While it sometimes seems like the coronavirus has been with us forever, it’s worth remembering that there are still parts of the country that are only now experiencing their first big spike in cases—that’s the nature of a “patchwork” pandemic working its way across a vast country.
One of our health system members in the Midwest, with whom we recently spent time, is in just this situation: they’re seeing their highest inpatient COVID census to date, just this month. As they shared with us, there are advantages and drawbacks to being a “late follower” on the epidemic curve. The good news is that they’re ready.
Back in March, like most systems, they stood up an “incident command center”, and began preparing for a wave of COVID patients, designating a floor of the hospital as a “hot zone”, creating negative pressure rooms, cross-training staff, developing treatment protocols, stockpiling protective equipment, and securing a pipeline of critical therapeutics and testing supplies. There was a moderate but manageable number of cases across the late spring and summer, but never to an extent that stressed the system.
Eventually, recognizing that they couldn’t ask their doctors, nurses, and administrators to stay on high alert indefinitely, they “stood down” to a more normal operational tempo, only to watch with dismay as the surrounding community seemingly forgot about the virus, and lessened precautions (masking, distancing, and so forth), wanting life to return to “normal”. And now, the post-Labor Day, post-return-to-school spike has arrived.
The challenge now is getting everyone, inside and outside the system, to stop talking about COVID in the past tense, as though they’ve already “gotten through it.” The preparations they’ve made are paying off now. Hospital operations continue to run smoothly even with a high COVID census, but the workforce is exhausted, and citizens aren’t stepping outside to bang gratefully on pots every night anymore.
Asking the team to return to war footing is no easy task, given the fatigue of the past seven months. A question looms: what is the trigger to restart “incident command”? As cases begin to increase again in some of the original COVID hot spots—New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest—healthcare leaders there will need to learn from the experiences of their colleagues in the newly-hit Midwest, about how to take an already virus-weary clinical workforce back onto the battlefield.
When COVID-19 cases swelled in New York and other northern states this spring, Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in southern California, thought his hospital should have enough time to prepare for the worst.
Instead, he said his hospital faced staffing cuts and a lack of adequate personal protective equipment that led around 600 of its nurses to strike for 10 days starting in late June, just before negotiating a new contract with the hospital and its owner, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare.
“To feel like you were just put out there on the front lines with as minimal support necessary was incredibly disheartening,” Andrews said. Two employees at RCH have died from COVID-19, according to SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing them.
A spokesperson for HCA told Healthcare Dive the “strike has very little to do with the best interest of their members and everything to do with contract negotiations.”
Across the country, the pandemic is exacerbating labor tensions with nurses and other healthcare workers, leading to a string of disputes around what health systems are doing to keep front-line staff safe. The workers’ main concerns are adequate staffing and PPE. Ongoing or upcoming contract negotiations could boost their leverage.
But many of the systems that employ these workers are themselves stressed in a number of ways, above all financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.
Striking a balance between doing union action at hospitals and continuing care for patients could be an ongoing challenge, Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute.
“The nurses association has been very active since the beginning of the crisis, demanding PPE and doing internal activities in their hospitals demanding proper procedures,” Campos-Medina said. “They are front-line workers, so they have to be thoughtful in how they continue to provide care but also protect themselves and their patients.”
At Prime Healthcare’s Encino Hospital Medical Center, just outside Los Angeles, medical staff voted to unionize July 5, a week after the hospital laid off about half of its staff, including its entire clinical lab team, according to SEIU Local 121RN, which now represents those workers.
One of the first things the newly formed union will fight is “the unjust layoffs of their colleagues,” it said in a statement.
A Prime Healthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive 25 positions were cut. “These Encino positions were not part of front-line care and involved departments such as HR, food services, and lab services,” the system said.
Hospital service workers elsewhere who already have bargaining rights are also bringing attention to what they deem as staffing and safety issues.
