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Tag: COVID-19

Does Our Healthcare System Work for the Most Vulnerable Americans?

By DEBORAH AFEZOLLI, CARL-PHILIPPE ROUSSEAU, HELEN FERNANDEZ, ELIZABETH LINDENBERGER

“Why did you choose this field?” Most physicians are asked this question at some point in their early careers. We are geriatrics and palliative medicine physicians, so when that question is posed to us, it is invariably followed by another: “Isn’t your job depressing?”

No, our job is not depressing. We are trained in the care of older adults and those with serious illness, and we find this work very rewarding.  What truly depresses us is how many vulnerable patients died during the pandemic, and how the scourge of COVID-19 revealed the cracks in our health system. Never before in modern times have so many people been affected by serious illness at the same time, nor have so many suffered from the challenges of our dysfunctional health system. Our nation has now witnessed the medical system’s failure to take comprehensive care of its sickest patients.  This is something those in our own field observed long before the pandemic and have been striving to improve.

All of us practicing geriatrics and palliative care have had a loved one who has been challenged by aging, by serious illness, or indeed by the very healthcare system that is supposed to help them. As medical students and residents, we personally confronted these systemic deficiencies and wondered about alternatives for those patients with the most complex needs. We chose fellowships in geriatrics and palliative medicine because we wanted to try and make a difference in the healthcare that is offered to our most vulnerable patients.

During the New York City surge in the spring of 2020, we were front line workers at a major academic medical center. While the global pandemic took us all by surprise, our clinical training and passion for treating vulnerable populations left us feeling capable and ready to serve. Due to the urgent needs of overwhelming numbers of extremely sick patients, our Department was charged with rapidly expanding access to geriatrics and palliative care across our seven hospitals. We were embedded in Emergency Departments (EDs), hospitalist services, and critical care units.  We roamed the hospitals with electronic tablets and held the hands of dying patients, while urgently contacting families to clarify goals of care.  For those who wanted to receive care in the community, we scrambled to set up telehealth visits and coordinate the necessary support. Way too often we could not meet their needs with adequate services, forcing them to visit overwhelmed Emergency Rooms.

While we helped individual patients and eased some of the strain on our hospitals, our system was overwhelmed and mortality numbers continued to steadily rise. Within our hospitals, staff were redeployed to care for the most critically ill in the emergency departments and intensive care units.  In this frantic time, we were fortunate that our hospitals had sufficient medical resources to care for the sickest patients and for the staff.  However, the sub-acute nursing facilities (SNF) and long-term care facilities strained to protect their residents and their employees. Shortages of PPE, staff, space, testing supplies, and funding all contributed to the high mortality numbers we saw in many NYC facilities and across the nation. There were also limited resources allocated to delivering outpatient care in our patients living in the community.  The rapid shift to telehealth was not feasible for many of our older patients, and even when it was possible, the delivery of diagnostic and therapeutic care was limited and suboptimal.

Data now shows that older adults and those with underlying chronic illnesses were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing higher hospitalization rates as well as higher death rates. Although adults 65 and older account for only 16% of the US population, they represent 80% of COVID-19 deaths. Residents of nursing homes, the frail homebound, and older people of color were the hit the hardest. Thirty-five percent of the deaths in the US from March-May 2020 occurred among nursing home residents and employees. Nationally, over 600,000 nursing home residents were infected with COVID-19 and over 100,000 died from the disease. These data are underestimates and the death toll is likely higher. We cannot explain why older Black Americans were 1.2 times more likely to die than white Americans nor why the odds of dying from COVID were nearly two times higher for persons living in South Dakota as compared to Wyoming or Nebraska. Often, the paid caregivers for these vulnerable patients were themselves vulnerable underpaid women of color who were at higher risk of contracting COVID.

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Sleepless Nights For Evolutionary Biologists: A Greek Tragedy in The Making

By MIKE MAGEE

In my Jesuit high school, we were offered only one science course – chemistry. I took it in my Senior year and did pretty well. In contrast, I took four years of Latin, and three years of Greek, as part of the school’s Greek Honors tract.

Little did I know that Covid would create a pathologic convergence of sorts six decades later. Let’s review the Covid mutants:

Alpha – A variant first detected in Kent, UK with 50% more transmissibility than the original and has spread widely.

