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First Case Of New COVID Variant Confirmed In Mass.

CommonHealth (WBUR) - 2 hours 59 min ago

A Boston woman in her 20s who recently traveled to the United Kingdom has contracted a variant of COVID-19 that is thought to be more contagious than most cases of COVID.

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Black Americans Are Getting Vaccinated at Lower Rates Than White Americans

Kaiser Health News - 14 hours 8 min ago

Black Americans are receiving covid vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than white Americans in the first weeks of the chaotic rollout, according to a new KHN analysis.

About 3% of Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine so far. But in 16 states that have released data by race, white residents are being vaccinated at significantly higher rates than Black residents, according to the analysis — in many cases two to three times higher.

In the most dramatic case, 1.2% of white Pennsylvanians had been vaccinated as of Jan. 14, compared with 0.3% of Black Pennsylvanians.

The vast majority of the initial round of vaccines has gone to health care workers and staffers on the front lines of the pandemic — a workforce that’s typically racially diverse made up of physicians, hospital cafeteria workers, nurses and janitorial staffers.

If the rollout were reaching people of all races equally, the shares of people vaccinated whose race is known should loosely align with the demographics of health care workers. But in every state, Black Americans were significantly underrepresented among people vaccinated so far.

Access issues and mistrust rooted in structural racism appear to be the major factors leaving Black health care workers behind in the quest to vaccinate the nation. The unbalanced uptake among what might seem like a relatively easy-to-vaccinate workforce doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country’s dispersed population.

Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are dying from covid at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis. And non-Hispanic Black and Asian health care workers are more likely to contract covid and to die from it than white workers. (Hispanics can be of any race.)

“My concern now is if we don’t vaccinate the population that’s highest-risk, we’re going to see even more disproportional deaths in Black and brown communities,” said Dr. Fola May, a UCLA physician and health equity researcher. “It breaks my heart.”

Dr. Taison Bell, a University of Virginia Health System physician who serves on its vaccination distribution committee, stressed that the hesitancy among some Blacks about getting vaccinated is not monolithic. Nurses he spoke with were concerned it could damage their fertility, while a Black co-worker asked him about the safety of the Moderna vaccine since it was the company’s first such product on the market. Some floated conspiracy theories, while other Black co-workers just wanted to talk to someone they trust like Bell, who is also Black.

Dose 2 is in! Just some mild arm soreness that will probably be worse tomorrow. I’ll check in tomorrow to give an update. h/t: @gradydoctor for the T-shirt idea#RightToBareArms ???????? ???? #ShotOfHope#BlackMenInMedicine pic.twitter.com/56jAu0V5zy

— Dr. Taison Bell (@TaisonBell) January 5, 2021

But access issues persist, even in hospital systems. Bell was horrified to discover that members of environmental services — the janitorial staff — did not have access to hospital email. The vaccine registration information sent out to the hospital staff was not reaching them.

“That’s what structural racism looks like,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Those groups were seen and not heard — nobody thought about it.”

UVA Health spokesperson Eric Swenson said some of the janitorial crew were among the first to get vaccines and officials took additional steps to reach those not typically on email. He said more than 50% of the environmental services team has been vaccinated so far.

A Failure of Federal Response

As the public health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio, and a Black physician, Dr. Mysheika Roberts has a test for any new doctor she sees for care: She makes a point of not telling them she’s a physician. Then she sees if she’s talked down to or treated with dignity.

That’s the level of mistrust she says public health officials must overcome to vaccinate Black Americans — one that’s rooted in generations of mistreatment and the legacy of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks’ experience.

A high-profile Black religious group, the Nation of Islam, for example, is urging its members via its website not to get vaccinated because of what Minister Louis Farrakhan calls the “treacherous history of experimentation.” The group, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is well known for spreading conspiracy theories.

Public health messaging has been slow to stop the spread of misinformation about the vaccine on social media. The choice of name for the vaccine development, “Operation Warp Speed,” didn’t help; it left many feeling this was all done too fast.

Benjamin noted that while the nonprofit Ad Council has raised over $37 million for a marketing blitz to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, a government ad campaign from the Health and Human Services Department never materialized after being decried as too political during an election year.

“We were late to start the planning process,” Benjamin said. “We should have started this in April and May.”

And experts are clear: It shouldn’t merely be ads of famous athletes or celebrities getting the shots.

“We have to dig deep, go the old-fashioned way with flyers, with neighbors talking to neighbors, with pastors talking to their church members,” Roberts said.

Speed vs. Equity

Mississippi state Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that the shift announced Tuesday by the Trump administration to reward states that distribute vaccines quickly with more shots makes the rollout a “Darwinian process.”

Dobbs worries Black populations who may need more time for outreach will be left behind. Only 18% of those vaccinated in Mississippi so far are Black, in a state that’s 38% Black.

It might be faster to administer 100 vaccinations in a drive-thru location than in a rural clinic, but that doesn’t ensure equitable access, Dobbs said.

“Those with time, computer systems and transportation are going to get vaccines more than other folks — that’s just the reality of it,” Dobbs said.

In Washington, D.C, a digital divide is already evident, said Dr. Jessica Boyd, the chief medical officer of Unity Health Care, which runs several community health centers. After the city opened vaccine appointments to those 65 and older, slots were gone in a day. And Boyd’s staffers couldn’t get eligible patients into the system that fast. Most of those patients don’t have easy access to the internet or need technical assistance.

“If we’re going to solve the issues of inequity, we need to think differently,” Boyd said.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the limited supply of vaccine must also be considered.

“We are missing the boat on equity,” he said. “If we don’t step back and address that, it’s going to get worse.”

While Plescia is heartened by President-elect Joe Biden’s vow to administer 100 million doses in 100 days, he worries the Biden administration could fall into the same trap.

And the lack of public data makes it difficult to spot such racial inequities in real time. Fifteen states provided race data publicly, Missouri did so upon request, and eight other states declined or did not respond. Several do not report vaccination numbers separately for Native Americans and other groups, and some are missing race data for many of those vaccinated. The CDC plans to add race and ethnicity data to its public dashboard, but CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said it could not give a timeline for when.

Historical Hesitation

One-third of Black adults in the U.S. said they don’t plan to get vaccinated, citing the newness of the vaccine and fears about safety as the top deterrents, according to a December poll from KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.) Half of them said they were concerned about getting covid from the vaccine itself, which is not possible.

Experts say this kind of misinformation is a growing problem. Inaccurate conspiracy theories that the vaccines contain government tracking chips have gained ground on social media.

Just over half of Black Americans who plan to get the vaccine said they’d wait to see how well it’s working in others before getting it themselves, compared with 36% of white Americans. That hesitation can even be found in the health care workforce.

“We shouldn’t make the assumption that just because someone works in health care that they somehow will have better information or better understanding,” Bell said.

In Colorado, Black workers at Centura Health were 44% less likely to get the vaccine than their white counterparts. Latino workers were 22% less likely. The hospital system of more than 21,000 workers is developing messaging campaigns to reduce the gap.

“To reach the people we really want to reach, we have to do things in a different way, we can’t just offer the vaccine,” said Dr. Ozzie Grenardo, a senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Centura. “We have to go deeper and provide more depth to the resources and who is delivering the message.”

That takes time and personal connections. It takes people of all ethnicities within those communities, like Willy Nuyens.

Nuyens, who identifies as Hispanic, has worked for Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center for 33 years. Working on the environmental services staff, he’s now cleaning covid patients’ rooms. (KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

In Los Angeles County, 92% of health care workers and first responders who have died of covid were nonwhite. Nuyens has seen too many of his co-workers lose family to the disease. He jumped at the chance to get the vaccine but was surprised to hear only 20% of his 315-person department was doing the same.

So he went to work persuading his co-workers, reassuring them that the vaccine would protect them and their families, not kill them.

“I take two employees, encourage them and ask them to encourage another two each,” he said.

So far, uptake in his department has more than doubled to 45%. He hopes it will be over 70% soon.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Categories: Health Care

Gillette Stadium is Usually Busy In January. This Year, It's Because Of Vaccines

CommonHealth (WBUR) - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 9:22pm

Organizers plan to vaccinate 5,000 people a day at the stadium as priority groups expand, and will eventually offer injections around the clock.

Categories: Health Care

Somerville Is First Mass. Community To Move To Decriminalize Psychedelics

CommonHealth (WBUR) - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 6:07pm

"This is just another tool in the tool box in terms of what we have available to help with many of the afflictions that are affecting society today," said City Councilor Jesse Clingan, one of the sponsors of the resolution.

Categories: Health Care

Covid: 5 razones para seguir usando máscara después de vacunarse

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 2:23pm

Como médica de emergencias, la doctora Eugenia South fue parte del primer grupo de personas en recibir la vacuna contra covid. Tuvo su segunda dosis a principios de enero, incluso antes que el presidente electo Joe Biden.

Así y todo, South dice que no tiene apuro por dejar de usar máscara

“Honestamente, no creo que vuelva a estar sin máscara en el trabajo”, dijo South, quien es directora del Urban Health Lab de la Universidad de Pennsylvania en Philadelphia. “No creo que me sentiría segura”.

Aunque las vacunas contra covid son altamente efectivas, South planea seguir usando máscara dentro y fuera del hospital.

Expertos en salud dicen que hay buenas razones para seguir el ejemplo de esta doctora.

“El uso de máscaras y el distanciamiento social deberán continuar en el futuro, hasta que tengamos cierto nivel de inmunidad colectiva”, dijo el doctor Preeti Malani, oficial de salud jefe de la Universidad de Michigan. “Las máscaras y el distanciamiento están aquí para quedarse”.

Malani y otros expertos en salud explican cinco razones:

  1. Ninguna vacuna es 100% efectiva

Extensos ensayos clínicos hallaron que dos dosis de las vacunas de Moderna y Pfizer-BioNTech prevenían el 95% de las enfermedades causadas por el coronavirus. Si bien esos resultados son impresionantes, 1 de cada 20 personas queda desprotegida, dijo el doctor Tom Frieden, ex director de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC).

