In talking to our health system members from across the country in the past few weeks, we’ve heard that the COVID surge is happening everywhere. Nearly everyone we’ve talked to has told us that their inpatient census of COVID patients is as high or higher now than during the initial wave of the pandemic in March and April. And nearly everyone is expecting it to get much worse over the next few weeks, as hospitalizations increase in the wake of the explosion of cases we’re seeing now.
But there is something striking in our conversations in comparison to eight months ago: no one seems to be panicking. Crisis management processes that were developed and honed early in the pandemic are proving very helpful now. Normal patient care services are continuing despite the uptick in COVID volume, and protections are in place to keep the care environment segregated and COVID-free as possible.
While dozens of health systems, many in the hardest hit states in the Midwest and Great Plains, have announced plans to curtail elective care during this third wave, the decisions are based on individual hospital capacity and staffing, instead of being mandated by states. Having largely worked through the “COVID backlog” across the summer and early fall, system leaders want to avoid canceling surgeries again, and few are expecting state governments to force them to.
Many of our members have drawn up plans for selective cancellations depending on capacity, but we’re not likely to see sweeping shutdowns again—unless the workforce becomes so overstretched that it impacts operations.
That’s good news, and will likely lead to less interrupted patient care. And it’s good news for hospitals’ and doctors’ economic survival, as many would not be able to absorb the body blow of another widespread shutdown. Fingers crossed.
Coronavirus cases reported in the United States passed 11 million on Sunday, as the nation shatters records for hospitalizations and daily new infections and as leaders turn to new, painful restrictions to stem the pandemic’s long-predicted surge.
The milestone came one week after the country hit 10 million cases, a testament to just how rapidly the virus is spreading — the first 1 million cases took more than three months. This new wave has increased covid-19 hospitalizations past the peaks seen in April and July, straining health-care systems and pushing some reluctant Republican governors to enact statewide mask mandates for the first time.
Other states are reenacting stay-at-home orders and store closures. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) on Sunday announced sweeping new limits on gatherings for three-weeks — including a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and bars, and a halt to in-person classes at high schools and colleges. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) also laid out a slew of new rules, which prohibit indoor social gatherings with people outside one’s household and indoor service at restaurants, bars and more.
“As hard as those first months were for our state, these next few are going to be even harder,” Whitmer said at a news conference, as health experts fear that winter weather driving people indoors will accelerate the crisis.
Inslee acknowledged that slowing the virus would come at a steep price for struggling businesses, even as the state works to distribute millions more in aid. He and Whitmer both appealed to the federal government to step in with more help. Congress remains deadlocked on a stimulus package, and President Trump — still denying his election loss — has largely tuned out the pandemic’s surge; his refusal to concede is also stalling the transition to a new administration, including the formal transfer of information on the nation’s pandemic response.
Whitmer said that Trump has “an opportunity to meet the needs of the people of this country” and emphasized the importance of his final months in office. Inslee was already looking ahead to the administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
“All of us who feel, as I do, the pain of the small-business people ought to be pounding the doors of the Congress and the new president, who I’m glad we’re going to have, to really get this job done,” Inslee said.
Washington’s restrictions are not as tough as its stay-at-home order issued in March but extend into nearly every aspect of daily life. Wedding and funeral receptions are forbidden. Religious services and in-store retail are forced to operate at reduced capacity. Even outdoor social gatherings must be kept to a maximum of five people from outside one’s household.
Inslee and other leaders in the state emphasized the need to intervene early amid spiraling statistics, even as Washington posts some of the lowest numbers for new coronavirus infections in the country. The number of hospital patients with covid-19 recently rose about 40 percent in a week, officials said, and Seattle’s mayor said that nearly a fifth of the city’s cases have come just in the past two weeks.
Clint Wallace, an ICU nurse in Spokane, joined Inslee at Sunday’s news conference to plead with residents for their help. He called the ICU “as busy as I’ve seen it.”
“We are exhausted,” Wallace said of health-care workers around the state.
