A group of emergency room physicians filed a lawsuit in March alleging representatives for their employer, American Physician Partners, discouraged them from testing for COVID-19 and pressured them to work while ill, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Brentwood, Tenn.-based American Physician Partners staffs and manages ER physicians at more than 15 Houston Methodist facilities, including hospitals and emergency care centers. The lawsuit, which does not involve Houston Methodist employees, centers on a dispute between eight physicians and APP.
The physicians allege APP is underpaying them and engaging in “unethical practices,” such as urging physicians with COVID-19 to work, as a way to boost revenue.
APP’s protocol, “discourages testing and disregards physician, staff, and patient safety when a doctor does test positive for COVID-19,” the lawsuit alleges. The physicians claim APP is putting “profit over patient.”
APP denied its involvement in the alleged financial damages in a response to the physicians’ complaint filed April 25. The company told the Houston Chronicle that it has been in discussions with the physicians since they raised concerns four months ago.
“We advised them at that time that their concerns do not reflect the facts known to APP and otherwise appear to be based on misinformation,” APP said in a statement to the Chronicle. “Thus we are disappointed these physicians — who represent a very small minority of the physicians APP partners with in the Houston area — have decided to move forward with this litigation. We remain open to continuing our dialogue with these physicians outside of the litigation, which, again, APP believes is without merit.”
Houston Methodist, which isn’t involved in or named in the lawsuit, said it cannot comment on the specific allegations, according to the Chronicle. “We are unaware of any ER doctor who came to work after testing positive for COVID-19,” a hospital spokesperson told Becker’s.
Even as daily new COVID cases set all-time records and hospitals fill up, epidemiologists have arrived at a perhaps surprising consensus. Yes, the latest Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is bad. But it could have been a lot worse.
Even as cases have surged, deaths haven’t—at least not to the same degree. Omicron is highly transmissible but generally not as severe as some older variants—“lineages” is the scientific term.
We got lucky. But that luck might not hold. Many of the same epidemiologists who have breathed a sigh of relief over Omicron’s relatively low death rate are anticipating that the next lineage might be much worse.
Fretting over a possible future lineage that combines Omicron’s extreme transmissibility with the severity of, say, the previous Delta lineage, experts are beginning to embrace a new public health strategy that’s getting an early test run in Israel: a four-shot regimen of messenger-RNA vaccine.
“I think this will be the strategy going forward,” Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast.
Omicron raised alarms in health agencies all over the world in late November after officials in South Africa reported the first cases. Compared to older lineages, Omicron features around 50 key mutations, some 30 of which are on the spike protein that helps the virus to grab onto our cells.
Some of the mutations are associated with a virus’s ability to dodge antibodies and thus partially evade vaccines. Others are associated with higher transmissibility. The lineage’s genetic makeup pointed to a huge spike in infections in the unvaccinated as well as an increase in milder “breakthrough” infections in the vaccinated.
That’s exactly what happened. Health officials registered more than 10 million new COVID cases the first week of January. That’s nearly double the previous worst week for new infections, back in May. Around 3 million of those infections were in the United States, where Omicron coincided with the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays and associated traveling and family gatherings.
But mercifully, deaths haven’t increased as much as cases have. Worldwide, there were 43,000 COVID deaths the first week of January—fewer than 10,000 of them in the U.S. While deaths tend to lag infections by a couple weeks, Omicron has been dominant long enough that it’s increasingly evident there’s been what statisticians call a “decoupling” of cases and fatalities.
“We can say we dodged a bullet in that Omicron does not appear to cause as serious of a disease,” Stephanie James, the head of a COVID testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told The Daily Beast. She stressed that data is still being gathered, so we can’t be certain yet that the apparent decoupling is real.
Assuming the decoupling is happening, experts attribute it to two factors. First, Omicron tends to infect the throat without necessarily descending to the lungs, where the potential for lasting or fatal damage is much, much higher. Second, by now, countries have administered nearly 9.3 billion doses of vaccine—enough for a majority of the world’s population to have received at least one dose.