Malani señala que las vacunas se probaron en ensayos clínicos controlados, en los mejores centros médicos, en condiciones óptimas.

Pero en el mundo real, las vacunas suelen ser un poco menos efectivas. Los científicos usan términos específicos para describir el fenómeno. Se refieren a la protección que ofrecen las vacunas en los ensayos clínicos como “eficacia”, mientras que la inmunidad real que se obvserva en la población vacunada es “efectividad”.

La efectividad de las vacunas contra covid podría verse afectada por la forma en que se manipulan, observó Malani. El material genético utilizado en las vacunas elaboradas con ARN mensajero del coronavirus es tán frágil que debe almacenarse y transportarse con cuidado.

Cualquier variante que no siga la guía de manejo de vacunas de los CDC podría influir en su funcionamiento, explicó Malani.

  1. Las vacunas no brindan protección inmediata

Malani explicó que ninguna vacuna ofrece protección apenas la persona se vacuna. El sistema inmunológico tarda aproximadamente dos semanas en producir anticuerpos que bloquean las infecciones virales.

Las vacunas contra covid, sin embargo, tardarán un poco más que otras porque tanto la de Pfizer como la de Moderna, requieren de dos dosis. Las dosis de Pfizer se administran con tres semanas de diferencia, las de Moderna, con cuatro semanas.

Es decir que no habrá protección completa hasta cinco o seis semanas después de la primera dosis. Una persona que se vacunó el día de Año Nuevo no estará completamente protegida hasta el día de San Valentín.

  1. Es posible que las vacunas no impidan propagar el virus

Las vacunas pueden poporcionar dos niveles de protección. Por ejemplo, la vacuna contra el sarampión previene que el virus infecte un organismo, por lo que las personas vacunadas no transmiten la infección ni desarrollan síntomas.

La mayoría de las otras vacunas, como la de la gripe, evitan que las personas se enfermen pero no que se infecten o transmitan el virus a otros, explicó el doctor Paul Offit, asesor de los Institutos Nacionales de Salud (NIH) y de la Administración de Drogas y Alimentos (FDA) sobre las vacunas contra covid.

Si bien las vacunas contra covid claramente previenen la enfermedad, los científicos necesitan más tiempo para descubrir si también previenen la transmisión, dijo Saskia Popescu, epidemióloga con sede en Phoenix y profesora asistente en el programa de biodefensa de la Escuela Schar de Gobierno y Políticas de la Universidad George Mason.

“Todavía no sabemos si la vacuna protege contra la infección o solo contra la enfermedad”, dijo Frieden, quien ahora es director ejecutivo de Resolve to Save Lives, una iniciativa mundial de salud pública. “En otras palabras, una persona vacunada podría transmitir el virus, incluso si no se siente enferma”.

Hasta que los investigadores puedan responder esta pregunta, usar cubrebocas es la forma más segura para que las personas vacunadas protejan a quienes las rodean.

  1. Las máscaras protegen a personas con sistemas inmunitarios comprometidos

Las personas con cáncer tienen un riesgo particular de contraer covid. Estudios han mostrado que son más propensos a infectarse y a morir a causa del coronavirus. Y es posible que las vacunas no los protejan dijo el doctor Gary Lyman, profesor del Centro de Investigación del Cáncer Fred Hutchinson.

Los pacientes con cáncer son vulnerables en muchos aspectos. Las personas con cáncer de pulmón son menos capaces de combatir una neumonía, y los que están bajo quimioterapia o radioterapia tienen sistemas inmunes debilitados. La leucemia y el linfoma atacan directamente las células inmunitarias, lo que dificulta que los pacientes combatan el virus.

Lyman dijo que no se sabe cómo reaccionarán a la vacuna los pacientes oncológicos, porque fueron excluidos de los ensayos clínicos. A solo unos pocos participantes se les diagnóstico cáncer después de inscribirse. En este grupo, la protección de las vacunas solo fue del 76%.

“Por ahora, debemos asumir que los pacientes con cáncer pueden no experimentar el 95% de eficacia”, completó Lyman.

También hay algunas personas alérgicas que no pueden vacunarse.

Usar máscaras también ayuda a proteger a estos grupos más vulnerables.

  1. Las máscaras protegen contra cualquier cepa del coronavirus, la original y las nuevas mutaciones

Líderes a nivel global están muy preocupados por las nuevas variantes genéticas del coronavirus, que al parecer son 50% más contagiosas.

Hasta ahora, los estudios sugieren que las vacunas protegerán contra estas cepas. Pero es claro, según explicó Frieden, que los cubrebocas, la distancia física y medidas como evitar multitudes protegen contra todas las formas del virus, y de otros virus respiratorios.

Por ejemplo, los casos de gripe bajaron dramáticamente en todo el mundo desde que se implementaron las cuarentenas y el uso de máscaras.

Lo ideal es combinar las vacunas con las máscaras y el distanciamiento, para poner fin a la pandemia, dijo Offit. “Los tres enfoques funcionan mejor en equipo”.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Biden Terms Vaccine Rollout ‘A Dismal Failure’ as He Unveils His Pandemic Response Plan

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 8:14am

In the past 24 hours, President-elect Joe Biden has delivered two speeches focused on the nation’s covid response.

Thursday night, he laid out a $1.9 trillion-dollar plan to address what he’s calling the “twin crises” of the covid-19 pandemic and the economy.

Biden proposed, among other things, that Congress allocate funds for implementing a national vaccination program, reopening schools, sending $1,400 checks to Americans who need them, providing support for small businesses, and extending unemployment insurance. He also proposed increasing subsidies for Affordable Care Act insurance coverage, and providing more assistance for housing, nutrition and child care.

The plan is ambitious and will likely face some pushback in Congress. (Read PolitiFact’s analysis here.)

Friday afternoon he offered a more detailed take on his vaccine distribution plan.

On his first day in office, he said, he will instruct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start setting up mass vaccination centers across the country. Biden promised to have 100 of these sites set up by the end of his first month in office.

He also said his administration will work with pharmacies across the country to distribute vaccine more effectively and employ the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate vaccine supplies. His administration will also launch a public education campaign to address vaccine hesitancy and ensure that marginalized communities will be reached.

Biden maintained during the speech that he intends to reach the goal of “100 million shots the first 100 days in office.” He also said he will stick with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest recommendation to distribute covid vaccines to those who are 65 and older, as well as essential workers, to push states to allocate the supply quickly.

During his Thursday speech outlining what he’s dubbed the “American Rescue Plan,” Biden made several claims about the current response to the pandemic and how it’s affecting Americans. We fact-checked and gave context to a couple of the president-elect’s statements.

“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far.”

The vaccine rollout is far short of what officials promised. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker, since mid-December, when vaccines first started being distributed, about 30 million doses have been sent out. But only about 11 million have actually been administered into the arms of Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services had initially issued a goal of administering 20 million doses by the end of December.

A key reason for the slow pace, experts said, is that many state and local health departments lack the funding and resources to execute such a mass vaccination campaign. Communication with the federal government has also been dicey. Many states have complained that they aren’t informed about how much vaccine they will receive and when — making logistical planning difficult. In addition, the outgoing Trump administration recently changed its recommendations for who should qualify, adding an additional layer of confusion.

Still, public health experts say part of the reason the initial rollout was slow was that it occurred during the December holidays, when many locations were understaffed. And since Congress approved a second covid stimulus bill, states will receive about $3 billion in funding, which will help efforts.

“One in 7 households in America — more than 1 in 5 Black and Latino households in America — report they don’t have enough food to eat.”

This is accurate. Estimates vary on the exact number of Americans who live in households that are food insecure, but Biden’s numbers match recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers translate to about 14% of all households and 20% of Black and Latino households.

The Census Bureau estimates food insecurity throughout the pandemic in a weekly report. According to numbers from December, 14% of all adults in the country reported their households sometimes or often not having enough food to eat in the last seven days. The data from December also shows that 24% of Black households and 21% of Latino households did not have enough to eat.

A Northwestern University study estimates that at one point during the pandemic, nearly 23% of households experienced food insecurity.

“These crises are straining the budgets of states and cities and tribal communities that are forced to consider layoff and service restrictions of the most needed workers.”

This is accurate. State and local governments generally by law are required to balance their operating budgets, resulting in layoffs and reductions in services — though federal aid provided through covid relief helped. Late last year, the Brookings Institution projected state and local revenues would decline by $155 billion in 2020 and $167 billion in 2021. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states and localities had furloughed or laid off 1.2 million workers through October 2020. Brookings also noted that, because state and local governments “are at the forefront of the response to the pandemic” they “will likely need to increase their typical spending to provide crucial public health services and help communities adapt to social distancing guidelines.”

Additionally, news reports starting early last summer detail a high number of health care workers being laid off or losing their jobs during the pandemic. Public health workers have also been furloughed or had their hours cut, despite having to create covid testing sites, initiate contact tracing programs and now create mass vaccination campaigns.

“Over the last year alone, over 600,000 educators have lost their jobs in our cities and towns.”

This is a softened version of a previous claim about laid-off “teachers” that we rated Mostly False. This number likely refers to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows the number of local government education jobs declined from March to October by 666,000.

But that number doesn’t refer only to layoffs. Rather, it notes a net decrease in jobs. Reports show that, during the pandemic, some educators have quit, retired or taken a leave of absence.

It’s also not clear what type of educators Biden is referring to, and though the BLS does track layoff data by industry, it lumps state and local education data together, which means public college staff numbers are included. The BLS data shows that from March to October 39,000 state and local educators were laid off or discharged.

