There’s a lot of anxiety about the AstraZeneca vaccine thanks to recent reports of incomplete data, as well as reports on blood clot risks. Let’s take a look at both issues in context, understanding the efficacy data before and after numbers were updated, and understanding blood clot risk in relation to other common situations where blood clots are a potential concern.
In this last episode of our six-part series on vaccinations, supported by the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, we cover vaccine development – particularly in the context of the current global pandemic. We discuss the timeline of Covid-19 vaccine development and the mRNA vaccine approach.
Walmart has continued to grow its presence in healthcare over the past few years, with expansions of its primary care clinics and the launch of its new insurance arm.
Here are nine numbers that show how big Walmart is in healthcare and how it plans to grow:
Walmart has opened 20 standalone healthcare centers and plans to open at least 15 more in 2021. The health centers offer primary care, urgent care, labs, counseling and other services.
Walmart’s board approved a plan in 2018 to scale to 4,000 clinics by 2029. However, that plan is in flux as the retail giant may be rolling back its clinic strategy, according to a February Insider report.
Walmart in January confirmed plans to offer COVID-19 vaccines in 11 states and Puerto Rico.
In 2020, Walmart established 600 COVID-19 testing sites.
Walmart said it believes expanding its standalone clinics will help bring affordable, quality healthcare to more Americans because 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart store.
The Walmart Health model lowers the cost of delivering healthcare services by about 40 percent for patients, according to Walmart’s former health and wellness president Sean Slovenski.
In October, Walmart partnered with Medicare Advantage insurer Clover Health on its first health insurance plans, which will be available to 500,000 people in eight Georgia counties.
Walmart’s insurance arm, Walmart Insurance Services, partnered with eight payers during the Medicare open enrollment period in 2020 to sell its Medicare products. Humana, UnitedHealthcre and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield were among the insurers offering the products.
In recent weeks, U.S. coronavirus case data — long a closely-watched barometer of the pandemic’s severity — has sent some encouraging signals: The rate of newly recorded infections is plummeting from coast to coast and the worst surge yet is finally relenting. But scientists are split on why, exactly, it is happening.
And every explanation is appended with two significant caveats: The country is still in a bad place, continuing to notch more than 90,000 new cases every day, and recent progress could still be imperiled, either by new fast-spreading virus variants or by relaxed social distancing measures.
The rolling daily average of new infections in the United States hit its all-time high of 248,200 on Jan. 12, according to data gathered and analyzed by The Washington Post. Since then, the number has dropped every day, hitting 91,000 on Sunday, its lowest level since November.
A former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the idea that Americans are now seeing the effect of their good behavior — not of increased vaccinations.
“I don’t think the vaccine is having much of an impact at all on case rates,” Tom Frieden said in an interview Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” “It’s what we’re doing right: staying apart, wearing masks, not traveling, not mixing with others indoors.”
However, Frieden noted, the country’s numbers are still higher than they were during the spring and summer virus waves and “we’re nowhere near out of the woods.”
“We’ve had three surges,” Frieden said. “Whether or not we have a fourth surge is up to us, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
The current CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said in a round of TV interviews Sunday morning that behavior will be crucial to averting yet another spike in infections and that it is far too soon for states to be rescinding mask mandates. Walensky also noted the declining numbers but said cases are still “more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer.”
“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, publisher of a popular coronavirus model, are among those who attribute declining cases to vaccines and the virus’s seasonality, which scientists have said may allow it to spread faster in colder weather.
In the IHME’s most recent briefing, published Friday, the authors write that cases have “declined sharply,” dropping nearly 50 percent since early January.
“Two [factors] are driving down transmission,” the briefing says. “1) the continued scale-up of vaccination helped by the fraction of adults willing to accept the vaccine reaching 71 percent, and 2) declining seasonality, which will contribute to declining transmission potential from now until August.”
The model predicts 152,000 more covid-19 deaths by June 1, but projects that the vaccine rollout will save 114,000 lives.
In the past week, the country collectively administered 1.62 million vaccine doses per day, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of state and federal data. It was the best week yet for the shots, topping even President Biden’s lofty goal of 1.5 million vaccinations per day.
Nearly 40 million people have received at least their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Experts have said that 70 percent to 90 percent of people need to have immunity, either through vaccination or prior infection, to quash the pandemic. And some leading epidemiologists have agreed with Frieden, saying that not enough people are vaccinated to make such a sizable dent in the case rates.
A fourth, less optimistic explanation has also emerged: More new cases are simply going undetected. On Twitter, Eleanor Murray, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, said an increased focus on vaccine distribution and administration could be making it harder to get tested.
“I worry that it’s at least partly an artifact of resources being moved from testing to vaccination,” Murray said of the declines.
The Covid Tracking Project, which compiles and publishes data on coronavirus testing, has indeed observed a steady recent decrease in tests, from more than 2 million per day in mid-January to about 1.6 million a month later. The project’s latest update blames this dip on “a combination of reduced demand as well as reduced availability or accessibility of testing.”
“Demand for testing may have dropped because fewer people are sick or have been exposed to infected individuals, but also perhaps because testing isn’t being promoted as heavily,” the authors write.
