Yuki Noguchi

Access Health CEO Jeff Fortenbacher's nonprofit tries to provide better health care by offering lower-cost health insurance and offering counseling and care to low-income and minority patients around Muskegon, Mich., where the rate of full vaccination in that population is at a mere 14%.

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Updated December 27, 2021 at 4:47 PM ET

For many Americans, the hunt for an at-home COVID test can be frustrating right now. In the aftermath of the holidays, drugstore shelves are bare in many places and states that have offered free over-the-counter tests, like Ohio and New Hampshire, ran out within hours.

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Caswell County, where William Crumpton works, runs along the northern edge of North Carolina and is a rural landscape of mostly former tobacco farms and the occasional fast-food restaurant.

"There are wide areas where cellphone signals are just nonexistent," Crumpton says. "Things like satellite radio are even a challenge."

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Struggle is nothing new to Foxx Whitford.

He grew up desperately poor in Fairfield, Calif., losing a beloved brother to epilepsy and getting evicted from his home as a child. As a teenager, he joined the Marines to help put himself through college and he completed a harrowing tour in Afghanistan. All of that hardship, he says, prepared him for one of his biggest life challenges: getting into and through nursing school during a pandemic.

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New Yorker Charlie Freyre's sinuses had been bothering him for weeks last winter, during a COVID-19 surge in the city. It was before vaccines became widely available.

"I was just trying to stay in my apartment as much as possible," Freyre says, so checking in with his doctor via an online appointment "just seemed like a more convenient option. And you know, it was very straightforward and very easy."

The desperate and frantic pace of hospital work in 2020 in New York, the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic at the time, was more chaotic than anything intensive care nurse Matthew Crecelius had ever seen. "It was like watching a bomb go off in slow motion," he says.

It is official: The pandemic's effect on America's waistline has been rough.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed 16 states now have obesity rates of 35% or higher. That's an increase of four states — Delaware, Iowa, Ohio and Texas — in just a year.

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As she does ahead of every school year, Karen Schwind and the team of school nurses she manages in the New Braunfels Independent School District in central Texas spent a lot of time checking every student's immunization records against the state's database.

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When a promising new drug to treat obesity was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for sale in the U.S. last month, it was the first such treatment to gain approval since 2014.

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By kindergarten, Kayla Northam's body had become a battleground. She and her mother fought daily over what she should eat and how much.

It was a message reinforced by her pediatrician: "He'd be telling us, 'She's overweight. You've got to get her to diet,' " Northam recalls from age 5 or 6. "I remember these conversations. But I was just always hungry. It was just never enough."

When it gave permission to fully vaccinated Americans to shed their masks in many situations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a tacit gamble: that easing mask rules will inspire more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

But that's far from a sure bet, say experts who study human behavior.

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Marcus Robinson wanted to follow the older brother he idolizes into military life. He also needed the Army benefits to help pay for college. "I had to do it because I didn't want my parents to worry about paying for school," the 18-year-old says.

But last year — midway through his senior year of high school — Robinson tipped the scales at 240 pounds, making him too heavy to qualify under the U.S. Army's fitness standards.

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Barber shop owner Angela Miller always hears about clients' family dysfunctions and financial struggles, but that's especially been the case during the pandemic.

"You hear everything," she says. Lost jobs. Lost family. She says she can very much relate.

"My business had to shut down for about four months, and I wasn't really financially prepared for that," says Miller, who says she normally pays bills ahead of time.

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