In Chicago, workers at Loretto Hospital voted to authorize a strike Thursday. Those workers include patient care technicians, emergency room technicians, mental health staff and dietary and housekeeping staff, according to SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union that represents them. They’ve been bargaining with hospital management for a new contract since December and plan to go on strike July 20.
Loretto Hospital is a safety-net facility, catering primarily to “Black and Brown West Side communities plagued with disproportionate numbers of COVID illnesses and deaths in recent months,” the union said.
The “Strike For Black Lives” is in response to “management’s failure to bargain in good faith on critical issues impacting the safety and well-being of both workers and patients — including poverty level wages and short staffing,” according to the union.
A Loretto spokesperson told Healthcare Dive the system is hopeful that continuing negotiations will bring an agreement, though it’s “planning as if a strike is eminent and considering the best options to continue to provide healthcare services to our community.”
Meanwhile in Joliet, Illinois, more than 700 nurses at Amita St. Joseph Medical Center went on strike July 4.
The Illinois Nurses Association which represents Amita nurses, cited ongoing concerns about staff and patient safety during the pandemic, namely adequate PPE, nurse-to-patient ratios and sick pay, they want addressed in the next contract. They are currently bargaining for a new one, and said negotiations stalled. The duration of the strike is still unclear.
However, a hospital spokesperson told Healthcare Dive, “Negotiations have been ongoing with proposals and counter proposals exchanged.”
The hospital’s most recent proposal “was not accepted, but negotiations will continue,” the system said.
INA is also upset with Amita’s recruitment of out-of-state nurses to replace striking ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, asserting the hospital used “emergency permits that are intended only for responding to the pandemic for purposes of aiding the hospital in a labor dispute.”
A new report that aims to prioritize groups to receive Covid-19 vaccine lays out detailed recommendations on who should be at the front of the line, starting with health care workers in high-risk settings, followed by adults of any age who have medical conditions that put them at significantly higher risk of having severe disease.
Also toward the front of the line would be older adults living in long-term care homes or other crowded settings.
The draft report, which runs 114 pages, was released Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which was tasked with the work by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A virtual public meeting on the recommendations will be held Wednesday afternoon, and the committee’s final report will be submitted later in September.
When Covid-19 vaccines are approved for use, initial supplies will be tight — potentially in the tens of millions of doses. Most of the vaccines under development will require two doses per person: a priming dose followed by a booster either three or four weeks later.
The report suggests that a second phase of vaccinations should involve critical risk workers — people in industries essential to the functioning of society — as well as teachers and school staff; people of all ages with an underlying health problem that increases the risk of severe Covid-19; all older adults not vaccinated in the first phase; people in homeless shelters and group homes, and prisons; and staff working in these facilities.
Young adults, children, and workers in essential industries not vaccinated previously would make up the third priority group. Remaining Americans who were not vaccinated in the first three groups would be offered vaccine during a fourth and final phase.
The report is meant to serve as a guide for more detailed prioritization plans on the order in which Americans will be offered vaccine. That more granular work is already being conducted by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an expert panel that crafts vaccination guidance for the CDC, and by state, local, and tribal health authorities, who must identify the actual people in their regions who fall into the priority groups.
There has been discussion of prioritizing people of color, who have been disproportionately badly hit in this pandemic. But the report does not recommend that Black, Hispanic, Latinx people, or American Indians or Alaskan natives be treated as a distinct priority group.
The committee suggested that there does not appear to be a biological reason for why these communities are more seriously affected by the pandemic. Instead, it argues, the high rates of infections and deaths in these communities are due to systemic racism that leads to higher levels of poor health and socioeconomic factors such as working in jobs that cannot be done from home or living in crowded settings.
The report therefore prioritized other factors — people with underlying medical problems, people living in crowded environments, for instance — rather than creating priority categories for racial or ethnic groups.
The ACIP’s recommendations will go to the CDC. It remains unclear, however, whether the CDC, Operation Warp Speed — the task force set up to fast-track development of Covid-19 vaccines, drugs and diagnostics — or the White House will make the final determinations on who will be vaccinated first.
