With cases of COVID-19 either disappeared or rapidly diminishing from places like Wuhan, Italy, New York, and Sweden, many voices are speculating that herd immunity may have been reached in those areas and that it may be at hand in the remaining parts of the world that are still struggling with the pandemic. Lockdowns should end—or may not have been needed to begin with, they conclude. Adding plausibility to their speculation is the discovery of biological evidence suggesting that prior exposure to other coronaviruses may confer some degree of immunity against SARS-CoV2, an immunity not apparent on the basis of antibody seroprevalence studies.
Opposing those viewpoints are those who dismiss the recent immunological claims and insist that rates of infections are far below those expected to confer immunity on a community. They believe that the main reason for the declining numbers are the behavioral changes that have occurred either under force of government edict or, in the case of Sweden, more voluntarily. What’s more, they remind us that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 occurred in 3 distinct waves. In the summer of 1918 influenza seemed overcome until a second wave hit in the fall. Herd immunity could not possibly have accounted for the end of the first wave.
The alarmists may have a point. However, recent history offers a more instructive example.
Until early 2015, epidemiologists considered Mongolia to be exemplary in how it kept measles under control. In the mid-1990s, the country instituted a robust vaccination program with low incidences of outbreaks, even by the standards of developed countries. In the early 2000s, it adopted a 2-step MMR immunization schedule and, after 2005, its vaccination rates were upwards of 95%. From 2011 through 2014, not a single case of the virus was recorded, leading the WHO to declare measles “eradicated” from Mongolia in November 2014.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has underscored the need for efficient and innovative emergency response. Major health organizations, such as the American Hospital Association, have provided resources that can be utilized for organizational preparedness, caring for patients, and enabling the workforce during the pandemic.
The Emergency Response Innovation Challenges asked innovators to develop a health technology tool to support the needs of individuals as well as health care systems affected by a large-scale health crisis, such as a pandemic or natural disaster. The Challenges saw a record number of applications— nearly 125 applications were submitted to the General Public Challenge and over 130 applications were submitted to the Health Care System Challenge.
I was driving home the other day, noticed all the above-ground telephone/power lines, and thought to myself: this is not the 21st century I thought I’d be living in.
When I was growing up, the 21st century was the distant future, the stuff of science fiction. We’d have flying cars, personal robots, interstellar travel, artificial food, and, of course, tricorders. There’d be computers, although not PCs. Still, we’d have been baffled by smartphones, GPS, or the Internet. We’d have been even more flummoxed by women in the workforce or #BlackLivesMatter.
We’re living in the future, but we’re also hanging on to the past, and that applies especially to healthcare. We all poke fun at the persistence of the fax, but I’d also point out that currently our best advice for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is pretty much what it was for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic: masks and distancing (and we’re facing similar resistance). One would have hoped the 21st century would have found us better equipped.
So I was heartened to read an op-ed in The Washington Postby ReginaDugan, PhD. Dr. Dugan calls for a “Health Age,” akin to how Sputnik set off the Space Age. The pandemic, she says, “is the kind of event that alters the course of history so much that we measure time by it: before the pandemic — and after.”
By DALLAS M. DUCAR, MSN, PMHNP-BC, RN, CNL and KATIE WOLF, MBA
We’re not in Kansas anymore. Kansas has rescinded an executive order that dramatically empowered and expanded its healthcare workforce as COVID-19 cases soared. In the best interest of patients now and in the future, other states must not follow Kansas’ example.
The story of coronavirus is far from over in the United States and the impacts to our healthcare systems continue. America’s clinical workforce began this battle at a deficit and, in certain states, continues under those conditions. For years, studies outlined shortages of medical doctors and predicted gaps to worsen over time. Prior to the presence of COVID-19, a contentious debate emerged as to how to address the deficit of physicians. Nurse practitioners (NPs) lobbied for broader clinical autonomy to help bridge this gap. At present, rapid influxes of critically ill patients have strained our healthcare systems to a breaking point laying bare the resource constraints in our healthcare system.
Alex Azar, the Secretary of Health and Human Services responded to this need by sending a letter to governors to expand the 290,000NPs in the United States, bolstering our provider workforce during this time of crisis. Empowering NPs to independently treat patients has needlessly been a long-standing point of contention in healthcare. Increasing the breadth of NP autonomy makes sense in the face of COVID-19. Wisely, since the start of the pandemic, the number of states allowing NP autonomy jumped from 22 states to 48. This structural change to healthcare is long overdue and should remain in perpetuity. However, at the end of May, Kansas became the first state to expire this expansion of NP authority.
