How COVID-19 might increase risk of memory loss and cognitive decline

https://theconversation.com/how-covid-19-might-increase-risk-of-memory-loss-and-cognitive-decline-141940?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20August%207%202020%20-%201698416388&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20August%207%202020%20-%201698416388+Version+A+CID_8af0fc3134205f68bf387b5096319fb1&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=How%20COVID-19%20might%20increase%20risk%20of%20memory%20loss%20and%20cognitive%20decline

Of all frightening ways that the SARS-COV-2 virus affects the body, one of the more insidious is the effect of COVID-19 on the brain.

It is now clear that many patients suffering from COVID-19 exhibit neurological symptoms, from loss of smell, to delirium, to an increased risk of stroke. There are also longer-lasting consequences for the brain, including myalgic encephalomyelitis /chronic fatigue syndrome and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

These effects may be caused by direct viral infection of brain tissue. But growing evidence suggests additional indirect actions triggered via the virus’s infection of epithelial cells and the cardiovascular system, or through the immune system and inflammation, contribute to lasting neurological changes after COVID-19.

I am a neuroscientist specializing in how memories are formed, the role of immune cells in the brain and how memory is persistently disrupted after illness and immune activation. As I survey the emerging scientific literature, my question is: Will there be a COVID-19-related wave of memory deficits, cognitive decline and dementia cases in the future?

The immune system and the brain

Many of the symptoms we attribute to an infection are really due to the protective responses of the immune system. A runny nose during a cold is not a direct effect of the virus, but a result of the immune system’s response to the cold virus. This is also true when it comes to feeling sick. The general malaise, tiredness, fever and social withdrawal are caused by activation of specialized immune cells in the brain, called neuroimmune cells, and signals in the brain.

These changes in brain and behavior, although annoying for our everyday lives, are highly adaptive and immensely beneficial. By resting, you allow the energy-demanding immune response to do its thing. A fever makes the body less hospitable to viruses and increases the efficiency of the immune system. Social withdrawal may help decrease spread of the virus.

In addition to changing behavior and regulating physiological responses during illness, the specialized immune system in the brain also plays a number of other roles. It has recently become clear that the neuroimmune cells that sit at the connections between brain cells (synapses), which provide energy and minute quantities of inflammatory signals, are essential for normal memory formation.

Unfortunately, this also provides a way in which illnesses like COVID-19 can cause both acute neurological symptoms and long-lasting issues in the brain.

Microglia are specialized immune cells in the brain. In healthy states, they use their arms to test the environment. During an immune response, microglia change shape to engulf pathogens. But they can also damage neurons and their connections that store memory.

During illness and inflammation, the specialized immune cells in the brain become activated, spewing vast quantities of inflammatory signals, and modifying how they communicate with neurons. For one type of cell, microglia, this means changing shape, withdrawing the spindly arms and becoming blobby, mobile cells that envelop potential pathogens or cell debris in their path. But, in doing so, they also destroy and eat the neuronal connections that are so important for memory storage.

Another type of neuroimmune cell called an astrocyte, typically wraps around the connection between neurons during illness-evoked activation and dumps inflammatory signals on these junctions, effectively preventing the changes in connections between neurons that store memories.

Because COVID-19 involves a massive release of inflammatory signals, the impact of this disease on memory is particularly interesting to me. That is because there are both short-term effects on cognition (delirium), and the potential for long-lasting changes in memory, attention and cognition. There is also an increased risk for cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, during aging.

 

How does inflammation exert long-lasting effects on memory?

If activation of neuroimmune cells is limited to the duration of the illness, then how can inflammation cause long-lasting memory deficits or increase the risk of cognitive decline?

Both the brain and the immune system have specifically evolved to change as a consequence of experience, in order to neutralize danger and maximize survival. In the brain, changes in connections between neurons allows us to store memories and rapidly change behavior to escape threat, or seek food or social opportunities. The immune system has evolved to fine-tune the inflammatory response and antibody production against previously encountered pathogens.

Yet long-lasting changes in the brain after illness are also closely linked to increased risk for age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. The disruptive and destructive actions of neuroimmune cells and inflammatory signaling can permanently impair memory. This can occur through permanent damage to the neuronal connections or neurons themselves and also via more subtle changes in how neurons function.

The potential connection between COVID-19 and persistent effects on memory are based on observations of other illnesses. For example, many patients who recover from heart attack or bypass surgery report lasting cognitive deficits that become exaggerated during aging.

Another major illness with a similar cognitive complications is sepsis – multi-organ dysfunction triggered by inflammation. In animal models of these diseases, we also see impairments of memory, and changes in neuroimmune and neuronal function that persist weeks and months after illness.

Even mild inflammationincluding chronic stress, are now recognized as risk factors for dementias and cognitive decline during aging.

In my own laboratory, I and my colleagues have also observed that even without bacterial or viral infection, triggering inflammatory signaling over a short-term period results in long-lasting changes in neuronal function in memory-related brain regions and memory impairments.

 

Does COVID-19 increase risk for cognitive decline?

It will be many years before we know whether the COVID-19 infection causes an increased risk for cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease. But this risk may be decreased or mitigated through prevention and treatment of COVID-19.

Prevention and treatment both rely on the ability to decrease the severity and duration of illness and inflammation. Intriguingly, very new research suggests that common vaccines, including the flu shot and pneumonia vaccines, may reduce risk for Alzheimer’s.

Additionally, several emerging treatments for COVID-19 are drugs that suppress excessive immune activation and inflammatory state. Potentially, these treatments will also reduce the impact of inflammation on the brain, and decrease the impact on long-term brain health.

COVID-19 will continue to impact health and well-being long after the pandemic is over. As such, it will be critical to continue to assess the effects of COVID-19 illness in vulnerability to later cognitive decline and dementias.

In doing so, researchers will likely gain critical new insight into the role of inflammation across the life-span in age-related cognitive decline. This will aid in the development of more effective strategies for prevention and treatment of these debilitating illnesses.

 

 

 

 

COVID-19 long-term toll signals billions in healthcare costs ahead

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-fallout-insight/long-term-complications-of-covid-19-signals-billions-in-healthcare-costs-ahead-idUSKBN24Z1CM?fbclid=IwAR2f9fSnhgGBVvIe1fKX2EO5kKSG7TwUesAMUGrG0jBSfoBrBYltR1e9Nik

COVID-19 long-term toll signals billions in healthcare costs ahead ...

Late in March, Laura Gross, 72, was recovering from gall bladder surgery in her Fort Lee, New Jersey, home when she became sick again.

Her throat, head and eyes hurt, her muscles and joints ached and she felt like she was in a fog. Her diagnosis was COVID-19. Four months later, these symptoms remain.

Gross sees a primary care doctor and specialists including a cardiologist, pulmonologist, endocrinologist, neurologist, and gastroenterologist.

“I’ve had a headache since April. I’ve never stopped running a low-grade temperature,” she said.

Studies of COVID-19 patients keep uncovering new complications associated with the disease.

With mounting evidence that some COVID-19 survivors face months, or possibly years, of debilitating complications, healthcare experts are beginning to study possible long-term costs.

Bruce Lee of the City University of New York (CUNY) Public School of Health estimated that if 20% of the U.S. population contracts the virus, the one-year post-hospitalization costs would be at least $50 billion, before factoring in longer-term care for lingering health problems. Without a vaccine, if 80% of the population became infected, that cost would balloon to $204 billion.

Some countries hit hard by the new coronavirus – including the United States, Britain and Italy – are considering whether these long-term effects can be considered a “post-COVID syndrome,” according to Reuters interviews with about a dozen doctors and health economists.

Some U.S. and Italian hospitals have created centers devoted to the care of these patients and are standardizing follow-up measures.

Britain’s Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are each leading national studies of COVID-19’s long-term impacts. An international panel of doctors will suggest standards for mid- and long-term care of recovered patients to the World Health Organization (WHO) in August.

YEARS BEFORE THE COST IS KNOWN

More than 17 million people have been infected by the new coronavirus worldwide, about a quarter of them in the United States.

