A tripledemic hurricane is making landfall. We need masks, not just tent hospitals

A viral hurricane is making landfall on health care systems battered by three pandemic years. With the official start of winter still weeks away, pediatric hospitals are facing crushing caseloads of children sick with RSV and other viral illnesses. Schools that promised a “return to normal” now report widespread absences and even closures from RSV and flu in many parts of the country, contributing to parents missing work in record numbers. With this year’s flu season beginning some six weeks early, the CDC has already declared a flu epidemic as hospitalizations for influenza soared to the highest point in more than a decade.

A storm of these proportions should demand not only crisis clinical measures, but also community prevention efforts. Yet instead of deploying public health strategies to weather the storm, the U.S. is abandoning them.

Even before the arrival of the so-called tripledemic, U.S. health systems were on the brink. But as the fall surge of illness threatens to capsize teetering hospitals, the will to deploy public health measures has also collapsed. Pediatricians are declaring “This is our March 2020” and issuing pleas for help while public health efforts to flatten the curve and reduce transmission rates of Covid-19 — or any infectious disease — have effectively evaporated. Unmanageable patient volumes are seen as inevitable, or billed as the predictable outcome of an “immunity debt,” despite considerable uncertainty surrounding the scientific underpinnings and practical utility of this concept.

The Covid-19 pandemic should have left us better prepared for this moment. It helped the public to understand that respiratory viruses primarily spread through shared indoor air. Public health practices to stop the spread of Covid-19 — such as masking, moving activities outdoors, and limiting large gatherings during surges — were incorporated into the daily routines of many Americans. RSV and flu are also much less transmissible than Covid-19, making them easier to control with common-sense public health practices.

Instead of dialing up those first-line practices as pediatric ICUs overflow and classrooms close, though, the U.S. is relying on its precious and fragile last lines of defense to combat the tripledemic: health care professionals and medical facilities.

Warnings and advisories recently issued by U.S. public health leadersclinical leaderspoliticians, and the media have consistently neglected to mention masking as a powerful short-term public health strategy that can blunt the surge of viral illness. Instead, recent guidance has exclusively promoted handwashing and cough etiquette. These recommendations run counter to recent calls to build on improved understanding of the transmission of respiratory viruses.

In the U.S.’s efforts to “move on” from thinking about Covid, it has created a “new normal” that is deeply abnormal — one in which we normalize resorting to crisis measures, such as treating patients in tents, instead of using common-sense public health strategies. Treating Covid like the flu — or the flu like Covid — has effectively meant that we treat neither illness as if it were a serious threat to health systems and to public health. Mobilizing Department of Defense troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to cover health system shortfalls is apparently more palatable than asking people to wear masks.

The tripledemic has already claimed its first child deaths in the U.S., adding to a large ongoing death toll from Covid. Allowing health systems to reach the brink of collapse will lead to many more preventable deaths among pediatric and other vulnerable patients who can’t access the care they need.

By any accounting, these losses are shocking and tragic. But they should strike us as particularly abhorrent and shameful because the tripledemic is a crisis that leaders, health agencies, and institutions have, in a sense, chosen. Over the past year, the Biden administration and its allies have repeatedly encouraged the public to stand down on public health measures, with the President even stating in September that “the pandemic is over.” By moving real risks out of view and failing to push for more robust measures to mitigate Covid, these messages have put the country on a path to its present circumstances, in which pediatric RSV patients are transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles away because there is no capacity to treat them in their own communities.

Living with viruses should mean embracing simple public health measures rather than learning to live with staggering levels of illness and death. Leaders in public health and medicine should issue timely and appropriate guidance that reflects the latest science instead of second-guessing the prevailing winds in public opinion. Instead of self-censoring their recommendations out of fear of political consequences, they should continue to promote the full range of public health strategies, including masking in crowded indoor public places during surges.

The tripledemic should bring renewed urgency to policies that will reduce the toll of seasonal illness on health, education, and the economy. Improvements in indoor air quality in public spaces, including schools, child care centers, and workplaces, can limit the spread of diseases and have many demonstrated health and economic benefits, yet the U.S. continues to lack standards to guide infrastructure or workplace safety standards. Paid leave enabling workers to stay home when they are ill can reduce the transmission of disease as well as loss of income, yet the U.S. is one of the only high-income countries without universal paid sick leave or family medical leave.

