Winter is coming: Why America’s window of opportunity to beat back Covid-19 is closing

Winter is coming: Why America’s window of opportunity to beat back Covid-19 is closing

Winter is coming: Why America's window of opportunity to beat back ...

The good news: The United States has a window of opportunity to beat back Covid-19 before things get much, much worse.

The bad news: That window is rapidly closing. And the country seems unwilling or unable to seize the moment.

Winter is coming. Winter means cold and flu season, which is all but sure to complicate the task of figuring out who is sick with Covid-19 and who is suffering from a less threatening respiratory tract infection. It also means that cherished outdoor freedoms that link us to pre-Covid life — pop-up restaurant patios, picnics in parks, trips to the beach — will soon be out of reach, at least in northern parts of the country.

Unless Americans use the dwindling weeks between now and the onset of “indoor weather” to tamp down transmission in the country, this winter could be Dickensianly bleak, public health experts warn.

“I think November, December, January, February are going to be tough months in this country without a vaccine,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

It is possible, of course, that some vaccines could be approved by then, thanks to historically rapid scientific work. But there is little prospect that vast numbers of Americans will be vaccinated in time to forestall the grim winter Osterholm and others foresee.

Human coronaviruses, the distant cold-causing cousins of the virus that causes Covid-19, circulate year-round. Now is typically the low season for transmission. But in this summer of America’s failed Covid-19 response, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is widespread across the country, and pandemic-weary Americans seem more interested in resuming pre-Covid lifestyles than in suppressing the virus to the point where schools can be reopened, and stay open, and restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms can function with some restrictions.

“We should be aiming for no transmission before we open the schools and we put kids in harm’s way — kids and teachers and their caregivers. And so, if that means no gym, no movie theaters, so be it,” said Caroline Buckee, associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We seem to be choosing leisure activities now over children’s safety in a month’s time. And I cannot understand that tradeoff.”

While many countries managed to suppress spread of SARS-CoV-2, the United States has failed miserably. Countries in Europe and Asia are worrying about a second wave. Here, the first wave rages on, engulfing rural as well as urban parts of the country. Though there’s been a slight decline in cases in the past couple of weeks, more than 50,000 Americans a day are being diagnosed with Covid-19. And those are just the confirmed cases.

To put that in perspective, at this rate the U.S. is racking up more cases in a week than Britain has accumulated since the start of the pandemic.

Public health officials had hoped transmission of the virus would abate with the warm temperatures of summer and the tendency — heightened this year — of people to take their recreational activities outdoors. Experts do believe people are less likely to transmit the virus outside, especially if they are wearing face coverings and keeping a safe distance apart.

But in some places, people have been throwing Covid cautions to the wind, flouting public health orders in the process. Kristen Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology, prevention, and control for the Minnesota Department of Health, points to a large, three-day rodeo that was held recently in her state. Organizers knew they were supposed to limit the number of attendees to 250 but refused; thousands attended. In Sturgis, S.D., an estimated quarter of a million motorcyclists were expected to descend on the city this past weekend for an annual rally that spans 10 days.

Even on smaller scales, public health authorities know some people are letting down their guard. Others have never embraced the need to try to prevent spread of the virus. Ehresmann’s father was recently invited to visit some friends; he went, she said, but wore his mask, elbow bumping instead of shaking proffered hands. “And the people kind of acted like, … ‘Oh, you drank that Kool-Aid,’ rather than, ‘We all need to be doing this.’”

Ehresmann and others in public health are flummoxed by the phenomenon of people refusing to acknowledge the risk the virus poses.

“Just this idea of, ‘I just don’t want to believe it so therefore it’s not going to be true’ — honestly, I have not really dealt with that as it relates to disease before,” she said.

Buckee, the Harvard expert, wonders if the magical thinking that seems to have infected swaths of the country is due to the fact many of the people who have died were elderly. For many Americans, she said, the disease has not yet touched their lives — but the movement restrictions and other response measures have.

“I think if children were dying, this would be … a different situation, quite honestly,” she said.

Epidemiologist Michael Mina despairs that an important chance to wrestle the virus under control is being lost, as Americans ignore the realities of the pandemic in favor of trying to resume pre-Covid life.

“We just continue to squander every bit of opportunity we get with this epidemic to get it under control,’’ said Mina, an assistant professor in Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and associate medical director of clinical microbiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“The best time to squash a pandemic is when the environmental characteristics slow transmission. It’s your one opportunity in the year, really, to leverage that extra assistance and get transmission under control,” he said, his frustration audible.