Healthcare experts say it will be years before the costs for those who have recovered can be fully calculated, not unlike the slow recognition of HIV, or the health impacts to first responders of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

They stem from COVID-19’s toll on multiple organs, including heart, lung and kidney damage that will likely require costly care, such as regular scans and ultrasounds, as well as neurological deficits that are not yet fully understood.

A JAMA Cardiology study found that in one group of COVID-19 patients in Germany aged 45 to 53, more than 75% suffered from heart inflammation, raising the possibility of future heart failure.

A Kidney International study found that over a third of COVID-19 patients in a New York medical system developed acute kidney injury, and nearly 15% required dialysis.

Dr. Marco Rizzi in Bergamo, Italy, an early epicenter of the pandemic, said the Giovanni XXIII Hospital has seen close to 600 COVID-19 patients for follow-up. About 30% have lung issues, 10% have neurological problems, 10% have heart issues and about 9% have lingering motor skill problems. He co-chairs the WHO panel that will recommend long-term follow-up for patients.

“On a global level, nobody knows how many will still need checks and treatment in three months, six months, a year,” Rizzi said, adding that even those with mild COVID-19 “may have consequences in the future.”

Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital has seen more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients for follow-up. While major cardiology problems there were few, about 30% to 40% of patients have neurological problems and at least half suffer from respiratory conditions, according to Dr. Moreno Tresoldi.

Some of these long-term effects have only recently emerged, too soon for health economists to study medical claims and make accurate estimates of costs.

In Britain and Italy, those costs would be borne by their respective governments, which have committed to funding COVID-19 treatments but have offered few details on how much may be needed.

In the United States, more than half of the population is covered by private health insurers, an industry that is just beginning to estimate the cost of COVID-19.

CUNY’s Lee estimated the average one-year cost of a U.S. COVID-19 patient after they have been discharged from the hospital at $4,000, largely due to the lingering issues from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which affects some 40% of patients, and sepsis.

The estimate spans patients who had been hospitalized with moderate illness to the most severe cases, but does not include other potential complications, such as heart and kidney damage.

Even those who do not require hospitalization have average one-year costs after their initial illness of $1,000, Lee estimated.

‘HARD JUST TO GET UP’

Extra costs from lingering effects of COVID-19 could mean higher health insurance premiums in the United States. Some health plans have already raised 2021 premiums on comprehensive coverage by up to 8% due to COVID-19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Anne McKee, 61, a retired psychologist who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and Atlanta, had multiple sclerosis and asthma when she became infected nearly five months ago. She is still struggling to catch her breath.

“On good days, I can do a couple loads of laundry, but the last several days, it’s been hard just to get up and get a drink from the kitchen,” she said.

She has spent more than $5,000 on appointments, tests and prescription drugs during that time. Her insurance has paid more than $15,000 including $240 for a telehealth appointment and $455 for a lung scan.

“Many of the issues that arise from having a severe contraction of a disease could be 3, 5, 20 years down the road,” said Dale Hall, Managing Director of Research with the Society of Actuaries.

To understand the costs, U.S. actuaries compare insurance records of coronavirus patients against people with a similar health profile but no COVID-19, and follow them for years.

The United Kingdom aims to track the health of 10,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients over the first 12 months after being discharged and potentially as long as 25 years. Scientists running the study see the potential for defining a long-term COVID-19 syndrome, as they found with Ebola survivors in Africa.

“Many people, we believe will have scarring in the lungs and fatigue … and perhaps vascular damage to the brain, perhaps, psychological distress as well,” said Professor Calum Semple from the University of Liverpool.

Margaret O’Hara, 50, who works at a Birmingham hospital is one of many COVID-19 patients who will not be included in the study because she had mild symptoms and was not hospitalized. But recurring health issues, including extreme shortness of breath, has kept her out of work.

O’Hara worries patients like her are not going to be included in the country’s long-term cost planning.

“We’re going to need … expensive follow-up for quite a long time,” she said.

 

 

 

 

A Viral Epidemic Splintering into Deadly Pieces

Once again, the coronavirus is ascendant. As infections mount across the country, it is dawning on Americans that the epidemic is now unstoppable, and that no corner of the nation will be left untouched.

As of Wednesday, the pathogen had infected at least 4.3 million Americans, killing more than 150,000. Many experts fear the virus could kill 200,000 or even 300,000 by year’s end. Even President Trump has donned a mask, after resisting for months, and has canceled the Republican National Convention celebrations in Florida.

Each state, each city has its own crisis driven by its own risk factors: vacation crowds in one, bars reopened too soon in another, a revolt against masks in a third.

“We are in a worse place than we were in March,” when the virus coursed through New York, said Dr. Leana S. Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner. “Back then we had one epicenter. Now we have lots.”

To assess where the country is heading now, The New York Times interviewed 20 public health experts — not just clinicians and epidemiologists, but also historians and sociologists, because the spread of the virus is now influenced as much by human behavior as it is by the pathogen itself.

Not only are American cities in the South and West facing deadly outbreaks like those that struck Northeastern cities in the spring, but rural areas are being hurt, too. In every region, people of color will continue to suffer disproportionately, experts said.

While there may be no appetite for a national lockdown, local restrictions must be tightened when required, the researchers said, and governors and mayors must have identical goals. Testing must become more targeted.

In most states, contact tracing is now moot — there are simply too many cases to track. And while progress has been made on vaccines, none is expected to arrive this winter in time to stave off what many fear will be a new wave of deaths.

Overall, the scientists conveyed a pervasive sense of sadness and exhaustion. Where once there was defianceand then a growing sense of dread, now there seems to be sorrow and frustration, a feeling that so many funerals never had to happen and that nothing is going well. The United States is a wounded giant, while much of Europe, which was hit first, is recovering and reopening — although not to us.

“We’re all incredibly depressed and in shock at how out of control the virus is in the U.S.,” said Dr. Michele Barry, the director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford University.

With so much wealth and medical talent, they asked, how could we have done so poorly? How did we fare not just worse than autocratic China and isolated New Zealand, but also worse than tiny, much poorer nations like Vietnam and Rwanda?

“National hubris and belief in American exceptionalism have served us badly,” said Martha L. Lincoln, a medical anthropologist and historian at San Francisco State University. “We were not prepared to see the risk of failure.”

Since the coronavirus was first found to be the cause of lethal pneumonias in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, scientists have gained a better understanding of the enemy.

It is extremely transmissible, through not just coughed droplets but also a fine aerosol mist that is expelled when people talk loudly, laugh or sing and that can linger in indoor air. As a result, masks are far more effective than scientists once believed.

Virus carriers with mild or no symptoms can be infectious, and there may be 10 times as many people spreading the illness as have tested positive for it.

The infection may start in the lungs, but it is very different from influenza, a respiratory virus. In severely ill patients, the coronavirus may attach to receptors inside the veins and arteries, and move on to attack the kidneys, the heart, the gut and even the brain, choking off these organs with hundreds of tiny blood clots.

Most of the virus’s victims are elderly, but it has not spared young adults, especially those with obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes. Adults aged 18 to 49 now account for more hospitalized cases than people aged 50 to 64 or those 65 and older.

Children are usually not harmed by the virus, although clinicians were dismayed to discover a few who were struck by a rare but dangerous inflammatory versionYoung children appear to transmit the virus less often than teenagers, which may affect how schools can be opened.

Among adults, a very different picture has emerged. Growing evidence suggests that perhaps 10 percent of the infected account for 80 percent of new transmissions. Unpredictable superspreading events in nursing homes, meatpacking plants, churches, prisons and bars are major drivers of the epidemic.

Thus far, none of the medicines for which hopes were once high — repurposed malaria drugs, AIDS drugs and antivirals — have proved to be rapid cures. One antiviral, remdesivir, has been shown to shorten hospital stays, while a common steroid, dexamethasone, has helped save some severely ill patients.

One or even several vaccines may be available by year’s end, which would be a spectacular achievement. But by then the virus may have in its grip virtually every village and city on the globe.