Beta – Originating in South Africa and the first to show a mutation that partially provided evasion of the human immune system, but may have also made it less infectious.

Gamma – First detected in Brazil with rapid spread throughout South America.

Delta – First seen in India with 50% more transmissibility than the Alpha variant, and now the dominant variant in America and around the world.

Our ability to track and identify mutating viruses in real time is now extraordinary. Over 2 million Covid genomes have been cataloged and published. But describing the “anatomy” of the virus is miles away from understanding the functional significance of their codes, or the various biochemical instructions they may instruct.

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Matthew’s health care tidbits

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

For my health care tidbits this week, I am getting very close to home. I live in Marin County, California which is an incredibly wealthy, well-educated, liberal place. My little town voted 90% for Biden and, as you’d expect, county-wide 87% of those eligible (over 12) are fully immunized with most of the rest on the way. But Marin also has a small hard core of anti-vaxxers, and by that I mean those who reject childhood vaccinations. At one Waldorf school nearby only 22% of kids are vaccinated (MMR et al).This week the CDC released a study about how this past May an unvaccinated elementary school teacher who was sneezing but didn’t wear a mask infected 55% of their class.

I know that public schools in Marin have insisted on their teachers and students wearing masks and have highly, highly encouraged vaccinations among teachers and staff. Furthermore that school had only 205 pupils which is well below the average for elementary schools (at least in my school district). So I am prepared to bet that the maskless teacher was at a charter school or other private school. (Post newsletter update: I found out that it was a parochial school in Navato)

Clearly we need vaccines for kids ASAP. But I also am starting to wonder that, as COVID-19 becomes endemic and probably never goes away and as studies like this show how rapidly it spreads, will the majority who believe in masking, vaccines et al start to impose more medical and social mandates and bans on those who do not?

Delta Double-Down: A Universal Health Plan Is Long Overdue.

By MIKE MAGEE

On March 25, 1966, during the Poor People’s March that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

This week, my niece in Orlando, Florida, sent her 8-year old son, masked, back to public school. He has a history of severe allergies, including several anaphylactic episodes requiring emergency respiratory intervention. His class included a voluntary mix of masked and unmasked children. He now has a 105 degree fever and has tested positive for the Delta variant of Covid.

His crisis, and those of countless other children in Republican led states now lies clearly on their governor’s shoulders. It also suggests, as with voting rights, that we can no longer allow health planning and delivery to be captured entities of the states rights crowd. Dying children are just not acceptable in a civilized society.

The impassioned and illogical pleas of leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are literally as old as this nation. As with many controversies in human endeavor, the easiest way to decipher history and meaning is often “to follow the money.” Such was the case in the battle between state and federal rights. This battle engaged early and often, with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Soon after the 1788 ratification of the U. S. Constitution, Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton, suggested a federal bank to manage debt and currency. Jefferson, then Secretary of State, opposed it for fear of a federal power grab. Regardless, in 1791, Congress created the First Bank of the United States with a 20 year charter.

When the charter ran out in 1811, it wasn’t renewed. But then the War of 1812 intervened, and in 1816 the Second Bank of the United States was created with the Federal government holding 20% of the equity. The divide led to the creation of two political parties – the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party whose members were committed to undermining the bank.

The battle came to a head when, in 1818, the Maryland’s state legislature levied a $15,000 annual tax on all non-state banks. There was only one – the Second Bank of the United States, which refused to pay. The suit rose to the Supreme Court with Maryland claiming the right to tax based on their reading of the 10th Amendment claiming state protection against extension of non-enumerated rights to the Federal government.

The landmark 1819 case – McCulloch v. Maryland, defined the scope of the U.S. Congress’s legislative power and how it relates to the powers of American state legislatures. In ruling against Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall argued that:

“Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”

It was the people who ratified the Constitution and thus the people, not the states, who are sovereign.

One hundred and thirty years later, on December 10, 1948, the newly formed United Nations, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That day, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke for America, stating: “Where after all do human rights begin? In small places close to home…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

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It takes a pandemic: Mental Health parity may finally have its day!

