Hardly one month into 2021, the pressing priorities facing healthcare leaders are abundantly clear.
First, we will be living in a world preoccupied by COVID-19 and vaccination for many months to come. Remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint. And the stark reality is that the vaccination rollout will continue well into the summer, if not longer, while at the same time we continue to care for hundreds of thousands of Americans sickened by the virus. Despite the challenges we face now and in the coming months in treating the disease and vaccinating a U.S. population of 330 million, none of us should doubt that we will prevail. Despite the federal government’s missteps over the past year in managing and responding to this unprecedented public health crisis, historians will recognize the critical role of the nation’s healthcare community in enabling us to conquer this once-in-a-generation pandemic.
While there has been an overwhelming public demand for the vaccine during the past couple of weeks, there remains some skepticism within the communities we serve, including some of the most-vulnerable populations, so healthcare leaders will find themselves spending time and energy communicating the safety and efficacy of vaccines to those who may be hesitant. This is a good thing. It is our responsibility to share facts, further public education and influence public policy. COVID-19 has enhanced public trust in healthcare professionals, and we can maintain that trust if we keep our focus on the right things — namely, how we improve the health of our communities.
And as healthcare leaders diligently balance this work, we also have a great opportunity to reimagine what our hospitals and health systems can be as we emerge from the most trying year of our professional lifetimes. How do you want your hospital or system organized? What kind of structural changes are needed to achieve the desired results? What do you really want to focus on? Amid the pressing priorities and urgent decision-making needed to survive, it is easy to overlook the great reimagination period in front of us. The key is to forget what we were like before COVID-19 and reflect upon what we want to be after.
These changes won’t occur overnight. We’ll need patience, but here are my thoughts on five key questions we need to answer to get the right results.
1. How do you enhance productivity and become more efficient? Throughout 2021, most systems will be in recovery mode from COVID’s financial bruises. Hospitals saw double-digit declines in inpatient and outpatient volumes in 2020, and total losses for hospitals and health systems nationwide were estimated to total at least $323 billion. While federal relief offset some of our losses, most of us still took a major financial hit. As we move forward, we must reorganize to operate as efficiently as possible. Does reorganization sound daunting? If so, remember the amount of reorganization we mustered to work effectively in the early days of the pandemic. When faced with no alternative, healthcare moved heaven and earth to fulfill its mission. Crises bring with them great clarity. It’s up to leaders to keep that clarity as this tragic, exhausting and frustrating crisis gradually fades.
2. How do you accelerate digital care? COVID-19 changed our relationship with technology, personally and professionally. Look at what we accomplished and how connected we remain. We were reminded of how high-quality healthcare can go unhindered by distance, commutes and travel constraints with the right technology and telehealth programs in place. Health system leaders must decide how much of their business can be accommodated through virtual care so their organizations can best offer convenience while increasing access. Oftentimes, these conversations don’t get far before confronting doubts about reimbursement. Remember, policy change must happen before reimbursement catches up. If you wait for reimbursement before implementing progressive telehealth initiatives, you’ll fall behind.
3. How will your organization confront healthcare inequities? In 2020, I pledged that Northwell would redouble its efforts and remain a leader in diversity and inclusion. I am taking this commitment further this year and, with the strength of our diverse workforce, will address healthcare inequities in our surrounding communities head-on. This requires new partnerships, operational changes and renewed commitments from our workforce. We need to look upstream and strengthen our reach into communities that have disparate access to healthcare, education and resources. We must push harder to transcend language barriers, and we need our physicians and medical professionals of color reinforcing key healthcare messages to the diverse communities we serve. COVID-19’s devastating effect on communities of color laid bare long-standing healthcare inequalities. They are no longer an ugly backdrop of American healthcare, but the central plot point that we can change. If more equitable healthcare is not a top priority, you may want to reconsider your mission. We need leaders whose vision, commitment and courage match this moment and the unmistakable challenge in front of us.