Some experts, like Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, argue that only a nationwide lockdown can completely contain the virus now. Other researchers think that is politically impossible, but emphasize that localities must be free to act quickly and enforce strong measures with support from their state legislators.

Danielle Allen, the director of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which has issued pandemic response plans, said that finding less than one case per 100,000 people means a community should continue testing, contact tracing and isolating cases — with financial support for those who need it.

Up to 25 cases per 100,000 requires greater restrictions, like closing bars and limiting gatherings. Above that number, authorities should issue stay-at-home orders, she said.

Testing must be focused, not just offered at convenient parking lots, experts said, and it should be most intense in institutions like nursing homes, prisons, factories or other places at risk of superspreading events.

Testing must be free in places where people are poor or uninsured, such as public housing projects, Native American reservations and churches and grocery stores in impoverished neighborhoods.

None of this will be possible unless the nation’s capacity for testing, a continuing disaster, is greatly expanded. By the end of summer, the administration hopes to start using “pooling,” in which tests are combined in batches to speed up the process.

But the method only works in communities with lower infection rates, where large numbers of pooled tests turn up relatively few positive results. It fails where the virus has spread everywhere, because too many batches turn up positive results that require retesting.

At the moment, the United States tests roughly 800,000 people per day, about 38 percent of the number some experts think is needed.

Above all, researchers said, mask use should be universal indoors — including airplanes, subway cars and every other enclosed space — and outdoors anywhere people are less than six feet apart.

Dr. Emily Landon, an infection control specialist at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, said it was “sad that something as simple as a mask got politicized.”

“It’s not a statement, it’s a piece of clothing,” she added. “You get used to it the way you got used to wearing pants.”

Arguments that masks infringe on personal rights must be countered both by legal orders and by persuasion. “We need more credible messengers endorsing masks,” Dr. Wen said — just before the president himself became a messenger.

“They could include C.E.O.s or celebrities or religious leaders. Different people are influencers to different demographics.”

Although this feels like a new debate, it is actually an old one. Masks were common in some Western cities during the 1918 flu pandemic and mandatory in San Francisco. There was even a jingle: “Obey the laws, wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws.”

“A libertarian movement, the Anti-Mask League, emerged,” Dr. Lincoln of San Francisco State said. “There were fistfights with police officers over it.” Ultimately, city officials “waffled” and compliance faded.

“I wonder what this issue would be like today,” she mused, “if that hadn’t happened.”

Images of Americans disregarding social distancing requirements have become a daily news staple. But the pictures are deceptive: Americans are more accepting of social distancing than the media sometimes portrays, said Beth Redbird, a Northwestern University sociologist who since March has conducted regular surveys of 8,000 adults about the impact of the virus.

“About 70 percent of Americans report using all forms of it,” she said. “And when we give them adjective choices, they describe people who won’t distance as mean, selfish or unintelligent, not as generous, open-minded or patriotic.”

The key predictor, she said in early July, was whether or not the poll respondent trusted Mr. Trump. Those who trusted him were less likely to practice social distancing. That was true of Republicans and independents, “and there’s no such thing as a Democrat who trusts Donald Trump,” she added.

Whether or not people support coercive measures like stay-at-home orders or bar closures depended on how scared the respondent was.

“When rising case numbers make people more afraid, they have more taste for liberty-constraining actions,” Dr. Redbird said. And no economic recovery will occur, she added, “until people aren’t afraid. If they are, they won’t go out and spend money even if they’re allowed to.”

As of Wednesday, new infections were rising in 33 states, and in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, according to a database maintained by The Times.

Weeks ago, experts like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were advising states where the virus was surging to pull back from reopening by closing down bars, forbidding large gatherings and requiring mask usage.

Many of those states are finally taking that advice, but it is not yet clear whether this national change of heart has happened in time to stop the newest wave of deaths from ultimately exceeding the 2,750-a-day peak of mid-April. Now, the daily average is 1,106 virus deaths nationwide.

Deaths may surge even higher, experts warned, when cold weather, rain and snow force Americans to meet indoors, eat indoors and crowd into public transit.

Oddly, states that are now hard-hit might become safer, some experts suggested. In the South and Southwest, summers are so hot that diners seek air-conditioning indoors, but eating outdoors in December can be pleasant.

Several studies have confirmed transmission in air-conditioned rooms. In one well-known case cluster in a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, researchers concluded that air-conditioners blew around a viral cloud, infecting patrons as far as 10 feet from a sick diner.

Rural areas face another risk. Almost 80 percent of the country’s counties lack even one infectious disease specialist, according to a study led by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

At the moment, the crisis is most acute in Southern and Southwestern states. But websites that track transmission rates show that hot spots can turn up anywhere. For three weeks, for example, Alaska’s small outbreak has been one of the country’s fastest-spreading, while transmission in Texas and Arizona has dramatically slowed.

Deaths now may rise more slowly than they did in spring, because hospitalized patients are, on average, younger this time. But overwhelmed hospitals can lead to excess deaths from many causes all over a community, as ambulances are delayed and people having health crises avoid hospitals out of fear.

The experts were divided as to what role influenza will play in the fall. A harsh flu season could flood hospitals with pneumonia patients needing ventilators. But some said the flu season could be mild or almost nonexistent this year.

Normally, the flu virus migrates from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere in the spring — presumably in air travelers — and then returns in the fall, with new mutations that may make it a poor match for the annual vaccine.

But this year, the national lockdown abruptly ended flu transmission in late April, according to weekly Fluview reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. International air travel has been sharply curtailed, and there has been almost no flu activity in the whole southern hemisphere this year.

Assuming there is still little air travel to the United States this fall, there may be little “reseeding” of the flu virus here. But in case that prediction turns out be wrong, all the researchers advised getting flu shots anyway.

“There’s no reason to be caught unprepared for two respiratory viruses,” said Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University’s School of Public Health.

Experts familiar with vaccine and drug manufacturing were disappointed that, thus far, only dexamethasone and remdesivir have proved to be effective treatments, and then only partially.

Most felt that monoclonal antibodies — cloned human proteins that can be grown in cell culture — represented the best hope until vaccines arrive. Regeneron, Eli Lilly and other drugmakers are working on candidates.

“They’re promising both for treatment and for prophylaxis, and there are companies with track records and manufacturing platforms,” said Dr. Luciana Borio, a former director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council. “But manufacturing capacity is limited.”

According to a database compiled by The Times, researchers worldwide are developing more than 165 vaccine candidates, and 27 are in human trials.

New announcements are pouring in, and the pressure to hurry is intense: The Trump administration just awarded nearly $2 billion to a Pfizer-led consortium that promised 100 million doses by December, assuming trials succeed.

Because the virus is still spreading rapidly, most experts said “challenge trials,” in which a small number of volunteers are vaccinated and then deliberately infected, would probably not be needed.

Absent a known cure, “challenges” can be ethically fraught, and some doctors oppose doing them for this virus. “They don’t tell you anything about safety,” Dr. Borio said.

And when a virus is circulating unchecked, a typical placebo-controlled trial with up to 30,000 participants can be done efficiently, she added. Moderna and Pfizer have already begun such trials.

The Food and Drug Administration has said a vaccine will pass muster even if it is only 50 percent effective. Experts said they could accept that, at least initially, because the first vaccine approved could save lives while testing continued on better alternatives.

“A vaccine doesn’t have to work perfectly to be useful,” Dr. Walensky said. “Even with measles vaccine, you can sometimes still get measles — but it’s mild, and you aren’t infectious.”

“We don’t know if a vaccine will work in older folks. We don’t know exactly what level of herd immunity we’ll need to stop the epidemic. But anything safe and fairly effective should help.”

Still, haste is risky, experts warned, especially when opponents of vaccines are spreading fear. If a vaccine is rushed to market without thorough safety testing and recipients are hurt by it, all vaccines could be set back for years.

No matter what state the virus reaches, one risk remains constant. Even in states with few Black and Hispanic residents, they are usually hit hardest, experts said.

People of color are more likely to have jobs that require physical presence and sometimes close contact, such as construction work, store clerking and nursing. They are more likely to rely on public transit and to live in neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and crowded.