By EMILY EVANS

Emily Evans is the health policy guru at equity research company HedgeEye. She sends out these reports in emails to her clients regularly but (since I asked nicely) she allowed me to publish this one from late last week on THCB. You can catch Emily in person on the “How Much Are These Companies Really Worth? The IPO & SPAC Panel” at Policies|Techies|VCs–What’s Next for Health Care, the conference Jess Damassa & I are chairing on September 7-8-9-10 — Matthew Holt

Politics. President Biden is going to have more important things to do this week than worry about the mask/vaccine wars. At some point though, probably soon, Biden will need a scapegoat at the CDC. Several reversals on guidance around masks for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated have left local governments confused and people, most notably, parents of school age children, angry. The spread of the Delta variant isn’t helping matters.

While there may be political motivations for some of CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s guidance. A better approach, this last week anyway, would be never assign to cunning that which can be explained by incompetence.

Bringing a large, sprawling bureaucracy into line after a decade or more of being considered irrelevant is not a simple matter. It is made particularly difficult by the agency’s remote location in Atlanta to which Dr. Walensky commutes. 

For the time being eclipsed by a messy exit in Afghanistan, the CDC’s failures are still being noted by longstanding supporters of the agency like former Food and Drug Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb. As the Delta variant follows the same summer path as Alpha from south to north and break-through infections become identified as more common than previously thought (though mild for the vaccinated), the pressure to get the CDC reorganized will grow.

The good news, notwithstanding the vitriol over mask wearing and vaccine mandates, is the assumption underlying the CDC’s guidance on masks/vaccines is that children will be going to school and college students to class. It is, we can all hope, the first step in recognizing that there is no Zero-COVID; no magic bullet; just adaptation and adjustment, something at which humans excel.

Policy. Last week, the Department of Labor simultaneously filed and settled a lawsuit against UNH for violations under the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The dollar value of the settlement was immaterial but United HealthGroup (UNH) agreed to take corrective action which will be substantive.

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A Hamiltonian View of Post-Pandemic America

By MIKE MAGEE

“In countries where there is great private wealth much may be effected by the voluntary contributions of patriotic individuals, but in a community situated like that of the United States, the public purse must supply the deficiency of private resource. In what can it be so useful as in prompting and improving the efforts of industry?”

Those were the words of Alexander Hamilton published on December 5, 1791 in his “Report on the Subject of Manufactures.” He was making the case for an activist federal government with the capacity to support a fledgling nation and its leaders long enough to allow economic independence from foreign competitors.

Today’s “foreign force” of course is not any one nation but rather a microbe, gearing up for a fourth attack on our shores with Delta and Lambda variants. This invader has already wreaked havoc with our economy, knocking off nearly 2% of our GDP, as the nation and the majority of its workers experienced a period of voluntary lockdown.

Our leaders followed Hamilton’s advice and threw the full economic weight of our federal government into a dramatic and direct response. Seeing the threat as akin to a national disaster, money was placed expansively and directly into the waiting hands of our citizens, debtors were temporarily forgiven, foreclosures and evictions were halted, and all but the most essential workers sheltered in place.

Millions of citizens were asked to work remotely or differently (including school children and their teachers) or to not work at all – made possible by the government temporarily serving as their paymaster and keeping them afloat.

As we awake from this economic coma, many of our citizens are reflecting on their previously out-of-balance lives, their hyper-competitiveness, their under-valued or dead-end jobs, and acknowledging their remarkable capacity to survive, and even thrive, in a very different social arrangement.

If our nation is experiencing a trauma-induced existential awakening, it is certainly understandable. America has lost over 600,000 of our own in the past 18 months, more people per capita than almost all comparator nations in Europe and Asia. This has included not just the frail elderly, but also those under 65. In the disastrous wake of this tragedy, 40% of our population reports new pandemic-related anxiety and depression.

A quarter of our citizens avoided needed medical care during this lockdown. For example, screening PAP smears dropped by 80%. And so, Americans’ chronic burden of disease, already twice that of most nations in the world, has expanded once again. There will be an additional price to be paid for that.

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent Health System Dashboard lists COVID-19 as our third leading cause of death, inching out deaths from prescription opioid overdoses. Year-to-date spending on provider health services through 2020 dropped 2%, but pharmaceutical profits, driven by exorbitant pricing, actually increased, bringing health sector declines overall down by -.5% compared to overall GDP declines of -1.8%. The net effect? The percentage of our GDP devoted to health care in the U.S. actually grew during the pandemic – a startling fact since our citizens already pay roughly twice as much per capita as most comparator nations around the world for health care.