Driving back transmission would require people to continue to make sacrifices, to accept the fact that life post-Covid cannot proceed as normal, not while so many people remain vulnerable to the virus. Instead, people are giddily throwing off the shackles of coronavirus suppression efforts, seemingly convinced that a few weeks of sacrifice during the spring was a one-time solution.

Osterholm has for months warned that people were being misled about how long the restrictions on daily life would need to be in place. He now thinks the time has come for another lockdown. “What we did before and more,” he said.

The country has fallen into a dangerous pattern, Osterholm said, where a spike in cases in a location leads to some temporary restraint from people who eventually become alarmed enough to start to take precautions. But as soon as cases start to plateau or decline a little, victory over the virus is declared and people think it’s safe to resume normal life.

“It’s like an all or nothing phenomenon, right?” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “You all locked down or you get so discouraged with being lockdown that you decide you’re going to be in crowded bars … you can have indoor parties with no masks. You can do all the things that are going to get you in trouble.”

Osterholm said with the K-12 school year resuming in some parts of the country or set to start — along with universities — in a few weeks, transmission will take off and cases will start to climb again. He predicted the next peaks will “exceed by far the peak we have just experienced. Winter is only going to reinforce that. Indoor air,” he said.

Buckee thinks that if the country doesn’t alter the trajectory it is on, more shutdowns are inevitable. “I can’t see a way that we’re going to have restaurants and bars open in the winter, frankly. We’ll have resurgence. Everything will get shut down again.”

Fauci favors a reset of the reopening measures, with a strong messaging component aimed at explaining to people why driving down transmission now will pay off later. Young people in particular need to understand that even if they are less likely to die from Covid-19, statistically speaking, transmission among 20-somethings will eventually lead to infections among their parents and grandparents, where the risk of severe infections and fatal outcomes is higher. (Young people can also develop long-term health problems as a result of the virus.)

“It’s not them alone in a vacuum,” Fauci said. “They are spreading it to the people who are going to wind up in the hospital.”

Everyone has to work together to get cases down to more manageable levels, if the country hopes to avoid “a disastrous winter,” he said.

“I think we can get it under much better control, between now and the mid-to-late fall when we get influenza or we get whatever it is we get in the fall and the winter. I’m not giving up,” said Fauci.

But without an all-in effort “the cases are not going to come down,” he warned. “They’re not. They’re just not.”

 

 

 

 

 

Coronavirus threat rises across U.S.: ‘We just have to assume the monster is everywhere’

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/coronavirus-threat-rises-across-us-we-just-have-to-assume-the-monster-is-everywhere/2020/08/01/cdb505e0-d1d8-11ea-8c55-61e7fa5e82ab_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most

The coronavirus is spreading at dangerous levels across much of the United States, and public health experts are demanding a dramatic reset in the national response, one that recognizes that the crisis is intensifying and that current piecemeal strategies aren’t working.

This is a new phase of the pandemic, one no longer built around local or regional clusters and hot spots. It comes at an unnerving moment in which the economy suffered its worst collapse since the Great Depression, schools are rapidly canceling plans for in-person instruction and Congress has failed to pass a new emergency relief package. President Trump continues to promote fringe science, the daily death toll keeps climbing and the human cost of the virus in America has just passed 150,000 lives.

“Unlike many countries in the world, the United States is not currently on course to get control of this epidemic. It’s time to reset,” declared a report released this week by Johns Hopkins University.

Another report from the Association of American Medical Colleges offered a similarly blunt message: “If the nation does not change its course — and soon — deaths in the United States could be well into the multiple hundreds of thousands.”

The country is exhausted, but the virus is not. It has shown a consistent pattern: It spreads opportunistically wherever people let down their guard and return to more familiar patterns of mobility and socializing. When communities tighten up, by closing bars or requiring masks in public, transmission drops.

That has happened in some Sun Belt states, including Arizona, Florida and Texas, which are still dealing with a surge of hospitalizations and deaths but are finally turning around the rate of new infections.

There are signs, however, that the virus is spreading freely in much of the country. Experts are focused on upticks in the percentage of positive coronavirus tests in the upper South and Midwest. It is a sign that the virus could soon surge anew in the heartland. Infectious-disease experts also see warning signs in East Coast cities hammered in the spring.

“There are fewer and fewer places where anybody can assume the virus is not there,” Gov. Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio said Wednesday. “It’s in our most rural counties. It’s in our smallest communities. And we just have to assume the monster is everywhere. It’s everywhere.”

Dire data

An internal Trump administration briefing document prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and obtained Friday by The Washington Post counted 453,659 new infections in the past week.

Alaska is in trouble. And Hawaii, Missouri, Montana and Oklahoma. Those are the five states, as of Friday, with the highest percentage increase in the seven-day average of new cases, according to a Post analysis of nationwide health data.