They are more likely to live in crowded housing and multigenerational homes, some with only one bathroom, making safe home isolation impossible when sickness strikes. They have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.

Federal data gathered through May 28 shows that Black and Hispanic Americans were three times as likely to get infected as their white neighbors, and twice as likely to die, even if they lived in remote rural counties with few Black or Hispanic residents.

“By the time that minority patient sets foot in a hospital, he is already on an unequal footing,” said Elaine Hernandez, a sociologist at Indiana University.

The differences persist even though Black and Hispanic adults drastically altered their behavior. One study found that through the beginning of May, the average Black American practiced more social distancing than the average white American.

Officials in ChicagoBaltimore and other communities faced another threat: rumors flying about social media that Black people were somehow immune.

The top factor making people adopt self-protective behavior is personally knowing someone who fell ill, said Dr. Redbird. By the end of spring, Black and Hispanic Americans were 50 percent more likely than white Americans to know someone who had been sickened by the virus, her surveys found.

Dr. Hernandez, whose parents live in Arizona, said their neighbors who had not been scared in June had since changed their attitudes.

Her father, a physician, had set an example. Early on, he wore a mask with a silly mustache when he and his wife took walks, and they would decline friends’ invitations, saying, “No, we’re staying in our bubble.”

Now, she said, their neighbors are wearing masks, “and people are telling my father, ‘You were right,’” Dr. Hernandez said.

There was no widespread agreement among experts about what is likely to happen in the years after the pandemic. Some scientists expected a quick economic recovery; others thought the damage could persist for years.

Working at home will become more common, some predicted, while crowded, open-plan offices may be changed. The just-in-time supply chains on which many businesses depend will need fixing because the processes failed to deliver adequate protective gear, ventilators and test materials.

A disease-modeling system like that used by the National Weather Service to predict storms is needed, said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Right now, the country has surveillance for seasonal flu but no national map tracking all disease outbreaks. As Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former C.D.C. director, recently pointed out, states are not even required to track the same data.

Several experts said they assumed that millions of Americans who have been left without health insurance or forced to line up at food banks would vote for politicians favoring universal health care, paid sick leave, greater income equality and other changes.

But given the country’s deep political divisions, no researcher was certain what the outcome of the coming election would be.

Dr. Redbird said her polling of Americans showed “little faith in institutions across the board — we’re not seeing an increase in trust in science or an appetite for universal health care or workers equity.”

The Trump administration did little to earn trust. More than six months into the worst health crisis in a century, Mr. Trump only last week urged Americans to wear masks and canceled the Republican convention in Florida, the kind of high-risk indoor event that states have been banning since mid-March.

“It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” Mr. Trump said at the first of the resurrected coronavirus task force briefings earlier this month, which included no scientists or health officials. The briefings were discontinued in April amid his rosy predications that the epidemic would soon be over.

Mr. Trump has ignoredcontradicted or disparaged his scientific advisers, repeatedly saying that the virus simply would go away, touting unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine even after they were shown to be ineffective and sometimes dangerous, and suggesting that disinfectants or lethal ultraviolet light might be used inside the body.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and their health insurance, and are in danger of losing their homes, even as they find themselves in the path of a lethal disease. The Trump presidency “is the symptom of the denigration of science and the gutting of the public contract about what we owe each other as citizens,” said Dr. Joia S. Mukherjee, the chief medical officer of Partners in Health in Boston.

One lesson that will surely be learned is that the country needs to be better prepared for microbial assaults, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, a former director of the C.D.C.

“This is not a once-in-a-century event. It’s a harbinger of things to come.”

 

 

 

What it’s like to be a nurse after 6 months of COVID-19 response

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/what-its-like-to-be-a-nurse-6-months-coronavirus/581709/

Those on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus worry about keeping themselves, their families and their patients safe.

That’s especially true for nurses seeking the reprieve of their hospitals returning to normal operations sometime this year. Many in the South and West are now treating ICUs full of COVID-19 patients they hoped would never arrive in their states, largely spared from spring’s first wave.

And like many other essential workers, those in healthcare are falling ill and dying from COVID-19. The total number of nurses stricken by the virus is still unclear, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 106,180 cases and 552 deaths among healthcare workers. That’s almost certainly an undercount.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, told Healthcare Dive it has counted 165 nurse deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 1,060 healthcare worker deaths.

Safety concerns have ignited union activity among healthcare workers during the pandemic, and also given them an opportunity to punctuate labor issues that aren’t new, like nurse-patient ratios, adequate pay and racial equality.

At the same time, the hospitals they work for are facing some of their worst years yet financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes that analysts predict will continue through the year. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Healthcare Dive had in-depth conversations with three nurses to get a clearer picture of how they’re faring amid the once-in-a-century pandemic. Here’s what they said.

Elizabeth Lalasz, registered nurse, John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago

Elizabeth Lalasz has worked at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago for the past 10 years. Her hospital is a safety net facility, catering to those who are “Black, Latinx, the homeless, inmates,” Lalasz told Healthcare Dive. “People who don’t actually receive the kind of healthcare they should in this country.”

Data from the CDC show racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.

CDC data reveal that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.

This spring Lalasz treated inmates from the Cook County Jail, an epicenter in the city and also the country. “That population gradually decreased, and then we just had COVID patients, many of them Latinx families,” she said.

Once Chicago’s curve began to flatten and the hospital could take non-COVID patients, those coming in for treatment were desperately sick. They’d been delaying care for non-COVID conditions, worried a trip to the hospital could risk infection.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in May found that 48% of Americans said they or a family member had skipped or delayed medical care because of the pandemic. And 11% said the person’s condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.

When patients do come into Lalasz’s hospital, many have “chest pain, then they also have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, it just adds up,” she said.

“So now we’re also treating people who’ve been delaying care. But after the recent southern state surges, the hospital census started going down again,” she said.

Amy Arlund, registered nurse, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno, California:

Amy Arlund works the night shift at Kaiser Fresno as an ICU nurse, which she’s done for the past two decades.

She’s also on the hospital’s infection control committee, where for years she’s fought to control the spread of clostridium difficile colitis, or C. diff., in her facility. The highly infectious disease can live on surfaces outside the body for months or sometimes years.

The measures Arlund developed to control C. diff served as her litmus test, as “the top, most stringent protocols we could adhere to,” when coronavirus patients arrived at her hospital, she told Healthcare Dive.

But when COVID-19 cases surged in northern states this spring, “it’s like all those really strict isolation protocols that prior to COVID showing up would be disciplinable offenses were gone,” Arlund said.

Widespread personal protective equipment shortages at the start of the pandemic led the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to change their longstanding guidance on when to use N95 respirator masks, which have long been the industry standard when dealing with novel infectious diseases.

The CDC also issued guidance for N95 respirator reuse, an entirely new concept to nurses like Arlund who say those changes go against everything they learned in school.

“I think the biggest change is we always relied on science, and we have always relied heavily on infection control protocols to guide our practice,” Arlund said. “Now infection control is out of control, we can no longer rely on the information and resources we always have.”

The CDC says experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, though person-to-person transmission is most common, while the World Health Organization recently acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out airborne transmission of the virus.

In Arlund’s ICU, she’s taken care of dozens of COVID positive patients and patients ruled out for coronavirus, she said. After a first wave in the beginning of April, cases dropped, but are now rising again.

Other changing guidance weighing heavily on nurses is how to effectively treat coronavirus patients.

“Are we doing remdesivir this week or are we going back to the hydroxychloroquine, or giving them convalescent plasma?”Arlund said. “Next week I’m going to be giving them some kind of lavender enema, who knows.”

Erik Andrews, registered nurse, Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California:

Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in California, has treated coronavirus patients since the pandemic started earlier this year. He likens ventilating them to diffusing a bomb.

“These types of procedures generate a lot of aerosols, you have to do everything in perfectly stepwise fashion, otherwise you’re going to endanger yourself and endanger your colleagues,” Andrews, who’s been at Riverside for the past 13 years, told Healthcare Dive.