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Did Covid and Telemedicine Finally Make the Physical Exam Obsolete?

By HANS DUVEFELT

Left to my own devices, I would be selective about when and how much of a physical exam I do: either not at all or very detailed for just those things that can help me make the diagnosis. I have no patience for boilerplate normal exams. Any doctor who uses the term PERRLA (pupils equal, round, reactive to light and accommodation) is probably faking it. First, most of the time this isn’t actually tested completely and, second, even if it’s done correctly, it has no relevance in the majority of chart notes I have found it in. I have actually seen it in office note templates for urinary tract infections!

It is well known that the history makes the diagnosis in the vast majority of cases. But that task – or art, actually – is sometimes relegated to support staff or forced into unnatural click boxes. Because reimbursement until very recently was tied to how many items were asked about and examined, there was a loss of the story, or narrative, of the patient’s illness. And you could get more brownie points by including things that were extremely peripheral to the clinical problem at hand.

EMRs make it easy to produce long office notes with lots of reimbursement and quality scoring points of uncertain clinical value and accuracy.

Specifically, the physical exam has in many instances become a corrupted, fraudulent, one-click travesty of the art and professionalism we swore an oath to hold high when we graduated from medical school.

The pandemic and the rush toward telemedicine made it clear to most people that medical diagnosis, advice and treatment is entirely possible without physical contact. It was just a matter of getting paid for it, or the healthcare industry would have come to a stop, or at least a crawl.

Now that we have admitted that listening, talking and a certain amount of looking or observing can be done without being in the same room, it is time for us to be honest about the value of the physical exam.

Our medical education in universities and tertiary medical centers taught us how to handle complex and baffling cases that had eluded diagnosis in the primary care setting: Start from scratch, assume nothing. This is a method we need to use in select clinical situations.

But in everyday practice that is inefficient and unnecessary. Most of what we see is simple stuff and part of our job is to triage, to know when something seemingly ordinary is or has the potential to be more serious.

We need to know how to do a really good and relevant physical exam when the situation requires it. But we also need to know when that would add nothing and only waste our time and effort.

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U.S. Science Embrace of Wuhan “Gain-Of-Function” Viral Research Proved A Slippery Slope

By MIKE MAGEE

The truth hurts.

Eighteen months into a disaster that has claimed 3.5 million lives around the globe, the truth is seeping out. Human error likely caused the Covid pandemic, and America’s Medical-Industrial Complex was right in the middle of it.

Signs of a “great awakening” have emerged from various corners in the month of May.

On May 14, UNC’s top virologist, Ralph Baric, who worked closely with Wuhan chief virologist and batwoman extraordinare, Shi Zhengli, signed on with 17 other scientists to a Science editorial that demanded a reexamination of Covid’s causality writing “theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable.”

On May 26, Francis Collins, head of the NIH, which funded in part Zhengli’s risky bat virus research (more on that in a moment), admitted to Congressional investigators that “we cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident.”

And on June 3rd, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the ever-present Tony Fauci advised all who would listen “to keep an open mind.” What he would like us to open our minds to is not a Chinese run weaponized microbe conspiracy, but simply scientific recklessness and human error.

It’s now well established that three Wuhan virology scientists were hospitalized in the Fall of 2019 with Covid. But the initial report from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, China, of this cluster of cases of pneumonia was only released on the last day of 2019.

It took only 50 more days for the tight knit group of global research virologists to get their act together and pen a Lancet editorial in which they stated “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” and that they  “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”

Their coordinator-in-chief was one Peter Daszak, chartered power broker within the U.S. Medical Industrial Complex and president of New York based EcoHealth Alliance which was a major funder of Shi Zhengli’s work in Wuhan.

Daszak is known for adopting militarized terms in the battle against global infectious diseases. In 2020 he wrote in the New York Times, “Pandemics are like terrorist attacks: We know roughly where they originate and what’s responsible for them, but we don’t know exactly when the next one will happen. They need to be handled the same way — by identifying all possible sources and dismantling those before the next pandemic strikes.”