Source List:

Associated Press, “Teacher Departures Leave Schools Scrambling for Substitutes,” Sept. 13, 2020

Becker’s Hospital Review, “Record Number of Healthcare Workers Laid Off, Furloughed During Pandemic,” June 5, 2020

The Brookings Institution, “How Much Is COVID-19 Hurting State and Local Revenues?” Sept. 24, 2020

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics Survey (National), accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID Data Tracker – Vaccinations, accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effect on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” Jan. 8, 2021 (updated Jan. 15)

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Pandemic’s Impact on State Revenues Less Than Earlier Expected But Still Severe,” Oct. 30, 2020

U.S. Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey Data Tables, accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Kaiser Health News and Associated Press, “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus,” July 1, 2020

Northwestern University, “How Much Has Food Insecurity Risen? Evidence from the Census Household Pulse Survey,” June 10, 2020

NPR, “As Hospitals Lose Revenue, More Than a Million Health Care Workers Lose Jobs,” May 8, 2020

PolitiFact, “Biden Mischaracterizes Teacher Layoffs From Pandemic,” Nov. 20, 2020

Rev.com, “Joe Biden Speech Transcript on COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan,” accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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CVS and Walgreens Under Fire for Slow Pace of Vaccination in Nursing Homes

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 7:00am

The effort to vaccinate some of the country’s most vulnerable residents against covid-19 has been slowed by a federal program that sends retail pharmacists into nursing homes — accompanied by layers of bureaucracy and logistical snafus.

As of Thursday, more than 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid vaccines had been allocated to the federal pharmacy partnership, which has deputized pharmacy teams from Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate nursing home residents and workers. Since the program started in some states on Dec. 21, however, they have administered about one-quarter of the doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the country, some nursing home directors and health care officials say the partnership is actually hampering the vaccination process by imposing paperwork and cumbersome corporate policies on facilities that are thinly staffed and reeling from the devastating effects of the coronavirus. They argue that nursing homes are unique medical facilities that would be better served by medical workers who already understand how they operate.

Mississippi’s state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said the partnership “has been a fiasco.”

The state has committed 90,000 vaccine doses to the effort, but the pharmacies had administered only 5% of those shots as of Thursday, Dobbs said. Pharmacy officials told him they’re having trouble finding enough people to staff the program.

Dobbs pointed to neighboring Alabama and Louisiana, which he says are vaccinating long-term care residents at four times the rate of Mississippi.

“We’re getting a lot of angry people because it’s going so slowly, and we’re unhappy too,” he said.

Many of the nursing homes that have successfully vaccinated willing residents and staff members are doing so without federal help.

For instance, Los Angeles Jewish Home, with roughly 1,650 staff members and 1,100 residents on four campuses, started vaccinating Dec. 30. By Jan. 11, the home’s medical staff had administered its 1,640th dose. Even the facility’s chief medical director, Noah Marco, helped vaccinate.

The home is in Los Angeles County, which declined to participate in the CVS/Walgreens program. Instead, it has tasked nursing homes with administering vaccines themselves, and is using only Moderna’s easier-to-handle product, which doesn’t need to be stored at ultracold temperatures, like the Pfizer vaccine. (Both vaccines require two doses to offer full protection, spaced 21 to 28 days apart.)

By contrast, Mariner Health Central, which operates 20 nursing homes in California, is relying on the federal partnership for its homes outside of L.A. County. One of them won’t be getting its first doses until next week.

“It’s been so much worse than anybody expected,” said the chain’s chief medical officer, Dr. Karl Steinberg. “That light at the end of the tunnel is dim.”

Nursing homes have experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. Though they house less than 1% of the nation’s population, nursing homes have accounted for 37% of deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Facilities participating in the federal partnership typically schedule three vaccine clinics over the course of nine to 12 weeks. Ideally, those who are eligible and want a vaccine will get the first dose at the first clinic and the second dose three to four weeks later. The third clinic is considered a makeup day for anyone who missed the others. Before administering the vaccines, the pharmacies require the nursing homes to obtain consent from residents and staffers.

Despite the complaints of a slow rollout, CVS and Walgreens said they’re on track to finish giving the first doses by Jan. 25, as promised.

“Everything has gone as planned, save for a few instances where we’ve been challenged or had difficulties making contact with long-term care facilities to schedule clinics,” said Joe Goode, a spokesperson for CVS Health.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, acknowledged some delays through the partnership, but said that’s to be expected because this kind of effort has never before been attempted.

“There’s a feeling they’ll get up to speed with it and it will be helpful, as health departments are pretty overstretched,” Plescia said.

But any delay puts lives at risk, said Dr. Michael Wasserman, the immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine.

“I’m about to go nuclear on this,” he said. “There should never be an excuse about people not getting vaccinated. There’s no excuse for delays.”

Bringing in Vaccinators

Nursing homes are equipped with resources that could have helped the vaccination effort — but often aren’t being used.

Most already work with specialized pharmacists who understand the needs of nursing homes and administer medications and yearly vaccinations. These pharmacists know the patients and their medical histories, and are familiar with the apparatus of nursing homes, said Linda Taetz, chief compliance officer for Mariner Health Central.

“It’s not that they aren’t capable,” Taetz said of the retail pharmacists. “They just aren’t embedded in our buildings.”

If a facility participates in the federal program, it can’t use these or any other pharmacists or staffers to vaccinate, said Nicole Howell, executive director for Ombudsman Services of Contra Costa, Solano and Alameda counties.

But many nursing homes would like the flexibility to do so because they believe it would speed the process, help build trust and get more people to say yes to the vaccine, she said.

Howell pointed to West Virginia, which relied primarily on local, independent pharmacies instead of the federal program to vaccinate its nursing home residents.

The state opted against the partnership largely because CVS/Walgreens would have taken weeks to begin shots and Republican Gov. Jim Justice wanted them to start immediately, said Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Health Care Association, which represents the state’s long-term care facilities.

The bulk of the work is being done by more than 60 pharmacies, giving the state greater control over how the doses were distributed, Wright said. The pharmacies were joined by Walgreens in the second week, he said, though not as part of the federal partnership.

“We had more interest from local pharmacies than facilities we could partner them up with,” Wright said. Preliminary estimates show that more than 80% of residents and 60% of staffers in more than 200 homes got a first dose by the end of December, he said.

Goode from CVS said his company’s participation in the program is being led by its long-term care division, which has deep experience with nursing homes. He noted that tens of thousands of nursing homes — about 85% nationally, according to the CDC — have found that reassuring enough to participate.

“That underscores the trust the long-term care community has in CVS and Walgreens,” he said.

Vaccine recipients don’t pay anything out-of-pocket for the shots. The costs of purchasing and administering them are covered by the federal government and health insurance, which means CVS and Walgreens stand to make a lot of money: Medicare is reimbursing $16.94 for the first shot and $28.39 for the second.

Bureaucratic Delays

Technically, federal law doesn’t require nursing homes to obtain written consent for vaccinations.

But CVS and Walgreens require them to get verbal or written consent from residents or family members, which must be documented on forms supplied by the pharmacies.

Goode said consent hasn’t been an impediment so far, but many people on the ground disagree. The requirements have slowed the process as nursing homes collect paper forms and Medicare numbers from residents, said Tracy Greene Mintz, a social worker who owns Senior Care Training, which trains and deploys social workers in more than 100 facilities around California.

In some cases, social workers have mailed paper consent forms to families and waited to get them back, she said.

“The facilities are busy trying to keep residents alive,” Greene Mintz said. “If you want to get paid from Medicare, do your own paperwork,” she suggested to CVS and Walgreens.

Scheduling has also been a challenge for some nursing homes, partly because people who are actively sick with covid shouldn’t be vaccinated, the CDC advises.

“If something comes up — say, an entire building becomes covid-positive — you don’t want the pharmacists coming because nobody is going to get the vaccine,” said Taetz of Mariner Health.

Both pharmacy companies say they work with facilities to reschedule when necessary. That happened at Windsor Chico Creek Care and Rehabilitation in Chico, California, where a clinic was pushed back a day because the facility was awaiting covid test results for residents. Melissa Cabrera, who manages the facility’s infection control, described the process as streamlined and professional.

In Illinois, about 12,000 of the state’s roughly 55,000 nursing home residents had received their first dose by Sunday, mostly through the CVS/Walgreens partnership, said Matt Hartman, executive director of the Illinois Health Care Association.

While Hartman hopes the pharmacies will finish administering the first round by the end of the month, he noted that there’s a lot of “headache” around scheduling the clinics, especially when homes have outbreaks.

“Are we happy that we haven’t gotten through round one and West Virginia is done?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”

KHN correspondent Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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'Forgotten' Seniors In Mass. Low-Income Housing Get Their Place In The Coronavirus Vaccine Line

CommonHealth (WBUR) - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:58am

Tens of thousands of older adults who live in low-income housing in Massachusetts can now expect to start getting coronavirus vaccines next month, state officials say.

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Journalists Examine How Covid Polarizes Communities

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:00am

California Healthline senior correspondent Anna Maria Barry-Jester discussed public health backlash on WABE’s “Did You Wash Your Hands?” on Jan. 5.

KHN Colorado correspondent Rae Ellen Bichell dissected how covid-19 exacerbates tensions between counties in Colorado on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” on Jan. 9.

KHN chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner talked about mental health care and the pandemic on WAMU/NPR’s “1A” on Jan. 11.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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When Covid Deaths Aren’t Counted, Families Pay the Price

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:00am

This story also ran on The Guardian. It can be republished for free.

On Sundays, Bishop Bruce Davis preached love. Through his Pentecostal ministry, he organized youth parades and gave computers, bicycles and food to families in need.

During the week, Bruce practiced what he preached, caring for prisoners at a Georgia hospital. On March 27 he began coughing, and on April 1 he was hospitalized. He’d tested positive for covid-19. The virus swept through his household, infecting his wife and daughter and hospitalizing their disabled son. Ten days after landing in the hospital, Bruce died.