State and local officials nationwide are reinstating restrictions to fight the virus. New Mexico and Oregon on Friday ordered extensive new statewide shutdowns, while the Navajo Nation — devastated early on by the virus — reissued its stay-at-home order for at least three weeks. The Navajo Nation said cases threaten to swamp the health system on the southwestern reservation without immediate action.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) on Friday issued a statewide mask mandate and new capacity limits on businesses, less than a week after Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) announced a similar mask order in the face of overwhelmed hospitals warning that they might have to ration care.
“Our situation has changed, and we must change with it,” Burgum said in a late-night video message.
But state rules are just one piece of the puzzle, and some leaders are looking to Congress and the incoming president to take stronger action.
Ron Klain, Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said Sunday it’s critical for the president-elect’s transition team to start working with Trump administration officials to ensure “nothing drops in this change of power” that could imperil the distribution of a potential coronavirus vaccine.
“Joe Biden is going to become president of the United States in the midst of an ongoing crisis. That has to be a seamless transition,” Klain said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.”
President Trump’s White House is blocking the administration from formally cooperating with Biden, forcing the president-elect’s transition team to continue preparations with recently departed government officials and other experts. That means Biden’s team has not heard from Trump’s about vaccine development and other work to combat the pandemic.
A health expert on Biden’s covid-19 advisory board said there’s “a lot of information that needs to be transmitted. It can’t wait until the last minute.”
It is in the nation’s interest that the transition team get the threat assessments that the team knows about, understand the vaccine distribution plans, need to know where the stockpiles are, what the status is of masks and gloves,” said Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, on ABC News’s “This Week.”
Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, compared the process Sunday to “passing a baton in a race.”
“I’ve been through multiple transitions now, having served six presidents for 36 years, and it’s very clear that transition process that we go through … is really important in a smooth handing over of the information,” Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Of course it would be better if we could start working with them,” he added when asked whether working with Biden’s team would serve the public interest.
On “Meet the Press,” Klain said there is “not that much Joe Biden can do right now to change things,” because he is not yet president.
“Right now we have a crisis that’s getting worse,” Klain said. “We had never had a day with 100,000 cases in a single day until last week. By next week, we may see 200,000 cases in a single day.”
On the morning of November 7, major news networks starting with CNN called the presidential election for Joe Biden. Although the election has yet to be officially certified, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have wasted no time preparing their response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past week, the US has averaged more than 150,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, an increase of 81% from the average on November 1. The US had a record 181,200 new reported cases on November 13. Over 11 million Americans have been infected, and the nation is nearing a grim milestone of 250,000 deaths. Experts warn that the worst is yet to come. As temperatures drop and family-centric holidays approach, people are likely to spend more time socializing indoors with non-household members, increasing the risk for COVID-19 transmission.
Mitigating the spread of the coronavirus and preventing more deaths are top priorities for the incoming Biden-Harris administration. Biden’s campaign team published a seven-point plan to beat COVID-19, and on November 9, the Biden-Harris transition team named a COVID-19 Advisory Council tasked with guiding the federal response to the pandemic immediately after the inauguration.
The Biden-Harris plan sets a new tone for the nation’s coronavirus response, using federal powers and leadership to centralize the acquisition and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), along with the coordination of testing and contact tracing, instead of leaving those vital resources to be led in 50 different ways by state governors. It emphasizes evidence-based guidance and empowers public health officials and scientists to guide and revise the nation’s reopening strategy as the pandemic evolves.
“You’ll immediately see a change of tone, a change in communication,” Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, told Politico.“This is the stuff of real leadership: telling the truth, modeling the right behaviors like wearing a mask, only having small crowds, putting the scientists out there.”
The first priority in the plan is to ensure that all Americans have access to regular, reliable, and free coronavirus testing. Rapid testing is vital for identifying, isolating, and treating new cases of COVID-19, but the US has been crippled by continuing test shortages and long lag times before results are reported. Biden plans to double the number of drive-through testing sites while scaling up next-generation solutions like home tests.
Contact tracing goes hand-in-hand with testing in the public health response to COVID-19, and the plan would establish a US Public Health Job Corps to train and mobilize 100,000 Americans to perform culturally competent contact tracing in communities most affected by COVID-19.