Greater effort must also be made to increase vaccination coverage for flu and Covid and bring an RSV vaccine online as quickly as possible. Only about half of high-risk adults under 65 received a flu shot last year, a gap that can be closed with more energetic vaccination campaigns. Reducing annual flu deaths using a broader range of strategies enabled by the pandemic — rather than pegging Covid deaths to them — should be the goal.

Amid the many sobering stories of the tripledemic, there is some good news. As the experience of Covid-19 has shown, it is possible to limit the toll of respiratory viruses like flu and RSV. However, this work requires resources, appropriate policies, and political will. Americans don’t need to accept winter disease surges and overrun health systems as an inevitable new normal. Instead, the country should see the tripledemic as a call to reinvigorate public health strategies in response to these threats to the health of our communities.

Can updated boosters prevent another Covid-19 surge? Why some experts are skeptical.

Most experts agree that updated bivalent Covid-19 boosters provide additional protection against serious illness and death among vulnerable populations—but evidence suggests that increased booster uptake may not prevent a “wave of Covid” infections this winter, Apoorva Mandavilli writes for the New York Times.

Can bivalent boosters prevent another surge of infections?

While the Biden administration’s plan to prevent another surge of Covid-19 infections relies on increasing Americans’ uptake of the updated booster doses of the PfizerBioNTech and Moderna vaccines, some experts doubt the strategy.

According to John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, boosters provide additional protection to vulnerable populations—including older adults, immunocompromised individuals, and pregnant people—who should get boosted to prevent severe illness and death.

However, the benefit is not as clear for healthy, younger Americans who “are rarely at risk of severe illness or death from Covid, and at this point most have built immunity through multiple vaccine doses, infections or both,” Mandavilli writes.

“If you’re at medical risk, you should get boosted, or if you’re at psychological risk and worrying yourself to death, go and get boosted,” Moore said. “But don’t believe that will give you some kind of amazing protection against infection, and then go out and party like there’s no tomorrow.”

Separately, Peter Marks, FDA‘s top vaccine regulator, noted the limited data available data for the updated boosters.

“It’s true, we’re not sure how well these vaccines will do yet against preventing symptomatic disease,” he said, especially as the newer variants spread.

However, Marks added, “even modest improvements in vaccine response to the bivalent boosters could have important positive consequences on public health. Given the downside is pretty low here, I think the answer is we really advocate people going out and consider getting that booster.”

How much additional protection do updated shots provide?

While Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna recently reported that their bivalent boosters produced antibody levels that were four to six times higher than the original vaccine, their results were based on BA.4 and BA.5 antibodies, instead of the more prevalent BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants.

According to Mandavilli, “[a] spate of preliminary research suggests that the updated boosters, introduced in September, are only marginally better than the original vaccines at protecting against the newer variants — if at all.”

These small studies have not been reviewed for publication in a journal—but they all came to similar conclusions.

“It’s not likely that any of the vaccines or boosters, no matter how many you get, will provide substantial and sustained protection against acquisition of infection,” said Dan Barouch, head of Beth Israel Deaconess Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, who helped develop Johnson & Johnson‘s vaccine.

Notably, Barouch’s team recently discovered that BQ.1.1 is around seven times more resistant to the body’s immune defenses than BA.5, and 175 times more resistant than the original strain of the coronavirus. “It has the most striking immune escape, and it’s also growing the most rapidly,” he said. BQ.1 will likely follow a similar pattern.

“By now, most Americans have some degree of immunity to the coronavirus, and it does not surprise scientists that the variant that best evades the body’s immune response is likely to outrun its rivals,” Mandavilli writes.

The new vaccine increases antibodies, but the fact it is bivalent may not be significant. In August, a study by Australian immunologists suggested that any kind of booster would offer extra protection. In addition, the study noted that a variant-specific booster would likely not be more effective than the original vaccine.

“The bulk of the benefit is from the provision of a booster dose, irrespective of whether it is a monovalent or bivalent vaccine,” according to the World Health Organization.

