We’ve been hearing a growing number of stories from patients about difficulties scheduling appointments for specialist consults.
A friend’s 8-year-old son experienced a new-onset seizure and was told that the earliest she could schedule a new patient appointment with a pediatric neurologist at the local children’s hospital was the end of November. Concerned about a five-month wait time after the scary episode, she asked what she should do in the meantime: “They told me if I want him to be seen sooner, bring him to the ED at the hospital if it happens again.”
A colleague shared his frustration after his PCP advised him to see a gastroenterologist. Calling six practices on the recommended referral list, the earliest appointment he could find was nine weeks out; the scheduler at one practice noted that with everyone now scheduling colonoscopies and other procedures postponed during the pandemic, they are busier than they’ve been in years. Recent conversations with medical group leaders confirm a specialist access crunch.
Patients who delayed care last year are reemerging, and ones who were seen by telemedicine now want to come in person. “We are booked solid in almost every specialty, with wait times double what they were before COVID,” one medical group president shared. The spike in demand is compounded by staffing challenges: “I pray every day that another one of our nurses doesn’t quit, because it will take us months to replace them.”
Doctors and hospitals are now seeing a rise in acuity—cancers diagnosed at a more advanced stage, chronic disease patients presenting with more severe complications—due to care delayed by the pandemic. If patients can’t schedule needed appointments and procedures, this spike in severity could be prolonged, or even made worse.
For medical groups who can find ways to open additional access, it’s also an opportunity to capture new business and engender greater patient loyalty.
Dollar General hired its first CMO and plans to become a destination for affordable healthcare offerings.
The retail giant will bring an increased assortment of medical, dental and health aids to its shelves as part of its first major jump into the healthcare industry, according to a July 7 news release.
Three things to know:
In the United States, 75 percent of the population lives within five miles of one of the chain’s 17,400 stores. The chain recognizes that it’s postured to deliver care to rural communities that are traditionally underserved in the healthcare ecosystem, the release said.
“At Dollar General, we are always looking for new ways to serve, and our customers have told us that they would like to see increased access to affordable healthcare products and services in their communities,” said Todd Vasos, Dollar General CEO. “Our goal is to build and enhance affordable healthcare offerings for our customers, especially in the rural communities we serve.”
The chain selected Albert Wu, MD, as its first CMO and vice president. Dr. Wu will strengthen relationships with healthcare service providers to build a network for its customers. In his previous position, Dr. Wu worked at McKinsey, where he oversaw the care model for 250,000 rural patients and drove $2-5 billion in revenue.
The Biden administration is quietly engineering a series of expansions to Medicaid that may bolster protections for millions of low-income Americans and bring more people into the program.
Biden’s efforts — which have been largely overshadowed by other economic and health initiatives — represent an abrupt reversal of the Trump administration’s moves to scale back the safety-net program.
The changes could further boost Medicaid enrollment — which the pandemic has already pushed to a record 80.5 million. Some of the expansion is funded by the COVID-19 relief bill that passed in March, including coverage for new mothers.
Others who could also gain coverage under Biden are inmates and undocumented immigrants. At the same time, the administration is opening the door to new Medicaid-funded services such as food and housing that the government insurance plan hasn’t traditionally offered.
“There is a paradigm change underway,” said Jennifer Langer Jacobs, Medicaid director in New Jersey, one of a growing number of states trying to expand home-based Medicaid services to keep enrollees out of nursing homes and other institutions.
“We’ve had discussions at the federal level in the last 90 days that are completely different from where we’ve ever been before,” Langer Jacobs said.
Taken together, the Medicaid moves represent some of the most substantive shifts in federal health policy undertaken by the new administration.
“They are taking very bold action,” said Rutgers University political scientist Frank Thompson, an expert on Medicaid history, noting in particular the administration’s swift reversal of Trump policies. “There really isn’t a precedent.”
The Biden administration seems unlikely to achieve what remains the holy grail for Medicaid advocates: getting 12 holdout states, including Texas and Florida, to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income working-age adults through the Affordable Care Act.
And while some of the recent expansions – including for new mothers — were funded by close to $20 billion in new Medicaid funding in the COVID relief bill Biden signed in March, much of that new money will stop in a few years unless Congress appropriates additional money.
