More deaths are expected from vaping-related lung illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
Seven patients have died so far from the illnesses: two in California, and one each in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota and Oregon. Several of those victims also had underlying health conditions.
“We do expect others,” Schuchat said during a call with reporters Thursday.
The grim prediction comes as federal investigators launched a criminal investigation into the soaring number of illnesses nationwide, which has risen by 200 cases in recent days.
The Food and Drug Administration’s law enforcement arm, called the Office of Criminal Investigations, began looking into these cases shortly after the illnesses began popping up.
“The focus of their work is to identify what is making people sick, as well as a focus on the supply chain,” Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said on the call.
Zeller emphasized the FDA is not pursuing any charges against people who admit to vaping or otherwise using illicit drugs.
“We are in desperate need of facts and answers to questions,” said Zeller.
The CDC updated their case numbers Thursday, reporting that there were 530 cases in 38 states, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We’re seeing severe cases,” Schuchat told NBC News. She said patients often go to the hospital with shortness of breath related to a lung illness that appears to be a type of pneumonia.
“But instead of an infection, they appear to have a chemical injury,” Schuchat said.
The CDC is only counting cases that have been confirmed or are classified as highly probable because doctors have been able to rule out all other causes of the lung infection.
The new CDC case count may in fact be an underestimate of the actual number of vaping-related pulmonary injuries. Doctors in nearly every state are examining far more cases. Overall, 45 state health departments have reported investigations of more than 700 possible cases.
Many of those patients report having vaped a variety of products, often including THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, before getting sick. Patients have experienced coughing, fever, trouble breathing, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and general fatigue. Some have needed to be hospitalized in intensive care units and placed on ventilators.
We are in desperate need of facts and answers to questions
The CDC also provided a closer look at who is getting sick. A majority — 67 percent — are people between the ages of 18 and 34, with more than half under age 25.
Sixteen percent are minors under age 18, and 17 percent are over age 35. Nearly three-quarters are men.
In addition to the criminal probe, the FDA has tested 150 product samples for a broad range of chemicals, including painkillers, additives, pesticides, poisons and toxins.
No single ingredient or product has linked all of the cases.
The investigation is hampered in part by the lack of information coming from the patients themselves.
“Some individuals are unable to talk with public health professionals because of the severity of their illness, or there is hesitancy about sharing information about the products they’ve used, especially if they are illicit products,” said Dr. Jennifer Layden, chief medical officer and state epidemiologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
That state is reporting 69 cases of vaping-related pulmonary illnesses.
On Wednesday, new research from the University of Michigan showed a significant increase in the number of kids vaping nicotine products.
The survey found that, between 2017 and 2019, rates of vaping more than doubled among 8th graders, 10th graders and high school seniors.
More than 25 percent of 12th graders and more than 20 percent of high school sophomores said they’d vaped within the past month. And one in 11 kids in the 8th grade also admitted to vaping.
There has been a recent flurry of bans and proposed bans on flavored e-cigarettes at the federal, state and local levels in an attempt to curb the appeal of vaping to kids.
The Trump administration announced plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes a week ago, however it’s unclear how or when that ban would take effect.
Health officials in San Francisco, Michigan and New York have already enacted such bans.