Florian Krammer, an immunologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, noted that despite recent research, which evaluated immune response soon after vaccination, immune response may improve over time.

“We will see with larger studies and studies at a later time point if there is a good or a significant benefit, but I think it’s certainly not worse,” he added. “I don’t see much risk when you get the vaccine, so you might as well get the benefit.”

“What we need to do right now to get us through the next few months when I think we are in yet another wave of incipient wave of Covid,” Marks added. “And then we need to look forward, and lean into how we’re going to do things differently moving forward.”

Will we see an increase in vaccine uptake?

Currently, FDA allows the booster dose at least two months after a Covid-19 infection or previous does. However, some studies suggest boosting too early could have negative consequences. “Lengthening the interval between boosts to five or six months may be more effective, giving the immune system more time to refine its response,” Mandavilli writes.

Still, “adding yet another shot to the regimen seems unlikely to motivate Americans to opt for the immunization,” no matter the schedule, she adds.

“Each new booster we roll out is going to have a lower and lower uptake, and we’re already pretty close to the floor,” said Gretchen Chapman, an expert in health behavior at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ultimately, “[w]e should not spend a lot of political capital trying to get people to get this bivalent booster, because the benefits are limited,” Chapman added. “It’s more important to get folks who never got the initial vaccine series vaccinated than to get people like me to get their fifth shot.” 

US COVID-19 admissions tick up: 10 CDC findings

COVID-19 hospitalizations increased slightly this week after nearly two months of decline, while omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 — dubbed ‘escape variants’ for their immune evasiveness — continued to gain prevalence nationwide, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker weekly review published Oct. 28.

Ten findings:

Hospitalizations

1. The seven-day hospitalization average for Oct. 19-25 was 3,249, a 1 percent increase from the previous week’s average. New hospital admissions had been falling since early August, CDC data shows.

Cases

2. As of Oct. 26, the nation’s seven-day case average was 37,683, a 25.1 percent decrease from the previous week’s average. This marks the 14th week of decline and the lowest daily case rate seen since late April, CDC data shows.

Variants

3. Based on projections for the week ending Oct. 29, the CDC estimates that BQ.1 accounts for 14 percent of cases, while BQ.1.1 accounts for 13.1 percent.

4. BA. 5 remains the nation’s dominant strain, accounting for 49.6 percent of infections. BF.7, another omicron subvariant experts are closely monitoring, makes up 7.5 percent of cases. Other omicron subvariants make up the rest. 

Community levels 

5. As of Oct. 27, 2.3 percent of counties, districts or territories had high COVID-19 community levels, 21.9 percent had medium community levels and 75.8 percent had low community levels. 

Deaths

6. The current seven-day death average is 373, down 13.7 percent from the previous week’s average. Some historical deaths have been excluded from these counts, the CDC said. 

Vaccinations

7. As of Oct. 26, about 266 million people — 80.1 percent of the U.S. population — have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 226.9 million people, or 68.4 percent of the population, have received both doses. 

8. About 111.8 million people have received a booster dose, and more than 22.9 million people have received an updated omicron booster. However, 49.3 percent of people eligible for a booster dose have not yet gotten one, the CDC said.

Wastewater surveillance 

9. About 34 percent of the U.S. is reporting moderate to high virus levels in wastewater. Of these surveillance sites, 10 percent are seeing some of the highest levels since Dec. 1, 2021. 

10. About 50 percent of sites are reporting an increase in virus levels, and 44 percent of sites are seeing a decrease.

COVID’s lingering effects on the US workforce

https://mailchi.mp/f1c5ab8c3811/the-weekly-gist-october-28-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

As the nation continues to grapple with the fallout from COVID, one of the greatest unknowns is “long COVID”, the broad range of health problems experienced by a significant number of individuals after contracting the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long COVID as any post-COVID condition lasting three months or longer.

In the graphic above, we aim to quantify the prevalence of long COVID and its ongoing impact on the US workforce. While estimates for these numbers vary, data compiled by Brookings show that COVID infections in roughly one in four working age adults have resulted in long COVID, and up to one in four individuals with long COVID are unable to work due to their lingering health problems. Long COVID is also more prevalent in middle-aged adults, who are often at the peak of their working years. Dealing with symptoms like chronic fatigue and brain fog, long COVID patients are more likely to be unemployed or working reduced hours, compared to a pre-COVID baseline of the general adult population. 