The White House strategy has risks. Medicaid, which swelled after enactment of the 2010 health law, has expanded further during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, pushing enrollment to a record 80.5 million, including those served by the related Children’s Health Insurance Program. That’s up from 70 million before the COVID crisis began.
The programs now cost taxpayers more than $600 billion a year. And although the federal government will cover most of the cost of the Biden-backed expansions, surging Medicaid spending is a growing burden on state budgets.
The costs of expansion are a frequent target of conservative critics, including Trump officials like Seema Verma, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, who frequently argued for enrollment restrictions and derided Medicaid as low-quality coverage.
But even less partisan experts warn that Medicaid, which was created to provide medical care to low-income Americans, can’t make up for all the inadequacies in government housing, food and education programs.
“Focusing on the social drivers of health … is critically important in improving the health and well-being of Medicaid beneficiaries. But that doesn’t mean that Medicaid can or should be responsible for paying for all of those services,” said Matt Salo, head of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, noting that the program’s financing “is simply not capable of sustaining those investments.”
Restoring federal support
However, after four years of Trump administration efforts to scale back coverage, Biden and his appointees appear intent on not only restoring federal support for Medicaid, but also boosting the program’s reach.
“I think what we learned during the repeal-and-replace debate is just how much people in this country care about the Medicaid program and how it’s a lifeline to millions,” Biden’s new Medicare and Medicaid administrator, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, told KHN, calling the program a “backbone to our country.“
The Biden administration has already withdrawn permission the Trump administration had granted Arkansas and New Hampshire to place work requirements on some Medicaid enrollees.
In April, Biden blocked a multibillion-dollar Trump administration initiative to prop up Texas hospitals that care for uninsured patients, a policy that many critics said effectively discouraged Texas from expanding Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.
The moves have drawn criticism from Republicans, some of whom accuse the new administration of trampling states’ rights to run their Medicaid programs as they choose.
“Biden is reasserting a larger federal role and not deferring to states,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.
But Biden’s early initiatives have been widely hailed by patient advocates, public health experts and state officials in many blue states.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Kim Bimestefer, head of Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
Chuck Ingoglia, head of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said: “To be in an environment where people are talking about expanding health care access has made an enormous difference.”
Mounting evidence shows that expanded Medicaid coverage improves enrollees’ health, as surveys and mortality data in recent years have identified greater health improvements in states that expanded Medicaid through the 2010 health law versus states that did not.
In addition to removing Medicaid restrictions imposed by Trump administration officials, the Biden administration has backed a series of expansions to broaden eligibility and add services enrollees can receive.
Biden supported a provision in the COVID relief bill that gives states the option to extend Medicaid to new mothers for up to a year after they give birth. Many experts say such coverage could help reduce the U.S. maternal mortality rate, which is far higher than rates in other wealthy nations.
Several states, including Illinois and New Jersey, had sought permission from the Trump administration for such expanded coverage, but their requests languished.
The COVID relief bill — which passed without Republican support — also provides additional Medicaid money to states to set up mobile crisis services for people facing mental health or substance use emergencies, further broadening Medicaid’s reach.
And states will get billions more to expand so-called home and community-based services such as help with cooking, bathing and other basic activities that can prevent Medicaid enrollees from having to be admitted to expensive nursing homes or other institutions.
Perhaps the most far-reaching Medicaid expansions being considered by the Biden administration would push the government health plan into covering services not traditionally considered health care, such as housing.
This reflects an emerging consensus among health policy experts that investments in some non-medical services can ultimately save Medicaid money by keeping patients out of the hospital.
In recent years, Medicaid officials in red and blue states — including Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland and Washington — have begun exploring ways to provide rental assistance to select Medicaid enrollees to prevent medical complications linked to homelessness.
The Trump administration took steps to support similar efforts, clearing Medicare Advantage health plans to offer some enrollees non-medical benefits such as food, housing aid and assistance with utilities.
But state officials across the country said the new administration has signaled more support for both expanding current home-based services and adding new ones.
That has made a big difference, said Kate McEvoy, who directs Connecticut’s Medicaid program. “There was a lot of discussion in the Trump administration,” she said, “but not the capital to do it.”
Other states are looking to the new administration to back efforts to expand Medicaid to inmates with mental health conditions and drug addiction so they can connect more easily to treatment once released.