“The dominoes are falling now,” said David Rubin, director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has produced a model showing where the virus is likely to spread over the next four weeks.

His team sees ominous trends in big cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Louisville, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington, with Boston and New York not far behind. And Rubin warns that the expected influx of students into college towns at the end of this month will be another epidemiological shock.

“I suspect we’re going to see big outbreaks in college towns,” he said.

Young people are less likely to have a severe outcome from the coronavirus, but they are adept at propelling the virus through the broader population, including among people at elevated risk. Numbers of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the United States went from 36,158 on July 1 to 52,767 on July 31, according to The Post’s data. FEMA reports a sharp increase in the number of patients on ventilators.

The crisis has highlighted the deep disparities in health outcomes among racial and ethnic groups, and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week showed that hospitalization rates due to the coronavirus are roughly five times higher among Black, Hispanic and Native Americans than Whites.

Thirty-seven states and Puerto Rico will probably see rising daily death tolls during the next two weeks compared with the previous two weeks, according to the latest ensemble forecast from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that combines more than 30 coronavirus models.

There are glimmers of progress. The FEMA report showed 237 U.S. counties with at least two weeks of steady declines in numbers of new coronavirus cases.

But there are more than 3,100 counties in America.

“This is not a natural disaster that happens to one or two or three communities and then you rebuild,” said Beth Cameron, vice president for global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former White House National Security Council staffer focused on pandemics. “This is a spreading disaster that moves from one place to another, and until it’s suppressed and until we ultimately have a safe and effective and distributed vaccine, every community is at risk.”

A national strategy, whether advanced by the federal government or by the states working in tandem, will more effectively control viral spread than the current patchwork of state and local policies, according to a study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published Thursday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The coordination is necessary because one state’s policies affect other states. Sometimes, that influence is at a distance, because states that are geographically far apart can have cultural and social ties, as is the case with the “peer states” of New York and Florida, the report found.

“The cost of our uncoordinated national response to covid-19, it’s dramatic,” said MIT economist Sinan Aral, senior author of the paper.

Some experts argue for a full six-to-eight-week national shutdown, something even more sweeping than what was instituted in the spring. There appears to be no political support for such a move.

Neil Bradley, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said fresh federal intervention is necessary in this second wave of closures. Enhanced federal unemployment benefits expired at the end of July, with no agreement on a new stimulus package in sight.

“Congress, on a bipartisan basis, was trying to create a bridge to help individuals and businesses navigate the period of a shutdown,” Bradley said. “Absent an extension of that bridge, in light of a second shutdown, that bridge becomes a pier. And then that’s a real problem.”

With the economy in shambles, hospitals filling up and the public frustrated, anxious and angry, the challenge for national leadership is finding a plausible sea-to-sea strategy that can win widespread support and simultaneously limit sickness and death from the virus.

Many Americans may simply feel discouraged and overtaxed, unable to maintain precautions such as social distancing and mask-wearing. Others remain resistant, for cultural or ideological reasons, to public health guidance and buy into conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

DeWine is struggling to get Ohio citizens to take seriously the need to wear masks. A sheriff in rural western Ohio told the governor Wednesday that people didn’t think the virus was a big problem. DeWine informed the sheriff that the numbers in his county were higher per capita than in Toledo.

“The way I’ve explained to people, if we want to have Friday night football in the fall, if we want our kids back in school, what we do in the next two weeks will determine if that happens,” DeWine said.

The crucial metric

The coronavirus has always been several steps ahead of the U.S. government, the scientific community, the news media and the general public. By the time a community notices a surge in patients to hospital emergency rooms, the virus has seeded itself widely.

The virus officially known as SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted by people who are infectious but not symptomatic. The incubation period is typically about six days, according to the CDC. When symptoms flare, they can be ambiguous. A person may not seek a test right away. Then, the test results may not come back for days, a week, even longer.

That delay makes contact tracing nearly futile. It also means government data on virus transmission is invariably out of date to some degree — it’s a snapshot of what was happening a week or two weeks before. And different jurisdictions use different metrics to track the virus, further fogging the picture.

The top doctors on the White House coronavirus task force, Deborah Birx and Anthony S. Fauci, are newly focused on the early warning signs of a virus outbreak. This week, they warned that the kind of runaway outbreaks seen in the Sun Belt could potentially happen elsewhere. Among the states of greatest concern: Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

Fauci and Birx have pointed to a critical metric: the percentage of positive test results. When that figure starts to tick upward, it is a sign of increasing community spread of the virus.

“That is kind of the predictor that if you don’t do something — namely, do something different — if you’re opening up at a certain pace, slow down, maybe even backtrack a little,” Fauci said in an interview Wednesday.

