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2021 Year in Review: COVID and overdose deaths top health headlines

CBS' Naomi Ruchim looks back at the year's top medical stories

NEW YORK, NY (CBS News) - Three COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in the United States in 2021, yet the country saw twice the number of COVID deaths than the year before, with the pandemic death toll climbing to more than 800,000.

"We will reach the point where we will be able to get back to doing things the way we did before. But we're going to have to make sure that we get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's Chief Medical Advisor," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden.

Low vaccination rates in parts of the country, and the highly contagious Delta variant led to several surges in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

In April, there was a pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after some patients developed rare, but serious, blood clots. The CDC and FDA lifted the pause, finding the vaccine safe and effective. But, in December, the CDC recommended the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over the J&J shot, citing the rare blood clots linked to several deaths.

Pharmaceutical companies developed the first oral treatments for COVID. Merck's Molnupiravir was found to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by 30% if taken within five days of symptoms. Data showed Pfizer's antiviral pill appeared to cut risks by 89% when taken within three days.

"We are now expanding vaccine recommendations to more than 28 million children in the United States," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

By November, children ages five to 11 were finally able to roll up their sleeves for Pfizer's lower dose COVID vaccine.

"For our family this is a turning point in what has been an incredibly difficult 18 months," said mother Elizabeth Clay Roy.

The CDC issued stronger recommendations for everyone 18 and older to get booster shots, in response to the new Omicron variant, and amid evidence of waning vaccine immunity.

The pandemic pushed America's opioid epidemic to unprecedented levels. There were more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. from April 2020 to April 2021, a 28.5% increase from the year before.

Pandemic precautions did help stop the spread of flu last season, but it came back int he fall, with some large outbreaks reported.

"We were sort of taking in what we were looking at, which was incredible, it was a kidney that was immediately functioning," said Dr. Robert Montgomery, Director of the NYU Langone Transplant Institute & Chair of Surgery.

Scientists in New York performed a breakthrough in organ transplants, successfully attaching a pig kidney in a human body, kept alive on a ventilator.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gave the greenlight to the first malaria vaccine. The WHO said children across Africa should get the shots from Glaxo-Smith-Kline to help prevent millions of illnesses every year.

CBS News

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