Kentucky health secretary Eric Friedlander said he is hopeful federal officials will sign off on his state’s initiative.
Still other states, such as California, say they are getting a more receptive audience in Washington for proposals to expand coverage to immigrants who are in the country without authorization, a step public health experts say can help improve community health and slow the spread of communicable diseases.
“Covering all Californians is critical to our mission,” said Jacey Cooper, director of California’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal. “We really feel like the new administration is helping us ensure that everyone has access.”
The Trump administration moved to restrict even authorized immigrants’ access to the health care safety net, including the “public charge” rule that allowed immigration authorities to deny green cards to applicants if they used public programs such as Medicaid.In March, Biden abandoned that rule.
During Pride Month we feel it’s especially important to shine a light on the significant health disparities faced by transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals.
Transgender healthcare has been under growing attack in recent months; while the Biden administration formally reinstated Affordable Care Act protections for transgender Americans against discrimination in healthcare, 20 states have introduced anti-trans bills since the start of the year, most featuring provisions that bar physicians from providing trans children with gender-affirming care.
The graphic above shows that transgender individuals are twice as likely as the broader LGBTQ+ population to delay care for fear of discrimination. Trans individuals deal with myriad types of medical discrimination, from being misgendered in routine interactions to being denied treatment. And trans people of color report experiencing this mistreatment even more frequently. Transgender people are also more likely to be uninsured or to delay care for financial reasons, in part because their unemployment and uninsured rates are higher than the national average. Even when they do find supportive providers, nearly 40 percent report that their insurance will not cover essential elements of transitional care, such as hormone therapy.
It’s incumbent on doctors and health systems to strengthen their policies for treating trans individuals. Trans-specific training for clinicians and staff is a great place to start. Even simple shifts in operations—like including preferred name and pronouns on patient records and providing equal access to public restrooms—are small but important steps to providing a safer, more inclusive healthcare experience and reducing transgender health disparities.
JPMorgan Chase on May 20 unveiled its new healthcare company, dubbed Morgan Health, which its top executive told Becker’s Hospital Review can be viewed as a continuation of Haven, an ambitious healthcare venture that recently disbanded.
“We learned a lot from the Haven experience,” Dan Mendelson, CEO of Morgan Health, said. “The Haven experience focused us on primary care, digital medicine and specific populations. … You can see this as a continuation of the work that was started at Haven.”
However, Mr. Mendelson said there are several key differences between Morgan Health and Haven, the healthcare venture launched by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase in 2018. For one, it has a much more simplified business structure, as it is a unit of JPMorgan Chase. Second, it has a philosophy of striking partnerships to meet its goals rather than working from the ground up.
“We don’t want to create things from scratch,” Mr. Mendelson said. “We are going to be collaborating with outstanding healthcare organizations nationally to accomplish our objectives. That’s another piece that differentiates this effort from the prior one.”
Morgan Health said its new business is focused on improving employer-sponsored healthcare in the U.S. and bringing meaningful innovation into the industry by targeting insurance and keeping populations healthy.Success for the company will be measured by whether it improves the Triple Aim: quality of care, access to care and cost to deliver care, Mr. Mendelson said. Morgan Health initially will focus its efforts on improving care for JPMorgan Chase employees, but its long-term goals are to become a leader at improving healthcare in the U.S. and to create a successful model other employers can adopt.
“We come at this with the benefit of having 285,000 employees and dependents,” Mr. Mendelson said. “We have a very strong interest in driving quality improvements for them and also creating models that are reproducible across organizations. We are looking to take a leadership role to improve care in the United States.”
Morgan Health said it has three core focus areas at its launch: improving healthcare by investing $250 million into organizations that are improving employer-sponsored healthcare; piloting new benefits for employees; and promoting healthcare equity for its employees and the broader community.
One employee benefit Morgan Health will be piloting is advanced primary care, Mr. Mendelson said. Morgan Health said it is working to create improved primary care capacity to enable employees to better navigate the healthcare system. One example of this is instead of having employees see just a primary care physician, they would be directed to a clinic that leverages more healthcare talent, such as pharmacists and nurses, to improve health outcomes.