Without a vaccine, the primary tools for combating the spread of the virus remain the common-sense “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” including mask-wearing, hand-washing, staying out of bars and other confined spaces, maintaining social distancing of at least six feet and avoiding crowds, Fauci said.

“Seemingly simple maneuvers have been very effective in preventing or even turning around the kind of surges we’ve seen,” he said.

Thirty-three U.S. states have positivity rates above 5 percent. The World Health Organization has cited that percentage as a crucial benchmark for governments deciding whether to reopen their economy. Above 5 percent, stay closed. Below, open with caution.

Of states with positivity rates below 5 percent, nine have seen those rates rise during the last two weeks.

“You may not fully realize that when you think things are okay, you actually are seeing a subtle, insidious increase that is usually reflected in the percent of your tests that are positive,” Fauci said.

The shutdown blues

Some governors immediately took the White House warnings to heart. On Monday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said at a news conference that he had met with Birx the previous day and was told he was getting the same warning Texas and Florida received “weeks before the worst of the worst happened.”

To prevent that outcome in his state, Beshear said, he was closing bars for two weeks and cutting seating in restaurants.

But as Beshear pleaded that “we all need to be singing from the same sheet of music,” discord and confusion prevailed.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said Thursday she wasn’t convinced a mask mandate is effective: “No one knows particularly the best strategy.”

Earlier in the week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) demurred on masks and bar closures even as he stood next to Birx and spoke to reporters.

“That’s not a plan for us now,” he said. He added emphatically, “We are not going to close the economy back down.”

The virus is spreading throughout his state, and not just in the big cities. Vacationers took the virus home from the honky-tonks of Nashville and blues clubs of Memphis to where they live in more rural areas, said John Graves, a professor at Vanderbilt University studying the pandemic.

“The geographical footprint of the virus has reached all corners of the state at this point,” Graves said.

In Missouri, Gov. Michael L. Parson (R) was dismissive of New York’s imposition of a quarantine on residents from his state as a sign of a worsening pandemic. “I’m not going to put much stock in what New York says — they’re a disaster,” he said at a news conference Monday.

Missouri has no mask mandate, leaving it to local officials to act — often in the face of hostility and threats. In the town of Branson, angry opponents testified Tuesday that there was no reason for a mask order when deaths in the county have been few and far between.

“It hasn’t hit us here yet, that’s what I’m scared of,” Branson Alderman Bill Skains said before voting with a majority in favor of the mandate. “It is coming, and it’s coming like a freight train.”

Democratic mayors in Missouri’s two biggest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, said that with so many people needing jobs, they are reluctant to follow Birx’s recommendation to close bars.

“The whole-blanket approach to shut everybody down feels a little harsh for the people who are doing it right,” said Jacob Long, spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. “We’re trying to take care of some bad actors first.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey also got a warning from Birx. On Wednesday, he said all bar drinking must move outside.

“We don’t want to be heading in the direction of everybody else,” said Kristen Ehresmann, director of the infectious-disease epidemiology division at the Minnesota Department of Health. She acknowledged that some options “are really pretty draconian.”

The problem is that less-painful measures have proven insufficient.

“The disease transmission we’re seeing is more than what would have been expected if people were following the guidance as it is laid out. It’s a reflection of the fact that they’re not,” she said.

‘A tremendous disappointment’

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) tried to implement broad statewide measures early in the pandemic, only to have his “Safer at Home” order struck down by the state’s Supreme Court.

With cases in his state rising anew, he tried again Thursday, declaring a public health emergency and issuing a statewide mask mandate.

“While our local health departments have been doing a heck of a job responding to this pandemic in our communities, the fact of the matter is, this virus doesn’t care about any town, city or county boundary, and we need a statewide approach to get Wisconsin back on track,” Evers said.

Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer, said he is dismayed by the failures of the national pandemic response.

“I really thought we had a chance to keep this suppressed,” Westergaard said. “The model is a good one: testing, tracing, isolation, supportive quarantine. Those things work. We saw this coming. We knew we had to build robust, flexible systems to do this in all of our communities. It feels like a tremendous disappointment that we weren’t able to build a system in time that could handle this.”

There is one benefit to the way the virus has spread so broadly, he noted: “We no longer have to keep track of people traveling to a hot spot if hot spots are everywhere.”