While it’s difficult to assess the precise impact on the nation’s current labor shortage, the estimate that 4M working age adults are no longer working because of long COVID equals about 40 percent of the 10M total job openings in August of this year, undoubtedly exacerbating ongoing economic challenges. 

Covid-19 is surging in Europe. Is America next?

https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2022/10/10/covid-resurgence

While infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from Covid-19 have been steadily declining in the United States in recent months, experts warn that rising cases in Europe may be “a harbinger for what’s about to happen in the United States,” Rob Stein writes for NPR’s “Shots.”

Will the US see a ‘winter resurgence’ of Covid-19?

Currently, several models project that U.S. Covid-19 infections will continue to decline at least until the end of 2022. However, researchers caution that there are multiple variables that could change current projections, including whether more infectious strains start circulating around the nation.

According to Stein, “[t]he first hint of what could be in store is what’s happening in Europe.” Recently, many European countries, including the U.K., France, and Italy, have seen an increase in Covid-19 infections.

“In the past, what’s happened in Europe often has been a harbinger for what’s about to happen in the United States,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “So I think the bottom line message for us in this country is: We have to be prepared for what they are beginning to see in Europe.”

“We look around the world and see countries such as Germany and France are seeing increases as we speak,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. “That gives me pause. It adds uncertainty about what we can expect in the coming weeks and the coming months.”

However, Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who helps run the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, noted that the United States may not have the same experience as Europe, largely because it is unclear whether Europe’s increase is related to individuals’ vulnerability to new strains.

“If it is mostly just behavioral changes and climate, we might be able to avoid similar upticks if there is broad uptake of the bivalent vaccine,” Lessler added. “If it is immune escape across several variants with convergent evolution, the outlook for the U.S. may be more concerning.”

Some researchers believe the United States is already experiencing early signs of this. “For example, the levels of virus being detected in wastewater is up in some parts of the country, such in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of Northeast,” Stein writes. “That could an early-warning sign of what’s coming, though overall the virus is declining nationally.”

It’s really too early to say something big is happening, but it’s something that we’re keeping an eye on,” said Amy Kirby, national wastewater surveillance program lead at CDC.

According to David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which tracks the pandemic, Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations are already rising in some parts of New England, and other northern regions, including the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re seeing the northern rim of the country beginning to show some evidence of increasing transmission,” Rubin said. “The winter resurgence is beginning.”

How likely is a severe Covid-19 surge?

Unless a “dramatically different new variant emerges,” it is “highly unlikely this year’s surge would get as severe as the last two years in terms of severe disease and deaths,” Stein writes.

“We have a lot more immunity in the population than we did last winter,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, who leads the Pandemic Center at the Brown University School of Public Health.

“Not only have people gotten vaccinated, but a lot of people have now gotten this virus. In fact, some people have gotten it multiple times. And that does build up [immunity] in the population and reduce overall over risk of severe illness,” Nuzzo said.

Another factor that could affect the severity of the impact of rising infections is the number of people who receive updated Covid-19 vaccines, which help boost waning immunity from previous infections or shots.

However, the United States’ booster uptake has been slow. “Nearly 50% of people who are eligible for a booster have not gotten one,” said William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s wild. It’s really crazy.”

Since updated boosters became available in September, less than 8 million of the over 200 million people who are eligible have received one.

According to Nuzzo, it is critical for people to stay up to date on their vaccines, especially with the high likelihood of another Covid-19 surge. “The most important thing that we could do is to take off the table that this virus can cause severe illness and death,” Nuzzo said.

“There are a lot of people who could really benefit from getting boosted but have not done so,” she added.

FDA clears updated COVID-19 vaccines ahead of fall booster campaign

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized updated COVID-19 booster shots specifically targeting a subvariant of omicron. 

The move comes ahead of a fall campaign to give Americans booster shots, which is expected to launch in the coming days. 