NPs are independently licensed and trained to diagnose and prescribe medications and treatments. This role grew organically out of the field of nursing, to provide holistic and patient-centered care to their communities. Nurses become nurse practitioners by choice, honing their skills through years of training at patients’ bedsides, and are part of the most trusted profession in the United States.
As COVID-19 cases soar across the country, the federal government has lost control of the situation. Amid the Trump Administration’s happy talk and outright dismissal of the crisis, the U.S. is experiencing a forest fire of contagion and hospitalizations, and an upsurge in COVID-related deaths has already begun.
Other countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have controlled their outbreaks, which is why their COVID-19 infections and deaths have been minimal or trending downward in recent months. To replicate those nations’ strategies of testing, contact tracing and quarantining, the U.S. Congress would have to appropriate about $43.5 billion, according to one estimate. But as we know, Senate Republicans won’t pass such a bill without Donald Trump’s prior approval—and that’s unlikely as long as his main focus is on reopening the economy.
We can hope that electoral victory by the Democrats in November will change this equation, but Joe Biden won’t take office until January if he wins. Meanwhile, the coronavirus is chewing up America. We can’t afford to wait six months to blunt the impact of this horrible disease. However, there is a solution that doesn’t depend on federal leadership: states can form compacts that would form the basis for collective action to get us out of the trap we’re in.
Interstate compacts are very common in the U.S. Various pacts cover everything from clean water and clean air to medical licensure, mental health and interstate transportation. For example, under the Middle-Atlantic Forest Fire Protection Compact, which includes Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, member states assist one another in fire prevention and suppression and firefighter training.
COVID-19 exposed our country’s lack of centralized coordination when it comes to managing and preventing disease spread. Today, our public health system relies on flawed data and obsolete technology that fails to accurately track current and suspected cases, risk stratify patients, monitor disease progression or predict future spread. Not only do these blind spots create opportunities for the disease to spread, they also undermine the ability to safely plan for economic recovery.
What may surprise some, though, is the fact that we don’t have to start from scratch in order to build an effective system that stems the spread of COVID-19. In large part, the infrastructure we need is already here.
In 2009, Congress passed the HITECH Act, which allocated roughly $30 billion for providers to purchase electronic health records (EHRs). As a result of this stimulus, EHRs went from relative obscurity to ubiquity, and today about 96 percent of all providers are users of EHRs. Five years later, Congress passed the Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA), which requires healthcare providers to consult with an approved Clinical Decision Support Mechanism (CDSM) in order to receive reimbursement for advanced imaging procedures for Medicare beneficiaries.
The net result of these two laws is that there is now visibility into nearly every patient-provider interaction in the United States at the moment that care is delivered, through more than a dozen CDSMs that have been certified by CMS. Although PAMA was intended for use with imaging, it’s not difficult to add on and repurpose decision support apps to conduct symptom surveillance for COVID, enabling healthcare workers to spot cases more reliably and earlier in the disease progression for prompt action.
What a strange irony. Trump decides, full-bravado, to challenge China to a trade war just months before China unwittingly hatches a virulent pandemic that collapses our deeply segmented health care system and our economy simultaneously. And rather than cry “Uncle”, our President then fires the WHO just as their experts are heading to China to attempt to unravel the mystery of COVID-19.
With the ongoing, cascading catastrophe of Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19, it is easy to lose sight that the next pandemic (fueled by global warming, global trade, and human and animal migration) is just around the corner. And we haven’t even begun to nail down the origin story of this one.
Unraveling the transmission trail requires international cooperation. As one expert recently noted, “Origin riddles for other new infectious diseases often took years to solve, and the route to answers has involved wrong turns, surprising twists, technological advances, lawsuits, allegations of cover-ups, and high-level politics.”
What we do know is that there are originators, intermediate hosts, and human super-spreaders….and COVID-19 appears to have begun in China. These are not new insights. We’ve seen this playbook before.
The 2020 US election will be vicious, with a nasty pandemonium following a nasty pandemic.