The task of determining who should be at the front of the vaccines line is not an easy one, and must be made without key pieces of information. It’s not yet known how many vaccines will prove to be successful, when they will be approved for use and in what quantities. Critically, some vaccines may prove to be more effective in key groups — the elderly, for instance — than others. Knowing that in advance could influence the recommendations, but people working on the priority groups cannot wait for that information to become available.
Initial discussions suggest large numbers of Americans would qualify as members of priority groups, a reality that will likely require additional tough decisions to be made.
CDC estimates that there are between 17 million and 20 million health care workers in the country, and roughly 100 million people with medical conditions that put them at increased risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19. There are roughly 53 million Americans aged 65 and older and 100 million people in jobs designated as essential services. There is some overlap among these groups — health workers, for instance, are also essential workers.
A report released last month by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recommended dividing priority groups into two tiers, with health workers and others essential to the Covid-19 response in the first tier and other health workers in the second.
In that report, people at greatest risk and their caregivers, and workers most essential to maintaining core societal functions would also be designated to be in the first tier.
Earlier this year, when public schools in Kansas City, Missouri, shut down in-person instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nika Cotton quit her job in social work to start her own business. She has two young children — ages 8 and 10 — and no one to watch them if she were to continue working a traditional job.
It was a big decision, made weightier by the loss of her employer-sponsored health insurance. But on August 5, Cotton awoke to the news that Missouri voters had narrowly approved the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program via ballot initiative, making it the second politically right-leaning state to do so during the pandemic. The expansion opens Medicaid eligibility to individuals and families with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty guidelines, which are $12,760 for an individual and $21,720 for a family of three, allowing Cotton’s family of three to qualify.
“It takes a lot of stress off of my shoulders with having to think about how I’m going to take care of myself, how I’m going to be able to go and see a doctor and get the health care I need while I’m starting my business,” she told Alex Smith of KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City.
Nearly 1,264,000 voters weighed in on the measure, with 53% voting for it and 47% against it. Missouri’s Republican governor Mike Parson opposed it, arguing that the state could not afford the coverage expansion — even though the federal government pays 90% of the costs and a fiscal analysis (PDF) by the Center for Health Economics and Policy at Washington University estimated that the state would save $39 million if it implemented Medicaid expansion in 2020.
The ballot measure requires the state to expand Medicaid by July 2021, and an estimated 230,000 residents with low incomes will become eligible for affordable health coverage.
Voters Signal Support
In late June, Oklahoma voters also approved Medicaid expansion by ballot measure, eking out a victory by less than one percentage point.
“It is difficult to ignore that these ballot initiatives passed in right-leaning states in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and, with them, their employer-sponsored health insurance,” Dylan Scott wrote in Vox. “This is partly a coincidence — the signatures were collected to put the Medicaid expansion questions on the ballot long before COVID-19 ever arrived in the US — but the relatively narrow margins made me wonder if the pandemic and its economic and medical consequences proved decisive.”
Earlier this year, Scott spoke to Cynthia Cox, MPH, director of the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, about the potential impact of the pandemic on health care politics. “Many of the biggest coverage expansions both in the US and in similar countries happened in the context of wars and social upheavals, as well as financial crises,” Cox said. “One theory is that those circumstances redefine social solidarity, thus expanding views of the role of government.”
Between February and May, Missouri’s Medicaid program saw enrollment rise nearly 9%, one of the largest increases nationwide during the pandemic, Rachel Roubein reported in Politico. During that same period, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program saw enrollment increase by about 6%.
States that implemented Medicaid expansion are better positioned to respond to COVID-19, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). These states entered the health crisis and resulting economic downturn with lower uninsured rates, which is important for public health “because people who are uninsured may forgo testing or treatment for COVID-19 due to concerns that they cannot afford it, endangering their health while slowing detection of the virus’ spread,” the authors wrote.