The move marks the first time the vaccines have been updated since the first shots were cleared at the end of 2020, and the updated shots are designed to catch up to evolutions in the virus.

The shots from Pfizer and Moderna target the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, as well as the original virus. 

The shots can begin going into arms once the final step in the process, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee, clears them, which is expected to occur on Thursday.  

A major question, though, is how many people will actually want the new shots, given that uptake for the existing booster shots has lagged.  

Only about half of people who got the first two shots received the initial booster dose.  

“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. “As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.”

Seeking to keep up with the ever-evolving virus, the FDA did not wait for the time-consuming process of going through full clinical trials on this tweaked vaccine. But it noted that it is highly confident that the vaccines are safe and effective. The agency pointed to the millions of doses of the original vaccines that have been given, as well as data from another version of the updated vaccine, along with preliminary data on this one.  

Peter Marks, a top FDA vaccine official, compared the process to the annual updates to the flu vaccine that seek to adapt to the changes in that virus.  

“The public can be assured that a great deal of care has been taken by the FDA to ensure that these bivalent COVID-19 vaccines meet our rigorous safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality standards for emergency use authorization,” Marks said.  

The updated Moderna vaccine is cleared for people 18 and older, and the Pfizer vaccine for people 12 and older.  

For both, people are eligible for the booster shot of the updated vaccine if it has been at least two months since their last shot.  

How Long Has Polio Been Circulating in the U.S.?

 The virus has likely been circulating in U.S. cities intermittently for years, experts say.

The fact that poliovirus was detected in New York City wastewater samples as far back as April of this year shouldn’t be surprising, as the virus likely has been circulating for longer and more widely than previously believed, several experts told MedPage Today.

“I think you’re gonna see over the next weeks more and more reports of poliovirus in wastewater elsewhere,” said Vincent Racaniello, PhD, a virologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Poliovirus probably still circulated in the U.S. after 2000, when officials stopped giving the oral polio vaccine, he said. That version protects against paralysis and provides short-term protection against intestinal infection from poliovirus.

The transition to injectable polio vaccine, which is equally as effective against paralysis but not against intestinal infection, meant that the U.S. population was more susceptible to transmitting vaccine-associated poliovirus, he explained.

This circulation is likely occasional and sporadic, he said, but the threat to vulnerable populations is still high.

“Here’s the thing: polio is here in the U.S. It’s not gone,” Racaniello said. “It’s in the wastewater. It could contaminate you, so if you’re not vaccinated, that could be a problem.”

Calls for Nationwide Surveillance

Racaniello said there’s value in learning more about the circulation of the virus, especially for communities with low vaccination rates.

The first step to understanding how long and how broadly poliovirus is circulating, he said, is to start testing wastewater everywhere. The CDC used stored wastewater from April to confirm that the virus had been circulating then, but it is just as possible to conduct nationwide surveillance for poliovirus now, he noted.

In fact, Racaniello said, he has long believed that this kind of surveillance should be done routinely to provide an early detection system for poliovirus.

“Ten years ago, I said to the CDC, you should really be looking in the sewage for poliovirus because of this issue where it could come in from overseas and be in our sewage,” he said. “If someone is unvaccinated, that would be a threat to them, but [the CDC] never did it.”

Davida Smyth, PhD, of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, pointed out that the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) was established to detect COVID-19 in 2020, so the infrastructure to conduct a wide search for the spread of polio is available.

The primary issue, she said, is that the collaboration that academic researchers have enjoyed with the CDC in surveillance of COVID-19 is so far absent with poliovirus.

“I imagine the CDC is testing those samples for polio, even as we speak, given the nature of what has happened,” Smyth said.

Better coordination with academia and better surveillance, she said, is crucial for finding any potential pockets of poliovirus circulating in other communities around the U.S.

In fact, she said, she is “absolutely convinced” that more polio will be found in the coming weeks.

MedPage Today contacted the CDC to ask whether there are plans to use the NWSS to look for polio around the U.S., but as of press time had not received a response.

Smyth noted that most areas in the country have high rates of polio vaccination, but she is concerned about pockets of rural America where vaccination has dipped in recent years. Most states boast polio vaccination rates over 90%, but Smyth said in some regions, the percentages may be as low as the mid-30s.