But when Gwendolyn Davis received her husband’s death certificate, she was taken aback. The causes of death? Sepsis and renal failure. No mention of covid-19.

“He wouldn’t have had kidney failure if he didn’t have covid,” Gwendolyn said.

After Bruce died, his wife applied to two pandemic relief programs seeking help with $1,500 in missed payments on a truck and an electricity bill. But, she said, she was denied because his death certificate didn’t mention covid-19.

“I think it’s wrong,” Gwendolyn said. “It’s almost like we didn’t count.”

The count has profound implications for families and the country. Omitting covid-19 on death certificates threatens to undercount the toll of the pandemic nationwide. For Davis’ family and others, it can pile financial hardship onto emotional despair, as death benefits and other covid-19 relief programs are withheld. Interviews with families across the U.S. shed light on reasons covid deaths are being undercounted — and the consequences loved ones have endured.

When covid patients die, the “immediate” cause of death is always something else, such as respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. Residents, doctors, medical examiners and coroners make the call on whether covid was an underlying factor, or “contributory cause.” If so, the diagnosis should be included on the death certificate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even beyond the pandemic, there is wide variation in how certifiers describe causes of death: “There’s just no such thing as an objective measure of cause of death,” said Lee Anne Flagg, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Partly because of a lack of training in how to fill them out, “the quality of the death certificates is not good,” said Dr. James Gill, vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. And in cases in which people had other chronic conditions, it can be difficult to determine whether covid was a contributing cause of death, he said. That was especially true early on, when reliable testing was not widely available.

Since early in the pandemic, the CDC has encouraged certifiers who suspect covid as a cause of death to list it on the death certificate as “probable” or “likely.”

Still, some clinicians are “reluctant to certify a death as a covid death without a test in hand,” Gill said.

It’s not clear how Bruce Davis’ case slipped under the radar. His death was certified by William Ken Garland, deputy coroner in Baldwin County. Reached by phone, Garland said the causes of death were provided by Dr. Joseph Coppiano, a medical resident who pronounced Davis dead at Augusta University Medical Center, about 90 miles away. No autopsy was done.

“I did certify the record, but that’s about all I did,” Garland said.

Hospital spokesperson Danielle Harris declined to comment on the case, citing patient privacy. She said the hospital follows Georgia Department of Public Health guidelines.

In the absence of certainty, the CDC has encouraged coroners to document the virus. “We’re not worried that we’re overcounting the number of [covid-19] deaths,” Farida Ahmad, epidemiologist and mortality surveillance team leader at NCHS, said in April.

Missed cases are one reason that experts agree covid deaths are being undercounted nationwide. As evidence for that, they point to the vast number of excess deaths — additional deaths compared to what would be expected based on prior-year numbers and demographic trends.

Over the past year, the U.S. had endured up to 431,792 excess deaths as of Jan. 6, with 68% directly attributed to covid, according to the CDC.

These excess deaths “tend to track pretty closely with covid cases, trailing by a couple of weeks,” said Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health who has published on this topic. “This strongly suggests that a large proportion of these uncounted deaths are due to covid but not recorded as such.”

We may never know how many covid deaths went uncounted: Postmortem tests can detect the virus, but it’s “unlikely that this type of testing will be performed at a [sufficient] scale,” Weinberger said. Early in the pandemic, especially in the Northeast, many of those who were treated clinically for covid and then died were not tested for the virus — so they never made it into the statistics.

Testing Troubles Affect Lawsuits, Hospital Bills

Inaccurate death certificates can make it harder to pursue a lawsuit or win a workers’ compensation case when a loved one dies after contracting covid on the job. Gwendolyn Davis did win workers’ compensation death benefits from Bruce’s employer, a state psychiatric facility in Milledgeville, by providing medical records. But problems with covid testing can complicate the process.

Bruce’s supervisor at work, Mark DeLong, also died after contracting covid, but it did not appear on his death certificate with the other causes: cardiopulmonary arrest, respiratory failure and diabetes.

The omission on DeLong’s certificate seemed to stem from a delay in test results: His covid-positive results didn’t arrive until three days after he died, according to his widow, Jan DeLong. She has asked the local coroner to correct the record.

In New Jersey, attorney Paul da Costa represents 75 family members who lost loved ones at veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus in April and May. He said he knows of at least five patients whose death certificates did not list covid-19 despite evidence suggesting it killed them.

The root problem, he said, was a “complete dearth of testing.” Patients were transferred to hospitals, or dying in the veterans facilities, without ever being tested, he said.

The gap between excess deaths and confirmed covid deaths has “narrowed over time as testing has increased,” Weinberger said.

Early testing inaccuracy may also have led to undercounting, which creates a different burden: hospital bills. Without a diagnosis, families can be on the hook for thousands of dollars in charges that otherwise would have been covered under the CARES Act.

Correcting the Record

In some cases, families have sought to have death certificates changed to reflect covid. Dorothy Payton, 95, who lived in the ManorCare nursing home in Denver, first showed covid symptoms April 5. Five days later, Payton — known as “Nana Dee” — tested positive for it. And on April 13, her husband, Edward Benjamin, received a call that she had died.

The death certificate offered a litany of causes: vascular dementia, atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, gait instability, difficulty swallowing and “failure to thrive.”

But not covid-19. So it “seemed logical to fight for listing her cause of death under her cause of death,” Benjamin said.

After a few calls, her husband was able to get the certificate amended. ManorCare could not be reached for comment.

For Benjamin, it wasn’t about public health statistics or financial considerations. It simply offers a sense of closure.

“I want her life and death remembered the way it was, and I’m glad we set the record straight,” he said. “It’s the first step towards moving on.”

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Geography Is Destiny: Dentists’ Access to Covid Shots Depends on Where They Live

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:00am
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Dr. Monte Junker, an Oregon dentist, is waiting for his turn to get vaccinated for covid even though he considers himself a front-line health worker.

“If they offered it to me today, I would be there,” he said.

In December, just before the first vaccines were cleared for emergency use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immunization advisory board recommended that health care workers — as well as nursing home residents and staff members — be the first to be inoculated because of their high risks of infection.

But Oregon is one of a handful of states, including Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, that have put dentists lower in priority order than other health professionals who treat patients — even though they have their hands in people’s mouths and are exposed to aerosols that spray germs in their faces during procedures.

As a result, dentists in those states must wait while many of their peers got their shots in December.

Dr. Tam Le, president of the Connecticut State Dental Association, was vaccinated in December along with employees at his practice in Cheshire. He said he lobbied the state to include dentists with other front-line hospital and health workers.

“In Connecticut, we are doing really well,” he said, noting that the state set up an online registration system for eligible health workers and then contacted them about when and where they could get the vaccine. Le said he and his staff went to a nearby community health center for their shots.

Dentists gained goodwill from state officials last spring by donating gloves and masks to hospitals, Le said. They also offered to help administer the shots since they have experience with that.

States are increasingly diverging from CDC guidance in their vaccination plans, according to an analysis by KFF. “Timelines vary significantly across states, regardless of priority group, resulting in a vaccine rollout labyrinth across the country,” the report said. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The American Dental Association said it’s aware that the lack of a national immunization strategy has meant that dentists and their staffs are not being treated equally across the country.

The CDC advisory board included dentists when it recommended that front-line health workers get priority.

“Each state government’s approach to vaccination will be different based on populations and need, but all dental team members should be prioritized in the first-tier distribution as the vaccines roll out by the different state and county public health departments,” said Daniel Klemmedson, the ADA president. An oral surgeon in Arizona, he has been vaccinated.

In Florida, dentists and their staffs are included among front-line workers eligible for vaccines in the first wave, but a lack of supply has hindered some from getting their shots, according to Drew Eason, CEO of the Florida Dental Association. Some county health departments have also incorrectly turned dentists away, he added.

Dr. Cindy Roark, a Boca Raton dentist and chief clinical officer of Sage Dental, which has 15 offices in Florida and Georgia, said she has no idea when she’ll get vaccinated. She said Georgia dentists in her company have been vaccinated, while those in Florida must wait. The only exceptions appear to be the relatively few dentists affiliated with hospitals. “We are equally vulnerable,” she said.

Still, Roark said she is not upset. “I know I can protect myself,” she said, adding that her office staffers wear N95 masks, face shields and gloves to protect themselves and patients. “Most dentists feel completely safe running their practice and preventing transmission.”

Junker, regional dental director at Advantage Dental in The Dalles, Oregon, said he understands that intensive care staff members, emergency department workers and the elderly in nursing homes need the vaccine first.

“But we are definitely up there for the copious quantities of aerosol in our faces each day,” he said. “The atmosphere is highly concentrated” with virus.

He’s upset at the poor planning and coordination between states and the federal government to make dentists a priority.

In cases where hospital staffers are declining the vaccine because they don’t trust it, Junker said, hospitals should offer shots to dentists and others who are eager for them.

“I don’t think it’s fair for them to sit on the vaccine for a month or two. It needs to get used, and if the hospital workers later decide to get vaccinated, they can get back in line,” he said.

Dr. Stan Hardesty, a Raleigh, North Carolina, dentist and president of the state dental society, said it’s disappointing to see dentists in other states get the vaccine while he and his colleagues have been told to wait.

“We have been advocating on behalf of our members to have dentists and our team members included in phase 1a as recommended by the CDC,” he said. “Unfortunately, the decision-makers [in the state government] have decided to utilize a different prioritization in their vaccine implementation.”

North Carolina dentists will be in “phase 1b,” which includes adults 75 and older, essential workers such as police officers and firefighters.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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5 Reasons to Wear a Mask Even After You’re Vaccinated

Kaiser Health News - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 5:00am

As an emergency physician, Dr. Eugenia South was in the first group of people to receive a covid vaccine. She received her second dose last week  — even before President-elect Joe Biden.