Morgan Health said it will work with a range of partners, including provider groups, health plans and other employers. One such organization is CVS Health/Aetna, which is one of JPMorgan Chase’s insurance carriers, Mr. Mendelson said.
“CVS Health has a lot of innovation within the organization that we are not currently tapping into,” Mr. Mendelson said. “It’s a great example of a great American company that is ripe for further partnership and innovation in this effort.”
Morgan Health initially will have 20 dedicated employees, but Mr. Mendelson said the healthcare unit is tapping talent from other existing departments at JPMorgan Chase, including its legal, communications and benefits departments.
“This is a company that is very passionate about leading; there’s a very deep reservoir of support from the organization to accomplish the objectives,” Mr. Mendelson said. “These are objectives that are hard — it will take us time to accomplish and to show meaningful improvement. But there’s a sense that this is so important that there’s going to be a sustained effort in this regard and that we will achieve our objectives together.”
Prior to joining Morgan Health, Mr. Mendelson served as an operating partner at private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe. He also is the founder and former CEO of healthcare advisory firm Avalere Health and worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
Mr. Mendelson said his passion for establishing collaborative partnerships in healthcare will help him succeed in his new role.
CommonSpirit Health and Essentia Health have called off a deal for Essentia to acquire 14 CommonSpirit facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota, the two Catholic systems announced Tuesday.
The deal, nixed just four months after being announced, would have doubled the size of Duluth, Minn.-based Essentia’s hospital network. One of the facilities up for grabs, CHI St. Alexius Medical Center, is a tertiary hospital and the other 13 are critical access hospitals. The deal would also have included associated clinics and living communities.
The systems did not provide details as to why they scrapped the deal in their release, and an Essentia representative did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.
“While we share a similar mission, vision, values and strong commitment to sustainable rural healthcare, CommonSpirit and Essentia were unable to come to an agreement that would serve the best interests of both organizations, the people we employ and the patients we serve,” a joint statement from the two systems said.
Earlier this month, more than 700 nurses and medical workers filed a petition noting their concern over the deal. In the petition, the Minnesota Nurses Association and employees at Essentia and CommonSpirit said they feared layoffs and restricted access to patient care resulting from the acquisition.
Nurses cited Essentia’s partnership with Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake, Minn., last summer, which they claimed hurt the quality of patient care.
“Ever since the takeover, we’ve lost numerous staff, causing shortages in how we care for patients,” a nurse wrote in a news release about the petition May 4. “We don’t want CHI’s hospitals and clinics to lay off workers, cut the services they offer or close entirely.”
Essentia did not respond to a request for comment about whether workers’ concerns affected the decision to call off the deal.
Hospitals maintain consolidation betters the patient experience and improves care quality, but numerous studies have suggested that’s not the case. One from early last year published in the New England Journal of Medicine found acquired hospitals actually saw moderately worse patient experience, along with no change in 30-day mortality or readmission rates, while another from 2019 found mergers and acquisitions drive up prices for consumers.
Despite that, provider mergers and acquisitions have continued at a rapid clip even during COVID-19, as hospitals look to divest underperforming assets and bulk up market share in more lucrative geographies. The letter of intent CommonSpirit signed with Essentia suggests the roughly 140-hospital system is taking stock of its smaller rural facilities.
Chicago-based CommonSpirit was formed in 2019 by the merger of nonprofit giants Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health. The nonprofit giant was hit hard by the pandemic, losing $550 million in the 2020 fiscal year.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been warning of the dangers of postponed health care services. In January, the American Cancer Society, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and 73 other organizations, including many major health care systems, issued a statement stressing the urgency of preventive care. “We urge people across the country to talk with their health care provider to resume regular primary care checkups, recommended cancer screening, and evidence-based cancer treatment (PDF) to lessen the negative impact the pandemic is having on identifying and treating people with cancer,” the groups said.
That was sound advice not everyone could follow, as ProPublica’s Duaa Eldeib reported last week in a tragic story about Teresa Ruvalcaba. The 48-year-old single mother of three worked for 22 years at a candy factory on Chicago’s West Side. During the pandemic, disaster struck. “For more than six months, the 48-year-old factory worker had tried to ignore the pain and inflammation in her chest. She was afraid of visiting a doctor during the pandemic, afraid of missing work, afraid of losing her job, her home, her ability to take care of her three children,” Eldeib reported.