CBPP and KFF estimate that 3.6 to 4.4 million uninsured adults would become eligible for Medicaid coverage if the 12 states that have not yet expanded the program did so. Those states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Coverage for Frontline Essential Workers
Medicaid is particularly important for frontline essential workers — such as those working in grocery stores, meat processing plants, and nursing homes — during the pandemic. Their jobs require them to report in person, increasing their risk of getting sick with the coronavirus as they interact with coworkers and, in many cases, with customers and patients. Essential workers are often paid low wages and not offered employer-sponsored health insurance or can’t afford the premiums for it.
About 5 million essential workers nationwide get health coverage through Medicaid, “including nearly 1.8 million people working in frontline health care services and 1.6 million in other frontline essential services including transportation, waste management, and child care,” Matt Broaddus, senior research analyst at CBPP, wrote on the center’s blog.
In California, over 950,000 essential workers are enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. People of color are overrepresented in many categories of essential jobs. According to a UC Berkeley Labor Center analysis of the 15 largest frontline essential occupations, Latinx workers are overrepresented in agriculture, construction, and food preparation, among other occupations. Asian workers are overrepresented among registered nurses and personal care aides; and Black workers are overrepresented among personal care aides, laborers and material movers, and office clerks.
In addition to low-wage workers, Medi-Cal continues to bridge the coverage gap for other key populations amid the COVID-19 crisis, which is magnifying historical health inequities. (Medi-Cal covers nearly 40% of the state’s children, half of Californians with disabilities, and over one million seniors. For a refresher on the program, see CHCF’s Medi-Cal Explained series.)
Medicaid Saves Lives
Research has shown time and time again the varied benefits of Medicaid expansion: lower mortality rates among older adults with low incomes, declines in infant mortality, reductions in racial disparities in the care of cancer patients, and fewer personal bankruptcies, just to name a few.
Even though Missouri’s Medicaid expansion won’t take effect for another year, Nika Cotton remains excited. “It’s better late than never,” she said. “The fact that it’s coming is better than nothing” — perhaps a takeaway for the remaining 12 states.
Epidemiologist Sharrelle Barber discusses the racial inequalities that exist for COVID-19 and many other health conditions.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, whether cases are flaring up, slowing to a simmer, or back on the rise in areas across the United States, the data makes one fact apparent: The viral disease has disproportionally sickened and killed marginalized communities. A New York Times analysis of data from almost 1,000 counties that reported racial breakdowns of COVID-19 cases and fatalities revealed that, compared to white Americans, African Americans and Hispanics were three times more likely to experience and two times more likely to die from the illness. The Navajo Nation has, per capita, more confirmed cases and deaths than any of the 50 states.
Many factors, like access to healthcare and testing, household size, or essential worker status, likely contribute to the pandemic’s outsized toll on communities of color, but experts see a common root: the far-reaching effects of systemic racism.
That racism would have such an insidious effect on health isn’t a revelation to social epidemiologists. For decades, public health experts have discussed “weathering,” or the toll that repeated stressors experienced by people of color take on their health. Studies have demonstrated the link between such chronic stress and high blood pressure, the increased maternal mortality rate among black and indigenous women, and the elevated prevalence of diabetes in black, Latino and especially Native American populations. The pandemic has laid bare these inequities. At the same time, outcry over systemic racism and police brutality against African Americans has roiled the nation, and the phrase, “Racism is a public health issue” has become an internet refrain.
What exactly is the nebulous concept of “public health”? According to Sharrelle Barber, a Drexel University assistant professor of epidemiology, the concept goes beyond the healthcare setting to take a more holistic look at health in different populations. “The charge of public health,” Barber told Smithsonian, “is really to prevent disease, prevent death, and you prevent those things by having a proper diagnosis of why certain groups might have higher rates of mortality, higher rates of morbidity, et cetera.”