Yet South said she’s in no rush to throw away her face mask.

“I honestly don’t think I’ll ever go without a mask at work again,” said South, faculty director of the Urban Health Lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe doing that.”

And although covid vaccines are highly effective, South plans to continue wearing her mask outside the hospital as well.

Health experts say there are good reasons to follow her example.

“Masks and social distancing will need to continue into the foreseeable future — until we have some level of herd immunity,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “Masks and distancing are here to stay.”

Malani and other health experts explained five reasons Americans should hold on to their masks:

1. No vaccine is 100% effective.

Large clinical trials found that two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines prevented 95% of illnesses caused by the coronavirus. While those results are impressive, 1 in 20 people are left unprotected, said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Malani notes that vaccines were tested in controlled clinical trials at top medical centers, under optimal conditions.

In the real world, vaccines are usually slightly less effective. Scientists use specific terms to describe the phenomenon. They refer to the protection offered by vaccines in clinical trials as “efficacy,” while the actual immunity seen in a vaccinated population is “effectiveness.”

The effectiveness of covid vaccines could be affected by the way they’re handled, Malani said. The genetic material used in mRNA vaccines — made with messenger RNA from the coronavirus — is so fragile that it has to be carefully stored and transported.

Any variation from the CDC’s strict guidance could influence how well vaccines work, Malani said.

2. Vaccines don’t provide immediate protection.

No vaccine is effective right away, Malani said. It takes about two weeks for the immune system to make the antibodies that block viral infections.

Covid vaccines will take a little longer than other inoculations, such as the flu shot, because both the Moderna and Pfizer products require two doses. The Pfizer shots are given three weeks apart; the  Moderna shots, four weeks apart.

In other words, full protection won’t arrive until five or six weeks after the first shot. So, a person vaccinated on New Year’s Day won’t be fully protected until Valentine’s Day.

3. Covid vaccines may not prevent you from spreading the virus.

Vaccines can provide two levels of protection. The measles vaccine prevents viruses from causing infection, so vaccinated people don’t spread the infection or develop symptoms.

Most other vaccines — including flu shots — prevent people from becoming sick but not from becoming infected or passing the virus to others, said Dr. Paul Offit, who advises the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration on covid vaccines.

While covid vaccines clearly prevent illness, researchers need more time to figure out whether they prevent transmission, too, said Phoenix-based epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“We don’t yet know if the vaccine protects against infection, or only against illness,” said Frieden, now CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health initiative. “In other words, a vaccinated person might still be able to spread the virus, even if they don’t feel sick.”

Until researchers can answer that question, Frieden said, wearing masks is the safest way for vaccinated people to protect those around them.

4. Masks protect people with compromised immune systems.

People with cancer are at particular risk from covid. Studies show they’re more likely  than others to become infected and die from the virus, but may not be protected by vaccines, said Dr. Gary Lyman, a professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Cancer patients are vulnerable in multiple ways. People with lung cancer are less able to fight off pneumonia, while those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment have weakened immune systems. Leukemia and lymphoma attack immune cells directly, which makes it harder for patients to fight off the virus.

Doctors don’t know much about how people with cancer will respond to vaccines, because they were excluded from randomized trials, Lyman said. Only a handful of study participants were diagnosed with cancer after enrolling. Among those people, covid vaccines protected only 76%.

Although the vaccines appear safe, “prior studies with other vaccines raise concerns that immunosuppressed patients, including cancer patients, may not mount as great an immune response as healthy patients,” Lyman said. “For now, we should assume that patients with cancer may not experience the 95% efficacy.”

Some people aren’t able to be vaccinated.

While most people with allergies can receive covid vaccines safely, the CDC advises those who have had severe allergic reactions to vaccine ingredients, including polyethylene glycol, to avoid vaccination. The agency also warns people who have had dangerous allergic reactions to a first vaccine dose to skip the second.

Lyman encourages people to continue wearing masks to protect those with cancer and others who won’t be fully protected.

5. Masks protect against any strain of the coronavirus, in spite of genetic mutations.

Global health leaders are extremely concerned about new genetic variants of the coronavirus, which appear to be at least 50% more contagious than the original.

So far, studies suggest vaccines will still work against these new strains.

One thing is clear: Public health measures — such as avoiding crowds, physical distancing and masks — reduce the risk of contracting all strains of the coronavirus, as well as other respiratory diseases, Frieden said. For example, the number of flu cases worldwide has been dramatically lower since countries began asking citizens to stay home and wear masks.

“Masks will remain effective,” Malani said. “But careful and consistent use will be essential.”

The best hope for ending the pandemic isn’t to choose between masks, physical distancing and vaccines, Offit said, but to combine them. “The three approaches work best as a team,” he said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: On Capitol Hill, Actions Have Consequences

Kaiser Health News - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 2:15pm

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The reverberations from the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump continue. A broad array of business groups, including many from the health industry, are halting contributions to Republicans in the House and Senate who voted against certifying the victory of President-elect Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House who have refused to wear masks or insisted on carrying weapons are being subjected to greater enforcement, including significant fines.

Away from the Capitol, the Trump administration has granted a first-in-the-nation waiver to Tennessee to turn its Medicaid program into a block grant, which would give the state potentially less federal money but more flexibility to structure the federal-state health program for those with low incomes. And in its waning days, the administration is moving to make its last-minute policies harder for Biden to undo.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times and Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The decision by industry groups to cut their political contributions to some Republican lawmakers could reshape businesses’ relationships on Capitol Hill. But it’s still not clear if this announcement will affect the vast sums of political contributions that come through PACs and other unnamed sources, as well as individual contributions from corporate officials.
  • The slow start of the covid vaccination campaign points to the tension between the need to steer the vaccine to people at high risk of contracting the disease and the concerns about wasting the precious medicine. Because the vaccines that have been approved for emergency use have a relatively short shelf life, some doses may go to waste if they are reserved for specific populations.
  • The response to the vaccine among health care workers varies widely. In some areas, staffers are eager to get the shots, while in other places, some workers have been hesitant and the shots are going unused. And the federal government has not provided a strong public messaging campaign about the vaccines.
  • The Trump administration’s announcement last week that it would move to convert Tennessee’s Medicaid program to a block grant program is raising concerns among advocates for the poor, who fear that the flexibility the state is gaining could lead to enrollees getting less care, especially since the state will get a hefty portion of any savings it finds in running the program.
  • It may not be easy for the Biden administration to change this decision. Federal officials in recent weeks have been sending states, including Tennessee, letters to sign that could protect the Medicaid waivers they have received from the Trump administration and could serve as a legal guarantee that would require a long, difficult process to unwind.
  • Mental health care may be a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. As states look to balance their budgets after a year in which revenues were slashed, they may turn to cutting mental health care services provided through Medicaid and other programs.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Victoria Knight, who wrote the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature — about an unusually large bill for in-network care. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week that they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Young ER doctors Risk Their Lives on the Pandemic’s Front Line. But They Struggle to Find Jobs,” by Ben Guarino

Margot Sanger-Katz: The New York Times’ “Why You’re Probably Not So Great at Risk Assessment,” by AC Shilton

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks?” by Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard

Kimberly Leonard: Business Insider’s “I Was Offered a Covid Vaccine Even Though I’m Young and Healthy. Here’s How I Did It,” by Kimberly Leonard

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Sheriff's Survey: Many Mass. Prisoners May Be Reluctant To Receive COVID-19 Vaccine

CommonHealth (WBUR) - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:13pm

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian conducted a baseline survey of more than 400 prisoners. Almost 60% of the respondents said they would refuse an FDA-approved vaccine if it was offered now at no cost.

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Vaccination Disarray Leaves Seniors Confused About When They Can Get a Shot

Kaiser Health News - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 5:00am
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For weeks, doctors’ phones have been ringing off the hook with anxious older patients on the other end of the line.

“When can I get a covid-19 vaccine?” these patients want to know. “And where?”

Frustration and confusion are rampant as states and counties begin to offer vaccines to all seniors after giving them first to front-line health care workers and nursing home residents — the groups initially given priority by state and federal authorities.

My 91-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in upstate New York, was one of those callers. She said her doctor’s office told her it could be several months before she can get her first shot.

That was before New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that the state would begin offering vaccines to residents age 75 and older starting Monday. On Tuesday, the state changed vaccine policies again, this time making residents 65 and older eligible.

In this chaotic environment, with covid cases and deaths skyrocketing and distribution systems in a state of disarray, it’s difficult to get up-to-date, reliable information. Many older adults don’t know where to turn for help.

Since the holidays, I’ve heard from dozens of people frustrated by poorly informed staffers at physicians’ offices, difficult-to-navigate state and county websites, and burdensome or malfunctioning sign-up arrangements. Below are some questions they posed, with answers drawn from interviews with experts and other sources, that may prove helpful.

Keep in mind that states, counties and cities have varying policies, and this is a rapidly shifting landscape with many uncertainties. Foremost among them are questions regarding vaccine supply: how many doses will become available to states and when and how those will be allocated.

Q: How can I make an appointment to get a vaccine? — James Vanderhye, 77, Denver

Vanderhye is a throat cancer survivor who suffers from sarcoidosis of the lungs and heart — an inflammatory disease.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced on Dec. 30 that residents 70 and older could start getting covid vaccines, but Vanderhye wasn’t sure whether he needed to sign up somewhere or whether he’d be contacted by his physicians — a common source of confusion.

UCHealth, the system where Vanderhye’s doctors practice, has created a registry of patients 70 and older and is randomly selecting them for appointments, Dr. Jean Kutner, its chief medical officer told me. It’s reaching out to patients through its electronic patient portal and is planning to notify those who don’t respond by phone down the line. Then, it’s up to patients to finalize arrangements.