“Even though her chest felt as if it was on fire, she kept working. She didn’t want to get COVID-19 at a doctor’s office or the emergency room, and she was so busy she didn’t have much time to think about her symptoms,” Eldeib wrote.
Ruvalcaba’s pandemic fears were typical of patients across the nation, surveys revealed. A 2020 CHCF poll of 2,249 California adults revealed that even when people wanted to see a doctor for an urgent health problem, one-third did not receive care. Nearly half of those surveyed didn’t receive care for their nonurgent health problems.
Nationally, more than one in three people delayed or skipped care because they were worried about exposure to Covid-19, or because their doctor limited services, according to an Urban Institute analysis of a September 2020 survey.
The toll of this disruption in care — the forgone cancer screening, the chest pain that isn’t reported — will devastate some patients and families. Ruvalcaba had to face a diagnosis with a terrible prognosis, inflammatory breast cancer. “If she would have come six months earlier, it could have been just surgery, chemo and done,” Ruvalcaba’s doctor told Eldeib. “Now she’s incurable.”
“Unfortunately, we know we’re going to see some tragedies related to the delays,” Wiley Fowler, an oncologist at Dignity Health in Sacramento, told Ibarra.
Consequences of Delayed Care
Public health messages early in the pandemic urged people to avoid public places, including doctor’s offices. In April, as Hayley Smith noted in a Los Angeles Times story, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services “both published guidelines recommending the postponement of elective and nonurgent procedures, including ‘low-risk cancer’ screenings, amid the first wave of the pandemic.”
Patients and doctors listened. Appointments were canceled. “Nonurgent” procedures encompassing a wide array of treatments and operations, including cancer surgeries, were delayed.
Preventive cancer screenings dropped 94% over the first four months of 2020, Eldeib reported. The National Cancer Institute expects to see 10,000 preventable deaths over the next decade because of pandemic-related delays in diagnosis and treatment of breast and colorectal cancer. Screenings for these cancers, which account for about one in six cancer deaths, are routine features of preventive care.
I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.
—Molly Codner, a Southern Californian who received an abnormal Pap smear last summer
In California, cancer deaths have remained roughly the same as prepandemic rates, but that stability is not expected to last. Based on the National Cancer Institute data, Ibarra calculates that an additional 1,200 Californians will die from breast and colon cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimate is conservative “because it only accounts for a six-month delay in care, and people are postponing care longer than that,” Ibarra reported.
Nationally, death rates from cancer are expected to increase in a year or two. Slow-growing cancers will remain treatable despite a delayed diagnosis, Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, told Eldeib. Yet for conditions like Ruvalcaba’s inflammatory breast cancer, delayed care can be disastrous.
Women, People of Color Disproportionately Affected
For women across Southern California, appointments have been delayed, exams canceled, and screenings postponed during the pandemic, Smith reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Some are voluntarily opting out for fear of encountering the virus,” Smith wrote, “while others have had their appointments canceled by health care providers rerouting resources to COVID-19 patients.”
Before Pap smears became part of routine American health care, cervical cancer was one of the deadliest cancers for women. Today, as many as 93% of cervical cancer cases are preventable, according to the CDC, and screenings are a crucial component of preventive care. Yet during the first phase of California’s stay-at-home orders, cervical cancer screenings dropped 80% among the 1.5 million women in Kaiser Permanente’s regional network, Smith wrote.
The effects of the pandemic shutdown extended beyond delayed Pap smears. Women who spoke to Smith said that “mammograms, fertility treatments and even pain prevention procedures have been waylaid by the pandemic.”
Sometimes, obstacles other than the pandemic are continuing to interfere with access to care. One woman had an appointment delayed and then lost her job and her health insurance, Smith reported.
“Molly Codner, 30, has needed a checkup ever since she received an abnormal Pap smear last summer,” Smith wrote, “but like many Southern Californians, the trauma of the last year still weighs heavily on her mind: Nearly a dozen people she knows have had COVID-19.” Codner told Smith that “I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.”
People who face disparities in treatment and care are most likely to be hard hit by pandemic delays. That includes Black people, who were already more likely to die from cancer than any other racial group. Cancer also is the leading cause of death among Latinx people. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for Latinx women. Overall, more Americans die of heart disease.