Below is a lightly edited transcript of Smithsonian’s conversation with Barber, who studies how anti-black racism impacts health, about the many ways in which racism is a public health crisis:
When people say, “Racism is a public health problem,” what, in broad strokes, do they mean?
We’ve been observing racial inequities in health for decades in this country. W.E.B. DuBois, who was a sociologist, in The Philadelphia Negro showed mortality rates by race and where people lived in the city of Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century and found striking inequalities based on race. Fast forward to 1985, 35 years ago, and we have the [Department of Health and Human Services-sponsored] Heckler Report, one of the most comprehensive studies the country had undertaken, which again found striking inequalities across a wide range of health outcomes: infant mortality, cancer, stroke, et cetera.
There are various explanations for why these racial inequalities exist, and a lot of those have erroneously focused on either biology or genetics or behavioral aspects, but it’s important to examine the root causes of those inequities, which is structural racism…Racism is a public health problem, meaning racism is at the root of the inequities in health that we see, particularly for blacks in this country. So whether it’s housing, criminal justice, education, wealth, economic opportunities, healthcare, all of these interlocking systems of racism really are the main fundamental drivers of the racial inequities that we see among black Americans.
What are some specific factors or policies that have set the foundations for these health inequities?
Any conversation about racial inequities has to start with a conversation about slavery. We have to go back 400-plus years and really recognize the ways in which the enslavement of African people and people of African descent is the initial insult that set up the system of racism within this country. One of the major drivers that I actually study is the link between racial residential segregation, particularly in our large urban areas, and health inequities. Racial residential segregation is rooted in racist policies that date back at least to the 1930s. Practices such as redlining, which devalued black communities and led to the disinvestment in black communities, were then propped up by practices and policies at the local, the state and federal level, for example, things like restrictive covenants, where blacks were not allowed to move into certain communities; racial terror, where blacks were literally intimidated and run out of white communities when they tried to or attempted to move into better communities; and so many other policies. Even when you get the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the system finds a way to reinvent itself to still perpetuate and maintain racism.
Within segregated communities, you have so many adverse exposures, like poor quality housing or lack of access to affordable, healthy foods, lack of access to quality healthcare, and the list goes on. The chronic stressors within these communities are compounded in segregated communities, which then can lead to a wide array of health outcomes that are detrimental. So for example, in the city of Philadelphia, there’s been work that has shown upwards of a 15-year life expectancy difference between racially and economically segregated communities, black communities and wealthier white communities.
I imagine that sometimes you might get pushback from people who ask about whether you can separate the effects of socioeconomic status and race in these differences in health outcomes.
Yeah, that’s a false dichotomy in some ways. Racism does lead to, in many aspects, lower income, education, wealth. So they’re inextricably linked. However, racism as a system goes beyond socioeconomic status. If we look at what we see in terms of racial inequities in maternal mortality for black women, they are three times times more likely to die compared to white women. This disparity or this inequity is actually seen for black women who have a college degree or more. The disparity is wide, even when you control for socioeconomic status.
Let’s talk about the COVID-19 pandemic. How does racism shape the current health crisis?
The COVID-19 pandemic has literally just exposed what me and so many of my colleagues have known for decades, but it just puts it in such sharp focus. When you see the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having, particularly for blacks, but also we’re seeing emerging data on Indigenous folks, it is just laying bare the ways racism is operating in this moment to produce those inequities.
Essential workers who had to continue to work during periods of stay at home orders across the country were disproportionately black and Latino. These are also often low wage workers. They weren’t given personal protective equipment, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and really had to choose between being exposed and protecting themselves and having an income during this period. So that’s one way racism operates.
Then we know that those individuals aren’t isolated, that they return to homes that often are crowded because of the lack of affordable housing. Again, another system of racism that compounds the effect. Then you think about places like Flint, Michigan, or places that don’t have access to clean water. When we were telling people, “Wash your hands, social distance,” all of those things, there were people who literally could not adhere to those basic public health prevention measures and still can’t.
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.”
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 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.”