 

 

 

 

Fewer than 10% of primary care practices have stabilized operations amid COVID-19 pandemic

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/fewer-than-10-primary-care-practices-have-stabilized-operations-amid-covid-19-pandemic?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWTJGaE1qTTRaalpsT1dGayIsInQiOiJTNWFxb3VcL3J3ZmE4ZWV0bFwvOGJCYUc0Ukd3TWp4WlM1SzBzT01aeVJIUGlsSWkwNTlVajJxekJqUUsrcWoxZ0IwTUNqVlhTWVJLQmZkSk1XNGtKVEdCOWg3NmRWeFdldFpsSmlONnFvTTFGQ2l1bzQ4S3ZqNWpoaUx2d1pHaSs1In0%3D

Fewer than 10% of primary care practices have stabilized ...

Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations.

Nearly 9 in 10 primary care practices continue to face significant difficulties with COVID-19, including obtaining medical supplies, meeting the increasing health needs of their patients, and finding sufficient resources to remain operational, according to a recent survey of close to 600 primary care clinicians in 46 states.

Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, the survey found.

More than four months into the pandemic and at a time when 39 states are experiencing an increase of COVID-19 cases, fewer than 4 in 10 clinicians feel confident and safe with their access to personal protective equipment, according to the survey from the Larry A. Green Center in partnership with the Primary Care Collaborative, which was conducted July 10 to July 13.

Among the primary care clinicians surveyed, 11% report that staff in their practice have quit in the last four weeks over safety concerns.

A primary care provider in Ohio said this: “The ‘I can do 4-6 weeks of this’ transition to ‘this feels like a new/permanent normal’ is crushing and demoralizing. Ways to build morale when everyone is at a computer workstation away from other staff (and patients) feels impossible.”

“In the first few months of the pandemic, the country pulled together to stop the spread of the virus, and it seemed like we were making progress. Primary care clinicians and practices were working hard, against tremendous challenges,” said Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., co-director of The Larry A. Green Center in a statement.

“But now the country is backsliding, and it’s clear that primary care doesn’t have enough strength to deal with the rising number of cases. If primary care were a COVID-19 patient, it would be flat on its back,” Etz said.

The survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center is part of an ongoing series looking at the attitudes of primary care clinicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the abilities of practices to meet patients’ needs.

Close to 40% of primary care providers report they are maxed out with mental exhaustion and 18% say they spend each week wondering if their practice or job will still be there next week.

In addition to feeling stressed, clinicians and their practices are also experiencing upheaval. The survey found that 22% of clinicians report skipped or deferred salaries, and 78% report preventive and chronic care is being deferred or delayed by patients.

Primary care clinicians report that 42% of in-person volume is down but overall contact with patients is high, while 39% report not being able to bill for the majority of work delivered, the survey found.

“Given the rapidly rising infection rates and persistent lack of PPE, more than a third of primary care clinicians are reporting feeling unsafe at the office, and 20% are cutting back on face-to-face visits while doing more remote outreach,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative in a statement.

Greiner said this is a clear signal that payers must advance or retain parity for telehealth and telephonic calls.

“It also is a clarion call to move to a new payment system that doesn’t rely on face-to-face visits and that is prospective so practices can better manage patient care,” she said.

Providers say they need more support from private insurers, particularly when it comes to reimbursing for telehealth and telephone visits. 

According to the survey, a primary care doctor in Illinois said, “Recently told we would not be able to conduct telephone visits due to lack of reimbursement. I work in a low-income Medicare population which has low health literacy and no technology literacy. We were 80% telephone and 20% Zoom and in-office. This further exemplifies the extreme health care disparities in the U.S.”

 

 

 

Houston, Miami, other cities face mounting health care worker shortages as infections climb

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/houston-miami-and-other-cities-face-mounting-health-care-worker-shortages-as-infections-climb/2020/07/25/45fd720c-ccf8-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR14P9OGxTOPU8pMgjsVof7YlOAPv-vfxq2MBm9RlpYFVVa3qvpmvyIjFyA

Shortages of health care workers are worsening in Houston, Miami, Baton Rouge and other cities battling sustained covid-19 outbreaks, exhausting staffers and straining hospitals’ ability to cope with spiking cases.

That need is especially dire for front-line nurses, respiratory therapists and others who play hands-on, bedside roles where one nurse is often required for each critically ill patient.

While many hospitals have devised ways to stretch material resources — converting surgery wards into specialized covid units and recycling masks and gowns — it is far more difficult to stretch the human workers needed to make the system function.

“At the end of the day, the capacity for critical care is a balance between the space, staff and stuff. And if you have a bottleneck in one, you can’t take additional patients,” said Mahshid Abir, a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and director of the Acute Care Research Unit (ACRU) at the University of Michigan. “You have to have all three … You can’t have a ventilator, but not a respiratory therapist.”

“What this is going to do is it’s going to cost lives, not just for covid patients, but for everyone else in the hospital,” she warned.