In the United States, 73 percent of people have gotten at least one dose. Sixty-two percent have gotten two doses of the best mRNA vaccines. A third have received a booster dose.
Yes, Omicron has some ability to evade antibodies, meaning the vaccines are somewhat less effective against this lineage than they are against Delta and other older lineages. But even when a vaccine doesn’t prevent an infection, it usually greatly reduces its severity.
For many vaccinated people who’ve caught Omicron, the resulting COVID infection is mild. “A common cold or some sniffles in a fully vaxxed and boosted healthy individual,” is how Eric Bortz, a University of Alaska-Anchorage virologist and public health expert, described it to The Daily Beast.
All that is to say, Omicron could have been a lot worse. Viruses evolve to survive. That can mean greater transmissibility, antibody-evasion or more serious infection. Omicron mutated for the former two. There’s a chance some future Sigma or Upsilon lineage could do all three.
When it comes to viral mutations, “extreme events can occur at a non-negligible rate, or probability, and can lead to large consequences,” Michael said. Imagine a lineage that’s as transmissible as Omicron but also attacks the lungs like Delta tends to do. Now imagine that this hypothetical lineage is even more adept than Omicron at evading the vaccines.
That would be the nightmare lineage. And it’s entirely conceivable it’s in our future. There are enough vaccine holdouts, such as the roughly 50 million Americans who say they’ll never get jabbed, that the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen should have ample opportunities for mutation.
“As long as we have unvaccinated people in this country—and across the globe—there is the potential for new and possibly more concerning viral variants to arise,” Aimee Bernard, a University of Colorado immunologist, told The Daily Beast.
Worse, this ongoing viral evolution is happening against a backdrop of waning immunity. Antibodies, whether vaccine-induced or naturally occurring from past infection, fade over time. It’s not for no reason that health agencies in many countries urge booster doses just three months after initial vaccination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an outlier, and recommends people get boosted after five months.
A lineage much worse than Omicron could evolve at the same time that antibodies wane in billions of people all over the world. That’s why many experts believe the COVID vaccines will end up being annual or even semi-annual jabs. You’ll need a fourth jab, a fifth jab, a sixth jab, et cetera, forever.
Israel, a world leader in global health, is already turning that expectation into policy. Citing multiple studies that showed a big boost in antibodies with an additional dose of mRNA and no safety concerns, the country’s health ministry this week began offering a fourth dose to anyone over the age of 60, who tend to be more vulnerable to COVID than younger people.
That should be the standard everywhere, Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington Institute for Health, told The Daily Beast. “Scientifically, they’re right,” he said of the Israeli health officials.
If there’s a downside, it’s that there are still a few poorer countries—in Africa, mostly—where many people still struggle to get access to any vaccine, let alone boosters and fourth doses. If and when other richer countries follow Israel’s lead and begin offering additional jabs, there’s some risk of even greater inequity in global vaccine distribution.
“The downside is for the rest of the world,” Mokdad said. “I’m waiting to get my first dose and you guys are getting a fourth?”
The solution isn’t to deprive people of the doses they need to maintain their protection against future—and potentially more dangerous—lineages. The solution, for vaccine-producing countries, is to further boost production and double down on efforts to push vaccines out to the least privileged communities.
A sense of urgency is key. For all its rapid spread, Omicron has actually gone fairly easy on us. Sigma or Upsilon might not.
With coronavirus cases on the rise, at-home testing remains a useful but imperfect way to mitigate risk.
I caught up with Katherine J. Wu, a staff writer who’s been covering this pandemic, to talk about what rapid-test results can—and can’t—tell us. Below you’ll find six takeaways from our conversation.
The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
1. With at-home tests, you trade accuracy for convenience.
“Doctors treating patients very often reach for those really sensitive PCR laboratory tests because they want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether the virus is present so the person can get the right treatment. Those tests are so sensitive that people can really trust when they’re negative. With the rapid tests, a negative is a lot less of a certain answer.”
2. At-home tests are most useful when a person has symptoms.
“A lot of the rapid tests we now use at home were initially designed to be taken as diagnostics for people who are feeling sick and want answers quickly. They then got the FDA greenlight to be used as screeners. Generally, right after your symptoms first appear is when they have been shown to be most accurate.”