They note that a backlog of tests over the holidays probably produced an artificial spike of reported tests in early January, but that even when adjusted, it’s still “unequivocally the wrong direction for a country that needs to understand the movements of the virus during a slow vaccine rollout and the spread of multiple new variants.”
Where most experts agree: The mutated variants of the virus pose perhaps the biggest threat to the country’s recovery. One is spreading rapidly and another, known as B.1.351, contains a mutation that may help the virus partly evade natural and vaccine-induced antibodies.
Fewer than 20 cases have been reported in the United States, but a critically ill man in France underscores the variant’s potentially dangerous consequences. The 58-year-old had a mild coronavirus infection in September and the B.1.351 strain reinfected him four months later.
No matter what’s causing the current downturn in new infections, experts have urged Americans to avoid complacency.
“Masks, distancing, ventilation, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated when eligible. These are the tools we have to continue the long trip down the tall mountain,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said on Twitter. “The variants may throw us a curve ball, but if we keep driving down transmission we can get to a better place.”
In the old days, pre-pandemic, the line in the brick-walled basement bar of Grendel’s Den would have consisted of young customers waiting to have their ID cards checked.
These days, says owner Kari Kuelzer, it’s made up of staff members getting checked for the coronavirus.
On a recent pre-opening early afternoon, a half dozen staffers assembled amid the twinkling lights and unoccupied tables, and Kuelzer handed out testing swabs.
“This is our test kit,” she explained, opening a clear plastic bag. “It’s a vial and then 10 swabs. They self-swab. And then it goes in the vial. And off I go to Kendall Square.”
Grendel’s Den, a classic Harvard Square hangout for more than 50 years, has just become the site of a coronavirus experiment: Twice a week, the restaurant will gather nose samples from up to 10 staffers, combine them and take them for processing to the company CIC Health a couple of miles away in Kendall Square.
Combining the samples is known as pooled testing — an increasingly popular way for employers, schools and others on limited budgets to keep an eye out for coronavirus infections. If the pool comes back negative, everyone’s good. If it’s positive, each person needs an individual test.
Kuelzer has been pushing the city of Cambridge and the broader restaurant community to get more testing,” to help us essentially achieve the sort of workplace safety that they achieved at Harvard University over the course of the fall,” she says.
Frequent testing helped Harvard and many other universities keep coronavirus rates low.
“If there’s people in our community in the university setting and at large institutions that are receiving that level of protection, there has to be a way to extend it to people who are not in that bubble of privilege, of being part of a major university,” Kuelzer says.
Until recently, she says, there wasn’t an affordable way to get her staff tested, and she had to ask them to do it on their own. In November, an outbreak hit seven staff members, and Grendel’s closed.
It recently reopened, and she found that testing had evolved to the point that she could get the staff pooled testing, twice a week, for $150 each time.
CIC Health already offers individual tests, and pooled testing to big institutions like schools, says chief marketing officer Rodrigo Martinez.
“And the other piece that is missing is exactly how do you offer pooled testing to a small company, restaurant, organization, team, nonprofit, whatever it is, in a way that they can actually access it?” he says. “And this is exactly the service that we’re piloting in beta.”
By “beta,” Martinez means that the Grendel’s Den arrangement is basically a field test to see how it goes and iron out kinks, and CIC Health isn’t marketing it broadly yet. But the market could be large.
“In theory, every small business that wants testing might be in need and desire of being able to do pooled testing,” he says.
The market could also be temporary. At Grendel’s, Kari Kuelzer says she sees the pooled testing as only a stopgap until the staff can get vaccinated.
It’s a stopgap that patrons can help support if they choose, in a brand new type of tipping: They can buy their server a coronavirus test for $15.
“If you want to help this waitress or that bartender who you care about because they make your day good stay safe, you can buy them a test,” Kuelzer says.
Overall, she says, it’s so far so good for the Grendel’s Den testing experiment. The result from the first round of testing came back last week in less than 24 hours — and it was negative for the coronavirus.
As one of his first official actions upon taking office Wednesday, President Biden signed an executive order implementing a federal mask mandate, requiring masks to be worn by all federal employees and on all federal properties, as well as on all forms of interstate transportation. Yesterday Biden followed that action by officially naming his COVID response team, and issuing a detailed national plan for dealing with the pandemic. Describing the plan as a “full-scale wartime effort”, Biden highlighted the key components of the plan in an appearance with Dr. Anthony Fauci and COVID response coordinator Jeffrey Zients.
The plan instructs federal agencies to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate supplies of critical equipment, including masks, testing equipment, and vaccine-related supplies; calls for new national guidelines to help employers make workplaces safe for workers to return to their jobs, and to make schools safe for students to return; and promises to fully fund the states’ mobilization of the National Guard to assist in the vaccine rollout.
Also included in the plan is a new Pandemic Testing Board, charged with ramping up multiple forms of COVID testing; more investment in data gathering and reporting on the impact of the pandemic; and the establishment of a health equity task force, to ensure that vulnerable populations are an area of priority in pandemic response.