Nearly 200,000 people 70 and older are patients at UCHealth’s hospitals and clinics in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

TIPS: Although some health systems such as UCHealth are contacting patients, don’t assume that will happen. In most cases, it appears, you will need to take the initiative.

Check with the physician’s office, hospital or medical clinic where you usually receive care. Many institutions (though not all) are posting information about covid vaccines on their websites. Some have set up phone lines.

Some health systems are willing to vaccinate anyone who signs up, not just their patients. Kaiser Permanente, which operates in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia and Maryland, is among them, according to Dr. Craig Robbins, co-leader of its national covid vaccination program. (Within the next few weeks, it will post an online registration tool on plan websites.) Check with major hospitals or health systems in your area to see what they’re doing. (KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Most places are asking people to sign up online for appointments; some sites require multiple steps and their systems may seem hard to use. If you don’t have a computer or you aren’t comfortable using one, ask a younger family member, friend or neighbor for help. Similarly, ask for help if you aren’t fluent in English.

If you can’t figure out how to sign up online, call your local county health department, Area Agency on Aging or county department on aging and ask for assistance. Every state has a covid-19 hotline; see if the hotline can direct you to a call center that’s taking appointments. Be prepared for long waits; phone lines are jammed.

Q: My mother has stage 3 renal failure, high blood pressure and dementia. She’s unable to take care of herself or be left alone. When can I get her vaccinated with the COVID shot? — Wendy, 61, Chandler, Arizona

Wendy had checked Maricopa County’s website days before we talked on Jan. 5 and couldn’t figure out when her 84-year-old mother might get a vaccine appointment. The week before, her 90-year-old father died, alone, of renal failure complicated by pneumonia in a nursing home.

Three days after our conversation, Maricopa County announced that people 75 and older could start making appointments to be vaccinated on a “first-come, first-served” basis on Monday, Jan. 11. (The state’s appointment site is https://podvaccine.azdhs.gov/; callers should try 844-542-8201 or 211, according to information provided by the county.)

In Arizona, “it’s up to each county to come up and execute a plan for vaccine distribution,” said Dana Kennedy, state director of AARP Arizona.

Demand is high and vaccine supplies are limited, other places have found. For example, on Jan. 7, a 1,200-slot vaccine clinic in Oklahoma City for adults 65 and older filled up within four minutes, according to Molly Fleming, a public information officer at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

“Once we get more vaccine supplies coming more frequently, we will do more clinics,” Fleming said. “The challenge we have right now is, we need the vaccine and we don’t know when it’s coming in.”

TIPS: Consult AARP’s state-by-state covid vaccine guides, focused on older adults and updated daily. (To access, go to https://www.aarp.org/coronavirus/. In the right-hand column, click on “the vaccine in your state.”) More than 20 states are listed there now, but guides for all states should be available by the end of January.

Meanwhile, check local media and your county’s and state’s health department websites regularly for fresh information about covid vaccine distribution plans.

On Monday, for example, Washington, D.C., unveiled a new vaccination registration site for residents 65 and older and health care workers. The week before, Illinois announced it would extend vaccines to residents 65 and older when it moved into the next phase of its vaccination plan, and the city of Chicago followed suit. The timetable for those transitions remains unclear.

Be prepared to be patient as problems with distribution surface. States and counties around the country are learning from problems that have arisen in places such as Florida — crashed phone lines, long lines of older adults waiting outdoors, massive confusion. It may take some time, but vaccine rollouts should become smoother as more sites come online and supplies become more readily available.

Q: When can a 72-year-old male with chronic lymphocytic leukemia expect to be vaccinated at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California? — Barry

California last week announced that counties that have made significant progress and have adequate supplies can move toward offering vaccines to residents 75 and older.

How soon this will happen isn’t clear yet; it will vary by location. But even then, Barry wouldn’t qualify immediately since he’s only 72 and it could take several months for vaccines to become available to people in his age group (65 to 74), said Robbins, who’s helping lead Kaiser Permanente’s vaccination program.

Barry is at especially high risk of doing poorly if he develops covid because of the type of cancer he has — leukemia. But, for the most part, medical conditions are not being taken into account in the initial stages of vaccine distribution around the country.

An exception is the Mayo Clinic. It’s identifying patients at highest risk of getting severe infections, being hospitalized and dying from covid at the Mayo Clinic Health System, a network of physician practices, clinics and hospitals in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. When states allow older adults outside of long-term care institutions to start getting vaccines, it will offer them first to patients at highest risk, said Dr. Abinash Virk, co-chair for Mayo Clinic’s vaccine rollout.

TIPS: Even if vaccines aren’t available right away, production is increasing, new products are in the pipeline, and new ways of distributing vaccines — notably mass distribution sites — are being planned. If you have to wait several weeks or months, don’t give up. Persistence is worth the effort, given the vaccine’s benefits.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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California Counties ‘Flying the Plane as We Build It’ in a Plodding Vaccine Rollout

Kaiser Health News - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 5:00am
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In these first lumbering weeks of the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, Dr. Julie Vaishampayan has had a battlefront view of a daunting logistical operation.

Vaishampayan is the health officer in Stanislaus County, an almond-growing mecca in California’s Central Valley that has recorded about 40,000 cases of covid-19 and lost 700 people to the illness. Her charge is to see that potentially lifesaving covid shots make it into the arms of 550,000 residents.

And like her dozens of counterparts across the state, she is improvising as she goes.

From week to week, Vaishampayan has no idea how many new doses of covid vaccines will be delivered until just days before they arrive, complicating advance planning for mass inoculation clinics. The inoculation clinics themselves can be a bureaucratic slog, as county staffers verify the identities and occupations of people coming in for shots to ensure strict compliance with the state’s multitiered hierarchy of eligibility. In these early days, the county also has provided vaccines to some area hospitals so they can inoculate health care workers, but the state system for tracking whether and how those doses are administered has proven clumsy.

With relatively little help from the federal government, each state has built its own vaccination rollout plan. In California, where public health is largely a county-level operation, the same departments managing testing and contact tracing for an out-of-control epidemic are leading the effort. That puts an already beleaguered workforce at the helm of yet another time-consuming undertaking. A lack of resources and limited planning by the federal and state governments have made it that much harder to get operations up and running.

“We are flying the plane as we are building it,” said Jason Hoppin, a spokesperson for Santa Cruz County. ”All of these logistical pieces are just a huge puzzle to work out.”

It’s a massive enterprise. Counties must figure out who falls where in the state’s multitiered system for eligibility, locate vaccination sites, hire vaccinators, notify workforce groups when they are eligible, schedule appointments, verify identities, then track distribution and immunizations administered.

Some of that burden has been eased by a federal program that is contracting with major pharmacies Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate people living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as a California mechanism that allows some large multicounty health care providers to order vaccines directly. As of this week, some smaller clinics and doctors’ offices also can get vaccine directly from the state.

But much of the job falls on health departments, the only entities required by law to protect the health of every Californian. And they are doing it amid pressures from the state to prevent people from skipping the line and a public eager to know why the rollout isn’t happening faster.

As of Monday, only a third of the nearly 2.5 million doses allocated to California counties and health systems had been administered, according to the most recent state data available. Gov. Gavin Newsom has acknowledged the rollout has “gone too slowly.” Health directors counter it’s the best that could be expected given the short planning timeline, limited vaccine available and other strictures.

“I would not call this rollout slow,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California. “This isn’t the same as a flu vaccine clinic where all you have to do is roll up your sleeve and someone gives you a shot.”

It has been one month since the first vaccines arrived in California, and just over five weeks since the state first outlined priority groups for vaccinations, then passed the ball to counties to devise ways to execute the plan.

Like most states, California opened its rollout with strict rules about the order of distribution. The first phase prioritized nursing home residents and hospital staffs before expanding to other broad categories of health care workers. In the weeks after the vaccines first arrived, state officials made clear that providers could be penalized if they gave vaccinations to people not in those initial priority groups.

Multiple counties said there had been little in the way of line-skipping, but stray reports in the media or complaints sent directly to community officials need to be chased down, wasting precious public health resources. The same goes for reports of vaccine doses being thrown away. One of the vaccines in circulation, once removed from ultra-cold storage, must be used within five days or discarded.

State officials have since loosened their rules, telling counties and providers to do their best to adhere to the tiers, but not to waste doses. On Jan. 7, California officials told counties they could vaccinate anyone in “phase 1a,” expanding beyond the first priority group of nursing homes and hospitals to nearly everyone in a health-related job. Once that wide-ranging category is finished, counties were supposed to move to “phase 1b,” which unfolds with its own set of tiers, starting with people 75 and older, educators, child care workers, providers of emergency services, and food and agricultural workers before expanding to all people 65 and older.

Mariposa and San Francisco both said they would be vaccinating people in the first 1b categories this week. That means residents will start seeing inequities among counties, said DeBurgh, noting that some counties had not yet received enough vaccine doses to cover health care workers while others are nearly finished. Stanislaus County, for example, had received approximately 16,000 first doses as of Jan. 9, but estimates it has between 35,000 and 40,000 health care workers phase 1a.

And the orders are changing yet again, forcing counties to pivot. On Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration would begin releasing more of its vaccine supply, holding onto fewer vials for second doses; and he encouraged states to open up vaccinations to everyone age 65 and older. In response, California officials said Wednesday that once counties are done with phase 1a, people 65 and older are in the next group eligible for vaccines.

Some local health directors expressed dismay at the prospect, saying they welcome the influx of vaccines but need to prioritize people 75 and older who represent the bulk of hospitalizations. They also noted that states already offering broader access have had their own challenges, including flooded health department phone lines, crashed websites and fragile seniors camping out overnight in hopes of securing their place in line.