Black adults are more likely than White or Latinx adults to delay or forgo care, according to researchers from the Urban Institute.
Telehealth Solved Access Issues for Some, Not All
Telehealth was a boon for patients during the pandemic year. Yet, as Ibarra notes, “there’s only so much that doctors and nurses can do through a screen.” Dental visits, mammograms, and annual wellness checks were also put on hold by the pandemic.
Latinx, Asian, and Black respondents did not use telehealth as often as White respondents. USC researchers attribute these differences to “disparities in income, education and access to any kind of health care.”
Researchers at the Urban Institute report similar findings: “Black and Latinx adults were more likely than White adults to report having wanted a telehealth visit but not receiving one since the pandemic began, and that difficulties getting a telehealth visit were also more common among adults who were in poorer health or had chronic health conditions.”
After controlling for socioeconomic factors and health status, patients with limited English were half as likely to use telehealth compared to fluent English-speaking patients, the Urban Institute said. “Much work remains to ensure all patients have equitable access to remote care during and after the pandemic,” the researchers wrote.
Whether telehealth is conducted by video or phone may be crucial to ensuring access to care. A study of telehealth use at Federally Qualified Health Centers in California in 2020 found that “more primary care visits among health centers in the study occurred via audio-only visits (49%) than in-person (48%) or via video (3%). Audio-only visits comprised more than 90% of all telemedicine visits.”
Public health efforts might need to focus on two goals at the same time as the US recovers from the pandemic: increasing vaccine uptake to keep COVID-19 in check and proactively managing the fallout from delayed care.
“As we focus on recovery, we have to ensure that we get vaccinated,” Efrain Talamantes, a primary care physician in East Los Angeles, told Ibarra. “But also that we have a concerted effort to manage the chronic diseases that haven’t received the attention required to avoid complications.”
The pandemic won’t end for anyone until it ends for everyone. That sentiment has been repeated so many times, by so many people, it’s easy to forget it’s not just a cliche—particularly if you live in one of the wealthy countries, like the U.S. and Israel, that has made significant moves toward what feels like an end to the COVID-19 era.
Israel, for example, has fully vaccinated more than half of its population and about 90% of its adults 50 and older are now immune to the virus—enough that the country is “busting loose” and “partying like it’s 2019,” as the Washington Post put it last week. The U.S. is a bit further behind, with nearly 30% of its population fully vaccinated, but the possibility of a post-pandemic reality is already coming into focus. While daily case counts remain high, they are far lower than they were even a few months ago—about 32,000 diagnoses were reported on April 25, compared to daily tallies well above 250,000 in January. Deaths have also trended downward for most of 2021. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed its guidance on travel and indoor gatherings, and some states have repealed mask mandates and other disease precautions.
But while people in certain affluent countries celebrate a return to vacations and parties, COVID-19 remains a dire threat in many nations around the world—nowhere more so than India. For five days in a row, the country has set and reset the global record for new cases in a single day, tallying about 353,000 on April 26.
By official counts, about 2,000 people in India are dying from COVID-19 every day as hospitals grow overtaxed and oxygen supplies run short. Experts say the true toll is likely even higher than that. People are dying as they desperately seek treatment, and crematoriums nationwide are overwhelmed.
It can be difficult to grapple with that devastating reality when people in countries like the U.S. are reuniting with loved ones and cautiously emerging from lockdown. How can both scenarios be happening at once? The answer, as it often has during the pandemic, lies in disparity. As of April 26, 83% of vaccinations worldwide had been given in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to a New York Times data analysis. In the developing world, many countries are preparing for the reality that it could take until 2022 or even 2023 to reach vaccination levels already achieved by richer countries today. Even in India, one of the world’s leading vaccine manufacturers, fewer than 10% of people have gotten a vaccine—a cruel irony, as people in India die in the streets while those thousands of miles away celebrate receiving their second doses.
To truly defeat COVID-19, we must reckon with that cognitive dissonance, says Dr. Rahel Nardos, who is originally from Ethiopia and now works in the University of Minnesota’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility. As an immigrant and global health physician who lives in the U.S., Nardos says she inhabits two worlds: one in which the U.S. may feasibly vaccinate at least 70% of its population this year, and another in which many countries struggle to inoculate even 20% of their residents in the same time frame.