4. How will you accommodate the growing portion of your workforce that will be remote? Ten to 15 percent of Northwell’s workforce will continue to work remotely this year. In the past, some managers may have correlated remote work and teams with a decline in productivity. The past year defied that assumption. Leaders now face decisions about what groups can function remotely, what groups must return on-site, and how those who continue to work from afar are overseen and managed. These decisions will affect your organizations’ culture, communications, real estate strategy and more.
5. How do you vigorously hold onto your cultural values amid all of this change? This will remain a test through 2021 and beyond. Culture is the personality of your organization. Like many health systems and hospitals, much of Northwell’s culture of connectedness, awareness, respect and empathy was built through face-to-face interaction and relationships where we continually reinforced the organization’s mission, vision and values. With so many employees now working remotely, how can we continue to bring out the best in all of our people? We will work to answer that question every day. The work you put in to restore, strengthen and revitalize your culture this year will go a long way toward cementing how your employees, patients and community come to see your organization for years to come. Don’t underestimate the power of these seemingly simple decisions.
While we’ve been through hell and back over the past year, I’m convinced that the healthcare community can continue to strengthen the public trust and admiration we’ve built during this pandemic. However, as we slowly round the corner on COVID-19, our future success will hinge on what we as healthcare organizations do now to confront the questions above and others head-on. It won’t be quick or easy and progress will be a jagged line. Let’s resist the temptation to return to what healthcare was and instead work toward building what healthcare can be. After the crisis of a lifetime, here’s our opportunity of a lifetime. We can all be part of it.
States were anticipating a windfall after federal officials said they would stop holding back second doses. But the approach had already changed, and no stockpile exists.
When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced this week that the federal government would begin releasing coronavirus vaccine doses that had been held in reserve for second shots, no such reserve existed, according to state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans. The Trump administration had already begun shipping out what was available, starting at the end of December, taking second doses for the two-dose regimen directly off the manufacturing line.
Now, health officials across the country who had anticipated their extremely limited vaccine supply as much as doubling beginning next week are confronting the reality that their allocations will remain largely flat, dashing hopes of dramatically expanding access for millions of elderly people and those with high-risk medical conditions. Health officials in some cities and states were informed in recent days about the reality of the situation, while others were still in the dark Friday.
Because both of the vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States are two-dose regimens, the Trump administration’s initial policy was to hold back second doses to protect against manufacturing disruptions. But that approach shifted in recent weeks, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Operation Warp Speed, which is overseeing vaccine distribution, stopped stockpiling second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the end of last year, those officials were told. Shipping of the last reserve doses of Moderna’s supply, meanwhile, began over the weekend.
The shift, in both cases, had to do with increased confidence in the supply chain, so Operation Warp Speed leaders felt they could reliably anticipate the availability of doses for booster shots — required three weeks later in the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech product and four weeks later under Moderna’s protocol.
But it also meant there was no stockpile of second doses waiting to be shipped, as Trump administration officials suggested this week. Azar, at a briefing Tuesday, said, “Because we now have a consistent pace of production, we can now ship all of the doses that had been held in physical reserve.” He explained the decision as part of the “next phase” of the nation’s vaccination campaign.
Those in line for their second shots are still expected to get them on schedule because second doses are prioritized over first shots and states are still receiving regular vaccine shipments. But state and local officials say they are angry and bewildered by the shifting directions and changing explanations about supply. Their anxiety was deepened by projections that a highly contagious virus variant would spread rapidly throughout the United States and as daily covid-19 deaths averaged 3,320 this week.
The health director in Oregon, Patrick M. Allen, was so disturbed that he wrote Azar on Thursday demanding an explanation. In his letter, he recounted how Gustave F. Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, had “informed us there is no reserve of doses, and we are already receiving the full allocation of vaccines.”
“If true, this is extremely disturbing, and puts our plans to expand eligibility at grave risk,” Allen wrote. “Those plans were made on the basis of reliance on your statement about ‘releasing the entire supply’ you have in reserve. If this information is accurate, we will be unable to begin vaccinating our vulnerable seniors on Jan. 23, as planned.”