While sensible in theory, California’s phased approach to the rollout has proved cumbersome when it comes to verifying that people showing up for shots fall under the umbrella groups deemed eligible. In Stanislaus, for example, 6,600 people qualify as in-home support workers. Someone from another county department has to sit with health department staffers to verify their eligibility, since the health department doesn’t have access to official data on who is a qualified member of the group.

Complicating matters, about half the county’s in-home workers are caring for a family member, and many are bringing that person with them to get vaccinated. The county is required to turn those family members away if they don’t meet the eligibility criteria, Vaishampayan said.

A range of other hiccups hampered the rollout. Across the state, uptake of vaccination slowed to a crawl from Christmas to New Year’s. Health workers, particularly those who do not work in hospitals, were on vacation and enjoying a few days off with family after a tough year, several county officials said. Many chose not to get vaccinated during that time.

Others are choosing not to get vaccinated at all. Across the state, health care workers are declining vaccinations in large numbers. The health officer for Riverside County has said 50% of hospital workers there have declined the vaccine.

And in Los Angeles and Sonoma, officials described software challenges that prevented them from quickly enrolling doctors’ offices to receive vaccines and perform injections.

Still, statewide, officials said they were confident that the pace would pick up in the coming days, as more doses arrive, data snags get sorted out and more vaccination sites come on board. Los Angeles County announced this week it would convert Dodger Stadium and a Veterans Affairs site from mass testing sites into mass vaccination clinics. Similar plans are underway at Petco Park in San Diego and the Disneyland Resort in Orange County. Officials hope Dodger Stadium alone can handle up to 12,000 people a day.

The move solves one problem, but potentially exacerbates another: The two Los Angeles sites have been testing 87,000 people a week, according to Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services director. That will put new constraints on testing, even as covid cases in the nation’s most populous county continue to rise and hospitals are beyond capacity.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Delicate Covid Vaccines Slow Rollout — Leading to Shots Given Out of Turn or, Worse, Wasted

Kaiser Health News - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 5:00am

For Heather Suri, a registered nurse in Virginia, the race to vaccinate Americans against covid has thrown up some unprecedented obstacles.

The vaccines themselves are delicate and require a fair bit of focus over time. Consider Moderna’s instructions for preparing its doses: Select the number of shots that will be given. Thaw the vials for 2.5 hours in a refrigerator set between 36 and 46 degrees. Then rest them at room temperature for 15 minutes. Do not refreeze. Swirl gently between each withdrawal. Do not shake. Inspect each vial for particulate matter or discoloration. Store any unused vaccine in refrigeration.

And then there’s this: Once open, a vial is good for only six hours. As vaccines go, that’s not very long. Some flu vaccine keeps almost a month.

“This is very different, administering this vaccine. The process, it takes a whole lot longer than any mass vaccination event that I’ve been involved with,” said Suri, a member of the Loudoun Medical Reserve Corps who joined her first clinic Dec. 28, to vaccinate first responders.

Of the first two covid vaccines on the market, Moderna’s is considered more user-friendly. Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot must be stored in specialized freezers at 94 degrees below zero. Once out of deep freeze, it lasts just five days, compared with 30 days for Moderna’s.

One thing the shots have in common: They last a paltry six hours once the first dose is removed from a vial. That short shelf life raises the stakes for the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history by forcing clinicians to anticipate the exact number of doses they’ll need each day. If they don’t get it right, precious stores of vaccine may go to waste.

During one recent clinic over several hours, Suri estimated she gave “maybe 25” shots, many fewer than the number of flu shots she’s given during similar clinics over the years.

With covid, she said, “the vaccine itself slows things down.”

The slow rollout has frustrated people who at Thanksgiving imagined millions of vaccines in arms by Christmas. Promises that 20 million would be vaccinated by New Year’s fell well short: Just 2.8 million had the first of two required shots by the end of December, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials say many factors are at play, including a shortage of workers trained to administer shots, covid protocols that require physical distancing at clinics and vaccine allocation numbers from the federal government that fluctuate by the week.

And then there are the logistics of the first covid vaccines, which are complex and make hyper-vigilant practitioners wary of opening too many vials over the course of each day, for fear that anything unused will have to be tossed. Vaccine providers also report wasted or spoiled doses to public health authorities.

“If you get to the end of your clinic and every nurse has half a vial left, what are you going to do with that vaccine?” Suri said. “The clock is ticking. You don’t want to waste those doses.”

That impulse has led some health personnel to make dramatic decisions at the end of a day: calling non-front-line health workers or offering shots to whoever is at hand in, say, a grocery store, instead of scrambling to find the health workers and residents of nursing homes in the government’s first tier for injections.

“We jumped and ran and got the vaccine,” said Dr. Mark Hathaway, an OB-GYN in the District of Columbia who received the first dose of a Moderna vaccine on Dec. 26 along with his wife, a registered nurse specializing in nutrition. Both clinicians received vaccines faster than anticipated at a Unity Health Care clinic when there were extra doses because fewer front-line health care workers than expected showed up.

“Health care workers have been priority 1a, so our first attempt has always been our staff,” said Dr. Jessica Boyd, Unity Health Care’s chief medical officer. Since then, the community health center network has broadened its criteria for extra doses to include staff members or high-risk patients visiting a clinic, she said.

Health officials encourage using the doses to get as many Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible. Public health experts say the need to vaccinate people is especially urgent as a new and more contagious variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom is showing up in multiple states. Some states, including New York and California, have loosened their guidelines on who can get vaccinated after an outcry over health care providers throwing away doses that didn’t meet officials’ strict criteria.

The tiers “are simply recommendations, and they should never stand in the way of getting shots in arms instead of keeping vaccine in the freezer or wasting vaccine in the vial,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Jan. 6, referring to CDC guidelines saying health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities should be first in line, then people at least 75 years old. The Trump administration this week also said it would make more shots available by releasing second doses and urged states to broaden rules to allow anyone 65 or older and any resident with a serious medical condition to get a shot.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s ultra-cold storage requirements have made it less ideal for local public health departments and rural areas.

Both of the available vaccines arrive in multidose vials — Pfizer-BioNTech’s contains about five doses, Moderna’s 10. Neither contains preservatives and they are viable for only six months frozen. By contrast, during the H1N1 pandemic roughly a decade ago, the swine flu vaccines lasted 18 weeks to 18 months, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in a May 2010 letter to then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“We can’t get the vaccine out fast enough; we have people dying. But, at the same time, we have to get it right,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.

The added risk of losing doses due to quick expiration is another thing “causing angst,” Hannan said. “You can’t just draw it up and let it sit. It can’t just sit out like that.”

The Trump administration fell significantly short of its promise that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of December, partly the result of a disjointed and underfunded public health system that has received limited guidance from federal officials. As of Jan. 11, 25.5 million vaccine doses had been distributed nationwide but only 9 million administered, according to the CDC.

Federal officials have released sparse data about who is getting vaccinated, but state information has shown significant variation in vaccination rates depending on the facility. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 4 said New York City’s public hospital system had used only 31% of its allocated vaccines, while private health systems NewYork-Presbyterian and Northwell Health had used 99% and 62%, respectively.

“When you target a priority group, it’s inefficient. When you open it up to a larger group, it’s efficient … but you’re not going to have enough supply,” Hannan said. “You still have the challenge of getting those health care workers vaccinated and no matter any way you slice it, you still have limited supply. You can’t please everyone.”

While Pfizer’s vaccine has largely been earmarked for large institutions like hospitals and nursing homes, Moderna’s has been more widely distributed to smaller sites like public health departments and clinics run by volunteers. State and local officials have begun or will soon vaccinate other priority populations, including police officers, teachers and other K-12 school employees, and seniors overall.

Unlike the covid vaccines, many flu vaccines come in prefilled syringes — each syringe’s cap is removed only when a shot is given, which speeds the process and eases some concerns about storage. However, relying on prefilled syringes during a pandemic has its own complications, according to Michael Watson, former president of Valera, a Moderna subsidiary: They take up more fridge space. They’re more expensive. And they can’t be used for frozen products, he said.

“For all these reasons, a vial was the best and only option,” he said.

In Ohio, Eric Zgodzinski, health commissioner for Toledo-Lucas County, said two-thirds of first responders the county surveyed said they would get the vaccine. Still, he said, his department has encountered situations in which a covid vaccine dose is left over in an open vial and officials have turned to a waiting list to find someone who can arrive within minutes to get a jab.

His department also has an internal running list of potential vaccine takers, including health department staffers, people in congregate care settings or those who had scheduled vaccination appointments for later on.

“We’re not going to open up a vial for one individual and figure out nine other people right away,” said Zgodzinski, whose department planned to distribute 2,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine the week of Jan. 4.

“If I have one dose left, who can I give it to?” he added. “A shot in the arm for anybody is better than it being wasted.”

San Francisco editor Arthur Allen and senior correspondent JoNel Aleccia contributed to this report.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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In Search of a Baby, I Got Covid Instead

Kaiser Health News - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 5:00am

As a health care journalist in Los Angeles reporting on the pandemic, I knew exactly what I needed to do once I landed in the hospital with covid pneumonia: write my goodbye emails.

I’d seen coverage of some final covid messages during this terrible year. They were usually directed to spouses, but my No. 1 concern was how to explain my own death to my 3-year-old, Marigold, whom we call “Goldie.” How much of me would she remember, and how would she make peace with what happened to me, when I could barely believe it myself?

After the emergency room doctor confirmed pneumonia in both of my lungs on Dec. 17, I was whisked upstairs to the hospital’s covid unit, where I got a blood thinner injection, infusions of steroids and remdesivir, and continued on the supplemental oxygen they had started in the ER.

Immediately after the treatments, my mind was clearer and more focused than it had been in the nine days since my husband, daughter and I had all received positive covid results (and when my raging fevers began). As I lay in my hospital bed, my roommate’s TV blaring, I started thinking about my daughter’s understanding of death. A lapsed evangelical married to a Jewish man, I had adopted his family’s perspective on the afterlife — that discussing it wasn’t very important — but had also inadvertently abdicated the death discussion to Hollywood.