By SAURABH JHA, MD
When the COVID-19 pandemic is dissected in the 2020 presidential election debates, Donald Trump will be at a disadvantage. The coronavirus has killed over 100,000 Americans and maimed thousands more. The caveat is that deaths per capita, rather than total deaths, better measure national failure, and by that metric the US fares better than Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom. New York City owns a disproportionate share of the deaths, but this hyperconnected megapolis is an outlier whose misfortunes can’t be used to draw conclusions about administrative competence for the country as a whole.
Nevertheless, even after introducing nuance, the numbers aren’t flattering. President Donald Trump may claim that the US dodged the calamity predicted by the epidemiological models, which foretold millions of deaths. To be fair, we don’t know the counterfactual — Jeremiads aren’t verifiable. The paradox of successful mitigation is that we can’t see the future we dodged, precisely because we avoided it.
Reducing the death count logarithmically, rather than merely arithmetically, won’t be celebrated because as bad as the worst case scenario could have been, the situation still looks awfully bad. Many still disbelieve the high death toll predicted by epidemiologists early on, particularly Trump supporters who believe the response to the virus, specifically the economic shutdown, has been criminally disproportionate. One can’t simultaneously believe that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu and that Trump saved millions from the coronavirus. The constituency that acknowledges the lethality of COVID-19 and credits Trump for decisive action against it is small.
Triangle of Incompetence
Trump’s challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, will charge that fewer Americans would have died had the Trump administration acted earlier. Trump may be accused of having blood on his hands, but such rhetoric is unnecessary. Biden’s team can simply show a montage of Trump’s bombast where he downplayed COVID-19’s lethality, dismissed doctors’ concerns about the shortage of personal protective equipment or exaggerated how well the US was containing the pandemic. Incidentally, the most iconic picture of the administration’s scornful indifference is the current vice president, Michael Pence, visiting a hospital without a mask, surrounded by health-care workers wearing masks.
Suppose tomorrow you were informed that patients could no longer have medications delivered to their homes. Thus, in the midst of the worst pandemic in recent history, your patients would have to go to pharmacies to get essential medications. Undoubtedly, you’d be puzzled, wondering why your patients must needlessly put themselves and others in harms’ way to care for their own health. In light of the change, you might even debate if it’s worth the risk of getting your own medications.
Thankfully, the common-sense practice of delivering medication to people’s homes seems here to stay. Yet many people will face a similar issue on election day this November: Fifteen states severely restrict who can vote by mail. In these states, millions of citizens will be forced to choose between exercising their right to vote and safeguarding their own health.
So long as SARS-CoV-2 remains a threat, in-person voting is a public health crisis. Unless we want to risk a spike in new COVID-19 cases, with the concomitant deaths and strain on the healthcare system, it is critical to ensure that anyone who wants to vote in the upcoming general election can use mail-in voting. Indeed, a peer-reviewed study published in May found a statistically significant increase in COVID-19 cases in the weeks after the Wisconsin primary, specifically in counties with higher in-person votes per voting location. The study also found a decrease in COVID-19 cases in counties with the highest rates of absentee ballots. Unsurprisingly, the study’s authors exhort policy makers to “expand the number of polling locations or encourage absentee voting for future elections.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been harsher and lasted longer than many of us would have predicted. While our media has been inundated with updates on death tolls and economic depression, there has been little conversation of healthcare beyond the era of COVID-19. The first question that we ask when we hear of deaths: was it COVID? We have grown to expect the primary cause of death to be of coronavirus. But the impact of COVID-19 will extend beyond the individual, effecting fundamental and long-lasting change to our healthcare system.
By this point, it is clear that the public health ramifications are reaching well beyond the physical impacts of the virus. Social isolation, economic depression, soaring unemployment, and mandated closures all contribute to the adversity that we have had to face – notwithstanding the explosive, ever-present sociopolitical climate of a pandemic that is killing Black Americans at a rate almost three times that of whites. This hardship will likely last for months more.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation publication found that half of the public have skipped or postponed medical care due to the pandemic, with one-fourth reporting worse health as a result. Many of these people do not plan to receive the care they need within the next three months. The public is simultaneously reporting declines in mental health. Furthermore, over 30% say they have had difficulty paying for household expenses, like food, rent, and medications. The figures are disproportionately damning among Black and Hispanic populations.
Taken together, the inaccessibility of medical care, deteriorating mental health, increasing poverty, worsening access to nutrition, and host of other challenges present a dark, impending storm. Cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases will all be rearing their untreated heads post-pandemic. Communities and policymakers must therefore act quickly and decisively to heal not only a sick population, but a fraying social fabric.