HHS spokesman Michael Pratt confirmed in an email that the final reserve of second doses had recently been released to states but did not address Azar’s comments, saying only, “Operation Warp Speed has been monitoring manufacturing closely, and always intended to transition from holding second doses in reserve as manufacturing stabilizes and we gained confidence in the ability for a consistent flow of vaccines.”
But the explanations by the federal government were conflicting. The 13 million doses made available for states to order this week — for delivery next week — represented “millions more” than in previous weeks, Pratt said. He also said states have not requested the full amount they have been allocated.
Guidance circulated Friday among HHS officials acknowledged, however, that “the notion that there is a large bolus of second doses that will be released to jurisdictions is not accurate.” And state and municipal health officials said their allocations for next week had increased only marginally, if at all.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said her city’s share had gone from about 32,000 doses to 34,000 doses. “I have stopped paying a whole lot of attention to what is being said verbally at the federal level right now,” she said.
Nirav Shah, the director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said he learned only Friday, by calling his state’s designated contact at Warp Speed, that the reserve no longer existed.
Maine still plans to broaden vaccination next week to those 70 and older. “Who is in line will not change,” Shah said. “The velocity of that line will change because this bolus of doses that we intuited was coming based on Azar’s comments is not coming.”
In an email that reached some state officials Friday morning, Christopher Sharpsten, an Operation Warp Speed director, called it a “false rumor” that “the federal government was holding back vaccine doses in warehouses to guarantee a second/booster dose.”
In fact, that information had come fromAzar, who said Tuesday that the “next phase” of the country’s vaccination campaign involved “releasing the entire supply we have for order by states, rather than holding second doses in physical reserve.”
Azar’s comments Tuesday followed a Jan. 8 announcement by President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team that his administration would move to release all available doses rather than holding half in reserve for booster shots. Biden’s advisers said the move would be a way to accelerate distribution of the vaccine, which is in short supply across the country.
Azar initially said the Biden plan was shortsighted and potentially unethical in putting people at risk of missing their booster shots. When he embraced the change four days later, however, he did not say that the original policy had already been phased out or that the stockpile had been exhausted. Trump administration officials and Biden’s team alike have sought to reassure the public that increasing the pace of immunizations would not endanger booster shots.
Azar also signaled to states that they would soon see expanded supply, urging them to begin vaccinating adults 65 and older and those under 64 with high-risk medical conditions. Officials in some states embraced that directive, while others said that suddenly putting hundreds of thousands of additional people at the front of the line would overwhelm their capacity.
In subsequent conversations with state and local authorities, federal officials sought to temper those instructions, said people who participated in the conversations. Perna, for instance, spoke directly to officials in at least two of the jurisdictions receiving vaccine supply, explaining that allocations would not increase and that they did not have to broaden eligibility as they had previously been told, according to a health official who was not authorized to discuss the matter.
The revised instructions led some state and local officials to hold off on changes. One state health official noted that the updated eligibility guidance announced Tuesday did not appear on the website of the CDC, even though it was stated as federal policy by Azar and by Robert R. Redfield, the CDC director, in their remarks. Under the original recommendations, adults 65 and older and front-line essential workers were to comprise the second priority group, known as Phase 1b, after medical workers and residents and staffers of long-term-care facilities.
There was additional confusion from another change Azar announced this week — making allocation of doses dependent on how quickly states administer them. He originally said that would not take effect for two weeks.
But Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) on Thursday tweeted that federal officials had notified him that the state would receive an additional 50,000 doses next week “as a reward for being among the fastest states” to get shots into arms. West Virginia, meanwhile, which is moving at the fastest clip, according to CDC data, did not get any additional doses, said Holli Nelson, a spokeswoman for the state’s National Guard.
In a sign that the incentive structure may not be long-lived, a senior Biden transition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address ongoing deliberations, said this week that the team did not look kindly on a system that “punishes states.”
Biden has said he wants to see 100 million shots administered within his first 100 days — an aim that will depend on quickly accelerating the pace of immunization. Together, Pfizer and Moderna have agreed to sell 200 million doses to the United States by the end of March, which is enough to fully vaccinate 100 million people.