Daszak’s argument that risks involved in Shi Zhengli’s Wuhan bat viruses were justified as defensive and preventive was convincing enough to the NIH and the Department of Defense that his EcoHealth Alliance was funded from 2013 to 2020 (contracts, grants, subgrants) to the tune of well over $100 million – $39 million from Pentagon /DOD funds, $65 million from USAID/State Dept., and  $20 million from HHS/NIH/CDC.

As veteran Science reporter Nicholas Wade deciphered in a classic article in Science – The Wire, “For 20 years, mostly beneath the public’s attention, they had been playing a dangerous game. In their laboratories they routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature. They argued they could do so safely, and that by getting ahead of nature they could predict and prevent natural “spillovers,” the cross-over of viruses from an animal host to people. If SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected, and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China.”

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Public Health Nurses Once Again Asking, “What Are They Thinking?”

Whitney Thurman
Karen Johnson

By KAREN JOHNSON and WHITNEY THURMAN

One recent Friday night, we huddled with our colleagues in the pouring rain at a movie theater parking lot– our cars packed with supplies for our mobile vaccine clinic— trying to find someone who wanted an extra dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine before it expired. Five months ago, we would have been inundated with people desperate for that extra dose. But that has changed now that the most willing and able segments of the population have largely been vaccinated.

Amidst this backdrop of slowing vaccination rates in the U.S. and many miles to go before reaching all of those willing to be vaccinated, the CDC has released updated recommendations for mask wearing that we believe to be premature and contrary to the ethic and mindset of public health. Buoyed by mounting evidence supporting the effectiveness of vaccines, the CDC—  cheered by the Biden administration— gave fully vaccinated Americans the green light to ditch their masks. As fully vaccinated public health nurses who are as excited as anyone about the vaccines’ real-world effectiveness, we nonetheless find ourselves again asking: what are they thinking?

To be clear, we do not question the evidence showing that all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in the U.S. are safe and effective. We also crave good news, hope, and allowing the bottom half of our faces to see the light of day. We have also appreciated the Biden administration’s commitment to “following the [biomedical] science” in pandemic policymaking. Our concerns lie with the timing of the recommendation; the lack of regard for social science demonstrating the importance of public policy in influencing community norms and human behavior; and the blatant disregard for health equity. That the nation’s preeminent public health institution has fallen prey to the individualistic mindset that typifies American society, as CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky stated herself on Sunday regarding this “science-driven individual assessment” of risk, is frustrating, to say the least.

Currently, only one-third of the U.S. has been fully vaccinated. The news media has been full of accounts of many sub-groups who stubbornly defend their right to refuse a COVID vaccine, but the majority of those in the U.S. who remain unvaccinated belong to communities that have been unable to access a vaccine due to difficulty navigating online appointment scheduling, inability to take time off of work, poorly translated informational resources, or being ineligible due to age restrictions or other medical contraindications. Universal mask-wearing has been a critical stopgap measure to protect these at-risk populations until the majority of Americans are vaccinated. The CDC’s recommendation is therefore not only premature: it sends the message to individuals and other governmental entities alike that we don’t need to care about our neighbors.

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10 Design Considerations for Vaccine Credentials

By ADRIAN GROPPER

As COVID-19 vaccines become widely, if not fairly, available in different regions, both the public and private sector are working to develop vaccine credentials and associated surveillance systems.

Information technology applied to vaccination can be effective, but it can also be oppressive, discriminatory, and counter-productive.

But these systems can be tuned to reflect and address key concerns.

What follows is a list of ten separable concerns, and responsive design strategies. The concept of separation of concerns in technology design offers a path to better health policy. Because each concern hardly interacts with the others, any of them can be left out of the design in order to prioritize more important outcomes. Together, all of them can maximize scientific benefit while enhancing social trust.

  1. Authenticity

An inspector should be assured that a vaccine certificate was not tampered with and that it was issued to the presenter. This need not imply any privacy risk, or even need a network connection. One such method for authenticating vaccine credentials adds a human-recognizable and machine-readable face photo to a standard 2D barcode. It works with paper as well as mobile phone presentations.

  1. The digital divide

For this concern, paper credentials have equity and privacy advantages. Equity, because paper is cheap and well understood. Privacy, because there is no expectation that a person must unlock and show a mobile phone. Digitally signed certificates that also include a photo, like #1 above, can be copied for convenience without risk of fraud.

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