But Biden can only do so much by executive order. Funding for much of his ambitious COVID plan will require quick legislative action by Congress, meaning that the administration will either need to garner bipartisan support for its proposed “American Rescue Plan” legislation, or use the Senate’s budget reconciliation process to pass the bill with a simple majority (with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote). Even that may prove challenging, given skepticism among Republican (and some moderate Democratic) senators about the $1.9T price tag for the legislation.
We’d anticipate intense bargaining over the relief package—with broad agreement over the approximately $415B in spending on direct COVID response, but more haggling over the size of the economic stimulus component, including the promised $1,400 per person in direct financial assistance, expanded unemployment insurance, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Some of the broader economic measures, along with the rest of Biden’s healthcare agenda and his larger proposals to invest in rebuilding critical infrastructure, may have to wait for future legislation, as the administration prioritizes COVID relief as its first—and most important—order of business.
With bubble-enclosed Santas and Zoom-enhanced family gatherings, much of the United States played it safe over Christmas while the coronavirus rampaged across the country.
But a significant number of Americans traveled, and uncounted gatherings took place, as they will over the New Year holiday.
And that, according to the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, could mean new spikes in cases, on top of the existing surge.
“We very well might see a post-seasonal — in the sense of Christmas, New Year’s — surge,” Dr. Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We’re really at a very critical point,” he said. “If you put more pressure on the system by what might be a post-seasonal surge because of the traveling and the likely congregating of people for, you know, the good warm purposes of being together for the holidays, it’s very tough for people to not do that.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the administration’s testing coordinator, noted that Thanksgiving travel did not lead to an increase of cases in all places, which suggested that many people heeded recommendations to wear masks and limit the size of gatherings.
“It really depends on what the travelers do when they get where they’re going,” Admiral Giroir said. “We know the actual physical act of traveling in airplanes, for example, can be quite safe because of the air purification systems. What we really worry about is the mingling of different bubbles once you get to your destination.”
Still, U.S. case numbers are about as high as they have ever been. Total infections surpassed 19 million on Saturday, meaning that at least 1 in 17 people have contracted the virus over the course of the pandemic. And the virus has killed more than 332,000 people — one in every thousand in the country.
Two of the year’s worst days for deaths have been during the past week. A number of states set death records on Dec. 22 or Dec. 23, including Alabama, Wisconsin, Arizona and West Virginia, according to The Times’s data.
And hospitalizations are hovering at a pandemic height of about 120,000, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Against that backdrop, millions of people in the United States have been traveling, though many fewer than usual.
About 3.8 million people passed through Transportation Safety Administration travel checkpoints between Dec. 23 and Dec. 26, compared with 9.5 million on those days last year. Only a quarter of the number who flew on the day after Christmas last year did so on Friday, and Christmas Eve travel was down by one-third from 2019.
And AAA’s forecast that more than 81 million Americans would travel by car for the holiday period, from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3, which would be about one-third fewer than last year.
For now, the U.S. is no longer seeing overall explosive growth, although California’s worsening outbreak has canceled out progress in other parts of the country. The state has added more than 300,000 cases in the seven-day period ending Dec. 22. And six Southern states have seen sustained case increases in the last week: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Texas.
Holiday reporting anomalies may obscure any post-Christmas spike until the second week of January. Testing was expected to decrease around Christmas and New Year’s, and many states said they would not report data on certain days.
On Christmas Day, numbers for new infections, 91,922, and deaths, 1,129, were significantly lower than the seven-day averages. But on Saturday, new infections jumped past 225,800 new cases and deaths rose past 1,640, an expected increase over Friday as some states reported numbers for two days post-Christmas.
Congressional leaders have reached an agreement on a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package and $1.4 trillion government funding deal with several healthcare provisions, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Here are seven things to know about the relief aid and funding deal:
1. Congressional leaders have yet to release text of the COVID-19 legislation, but have shared a few key details on the measure, according to CNBC. Becker’s breaks down the information that has been released thus far.
2. The COVID-19 package includes $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines, about $9 billion for vaccine distribution and about $22 billion to help states with testing, tracing and other COVID-19 mitigation programs, according to Politico.
3. Lawmakers are also expected to include a provision changing how providers can use their relief grants. In particular, the bill is expected to allow hospitals to calculate lost revenue by comparing budgeted revenue for 2020. Hospitals have said this tweak will allow them to keep more funding.
4. The agreement also allocates $284 billion for a new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans.
5. The COVID-19 relief bill also provides $600 stimulus checks to Americans earning up to $75,000 per year and $600 for their children, according to NBC. It also provides a supplemental $300 per week in unemployment benefits.
6. The year-end spending bill includes a measure to ban surprise billing. Under the measure, hospitals and physicians would be banned from charging patients out-of-network costs their insurers would not cover. Instead, patients would only be required to pay their in-network cost-sharing amount when they see an out-of-network provider, according to The Hill. The agreement gives insurers 30 days to negotiate a payment on the outstanding bill. After that period, they can enter into arbitration to gain higher reimbursement.
7. Lawmakers plan to pass the relief bill and federal spending bill Dec. 21.