The increasingly fraught situation reflects packed hospitals across large swaths of the country: More than 8,800 covid patients are hospitalized in Texas; Florida has more than 9,400; and at least 13 other states also have thousands of hospitalizations, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Facilities in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Indiana, have in recent weeks reported shortages of such workers, according to federal planning documents viewed by The Post, pitting states and hospitals against one another to recruit staff.

On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he asked the federal government to send in 700 health-care workers to assist besieged hospitals.

“Even if for some strange reason … you don’t care about covid-19, you should care about that hospital capacity when you have an automobile accident or when you have your heart attack or your stroke, or your mother or grandmother has that stroke,” Edwards said at a news conference.

In Florida, 39 hospitals have requested help from the state for respiratory therapists, nurses and nursing assistants. In South Carolina, the National Guard is sending 40 medical professionals to five hospitals in response to rising cases.

Many medical facilities anticipate their staffing problems will deteriorate, according to the planning documents: Texas is hardest hit, with South Carolina close behind. Needs range from pharmacists to physicians.

Hot spots stretch across the country, from Miami and Atlanta to Southern California and the Rio Grande Valley, and the demands for help are as diffuse as the suffering.

“What we have right now are essentially three New Yorks with these three major states,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said Friday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

But today’s diffuse transmission requires innovative thinking and a different response from months ago in New York, say experts. While some doctors have been able to share expertise online and nurses have teamed up to relieve pressures, the overall strains are growing.

“We missed the boat,” said Serena Bumpus, a leader of multiple Texas nursing organizations and regional director of nursing for the Austin Round Rock Region of Baylor Scott and White Health.

Bumpus blames a lack of coordination at national and state officials. “It feels like this free-for-all,” she said, “and each organization is just kind of left up to their own devices to try to figure this out.”

In a disaster, a hospital or local health system typically brings in help from neighboring communities. But that standard emergency protocol, which comes into play following a hurricane or tornado, “is predicated on the notion that you’ll have a concentrated area of impact,” said Christopher Nelson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

That is how Texas has functioned in the past, said Jennifer Banda, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the Texas Hospital Association, recalling the influx of temporary help after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston three years ago.

It is how the response took shape early in the outbreak, when health-care workers headed to hard-hit New York.

But the sustained and far-flung nature of the pandemic has made that approach unworkable. “The challenge right now,” Banda said, “is we are taxing the system all across the country.”

Theresa Q. Tran, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, began to feel the crunch in June. Only a few weeks before, she had texted a friend to say how disheartening it was to see crowds of people reveling outdoors without masks on Memorial Day weekend.

Her fears were borne out when she found herself making call after call after call from her ER, unable to admit a critically ill patient because her hospital had run out of ICU space, but unable to find a hospital able to take them.

Under normal circumstances, the transfer of such patients — “where you’re afraid to look away, or to blink, because they may just crash on you,” as Tran describes them — happens quickly to ensure the close monitoring the ICU affords.

Those critical patients begin to stall in the ER, stretching the abilities of the nurses and doctors attending to them. “A lot of people, they come in, and they need attention immediately,” Tran said, noting that emergency physicians are constantly racing against time. “Time is brain, or time is heart.”

By mid-July, an influx of “surge” staff brought relief, Tran said. But that was short-lived as the crisis jumped from one locality to the next, with the emergency procedures to bring in more staff never quite keeping up with the rising infections.

An ER physician in the Rio Grande Valley said all three of the major trauma hospitals in the area have long since run out of the ability to absorb new ICU patients.

“We’ve been full for weeks,” said the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking out about the conditions.

“The truth is, the majority of our work now in the emergency department is ICU work,” he said. “Some of our patients down here, we’re now holding them for days.” And each one of those critically ill patients needs a nurse to stay with them.

When ICU space has opened up — maybe two, three, four beds — it never feels like relief, he said, because in the time it takes to move those patients out, 20 new ones arrive.

Even with help his hospital has received — masks and gowns were procured, and the staff more than doubled in the past few weeks with relief nurses and other health-care workers from outside — it still is not enough.

The local nurses are exhausted. Some quit. Even the relief nurses who helped out in New York in the spring seem horrified by the scale of the disaster in South Texas, he said.

“If no one comes and helps us out and gives us the ammo we need to fight this thing, we are not going to win,” the doctor said.

One of the root causes of the problem in the United States is that emergency departments and ICUs are often operating at or near capacity, Abir and Nelson said, putting them dangerously close to shortages before a crisis even hits.

Texas, along with 32 other states, has joined a licensure compact, allowing nurses to practice across state borders, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from other parts of the country.

Texas medical facilities can apply to the Department of State Health Services for staffers to fill a critical shortage, typically for a two-week period. But two weeks, which would allow time to respond to most disasters, hardly registers in a pandemic, so facilities have to ask for extensions or make new applications.