He and about 600 other nurses at the hospital went on strike for 10 days this summer after a staffing agreement between the hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare, and SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing RCH nurses, ended without a renewal.

The nurses said it would lead to too few nurses treating too many patients during a pandemic. Insufficient PPE and recycling of single-use PPE were also putting nurses and patients at risk, the union said, and another reason for the strike.

But rapidly changing guidance around PPE use and generally inconsistent information from public officials are now making the nurses at his hospital feel apathetic.

“Unfortunately I feel like in the past few weeks it’s gotten to the point where you have to remind people about putting on their respirator instead of face mask, so people haven’t gotten lax, but definitely kind of become desensitized compared to when we first started,” Andrews said.

With two children at home, Andrews slept in a trailer in his driveway for 12 weeks when he first started treating coronavirus patients. The trailer is still there, just in case, but after testing negative twice he felt he couldn’t spend any more time away from his family.

He still worries though, especially about his coworkers’ families. Some coworkers he’s known for over a decade, including one staff member who died from COVID-19 related complications.

“It’s people you know and you know that their families worry about them every day,” he said. “So to know that they’ve had to deal with that loss is pretty horrifying, and to know that could happen to my family too.”

 

 

 

Diabetes highlights two Americas: One where COVID is easily beaten, the other where it’s often devastating

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/07/27/diabetes-and-covid-two-americas-health-problems/5445836002/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Issue:%202020-07-27%20Healthcare%20Dive%20%5Bissue:28706%5D&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive

What You Need to Know about Diabetes and the Coronavirus | diaTribe

Dr. Anne Peters splits her mostly virtual workweek between a diabetes clinic on the west side of Los Angeles and one on the east side of the sprawling city. 

Three days a week she treats people whose diabetes is well-controlled. They have insurance, so they can afford the newest medications and blood monitoring devices. They can exercise and eat well.  Those generally more affluent West L.A. patients who have gotten COVID-19 have developed mild to moderate symptoms – feeling miserable, she said – but treatable, with close follow-up at home.

“By all rights they should do much worse, and yet most don’t even go to the hospital,” said Peters, director of the USC Clinical Diabetes Programs.

On the other two days of her workweek, it’s a different story.

In East L.A., many patients didn’t have insurance even before the pandemic. Now, with widespread layoffs, even fewer do. They live in “food deserts,” lacking a car or gas money to reach a grocery store stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. They can’t stay home, because they’re essential workers in grocery stores, health care facilities and delivery services. And they live in multi-generational homes, so even if older people stay put, they are likely to be infected by a younger relative who can’t.

They tend to get COVID-19 more often and do worse if they get sick, with more symptoms and a higher likelihood of ending up in the hospital or dying, said Peters, also a member of the leadership council of Beyond Type 1, a diabetes research and advocacy organization. 

“It doesn’t mean my East Side patients are all doomed,” she emphasized.

But it does suggest COVID-19 has an unequal impact, striking people who are poor and already in ill health far harder than healthier, better off people on the other side of town.

Tracey Brown has known that for years.

“What the COVID-19 pandemic has done is shined a very bright light on this existing and pervasive problem,” said Brown, CEO of the American Diabetes Association. Along with about 32 million others – roughly 1 in 10 Americans – Brown has diabetes herself.

“We’re in 2020, and every 5 minutes, someone is losing a limb” to diabetes, she said. “Every 10 minutes, somebody is having kidney failure.”

Americans with diabetes and related health conditions are 12 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those without such conditions, she said. Roughly 90% of Americans who die of COVID-19 have diabetes or other underlying conditions. And people of color are over-represented among the very sick and the dead.

Diabetes and COVID: Coronavirus highlights America's health problems

Diabetes increases COVID risk

The data is clear: People with diabetes are at increased risk of having a bad case of COVID-19, and diabetics with poorly controlled blood sugar are at even higher risk, said Liam Smeeth, dean of the faculty of epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He and his colleagues combed data on 17 million people in the U.K. to come to their conclusions.

Diabetes often comes paired with other health problems – obesity and high blood pressure, for instance. Add smoking, Smeeth said, and “for someone with diabetes in particular, those can really mount up.”

People with diabetes are more vulnerable to many types infections, Peters said, because their white blood cells don’t work as well when blood sugar levels are high. 

“In a test tube, you can see the infection-fighting cells working less well if the sugars are higher,” she said.

Peters recently saw a patient whose diabetes was triggered by COVID-19, a finding supported by one recent study.

Going into the hospital with any viral illness can trigger a spike in blood sugar, whether someone has diabetes or not. Some medications used to treat serious cases of COVID-19 can “shoot your sugars up,” Peters said.

In patients who catch COVID-19 but aren’t hospitalized, Peters said, she often has to reduce their insulin to compensate for the fact that they aren’t eating as much.

Low income seems to be a risk factor for a bad case of COVID-19, even independent of age, weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, Smeeth said. “We see strong links with poverty.”

Some of that is driven by occupational risks, with poorer people unable to work from home or avoid high-risk jobs. Some is related to housing conditions and crowding into apartments to save money. And some, may be related to underlying health conditions.

But the connection, he said, is unmistakable.

Peters recently watched a longtime friend lose her husband. Age 60 and diabetic, he was laid off due to COVID, which cost him his health insurance. He developed a foot ulcer that he couldn’t afford to treat. He ignored it until he couldn’t stand anymore and then went to the hospital.

After surgery, he was released to a rehabilitation facility where he contracted COVID. He was transferred back to the hospital, where he died four days later.

“He died, not because of COVID and not because of diabetes, but because he didn’t have access to health care when he needed it to prevent that whole process from happening,” Peters said, adding that he couldn’t see his family in his final days and died alone. “It just breaks your heart.”

Taking action on diabetes– personally and nationally

Now is a great time to improve diabetes control, Peters added. With many restaurants and most bars closed, people can have more control over what they eat. No commuting leaves more time for exercise.

That’s what David Miller has managed to do. Miller, 65, of Austin, Texas, said he has stepped up his exercise routine, walking for 40 minutes four mornings a week at a nearby high school track. It’s cool enough at that hour, and the track’s not crowded, said Miller, an insurance agent, who has been able to work from home during the pandemic. “That’s more consistent exercise than I’ve ever done.”

His blood sugar is still not where he wants it to be, he said, but his new fitness routine has helped him lose a little weight and bring his blood sugar under better control. Eating less remains a challenge. “I’m one of those middle-aged guys who’s gotten into the habit of eating for two,” he said. “That can be a hard habit to shake.”

Miller said he isn’t too worried about getting COVID-19.

“I’ve tried to limit my exposure within reason,” he said, noting that he wears a mask when he can in public. “I honestly don’t feel particularly more vulnerable than anybody else.”

Smeeth, the British epidemiologist, said even though they’re at higher risk for bad outcomes, people with diabetes should know that they’re not helpless. 

“The traditional public health messages – don’t be overweight, give up smoking, keep active  – are still valid for COVID,” he said. Plus, people with diabetes should prioritize getting a flu vaccine this fall, he said, to avoid compounding their risk.

(For more practical recommendations for those living with diabetes during the pandemic, go to coronavirusdiabetes.org.)

In Los Angeles, Peters said, the county has made access to diabetes medication much easier for people with low incomes. They can now get three months of medication, instead of only one. “We refill everybody’s medicine that we can to make sure people have the tools,” she said, adding that diabetes advocates are also doing what they can to help people get health insurance.

Controlling blood sugar will help everyone, not just those with diabetes, Peters said. Someone hospitalized with uncontrolled blood sugar takes up a bed that could otherwise be used for a COVID-19 patient. 

Brown, of the American Diabetes Association, has been advocating for those measures on a national level, as well as ramping up testing in low-income communities. Right now, most testing centers are in wealthier neighborhoods, she said, and many are drive-thrus, assuming that everyone who needs testing has a car.

Her organization is also lobbying for continuity of health insurance coverage if someone with diabetes loses their job, as well as legislation to remove co-pays for diabetes medication.