The second priority is to fix the nation’s PPE problems. N95 masks, gloves, gowns, and other PPE used by health care staff are still in short supply. AARP reported that one in four nursing homes ran short of PPE between August 24 and September 20. (Nursing homes continue to be a hot spot for coronavirus transmission.) Biden would use the Defense Production Act to increase production of PPE and distribute the supply to states instead of leaving states to fend for themselves.
For the third priority, Biden would tap the nation’s wealth of science experts to provide clear public guidance on how communities should navigate the pandemic. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would lead this effort, with an emphasis on helping communities determine when it is safe to reopen schools and various types of businesses.
Navigating Hurdles to Safe, Effective, Accepted Vaccine
Although the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced on November 9 that its coronavirus vaccine trial showed positive early results, the road to vaccinating all Americans is tortuous. Pfizer still needs to seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and ramp up vaccine production to meet the global need. In the meantime, Biden plans to invest $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan that ensures every American can get vaccinated for free. This fourth priority would make the vaccine accessible to all people and communities regardless of income or any other factor.
The fifth priority is to protect Americans who are at high risk of getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19. This includes people over 65, nursing home residents, and people living in neighborhoods with higher rates of COVID-19. Biden would establish a COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force (PDF) to report on disparities in COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates, as well as to provide recommendations to Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on how best to distribute resources and relief funds to combat these disparities. The plan also calls for strengthening the Affordable Care Act to ensure that during the pandemic, Americans have health insurance coverage.
During the presidential campaign, Biden called for a national mask mandate based on the growing body of evidence that mask-wearing can considerably reduce the transmission of respiratory viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. Biden plans to coordinate with governors and mayors to convince Americans to wear a mask when they are around people outside their household. Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia mandate face masks in public, but there is no nationwide requirement.
Finally, the plan takes the long view on pandemic threats by rebuilding and reinvesting in defenses that will help the world predict and prevent future pandemics. The Biden administration has declared that the US will rejoin the World Health Organization, restore the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which was eliminated by the Trump administration in 2018, and shore up CDC’s global corps of disease detectives.
Public Health Experts at the Helm
The newly announced COVID-19 Advisory Council is a who’s who of public health experts, former government officials, and doctors, including several from California. The panel currently comprises 13 members, but Biden has said it may be expanded.
The three cochairs of the advisory board are former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, MD; former FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD, a UCSF professor of pediatrics, and of epidemiology and biostatistics; and Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MPH, an associate professor of internal medicine, public health, and management at Yale University whose research focuses on health disparities.
The other members appointed so far include:
Luciana Borio, MD, vice president at the venture capital firm In-Q-It. Borio served in multiple leadership roles in the Trump and Obama administrations in the National Security Council and FDA.
Rick Bright, PhD, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority under Trump and Obama. Bright resigned from the government in October after being removed from his vaccine development role by President Trump.
Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. Emanuel served in the Obama administration as special advisor for health policy to Peter Orszag, PhD, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Gawande is a staff writer covering health and medicine at the New Yorker and served in the Clinton administration as senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Eric Goosby, MD, a professor of medicine at UCSF. Goosby, an expert on HIV/AIDS, led policy work in this field under Clinton and Obama.
Celine Gounder, MD, a clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at New York University.
Julie Morita, MD, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Loyce Pace, MPH, president and executive director of the Global Health Council.
Robert Rodriguez, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at UCSF.
For the first time in the coronavirus pandemic, more than 60,000 Americans are hospitalized for Covid-19, according to The COVID Tracking Project, which also reported yet another record for new cases Tuesday—130,989, as the pandemic continues to worsen.
61,964 Covid-19 hospitalizations were reported in the U.S. Tuesday, breaking a record that had stood since April 15, when 59,940 were in the hospital.
The record for new cases was also broken, topping 130,000 for the first time, but the old record had stood for just three days.
1,347 deaths were reported, which is the most since Aug. 19, according to The COVID Tracking Project, which collects its data from local reporting agencies.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The grim impacts of the third U.S. coronavirus surge are starting to be felt. Hard-hit El Paso, Texas is running out of morgue space, while Tulsa ran out of ICU beds Monday night. In North Dakota, hospitals are at capacity and the state is now taking the extreme step of allowing Covid-positive nurses to keep working in some cases amid a serious staffing shortage.
