lives today.”

Buda is about 16 miles southwest of Austin.

FBI sends letter to Alaska Airlines passengers warning of 'crime'

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 21:55

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The FBI sent a letter to passengers on an Alaska Airlines-operated Boeing 737 Max jet warning them they have been identified "as a possible victim of a crime," after the plane they were on experienced a door panel blowout midflight in January. 

The letter, dated March 19 and from the FBI's Seattle division, said the agency cannot tell the recipients about the progress of their investigation, but that one is currently underway. 

The FBI said, "Due to the large number of potential victims in this case," recipients of the letter would not likely receive additional letters, and referred recipients to the bureau's Victim Notification System for possible updates. 

Scripps News reached out to the FBI's Seattle Division for further comment on the letter and the investigation but didn't immediately receive a response. 

Attorney Mark Lindquist shared the letter with Scripps News, writing, "My firm's clients and I welcome the DOJ investigation. We want accountability, answers, and safer planes. The DOJ will help with all those goals."

The FBI, in its response to Scripps News wrote, "Per DOJ policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation."

In early March the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly launched a criminal probe to look into how the plane experienced a critical failure, and what led up to the panel blowout. 

SEE MORE: Repair footage goes missing amid Boeing, Alaska Airlines blowout probe

Days later, federal investigators said their work was being hindered after footage, believed to have shown repair work being made on the door plug of the 737 Max 9 jet, went missing. 

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a letter on March 13 to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation writing that investigators "still do not know who performed the work to open, reinstall, and close the door plug on the accident aircraft."

Days around March Madness most popular for vasectomy procedures

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 21:34

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The most common time for men to get vasectomies is around March Madness.

But why?

“We certainly see an influx of guys coming in to get vasectomies this time of year, and if you're going to have to talk a few days on the couch icing and recovering, you might as well do it when you can watch the NCAA tournament and catch some March Madness,” aid Dr. Jeff Morrison, a men’s health urologist with CU Urology and assistant professor of urology at the University of Colorado Department of Surgery.

The male birth control procedure only takes 15 to 20 minutes in a clinical setting, but the recovery time can take a few days.

The marketing behind it has also helped increase popularity.

For example, the Advanced Urology Associates refer to it as "vas-madness season” on its website. Different medical groups use it as a reason to market the procedure and schedule consultations.

“We see an influx of guys every spring trying to get vasectomies. And we actually carve out separate appointments and separate procedure slots to accommodate these men as they’re trying to fill in urology clinics,” Dr. Morrison said.

@scrippsnews Did you know the most common time for men to schedule vasectomies is around #MarchMadness? Urologists explain why. #healthtok ♬ original sound - Scripps News

But March Madness may not be the only reason there is more interest in vasectomies. One study found a rise in procedures and interest after federal protections for abortion rights were reversed in 2022.

“Vasectomy is the most effective and the only long-term option for male birth control. It’s a simple procedure,” Dr. Morrison said.

Who can get a vasectomy? Dr. Morrison said there’s no real age range.

“Anyone can have a vasectomy who wants one, typically it's men who have already fathered a pregnancy, have a few kids. Sometimes there’s other guys, younger guys, or guys without any kids who just have made up their mind,” he said.

Vasectomies are 99.99% effective, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

The procedure is reversible, but reversals are not guaranteed to work.

Dr. Morrison said it’s important to know that the procedure does not work right away. It’s also cost effective and covered by the majority of insurance plans.

Other times of the year vasectomies are common? Urologists say around the Masters Tournament and toward the end of the year before insurance runs out.

SEE MORE: Poll: Caitlin Clark is biggest name in NCAA basketball, male or female

Married Americans 'thriving' more amid lower marital rates, poll finds

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 21:26

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While marriage rates in the United States appear to be experiencing a post-pandemic recovery, according to recent federal data, rates have still trended in a declining direction according to study results shared by Gallup. 

In a recent poll the organization conducted, married Americans appear to be "thriving" at noticeably higher rates than American adults who are not married, or have never been married or who are divorced, the poll results found. 

Data found that married adults aged 25 to 50 were more likely to be thriving between 2009 and 2023, Gallup said. 

SEE MORE: Marriages in the US are back at pre-pandemic levels

Gallup has multiple categories for survey respondents: those who are "suffering," those who are "struggling" and those who are "thriving." To determine which category they belonged in, Gallup had respondents rate their lives now and in the future on a ladder scale with numbers between 0 and 10. 

The polling organization found that relationships in families appear to be stronger when parents are married. Couples living with children reported having a strong and loving relationship at 83%, and 69% of couples in a domestic partnership reported the same with 61% of respondents in a non-domestic exclusive relationship reporting strong and loving bonds. 

In a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health agency said it found that 2022 saw a significant increase in the amount of marriages across the United States.

Gallup said its research found that in the United States, married adults rated their lives higher than others for the last 15 years. Their data found that the act of having a strong intimate relationship with another adult is widely seen as a desirable situation, with marriage supporting that. 

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