“[In] the vast majority of the United States, the vaccination rates are quite high, but the COVID pandemic has led to a decrease in vaccination rates,” Smyth told MedPage Today. “The rates are going down. They’re dipping below 90%, which is shocking, frankly.”

Smyth said the decline is largely due to a lack of opportunity or access to healthcare in some areas, but vaccine hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine might be affecting polio vaccinations as well.

“There’s a variety of reasons why people don’t get vaccinated,” she said. “The problem is children are very vulnerable. So if you have a population where the vaccination rates drop, those are exactly the kinds of areas where we need to do this surveillance.”

Racaniello echoed the importance of polio vaccination in adults as well. If patients don’t have a record of their shot, “just vaccinate them,” he said, “because there’s no downside to getting vaccinated again.”

Re-evaluating the Polio Endgame

The recent case of paralytic polio infection and concerns over the wider circulation of poliovirus have also altered some of the thinking around the goal of polio eradication.

In fact, William Schaffner, MD, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, highlighted the unique difficulty of preventing the spread of poliovirus.

“As you can imagine, we’ve gotten into polio endgame,” he told MedPage Today. “I think the notion has now been modified. Eradication isn’t going to be as neat and clean and quick as we once thought. Once we get rid of all paralytic disease, we will have to keep vaccinating for a long time, because there will still be circulating vaccine-associated viruses — some of which will mutate back.”

Schaffner compared the final push to eradicate polio with the successful eradication of smallpox. When the last case of smallpox ended, he explained, public health officials were able to end smallpox vaccination campaigns. For polio, however, he said, it will likely not be that simple, and it will be necessary “to keep vaccinating for quite a long time.”

He said that as public health officials in the U.S. and globally continue to grapple with the nuances of eradicating poliovirus, healthcare providers and their patients will have to come to terms with the simple fact that polio is a real health concern.

“[It’s] the reverse of the old saying, ‘it’s gone, but not forgotten,'” Schaffner said. “Polio is forgotten, but it’s not gone.”

Antibiotic-resistant infections rose in hospitals during pandemic, CDC data shows

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/covid-pandemic-rise-hospital-infections-antibiotic-resistant-cdc/627109/

Exterior of the Center for Disease Control headquarters is seen on October 13, 2014, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dive Brief:

  • Hospital-acquired, antibiotic-resistant infections grew 15% from 2019 to 2020, according to data out Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Nearly 30,000 people died from infections associated with healthcare settings in the first year of the pandemic and about 40% were infected during a hospital stay, according to the CDC.
  • Personal protective equipment and staffing shortages; longer patient stays and use of devices like catheters and ventilators; and significant surges in antibiotic use contributed to the rise in infections, the CDC said.

Dive Insight:

The new data erases years of progress — from 2012 to 2017, hospital-acquired, antimicrobial-resistant infections fell 27%, according to data from the CDC.

Hospitals struggled to follow infection prevention and control guidance during the first year of the pandemic as they faced resource strains and treated sicker patients who needed longer stays. At the same time, hospitals boosted their use of antibiotics, reducing their effectiveness.

In many cases, patients who exhibited pneumonia-like symptoms at hospitals were given antibiotics as a first option even though they were infected with COVID-19. Antibiotics are not effective in treating COVID-19.

Nearly 80% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 from March to October of 2020 received an antibiotic, according to the CDC.

Antimicrobrial resistance testing was also down in 2020. The CDC’s AR lab network reported receiving 23% fewer testing specimens during 2020 compared to 2019. Due to the pandemic, some CDC progams that focused on antimicrobrial resistance were also repurposed to offer surge capacity COVID-19 testing, the report said.

Without infrastructure and preparedness, it warned, critical data could be “delayed again when the next threat emerges.”

“This setback can and must be temporary,” Michael Craig, director of the CDC’s antibiotic resistance coordination and strategy unit, said in a report analyzing the data.

“The best way to avert a pandemic caused by an antimicrobial-resistant pathogen is to identify gaps and invest in prevention to keep our nation safe,” he said.