South Carolina last week issued an order that allows nursing graduates who have not yet completed their licensing exams to begin working under supervision. Prisma Health, the state’s biggest hospital system, said this week that the number of patients admitted to its hospitals has more than tripled in the past three weeks and is approaching 300 new patients a day.

“As the capacity increases, so does the need for additional staff,” Scott Sasser, the incident commander for Prisma Health’s covid-19 response said in a statement. Prisma has so far shifted nurses from one area to another, brought back furloughed nurses, hired more physicians and brought in temporary nurse hires, among other measures, Sasser said.

Bumpus has fielded calls from nurses all over the country — some as far afield as the United Kingdom — wanting to know how they can help. But Bumpus says she does not have an easy answer.

“I’ve had to kind of just do my own digging and use my connections,” she said. At first, she said, interested nurses were asked to register through the Texas Disaster Volunteer Registry; but then the system never seemed to be put to use.

Later she learned — “by happenstance … literally by social media” — that the state had contracted with private agencies to find nurses. So now she directs callers to those agencies.

Even rural parts of Texas that were spared initially are being ravaged by the virus, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

“Unless things start getting better in short order, we don’t have enough staff,” he acknowledged. As for filling critical staffing gaps by moving people around, “even the state admits that they can’t continue to do that,” Henderson said.

The situation has become so dire in some rural parts of the state that Judge Eloy Vera implored people to stay home on the Starr County Facebook page, warning, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die.”

Steven Gularte, CEO of Chambers Health in Anahuac, Tex., 45 miles from Houston, said he had to bring in 10 nurses to help staff his 14-bed hospital after Houston facilities started appealing for help to care for patients who no longer needed intensive care but were not ready to go home.

“Normally, we are referring to them,” Gularte said. “Now, they are referring to us.”

Donald M. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said rather than sending staff to other states, his hospital has helped others virtually, particularly to support pulmonary and intensive care physicians.

“Covid has been catalytic in how we think about health care,” Yealy said, providing lessons that will outlast the pandemic.

But telehealth can do little to relieve the fatigue and fear that goes with front-line work in a prolonged pandemic. Donning and doffing masks, gowns and gloves is time consuming. Nurses worry about taking the virus home to their families.

“It is high energy work with a constant grind that is hard on people,” said Michael Sweat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Coronavirus has turned the regular staffing challenge at Harris Health in Houston into a daily life-or-death juggle for Pamela Russell, associate administrator of nursing operations, who helps provide supplemental workers for the system’s two public hospitals and 46 outpatient clinics.

Now, 162 staff members — including more than 50 nurses — are quarantined, either because they tested positive or are awaiting results. Many others need flexible schedules to accommodate child care, she said. Some cannot work in coronavirus units because of their own medical conditions. A few contract nurses left abruptly after learning their units would soon be taking covid-positive patients.

Russell has turned to the state and the international nonprofit Project Hope for resources, even as she acts as a morale booster, encouraging restaurants to send meals and supporting the hospital CEO in his cheerleading rounds.

“It’s hard to say how long we can do this. I just don’t know” said Russell, who praised the commitment of the nurses. “Like I said, it’s a calling. But I don’t see it being sustainable.”

 

 

 

 

U.S. Coronavirus Pandemic Status: It’s about to get a lot worse

https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-pain-getting-worse-cd329f4c-9962-4f40-b401-7a7ac1a393cf.html

The pain of the coronavirus is about to get a lot worse - Axios

For months now, American workers, families and small businesses have been saying they can’t keep up their socially distanced lives for much longer. We’ve now arrived at “much longer” — and the pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.

The big picture: The relief policies and stopgap measures that we cobbled together to get us through the toughest weeks worked for a while, but they’re starting to crumble just as cases are spiking in the majority of states.

Next week, the extra $600 per week in expanded unemployment benefits will expire. And there’s no indication that Congress has reached a consensus on extending this assistance or providing anything in its place.

  • But nearly half of the U.S. population is still jobless, and millions will remain jobless for the foreseeable future. There are 14 million more unemployed people than there are jobs, per the Economic Policy Institute.
  • Nearly a third of Americans missed a housing payment in July — and that was with the additional $600. Plus, most Americans have already spent the stimulus checks they received at the beginning of the pandemic.
  • “We should be very concerned about what’s going to happen in August and beyond” — starting with a spike in evictions, Mathieu Despard, who leads the Social Policy Institute at the Washington University in St. Louis, tells Axios.

Expect more furloughs and layoffs as more small businesses are pushed off the pandemic cliff.