New cases have been rising exponentially since mid-September, with no signs of slowing up. Hospitalizations starting rising around a week later—a rate that has been on the increase. Deaths, which lag behind rises in other metrics, remained relatively steady until around Oct. 18. The death toll has been on a steady rise ever since, with the 7-day rolling average now just shy of 1,000 per day.
President-elect Joe Biden says that fighting coronavirus is a top priority of his incoming administration. He announced a 12-member Covid task force on Monday, with the goal of coming up with a plan to combat the pandemic. That’s in contrast to President Donald Trump, whose administration has not come up with a national plan while the president has continued to make false statements that the U.S. is “rounding the turn” on coronavirus.
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have released a seven-point plan regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden administration’s seven pandemic plans:
1. Ensure all Americans have access to regular, reliable and free testing by doubling the number of drive-thru testing sites, investing in next-generation testing, developing a pandemic testing board to produce and distribute tests, and establishing a U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps.
2. Provide all states, cities, tribes and territories with critical supplies. Efforts will include full use of the Defense Production Act, building American-sourced and manufactured capabilities.
3. Provide clear, consistent and evidence-based guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic. Planned resources will be tailored to the needs of schools, small businesses and families.
4. Plan for effective and equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines. The administration intends to invest in a $25 billion manufacturing and distribution plan to guarantee every American can receive the vaccine for free. The administration also said it will work to ensure that politics won’t play a role in determining the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
5. Protect older Americans and other high-risk groups. Efforts will include establishing a COVID-19 racial and ethnic disparities task force and a nationwide pandemic dashboard that can be checked in real-time to gauge local transmission.
6. Rebuild and expand defenses to prevent and mitigate pandemic threats, including the restoration of the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense and the nation’s membership with the World Health Organization.
President-elect Joe Biden on Monday announced the members of his coronavirus task force, a group made up entirely of doctors and health experts,signaling his intent to seek a science-based approach to bring the raging pandemic under control.
Biden’s task force will have three co-chairs: Vivek H. Murthy, surgeon general during the Obama administration; David Kessler, Food and Drug Administration commissioner under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; and Marcella Nunez-Smith, associate dean for health equity research at the Yale School of Medicine. Murthy and Kessler have briefed Biden for months on the pandemic.
Biden will inherit the worst crisis since the Great Depression, made more difficult by President Trump’s refusal to concede the election and commit to a peaceful transition of power. The Trump administration has not put forward national plans for testing, contact tracing and resolving shortages in personal protective equipment that hospitals and health-care facilities are experiencing again as the nation enters its third surge of the virus.
“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden said in a statement. “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe, effective, and distributed efficiently, equitably, and free; and protecting at-risk populations.”
The United States is recording more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day and, on many days, more than 1,000 deaths, a toll expected to worsen during the crucial 10-week stretch of the transition. It remains unclear whether Trump or his top aides will oversee and lead a robust response to the pandemic during the transition, which could further exacerbate the crisis Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris inherit.
The 13-member task force also includes former Trump administration officials, including Rick Bright, former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who, after being demoted, spoke out against the administration’s approach to the pandemic. Luciana Borio, director for medical and biodefense preparedness on Trump’s National Security Council until 2019, is also on the panel.
The group includes several other prominent doctors:
· Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
· Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School who is a prolific author.
· Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
· Eric Goosby, global AIDS coordinator under President Barack Obama and professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine.
· Celine R. Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
· Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy focused on health issues.
· Loyce Pace, president and executive director of the Global Health Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to global health issues.
· Robert Rodriguez, professor of emergency medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine.
Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, and Beth Cameron, director for global health security and biodefense on the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, are serving as advisers to the transition task force.
Task force members will work with state and local officials to craft public health and economic policies to address the virus and racial and ethnic disparities, while also working to reopen schools and businesses, the transition team said in a news release.
While the makeup of the task force garnered widespread praise, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said the group needs more geographic diversity.