“It’s a huge disparity,” Nardos says. “We need to get out of our silos and start talking to each other and hearing each other.”
That’s imperative, first and foremost because it could save lives. More than 13,000 people around the world died from COVID-19 on April 24. Remaining vigilant about disease prevention and monitoring, and working to distribute vaccines in countries that desperately need them to fight back COVID-19 surges, could help prevent more deaths in the future. That’s especially critical for developing countries, many of which are so overwhelmed by COVID-19 that nearly all other aspects of health care have suffered. “We may be looking at five, 10 years before they can get back to their baseline, which wasn’t that great to begin with,” Nardos says.
There’s also a global health argument for distributing vaccines more equitably.Infectious diseases do not respect borders. If even one country remains vulnerable to COVID-19, that could allow the virus to keep spreading and mutating, potentially evolving to such a point that it could infect people who are vaccinated against original strains of the disease. Already, vaccine makers are exploring the possibility of booster shots to add extra protection against the more transmissible variants currently circulating in various parts of the world.
We aren’t at that point yet; currently authorized vaccines appear to hold up well against these variants. But if the virus keeps spreading for years in some areas, there’s no telling what will happen, says Jonna Mazet, an epidemiologist and emerging infectious disease expert at the University of California, Davis.
“Evolution of those new strains could go into multiple directions. They may evolve to cause more severe or less severe disease. Some of the variants [could be] more concerning for young people,” Mazet says. “The whole dynamics of the disease change.”
And if the virus is mutating somewhere, chances are good it will eventually keep spreading in multiple areas, Mazet says. “Unless or until we have a major shift, we are still going to have large parts of every country that have a susceptible population,” she says. “The virus is going to find a way.”
The only way to stop a virus from mutating is to stop giving it new hosts, and vaccines help provide that protection. COVAX—a joint initiative of the World Health Organization; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations; and UNICEF—was meant to ensure that people in low-income countries could get vaccinated at the same time as people in wealthier ones. COVAX is providing free vaccines to middle- and low-income countries, using funds gained through purchase agreements and donations from richer countries. But supply and funding shortages have made it difficult for the initiative to distribute vaccines as quickly as it intended to. Many of the doses it planned to disseminate were supposed to have come from the Serum Institute of India, which delayed exporting doses in March and April as India focused on domestic vaccine rollout to combat its COVID-19 surge at home.
In the meanwhile, many poorer countries have been unable to vaccinate anywhere close to as many people as would be required to reach herd immunity. That will almost surely improve as new vaccines are authorized for use by regulators around the world, and as manufacturers scale up production, but those moves may be months away.
COVAX is also developing a mechanism through which developed countries could donate vaccine doses they don’t need. Some wealthy countries, including the U.S. and Canada, have contracts to purchase more than enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations, and have signaled their intent to eventually donate unneeded supplies—but timing is everything. That is, these countries will likely only donate once they are sure their own populations have been vaccinated at a level that ensures herd immunity.
On April 25, the Biden Administration said the U.S. would provide India with raw supplies for making AstraZeneca’s vaccine, as well as COVID-19 tests and treatments, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and funding. That’s a significant shift, since the export of raw vaccine materials was previously banned, but it still doesn’t provide India with ready-to-go vaccines. That step may be next, though. The U.S. will export as many as 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine once the shot clears federal safety reviews, the Associated Press reports.
Gian Gandhi, UNICEF’s COVAX coordinator for supply, says he fears many wealthy countries’ vaccine donations may not come until late in 2021, just when global supply is expected to ramp up. That may cause a bottleneck effect: all doses may come in at once, rather than at a slow-but-steady pace that allows countries with smaller health care networks to distribute them. “We need doses now, when we’re not able to access them via other means,” Gandhi says.
The global situation is also critical now. Worldwide, more than 5.2 million cases and 83,000 deaths were reported during the week leading up to April 18. Indian hospitals are so overrun, crowds have formed outside their doors and desperate families are trying to source their own oxygen. Hospitals in Brazil are reportedly running out of sedatives. Iran last week broke daily case count records three days in a row. Countries across Europe remain under various forms of lockdown. Vaccines won’t change those realities immediately—but without them, the global community stands little chance of containing COVID-19 worldwide.