Goldie’s afterlife education began with the movie “Coco,” about the Mexican Day of the Dead, in which families put pictures of their ancestors on a home altar, or ofrenda. Then came “Over the Moon,” in 2020, about a little girl in China who loses her mom to illness and struggles to accept a new stepmother, all while her mom’s spirit visits her in the form of a crane.

That prompted her first question about my death.

“Are you going to die like Fei Fei’s mom did?” Goldie asked me in November, before I got sick. I told her at the time that no one knows when they’re going to die, but that I would love her with all of my heart for as long as I lived.

After that, Goldie would sometimes randomly declare, “I don’t think you’re going to die,” or she would ask if we could all die together, at the same time — to which I’d say, “Sure!”

My covid symptoms started Dec. 7, and we got our positive results back the next morning. Thankfully, my husband and daughter had almost no symptoms except stuffy noses and a day of low fever. But I started off with a fever that would burn me up to 104 degrees, over and over again. Tylenol and Advil could bring it down only to 100 or 101. I would cry as the painful fevers reached their peak and wondered if God had been preparing Goldie all along this year for my eventual death.

My breathing problems began eight days later. The scariest moment during that time was when I was in the middle of a shower (much needed after days of sweaty fevers) and realized I was gasping for air. I punched the shower curtains out of my way and ran to my bed, where I could lie on my stomach and get my oxygen levels up again. As I lay there, hyperventilating, soaking wet, with shampoo still in my hair, the pulse oximeter monitor registered 67, before inching back up to 92. I began thinking of what I wanted to say to Goldie in my final letter to her, but I was too weak to type it out.

https://californiahealthline.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2021/01/Proning-video.mov

Two more uterine procedures led to a successful embryo transfer, but a miscarriage put me in the ER on Oct. 8. By then, Los Angeles County had seen 278,665 cases and 6,726 deaths — horrifying numbers that I monitored and reported on as a health journalist, but data points I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, use to alter the decision-making in my own life.

With four miscarriages now under my belt and no more viable embryos left to use, my husband, Simon, and I decided we’d give in vitro fertilization one final try. I started my injections for an egg retrieval in late November, and by the time the procedure rolled around on Dec. 3, L.A. was well into its scary, almost vertical holiday season ascent, posting 7,854 new cases that day — up fivefold from a month earlier.

A close friend was supposed to start her IVF injections at the same time, but she decided to postpone at the last minute because covid cases were so high in our area. By that point, we were so driven in our pursuing of pregnancy that I was startled to hear her say that, as the thought had never even crossed my mind.

I have no way of knowing for sure if I was exposed to the virus sometime during this last fertility treatment. The surgical center is located on a large medical campus that also hosts a covid-19 testing drive-thru in the garage where we parked. We waited, masks on, for almost an hour outside the building, which we thought was a safer choice than the fertility clinic waiting room, but that actually put us in proximity to a lot of sick people waiting for rides home.

I also had to remove my mask just before the actual egg retrieval, because I was under anesthesia and the doctors needed quick access to my mouth in case I needed a breathing tube.

Five days after the egg retrieval, we found out we were covid-positive. I called the clinic right away to warn them; the fertility doctor told me a few days later that none of her staffers had gotten sick. And also that none of the eggs they retrieved from me had developed properly. We had no embryos to use.

Of course, as anyone who has done fertility treatments knows, all the dangers and risks we undertook would have been “worth it” if it had worked. Because it didn’t work for us, I felt defeated and foolish.

In sum, we wanted to give Goldie a sibling, but attempting to do so may have been what threatened her mother’s life. This thought haunts me and will stay with me forever, even though I’ll never know how exactly the virus entered our home.

Our nanny, who also experienced covid symptoms and tested positive three days before us, could have picked it up at the supermarket. We could have gotten it from her or while walking around our neighborhood or playing in the park. But the act of choosing, over and over again, to engage in fertility treatments as the pandemic raged on, fills me with doubt and remorse.

This was all too much to put in my goodbye letter to Goldie. Instead, this is some of what I wrote:

Around Halloween, you and I were eating breakfast together and I asked you how your life was going, and if there were any improvements I could make for you. You said, with absolute seriousness, “I’m afraid of ghosts.”

Now that I’m a ghost, I hope there’s less reason to be afraid.

Please put my picture on the ofrenda once a year. I’ll always be in your heart and in your memories. I will try to visit you too. But not in a spooky way, just a gentle way.

I will always love you. Thank you so much for being born to us. You made everything better.

After finishing my goodbye letter, I went to sleep. In the morning, I woke up, got a second infusion of steroids and remdesivir, and then was released home with oxygen tanks and an oxygen concentrator. I stayed in bed, on oxygen, for another week before my lungs were strong enough for me to stand and walk on my own. We had a wonderful Christmas morning together opening presents during a Zoom call with my family. Other than fatigue, I am now almost back to normal.

After the holidays, I sat down with Goldie for breakfast as we usually do. Feeling morose about how the year had turned out, I asked, dreading her response, if she would like to have a baby brother or sister one day.

She put her hand on my neck and pressed her forehead into mine, a face-to-face embrace that we call a “pumpkin hug.”

“No, Mom,” she said. “I want it to be just you and me, forever.”

I took a deep breath, and then sighed with relief.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Finally, Medications That May Help People Addicted To Meth

CommonHealth (WBUR) - Wed, 01/13/2021 - 8:41pm

A study offers first evidence of medications that could help treat an addiction to methamphetamine: a combination of antidepressant pills and injections of a medication that blocks pleasure receptors.

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Are You Old Enough to Get Vaccinated? In Tennessee, They’re Using the Honor System

Kaiser Health News - Wed, 01/13/2021 - 5:00am

In December, all states began vaccinating only health care workers and residents and staffers of nursing homes in the “phase 1A” priority group. But, since the new year began, some states have also started giving shots to — or booking appointments for — other categories of seniors and essential workers.

As states widen eligibility requirements for who can get a covid-19 vaccine, health officials are often taking people’s word that they qualify, thereby prioritizing efficiency over strict adherence to distribution plans.

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“We are doing everything possible to vaccinate only those ‘in phase,’ but we won’t turn away someone who has scheduled their vaccine appointment and tells us that they are in phase if they do not have proof or ID,” said Bill Christian, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Among the states pivoting to vaccinating all seniors, timelines and strategies vary. Tennessee started offering shots to people 75 and older on Jan. 1. So, Frank Bargatze of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, snagged an appointment online for his father — and then went ahead and put his own name in, though he’s only 63.

“He’s 88,” Bargatze said, pointing to his father in the passenger seat after they both received their initial shots at a drive-thru vaccination site in Murfreesboro, a large city outside Nashville. “I jumped on his bandwagon,” he added with a laugh. “I’m going to blame it on him.”

Bargatze does work a few days a week with people in recovery from addiction, he added, so in a way, he might qualify as a health care worker.

Some departments are trying more than others, but overwhelmed public health departments don’t have time to do much vetting.

Dr. Lorraine MacDonald is the medical examiner in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where she’s been staffing the vaccination site. If people seeking the vaccine make it through the sign-up process online, MacDonald said, and show up for their appointment, health officials are not going to ask any more questions — as long as they’re on the list from the online sign-up.

“That’s a difficult one,” MacDonald acknowledged, when asked about people just under the age cutoff joining with older family members and putting themselves down for a dose, too. “It’s pretty much the honor system.”

People getting vaccinated in several Tennessee counties told a reporter they did not have to show ID or proof of qualifying employment when they arrived at a vaccination site. Tennessee’s health departments are generally erring on the side of simply giving the shot, even if the person is not a local resident or is not in the country legally.

The loose enforcement of the distribution phases extends to other parts of the country, including Los Angeles. In response, New York’s governor is considering making line-skipping a punishable offense.

Still, many people who don’t qualify on paper believe they might need the vaccine as much as those who do qualify in the initial phases.

Gayle Boyd of Murfreesboro is 74, meaning she didn’t quite make the cutoff in Tennessee, which is 75. But she’s also in remission from lung cancer, and so eager to get the vaccine and start getting back to a more normal life, that she joined her slightly older husband at the Murfreesboro vaccination site this week.

“Nobody’s really challenged me on it,” she said, noting she made sure to tell vaccination staffers about her medical issues. “Everybody’s been exceptionally nice.”

Technically, in the state’s current vaccine plan, having a respiratory risk factor like lung cancer doesn’t leapfrog anyone who doesn’t otherwise qualify. But in some neighboring states such as Georgia, where the minimum age limit is 65, Boyd would qualify.

Even for those who sympathize with such situations, anecdotes about line-skipping enrage many trying to wait their turn.

“We try to be responsible,” said 57-year-old Gina Kay Reid of Eagleville, Tennessee.

Reid was also at the Murfreesboro vaccination site, sitting in the back seat as she accompanied her older husband and her mother. She said she didn’t think about trying to join them in getting their first doses of vaccine. “If you take one and don’t necessarily need it, you’re knocking out somebody else that is in that higher-risk group.”

But there is a way for younger, healthier people to get the vaccine sooner than later — and not take a dose away from anyone more deserving.

A growing number of jurisdictions are realizing they have leftover doses at the end of every day. And the shots can’t be stored overnight once they’re thawed. So some pharmacists, such as some in Washington, D.C., are offering them to anyone nearby.

Jackson, Tennesse, has established a “rapid response” list for anyone willing to make it down to the health department within 30 minutes. Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, said her own aunt and uncle received a call at 8 p.m. and rushed to the county vaccination site to get their doses.

Piercey called it a “best practice” that she hopes other jurisdictions will adopt, offering a way for people eager for the vaccine to get it, while also helping states avoid wasting precious doses.

This story is part of a partnership that include WPLN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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