“They are all from the Acela corridor or the [San Francisco] Bay Area,” he said. “Who is going to be the field marshal or the supreme allied commander who goes into middle of the country and get this done? The coasts are doing okay but the red states are being hammered and the deaths are going to be extraordinary. There needs to be a frank reckoning between leaders of the two parties, to say we cannot let this happen.”
Public health experts said Biden should use the transition to provide leadership as the pandemic continues through a deadly stretch and begin communicating a strong national message.
“Clearly from the election outcomes, half the country doesn’t believe we’re in a crisis,” said Kavita Patel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on health policy in the Obama administration. Biden and Harris “have an incredible platform that can be used for communication. The country needs clear daily briefings that we thought we’d get from the White House coronavirus task force. They have an incredible platform, if not an official platform.”
Biden plans to call Republican and Democratic governors to ask for their help in developing a consistent message from federal and state leaders, according to three Biden advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about these matters. He will urge governors to adopt statewide mask mandates and to provide clear public health guidance to their constituents, including about social distancing and limiting large gatherings.
The task force will have subgroups that focus on issues related to the response, including testing, vaccine distribution and personal protective equipment, according to two people familiar with the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal plans that were not yet public.
In his victory speech Saturday, Biden addressed challenges in bringing the pandemic under control.
“We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality or relish life’s most precious moments — hugging a grandchild, birthdays, weddings, graduations, all the moments that matter most to us — until we get this virus under control,” Biden said. “That plan will be built on a bedrock of science. It will be constructed out of compassion, empathy and concern. I will spare no effort — or commitment — to turn this pandemic around.”
Yet the plans Biden laid out on the campaign trail are set to collide with political realities. That includes a deeply divided nation in which more than 71 million people voted for Trump and the possibility of having to navigate a Republican-controlled Senate disinclined to support a greater federal role in testing and contact tracing, among other responsibilities now left mostly to the states.
Biden’s most ambitious plans will require significant congressional funding. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he would like to pass new coronavirus relief measures during Congress’s lame-duck session, and Congress faces a Dec. 11 government funding deadline. Biden and his team are poised to begin engaging with congressional Democrats on their priorities.
Biden’s plans include dramatically expanding testing and building a U.S. public health jobs corps to have 100,000 Americans conduct contact tracing. They also include ramping up production of personal protective equipment and implementing a vaccine distribution plan.
Murthy, who served as the 19th U.S. surgeon general, is a physician whose nomination was stalled in the Senate for more than a year because of his view that gun violence is a public health issue. Three months into the Trump administration, he was replaced as “the nation’s doctor” with more than two years left on his four-year term.
In 2016, he wrote a landmark report on drug and alcohol addiction, which put that condition alongside smoking, AIDS and other public health crises that previous surgeons general addressed. The report called the addiction epidemic “a moral test for America.” Murthy’s office sent millions of letters to doctors asking for their help to combat the opioid crisis.
The son of immigrants from India, he earned medical and MBA degrees at Yale before joining the faculty at Harvard Medical School, where his research focused on vaccine development and the participation of women and minorities in clinical trials.
After leaving his post as surgeon general, he wrote a book on loneliness and social isolation, including their implications for health, that grew out of his conversations with people in clinical practice and as surgeon general.
Several public health officials celebrated Nunez-Smith’s leadership role on the task force. Her research focuses on promoting health and health-care equity in marginalized populations, according to her Yale biography. She has also studied discrimination that patients endure in the health-care system — expertise that many said was welcome in an epidemic that is disproportionately affecting people of color.
Kessler was FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997, during the George H.W Bush and Clinton administrations. He is well-known for his attempts to regulate cigarettes — an effort that resulted in a loss in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the agency did not have the authority. That prompted Congress to pass a law, enacted in 2009, that explicitly gave the agency that power.
Kessler, a pediatrician and lawyer, worked at the FDA to accelerate AIDS treatments and on food and nutrition issues. He oversaw the FDA’s development of standardized nutrition labels and notably ordered the seizure of orange juice labeled “fresh” because it was made from concentrate. He has written several books on diet, mental illness and other topics, and has served as dean of the medical schools at Yale and UCSF.