“The last thing we want to have happen is that during this economically challenged time, people start rationing or skipping their doses of insulin or other prescription drugs,” Brown said. That leads to unmanaged diabetes and complications like ulcers and amputations. “Diabetes is one of those diseases where you can control it. You shouldn’t have to suffer and you shouldn’t have to die.”

 

 

6 months in: What will the new normal look like for hospitals?

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/6-months-in-new-normal-hospitals-covid/581524/

Experts say a sustained state of emergency is likely until there is a cure or vaccine for COVID-19.

The first U.S. hospital to knowingly treat a COVID-19 patient was Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, on Jan. 20. Since then, every aspect of healthcare has been upended, and it’s becoming increasingly clear all parts of society will have to adapt to a new baseline for the foreseeable future.

For hospitals and doctors’ offices, that means building on a major shift to telemedicine, new workflows to allow for more infection control and revamping the supply chain for pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment and other supplies. That’s on top of ongoing challenges of burned out workers and staff shortages further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Looking out even further, the industry will have to figure out how to treat potential chronic conditions in COVID-19 survivors and, until an effective vaccine is developed, how to manage new outbreaks of the disease.

Experts say U.S. hospitals are generally in a much better position for dealing with COVID-19 now than they were in March, and providers are learning more every week about the best treatments and care practices.

June survey of healthcare executives conducted by consultancy firm Advis found that 65% of respondents said the industry is prepared for a fall or winter surge, about the inverse of what an earlier survey with that question showed.

“We’ve evolved. We’re in a much better state now than we were in the beginning of the pandemic,” Michael Calderwood, associate chief quality officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, told Healthcare Dive. “There’s been a lot of learning.”

But the number of positively identified cases has now topped 4 million, and little political will exists to reinstitute widespread shutdowns even in areas where surges have filled ICUs to capacity. No treatment or vaccine for the disease exists or appears imminent. Testing and contract tracing efforts are too few and remain scattered and uncoordinated.

Whether there is a clear nationwide second wave or smaller surges in various parts of the country at different times, hospitals will need to remain in an effective state of emergency that requires constant vigilance until there is a cure or vaccine.

“Until we’re armed with that, we’re always going to have to be working like this. I don’t see any other way,” Diane Alonso, director of Intermountain Healthcare’s abdominal transplant program, told Healthcare Dive.

The fall will bring additional challenges. Flu season usually begins to ramp up in October, and if the strains in wide circulation this year are severe, that will further stress the health system. While some schools have announced they will be virtual-only for the rest of 2020, others are committed to in-person classes. That could mean increased community spread, especially in college towns. Colder weather that forces people indoors — where the novel coronavirus is far more likely to spread — will also be a complicating factor.

So far, hospitals have been reluctant to once again halt elective procedures, though some have had to, arguing that the care is still necessary and can be done safely when the proper protections are in place. But that doesn’t mean volume will rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

“While we think demand will come back, we’ve seen some flattening on demand in certain aspects that may be the new indicator of the new norm in terms of how people seek care,” Dion Sheidy, a partner and healthcare advisory leader at advisory firm KPMG, told Healthcare Dive.

Accelerating trends to provide care outside hospitals

When the number of COVID-19 cases first surged in the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were implemented nationwide, telehealth became a necessary way for urgent care to continue.

Virtual visits skyrocketed in March and April as CMS and private payers relaxed regulations and expanded coverage. Some of that will be rolled back, but much may persist as patients and providers grow more used to using telehealth and platforms become smoother.

Virtual care can’t replace in-person care, of course, and some patients and doctors will prefer face-to-face visits. The middle- to long-term result is likely to be that telehealth thrives for some specialties like psychiatry, but drops substantially from the highest levels during shutdowns throughout the country.

Other care settings outside of the hospital may see upticks as well, including at-home and retail-based primary and urgent care.

Renee Dua, the CMO of home healthcare and telemedicine startup Heal, said the company has seen virtual visits increase eight fold since the pandemic began in the U.S. and a 33% increase in home visits as people seek to continue care while reducing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“The idea that you do not use an office building to get care — that’s why we started Heal — we bet on the fact that the best doctors come to you,” Dua told Healthcare Dive.

And care does need to continue, particularly vital services like vaccinations and pediatric checkups.

“You cannot ignore preventive screenings and primary care because you can get sick with cancer or with infectious diseases that are treatable and preventable,” Dua said.

Movements toward non-traditional settings existed before anyone had heard of COVID-19, but the realities of the pandemic have shifted resources and spurred investment that will have lasting effects, Ross Nelson, healthcare strategy leader at KPMG, told Healthcare Dive.

“What we’re going to see is there going to be an acceleration of the underlying trends toward home and away from the hospital,” he said.

Some of this was already underway. Multiple large health systems have established programs to provide hospital-level care at home and major employers have inked contracts to have primary care delivered to employees at on-site clinics.

PPE, staff shortages lingering

A key problem for hospitals in the first COVID-19 hotspots, such as Washington state and New York City, was a lack of necessary personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, gowns, face shields and gloves.

Also running low were supplies like ventilators and some drugs necessary for putting people on those machines.

While advances have certainly been made, the country did not have enough time to build up those supply stores before new surges in the South and West. The result has been renewed worries that not enough PPE is available to keep healthcare workers safe.

Chaun Powell, group vice president of strategic supplier engagement at group purchasing organization Premier, said “conservation practices continue to be the key to this” as COVID-19 surges roll through the country. The longer those dire situations continue, the more stress is put on the supply chain before it has a chance to recover.

Premier’s most recent hospital survey found that more than half of respondents said N95s were heavily backordered. Almost half reported the same for isolation gowns and shoe covers.

Calderwood said there has been improvement, however. “We have a much longer days-on-hand PPE supply at this point and the other thing is, we’ve begun to manufacture some of our own PPE,” he said. “That’s something a number of hospitals have done in working with local companies.”

But the ability to manufacture new PPE in the U.S. also depends on the availability of raw materials, which are limited. That means significant advancements in domestic production are likely several months away, Powell said.

Health systems have stepped up the ability to coordinate and attempt to get equipment where it’s needed most, especially for big-ticket items like ventilators. Providers are more hesitant, however, to let go of PPE without the virus being better contained.

The backstop supposed to help hospitals during a crisis is the national stockpile, which the federal government is attempting to resupply. It doesn’t appear to be enough, though, at least not yet, Calderwood said.

“One thing that concerns me is we did have a national stockpile of PPE, and I get the sense that we’ve kind of burned through that supply,” he said. “And now we’re relying on private industry to meet the need.”

Another problem hospitals face as the pandemic drags on is maintaining adequate staffing levels. Doctors, nurses and other front-line employees are in incredibly stressful work environments. The great potential for burnout will exacerbate existing shortages, just as medical schools are still trying to figure out how to continue with training and education.

“Those areas are concerning to our hospitals because our hospitals depend on a whole myriad of medical staff,” Advis CEO Lyndean Brick said. “Whether it’s physicians, nurses, technicians, housekeepers — that whole staff complement is what’s at the core of healthcare. You can have all the technology in the world but if you don’t have somebody to run it that whole system falls apart.”

On top of that is the increase in labor strife as working conditions have deteriorated in some cases. Nurses have reported fearing for their safety among PPE shortages and alleged lapses in protocol. Brick said she expects strike threats and other actions to continue.

Changing workflows

When COVID-19 cases started ramping up for the first time in the U.S., hospitals throughout the country, acting on CMS advice, shut down elective procedures to prepare their facilities for a potential influx of critical patients with the disease. In some areas, hospitals did have to activate surge plans at that time. Others have done so more recently as the result of increases in the South and West.

But few have resorted to once again halting electives. Brick told Healthcare Dive she doesn’t expect that to change, mostly because hospitals have by and large figured out how to properly continue that care.

She trusts any that can’t do so safely, won’t try.

For the majority of our providers, except in the occasional state where they’re having a real problem right now, I think that we’re going to see elective surgeries still continue,” Brick said. “Because most of our hospitals have capacity right now. They’re able to do this successfully and securely, and it’s really detrimental to patients to not get the care that they need.”