“Superbug” infections and deaths rose in 2020

https://mailchi.mp/30feb0b31ba0/the-weekly-gist-july-15-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

While the world’s attention was focused on fighting COVID-19, antibiotic-resistant infections were spreading. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report finds that hospital-acquired infections and deaths from antimicrobial-resistant pathogens increased 15 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. COVID overwhelmed healthcare settings, shifting the focus of infection control resources, resulting in sicker patients with longer catheter and ventilator use, which increased infection risks. Plus, clinicians initially unsure of how to treat the new disease prescribed COVID patients antibiotics at unusually high rates, setting the stage for growing drug resistance.

The Gist: This uptick reverses years of progress made on reducing the number of superbug infections in hospitals. Prior to the pandemic, hospitals were becoming markedly safer places, with fewer hospital-acquired infections, adverse drug reactions, and poor procedural outcomes. 

As health systems exit COVID crisis mode, hospitals must renew their focus on these longstanding goals of the infection control agenda.

The missing Americans: early death in the United States 1933-2021

Figure. Excess deaths in the U.S. relative to other wealthy nations, 1933-2021. Source: Human Mortality Database. Note: Figure shows the difference between the number of deaths that occurred in the U.S. each year and the number of deaths that would have occurred if the U.S. had age-specific mortality rates equal to the average of other wealthy nations. The comparison set includes Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The average of other wealthy nations excludes Portugal prior to 1940, Austria and Japan prior to 1947, Germany prior to 1956, and Luxembourg prior to 1960. From 1960, all countries are represented (solid dots).

COVID-19 led to a large increase in U.S. deaths. However, even before the pandemic, the U.S. had higher death rates than other wealthy nations. How many deaths could be avoided if the U.S. had the same mortality rates as its peers?

In a new study, we quantify the annual number of U.S. deaths that would have been averted over nearly a century if the U.S. had age-specific mortality rates equal to the average of 18 similarly wealthy nations. We refer to these excess U.S. deaths as “missing Americans.”

The annual number of “missing Americans” increased steadily beginning in the late 1970s, reaching 626,353 in 2019 (Figure). Excess U.S. deaths jumped sharply to 991,868 in 2020 and 1,092,293 in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, nearly 1 out of every 3 U.S. deaths would have been averted if U.S. mortality rates had equaled those of its peer nations. Half of these excess deaths were among U.S. residents under 65 years. We estimate that the 1.1M excess deaths in 2021 were associated with 25M years of life lost, accounting for the number of years the deceased would otherwise be expected to live.

We also compared mortality rates of U.S. racial and ethnic groups with the international benchmark. Black and Native Americans accounted for a disproportionate share of the “missing Americans.” However, the majority of “missing Americans” were White non-Hispanic persons.

Our findings are consistent with recent reports that the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and peer nations widened during the pandemic, with U.S. life expectancy falling from 78.9 to 76.6 years. Life expectancy is widely reported, but it is a complex measure and may be misinterpreted as reflecting small differences in mortality at advanced ages.

In fact, the greatest relative differences in mortality between the U.S. and peer countries occur before age 65. In 2021, half of all deaths to U.S. residents under 65 years – and 90% of the increase in under-65 mortality since 2019 – would have been avoided if the U.S. had the mortality rates of other wealthy nations. In addition to the loss of life, these early deaths often leave behind child (and elder) dependents without key social and economic support.

Our calculations were based on recently released mortality data, obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER Database and the Human Mortality Database. The international comparison group included all available countries with relatively complete mortality data starting in 1960 or earlier, after excluding former communist countries. Our paper builds on prior analyses of excess deaths by our study team and by others.

We find a very large increase in excess U.S. deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this spike occurred on top of a growing trend that reached 600,000 excess deaths in 2019. Future COVID-19 deaths could be reduced with broader vaccine uptake, worker protections, and masking during surges. Even if COVID-19 mortality were eliminated, however, the U.S. would likely suffer hundreds of thousands of excess deaths each year, with many linked to firearms, opioids, and obesity.

Addressing excess deaths in the U.S. will require public health and social policies that target the root causes of U.S. health malaise, including fading economic opportunities and rising financial insecurity, structural racism, and failures of institutions at all levels of government to invest adequately in population health.