3. They’re less accurate when used as screeners by people who feel fine.
“Things get a little tricky when you don’t have symptoms and you don’t have a known exposure—for example, if you’re hoping for a negative so that you can clear yourself to, say, go visit a grandparent.
“Rapid tests are not as good as lab tests when it comes to picking up on the virus when it’s present at really low levels. To get around that, experts say to test repeatedly. That way, if you miss the virus on Monday, maybe you’ll catch it Tuesday.”
4. At-home tests might be your only option.
“Let’s certainly not discount the value of rapid tests. With so many cases here and abroad, laboratory-testing infrastructure is going to be crushed. It may not be practical for people to seek out PCR testing as their No. 1 choice right now. If people are able to access rapid tests, they should test themselves daily at this point because we know results can change so quickly.”
5. All tests are mere snapshots of a moment in time.
“Tests cannot predict the future. The minute that swab goes into your nose—that is what the result is going to be giving you information on. We know this virus can replicate super quickly, especially if we’re talking about something like Omicron or Delta. A person can test negative in the morning and have a blazing positive result by the evening.”
6. Omicron is making things even trickier.
“We are still figuring out how quickly this variant spreads both within individual people and between different people. But based on what we know so far, it seems to be moving super fast, and there seems to be some indication that people can go from not contagious to quite contagious very quickly. And if that’s the case, then that means that negative test results actually expire sooner.”
While no cases of the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, have been reported in the U.S. yet, it’s only a matter of time. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor on COVID-19 to President Biden, says it’s likely the virus is already in the country, given how much travel is occurring between countries as pandemic restrictions have started to lift in recent months.
Even if the variant were here, could existing tests tell if someone were infected by it? Testing experts say yes and no. The majority of tests used by commercial and public health labs can detect SARS-CoV-2, but they can’t confirm which version of the virus is present. That’s because the tests intentionally target parts of the virus that don’t change much. Variants are designated based on differences in mutations—in Omicron’s case, especially those in spike protein, a part of the virus that changes frequently to bypass drugs and immune cells, and thus are difficult to test for. So the majority of the tests available will show if a person is carrying the virus—but there’s no way to tell whether that virus is Omicron.
For that, a doctor would have to send your sample to a lab that can then sequence genetically to look for the genetic signatures unique to Omicron.
There is one commercial test, from Thermo Fisher Scientific, that can perform the two-fer: both detect the presence of the virus and give testers an inkling that what they’re dealing with might be the Omicron variant. The company’s test targets three different parts of SARS-CoV-2: two relatively stable regions, and the more variable spike protein. It turns out that Omicron will show positive matches on the two more stable regions, a pattern similar to the one from the Alpha variant, but will show a mismatch on the spike protein portion.
The Delta variant, which is now responsible for nearly 99% of new cases around the world, does not share this omission, and produces a three-for-three match on all three regions targeted by Thermo Fisher’s PCR test. That means, given Delta’s dominance, if a sample produces all three matches, it’s likely Delta; if it results in only two positive matches, it’s likely to be Omicron. To confirm, researchers can then send those samples in for sequencing to definitively look for Omicron’s genetic profile.
“This happens to be good fortune that this pattern can flag the presence of Omicron,” says Mark Stevenson, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Thermo Fisher. “It’s a good early warning system.” Clients using the company’s test in South Africa alerted Thermo Fisher last Wednesday that they were seeing those unusual patterns, even before the country’s health officials announced the spurt of new cases. Stevenson expects public health labs in Europe and the U.S. are now also using the test to look for the first cases of the Omicron variant.
At Qiagen, a global testing company that makes assays for both diagnostic testing and research purposes, the team immediately evaluated their test against the samples of genetic sequences of Omicron uploaded by public health experts into the public GISAID database. “We’ve seen no drop in performance in our products,” says Dr. Davide Manissero, chief medical officer at Qiagen.