Hospitals rely on elective procedures to drive their revenue, an added motivation to find ways to keep them running even when COVID-19 is detected at greater levels in the community.

Intermountain, based in Salt Lake City, recently performed its 100th organ transplant of the year, ahead of last year’s pace despite the disruption of the COVID-19 crisis.

Alonso, the program director for abdominal transplants, said that while transplants are considered essential services, staff did pause some procedures when electives were halted and have re-evaluated workflow to be as safe as possible to patients, who are at higher risk after surgery because they are immunocompromised.

The hospital developed a triage system to help evaluate what services are necessary based on what level of COVID-19 spread is present in the community and how many beds and staffers are available to treat them.

The system’s main hospital has certain floors and employees designated for COVID-19 treatment. Staff have been reallocated for certain needs like testing and there are plans available if doctors and surgeons need to be deployed to the ICU.

As many outpatient visits as possible are being changed to virtual, but in the building, patients are screened for symptoms and required to wear masks and follow distancing protocols.

At the transplant center, doctors were at one point divided into teams in case someone got sick and coworkers had to self-isolate.

“We went through a dry run where, at the beginning, we shut down incredibly hard to see how we could do it operationally,” Alonso said. Intermountain hasn’t had to do that again, but is ready if such measures become necessary, she said.

Brick and others said that despite the genuinely frightening circumstance brought by the pandemic, hospitals’ responses have been admirable and providers have been quick to adapt. Slow or nonexistent leadership at the federal level, especially in sourcing and obtaining PPE, has been the bigger roadblock.

“Across the board, the whole healthcare industry has responded beautifully to this,” Brick said. “Where our country has fallen down is we don’t have a master plan to deal with this. Our federal leadership is reactionary, and we are not coordinating a master plan to deal with this in the long term. That’s where my concerns are at. My concerns are not at our local hospitals. They have their acts together.”

 

 

 

 

Six reasons to be optimistic amid COVID-19

Six reasons to be optimistic amid COVID-19

Being more optimistic lowers the risk of CVD and early death: JAMA

Although COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising, there is also some positive news on the horizon, according to Joseph Allen of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a July 14, 2020 Washington Post op-ed, Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program, wrote that progress is being made in treatments, testing, and vaccines, and that there’s growing agreement about ways to curb the spread of infection.

Among positive developments, Allen cited:

  • Therapeutic treatments, such as cloned antibodies, are showing to be effective both to treat and prevent COVID-19.
  • Rapid, low-cost saliva tests for COVID-19 are being developed and could be a game-changer.
  • Universal mask-wearing is catching on.
  • Consensus has emerged that airborne spread of the coronavirus is happening, and the World Health Organization and other organizations are now recommending the use of healthy building strategies such as higher ventilation, better filtration, and the use of air-cleaning devices.
  • Several studies suggest that past exposure to common-cold coronaviruses may help protect some people from COVID-19 infection.
  • Vaccine trials seem to be working and drug makers have said they may be able to deliver doses as early as October.

“For the first time in history, nearly every scientist in the world is focused on the same problem,” Allen wrote. “This is starting to pay real dividends.”

Read Joseph Allen’s Washington Post op-ed: Need some good news about covid-19? Here are six reasons for optimism.

 

 

 

 

Back Into the Lion’s Den: COVID-19 and Post-Acute Care

https://www.medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/87596?xid=nl_popmed_2020-07-17&eun=g885344d0r&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=DailyUpdate_071720&utm_term=NL_Daily_Breaking_News_Active

Back Into the Lion's Den: COVID-19 and Post-Acute Care | MedPage Today

Returning COVID patients to unprepared facilities a “recipe for disaster”

As Florida becomes the new epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., the state is trying to ensure that nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities aren’t quickly overwhelmed by patients still suffering from the disease.

So far, it has dedicated 11 facilities solely to COVID patients who need post-acute or long-term care: those who can’t be isolated at their current facilities, as well as those who’ve gotten over the worst of their illness and who can be moved to free up hospital beds for the flow of new patients.

One of those facilities is Miami Medical Center, which was shuttered in October 2017 but now transformed to care for 150 such patients. In total, the network of centers will handle some 750 patients.

“We recognize that that would be something that would be very problematic, to have COVID-positive nursing home residents be put back into a facility where you couldn’t have proper isolation,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said during a press briefing last week. “[That] would be a recipe for more spread, obviously more hospitalizations and more fatalities, and so we prohibited discharging COVID-positive patients back into nursing facilities.”

Whether 750 beds will be enough to accommodate the state’s needs remains a question, but it’s a necessary first step, given testing delays that in some cases stretch more than a week. Experts have warned that patients recovering from COVID shouldn’t be transferred to a facility without being tested first.

Without dedicated facilities, hospitals in Florida in dire need of beds for new patients might have had no other choice.

Key Role for Testing

There are no national data on the percentage of hospitalized COVID-19 patients who need rehabilitation or skilled nursing care after their hospital stay.

In general, about 44% of hospitalized patients need post-acute care, according to the American Health Care Association and its affiliate, the National Center for Assisted Living, which represent the post-acute and long-term care industries.

But COVID has “drastically changed hospital discharge patterns depending on local prevalence of COVID-19 and variations in federal and state guidance,” the groups said in an email to MedPage Today. “From a clinical standpoint, patients with COVID-19 symptoms serious enough to require hospitalization may be more likely to require facility or home-based post-acute medical treatment to manage symptoms. They also may need rehabilitation services to restore lost function as they recover post-discharge from the acute-care hospital.”

The level of post-acute care these patients need runs the spectrum from long-term acute care hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation facilities to skilled nursing facilities and home health agencies.

The variation is partly due to the heterogeneity of the disease itself. While some patients recover quickly, others suffer serious consequences such as strokes, cardiac issues, and other neurological sequelae that require extensive rehabilitation. Others simply continue to have respiratory problems long after the virus has cleared. Even those who are eventually discharged home sometimes require home oxygen therapy or breathing treatments that can require the assistance of home health aides.

Yet post-acute care systems say they haven’t been overwhelmed by a flood of COVID patients. Several groups, including AHCA, NCAL, and the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association (AMRPA) confirmed to MedPage Today that there’s actually been a downturn in post-acute care services during the pandemic.

That’s due to a decline in elective procedures, the societies said, adding that demand is starting to pick back up and that systems will need to be in place for preventing COVID spread in these facilities.

Testing will play a key role in being able to move patients as the need for post-acute care rises, specialists told MedPage Today.

“You shouldn’t move anyone until you know a status so that the nursing facility can appropriately receive them and care for them,” said Kathleen Unroe, MD, who studies long-term care issues at the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University in Indianapolis.

AHCA and NCAL said they “do not support state mandates that require nursing homes to admit hospital patients who have not been tested for COVID-19 and to admit patients who have tested positive. This approach will introduce the highly contagious virus into more nursing homes. There will be more hospitalizations for nursing home residents who need ventilator care and ultimately, a higher number of deaths.”

Earlier this week, the groups sent a letter to the National Governors Association about preventing COVID outbreaks in long-term care facilities. They pointed to a survey of their membership showing that, for the majority, it was taking 2 days or longer to get test results back; one-quarter said it took at least 5 days.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that it would send point-of-care COVID tests to “every single” nursing home in the U.S. starting next week. Initially, the tests will be given to 2,000 nursing homes, with tests eventually being shipped to all 15,400 facilities in the country.

Hospitals can conduct their own testing before releasing patients, and this has historically provided results faster than testing sites or clinical offices, especially if they have in-house services. However, demand can create delays, experts said.

Preparing for the Future

Jerry Gurwitz, MD, a geriatrician at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, says now is the time to develop post-acute care strategies for any future surges.

Gurwitz authored a commentary in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on an incident in Massachusetts early in the pandemic where a nursing home was emptied to create a COVID-only facility, only to have residents test positive after the majority had already been moved.

“We should be thinking, okay, what are the steps, what’s the alternative to emptying out nursing homes? Can we make a convention center, or part of it, amenable to post-acute care patients?” Gurwitz said. “Not just a bed to lie in, but possibly providing rehabilitation and additional services? That could all be thought through right now in a way that would be logical and lead to the best possible outcomes.”

Organizations can take the lead from centers that have lived through a surge, like those in New York City. Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health created a dedicated rehabilitation unit for COVID-positive patients.

“We were able to bring patients out from the acute care hospital to our rehabilitation unit and continue their COVID treatment but also give them the rehabilitation they needed” — physical and occupational therapy (PT/OT) — “and the medical oversight that enhanced their recovery and got them out of the hospital quicker and in better shape,” Steven Flanagan, MD, chair of rehabilitation medicine at NYU Langone, said during an AMRPA teleconference.

Flanagan noted that even COVID patients who can be discharged home will have long-term issues, so preparing a home-based or outpatient rehabilitation program will be essential.

Jasen Gundersen, MD, chief medical officer of CareCentrix, which specializes in post-acute home care, said there’s been more concern from families and patients about going into a facility, leading to increased interest in home-based services.

“We should be doing everything we can to support patients in the home,” Gundersen said. “Many of these patients are elderly and were on a lot of medications before COVID, so we’re trying to manage those along with additive medications like breathing treatments and inhalers.”

Telemedicine has played an increasing role in home care, to protect both patients and home health aides, he added.

Long-term care societies have said that emergency waivers implemented by CMS have been critical for getting COVID patients appropriate levels of post-acute care, and they hope these remain in place as the pandemic continues.

For instance, CMS relaxed the 3-hour therapy rule and the 60% diagnostic rule, Flanagan said. Under those policies, in order to admit a patient to an acute rehabilitation unit, facilities must provide 3 hours of PT/OT every day, 5 days per week.

“Not every COVID patient could tolerate that level of care, but they still needed the benefit of rehabilitation that allowed them to get better quicker and go home faster,” he said.

Additionally, not every COVID patient fits into one of the 13 diagnostic categories that dictate who can be admitted to a rehab facility under the 60% rule, he said, so centers “could take COVID patients who didn’t fit into one of those diagnoses and treat them and get them better.”

AHCA and NCAL said further waivers or policy changes would be helpful, particularly regarding basic medical necessity requirements for coverage within each type of post-acute setting.

But chief among priorities for COVID discharges to post-acute care remains safety, the groups said.

“The solution is for hospital patients to be discharged to nursing homes that can create segregated COVID-19 units and have the vital personal protective equipment needed to keep the staff safe,” they said. “Sending hospitalized patients who are likely harboring the virus to nursing homes that do not have the appropriate units, equipment and staff to accept COVID-19 patients is a recipe for disaster.”

 

 

 

 

Nearly one-third of children tested for COVID in Florida are positive.

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/coronavirus/fl-ne-pbc-health-director-covid-children-20200714-xcdall2tsrd4riim2nwokvmsxm-story.html

Nearly One-Third Of Children Tested For COVID In Florida Are ...

Palm Beach County’s health director warns of risk of long-term damage.

Nearly one-in-three children tested for the new coronavirus in Florida has been positive, and a South Florida health official is concerned the disease could cause lifelong damage even for children with mild illness.

Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s health department director, warned county commissioners Tuesday that much is unknown about the long-term health consequences for children who catch COVID-19.

X-rays have revealed the virus can cause lung damage even in people without severe symptoms, she said.

“They are seeing there is damage to the lungs in these asymptomatic children. … We don’t know how that is going to manifest a year from now or two years from now,” Alonso said. “Is that child going to have chronic pulmonary problems or not?”

Her comments stand in contrast to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ messaging that children are at low risk, and classrooms need to be reopened in the fall. DeSantis has said he would be comfortable sending his children to school if they were old enough to attend.

Some studies suggest that children are less likely to catch COVID-19 than adults. Children are also far less likely to die of the disease. About 17,000 of Florida’s roughly 287,800 cases have been people younger than 18. Of the 4,514 COVID-19 deaths reported by Florida as of Tuesday, four have been younger than 18.

Still, it’s possible COVID-19 could have long-term consequences that will take time to understand, Alonso said.

“This is not the virus you bring everybody together to make sure you catch it and get it over with,” she said. “This is something serious, and we are learning new information about this virus every day.”

State statistics also show the percentage of children testing positive is much higher than the population as a whole. Statewide, about 31% of 54,022 children tested have been positive. The state’s positivity rate for the entire population is about 11%.

Researchers have linked a serious and potentially deadly inflammatory condition with COVID-19 in children. The condition, called pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, doesn’t appear to be widespread. The Florida Department of Health lists 13 confirmed cases of the syndrome.

Dr. Jorge Perez, co-founder of Kidz Medical Services, said it’s too early to say how common and severe long-term damage could be from COVID-19, but early evidence suggests some children infected with the virus could have lasting damage.

“We are learning something every day,” said Perez, who operates pediatric offices throughout South Florida. “We have to be knowledgeable about this and continue to monitor to see what effects it has in children.”

DeSantis told talk radio host Rush Limbaugh last week that the risk to children is “very low.”

“I’ve got a 3-year-old daughter, 2-year-old son, and a newborn daughter,” DeSantis said in the radio interview. “And I can tell you if they were school age, I would have zero concern sending them.”

 

 

Doctors have gotten better at treating coronavirus patients

https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-treatment-better-drugs-hospitals-6f92cf31-4fa1-4181-ba21-a5a8c778ec9e.html

Doctors and hospitals have gotten better at treating coronavirus ...

Doctors and hospitals have learned a lot about how best to treat people infected with the coronavirus in the months since the pandemic began.

Why it matters: Better treatment means fewer deaths and less pain for people who are infected, and research into pharmaceutical treatments is advancing at the same time as hospital care.

The big picture: Some of the simplest changes have been the most effective. For example, doctors have learned that flipping patients onto their stomachs instead of their backs can help increase airflow to the lungs.

  • Providers also now prefer high-flow oxygen over ventilators, despite the early focus on ventilator supply.
  • “If you can avoid ventilation, it is preferred if someone is able to breathe on their own and you just help them out by giving them more oxygenated air to breathe,” said Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Researchers have also discovered new utility in old drugs.

  • Dexamethasone, a cheap steroid used to treat inflammation, has been found to reduce deaths by one-third among patients on ventilators and one-fifth among those on oxygen.
  • Preliminary data has shown that remdesivir, an antiviral, probably doesn’t save seriously ill patients’ lives, but can help others get out of the hospital a few days earlier. “Anyone who has evidence of lung injury or needing oxygen, we give it,” said Armond Esmaili, a hospitalist at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.
  • Doctors have also learned to put all COVID patients on drugs to prevent blood clots, Esmaili said.

What they’re saying: There’s still a lot doctors and scientists don’t know about the virus, but they say they’ve come along way since February and March, when they were essentially flying blind.

  • “It was very scary, just to give you the subjective feeling, of caring for patients and talking with patients and their families and a lot of the time saying, ‘We don’t know a lot about this disease. We don’t know how you’re going to do,’” Esmaili said.

Between the lines: Hospitals are also able to provide better care when they’re not overwhelmed with patients.

  • New York’s hospitals were so overwhelmed in the spring that they brought in employees to work well outside of their specialties. In some hospitals’ emergency rooms, patient-to-nurse ratios rose to more than 20 to 1the NYT reports — five times the recommended ratio.
  • “Really attentive-level care is important,” Esmaili said.“It’s not that hard to imagine that when you have the resources and you’re not overburdened with a massive amount of patients that patients are going to get better care.”

What we’re watching: These advances in treatment protocols will only go so far, especially if hospitals in states like Florida, Arizona and Texas become too full to put them into practice.

  • In states with rising case counts, “I think you’re going to see mortality rates increase there because of that phenomenon of hospitals being unable to deliver optimal care, because they don’t have the staffing,” said James Lawler, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
  • “You don’t want your ICU nurse to have to take care of five or six patients at the same time,” he said.