Similarly, the research team at diagnostic testing company BD ran tests of its COVID-19 assays using the Omicron sequences in GISAID. “We are confident that our rapid antigen and PCR tests for COVID-19 will detect the novel variant,” Dave Hickey, president of BD Life Sciences, said in a statement.
If you prefer to rely on the at-home tests available over-the-counter at pharmacies that can provide results in a few minutes, those are also still useful, at least for letting you know if you might be positive. Like most PCR tests, the at-home kits cannot determine if someone is infected with the Omicron variant specifically, but they will turn positive for anyone infected with any version of the virus.
A new drug by Merck significantly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death in people who take it early in the course of their COVID-19 illness, according to the interim results of a major study released today. It is the first oral antiviral found to be effective against this coronavirus.
People who took this drug, called molnupiravir—four pills twice a day for five days—within five days of showing symptoms were about half as likely to be hospitalized as those taking the placebo. They were also less likely to die, with eight deaths in the placebo group reported within a month of treatment and none in those who received the medicine.
“Having a pill that would be easy for people to take at home would be terrific. If this was available through a drug store, more people could get it,” says Albert Shaw, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, who was not involved with the research. All of the antiviral medicines available today, including remdesivir and the monoclonal antibodies, must be administered through an IV in a medical setting. Monoclonal antibodies are much more effective against COVID-19 and cut the risk of hospitalization and death by up to 85 percent, but this treatment costs almost three times as much as molnupiravir.
How the antiviral works
Antiviral drugs are used against many viruses, including for herpes and the flu. These drugs take advantage of the fact that viruses need to replicate inside a person’s cells in order to sicken them. Antivirals stop the replication process so the illness doesn’t progress.
The Merck drug works by introducing RNA-like building blocks into the virus’s genome as it multiplies, which creates numerous mutations, disrupts replication, and kills the virus.
Keeping the virus from multiplying is important because the more it replicates, destroying cell after cell, the sicker a person usually becomes, says Waleed Javaid, an epidemiologist and director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York, who was not involved in the study. Additionally, when enough virus is inside the body the immune system may go into overdrive. “At a certain point the body detects a virus it has never seen and will throw everything against it, like a tank coming at a small target.” he says. This helps the body eliminate the virus but can cause sometimes deadly collateral damage throughout the body in its wake.
The research, which was conducted in numerous sites around the world, was stopped early because the results were so promising, Merck says. The drug was even effective against variants like Delta and Mu. Based on this interim analysis in 775 people, the company plans to submit an application for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as regulatory bodies in other countries in hopes the drug can be made available. When that will happen is not clear, but the U.S. government has already agreed to purchase 1.7 million courses of treatment at $700 each, Merck notes.
Who can get the drug?
It’s also not known who would ultimately be authorized to take the medicine. The study included only people who were sick and unvaccinated and had at least one risk factor for developing a severe case of COVID-19, says Aaron Weinberg, national director of clinical research at Carbon Health, a for-profit provider of primary and urgent care, and a principal investigator of the study. This includes people who are older than 60, obese, immunocompromised from another condition, or have underlying heart or pulmonary disease, among others.
If the FDA does authorize the drug, it could limit who gets it to people like those in the research, Javaid says.
Although this drug looks promising, it’s a treatment but not a prophylactic like the vaccine. The medicine does not negate the need for unvaccinated people to get their shot, Shaw says. Some people taking the pills still got sick enough to be hospitalized. And while side effects in this study were mild—generally gastrointestinal issues, Weinberg says, and at comparable rates in the treatment and placebo groups—safety issues might emerge when the drug is given more broadly, Shaw says. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people have already gotten the vaccines with no major consequences.
Still, the results of this study should be celebrated, Javaid says. “Saving eight lives is huge, as is halving hospitalization,” he says. Perhaps another drug being studied will later prove to be more effective, reducing hospitalization by 80 or even 100 percent, he says. “But this is better than any oral antivirals we have right now, which is none,” he says.
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 opened20standalone 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 4,000clinics 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.
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.
Some point to the quickening pace of coronavirus vaccine administration, some say it’s because of the natural seasonal ebb of respiratory viruses and others chalk it up to social distancing measures.
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.
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 updateblames 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.”