  • By economists’ estimates, more than 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed since the pandemic began.
  • For those that are hanging on, loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) have not been enough, and the back and forth between re-opening and then closing again as states deal with new case waves has been devastating. In fact, rates of closure have started increasing, the New York Times reports, citing Yelp data.
  • The big firms aren’t immune either. Just last week, behemoths like United Airlines, Wells Fargo, Walgreens and Levi’s either cut jobs or told workers their jobs were at risk, Axios’ Dion Rabouin writes.

And the question of whether schools will reopen looms.

  • Since schools sent kids home in March, and most summer camps didn’t open their doors for the summer, working parents have been dealing with a child care crisis — attempting to do their jobs, care for their kids and homeschool all at once — and hoping that the stress will be temporary.
  • The situation is more dire for low-income families with kids who rely on school lunches or for single parents who are juggling work and parenting without any help.
  • Now the public heath crisis hasn’t abated, and school districts are running out of time to figure out what the fall will look like. Some, starting with Los Angeles, have already decided to go online.

The bottom line: “It’s the uncertainty that is anxiety-inducing,” says Despard. “If you give people a time horizon and say, ‘Look you have to get through these next 8 weeks of extreme shutdown,’ they’ll do it. Now it’s like, ‘How much longer?'”

 

 

 

 

 

Six months in, coronavirus failures outweigh successes

https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/public-global-health/505353-six-months-in-coronavirus-failures-outweigh-successes

Covid-19 news: UK deaths fall below five-year average | New Scientist

In the six months since the World Health Organization (WHO) detected a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases at a hospital in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus pandemic has touched every corner of the globe, carving a trail of death and despair as humankind races to catch up.

At least 10.4 million confirmed cases have been diagnosed worldwide, and the true toll is likely multiples of that figure. In the United States, health officials believe more than 20 million people have likely been infected.

A staggering 500,000 people around the globe have died in just six months. More people have succumbed to the virus in the U.S. — 126,000 — than the number of American troops who died in World War I.

But even after months of painful lockdowns worldwide, the virus is no closer to containment in many countries. Public health officials say the pandemic is getting worse, fueled by new victims in both nations that have robust medical systems and poorer developing countries.

“We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is this is not even close to being over,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday. “Globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up.”

In the U.S., the fierce urgency of March and April has given way to the complacency of summer, as bars and restaurants teem with young people who appear largely convinced the virus poses no threat to them. New outbreaks, especially among younger Americans, have forced 16 states to pause or roll back their reopening plans.

“This is a really challenging point in time. It’s challenging because people are tired of the restrictions on their activity, people are tired of not being able to socialize, not being able to go to work,” said Richard Besser, a former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“You have people who have reached that point of pandemic fatigue where they just don’t want to hear it anymore, they just want to go back to their life,” he added.

The number of new U.S. cases has risen sharply in recent weeks, led disproportionately by states in the South, the Midwest and the Sun Belt. More than a quarter-million people tested positive for the coronavirus last week, and more than 40,000 tested positive on three consecutive days over the weekend.

“We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around. And so I am very concerned,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate panel on Tuesday.

Public health experts now worry that a rising tide of death is about to crest across the United States. Officials in Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi and Texas are reporting a surging number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, leading to fears that health systems could soon be overrun.

“If you’re over the hospital capacity, people will start dying faster,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

Already, Arizona has reported more coronavirus deaths per million residents in the last week, at 4.77, than any nation on Earth except Chile and Peru.

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has varied widely, and in some parts of the world, both wealthy and developing nations have brought it under control. In the U.S., some states hit hard early on have wrangled transmission under control.

But even in states that have achieved some measure of success, the spikes in cases stand in stark contrast to countries that have bent the epidemiological curves to manageable levels.

Mass screenings in South Korea crushed the spread, and quick action to identify and isolate contacts in more recent hot spots have meant new outbreaks are quickly contained. South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has reported just 316 new cases in the past week, fewer than the number of new cases reported in Rhode Island, a state with slightly more than 1 million residents.

Germany raced to protect its elderly population and rapidly expanded its hospital capacity. It deployed the world’s most successful diagnostics test, developed at a Berlin hospital, on a massive scale. With a population of 83 million, the country has reported 78 coronavirus deaths in the past week; Mississippi, population 3 million, reported 96 coronavirus-related deaths during the same period.

Vietnam imposed mandatory quarantines on contacts, including international travelers, in government-run centers to stop the spread. Among its 95 million residents, Vietnam has confirmed 355 total cases since the outbreak began. Alabama, population 4.9 million, reported 358 cases on Sunday alone.

Those countries have begun loosening restrictions on their populations and their economies, with few signs of major flare-ups.

The United States has begun to open up too but without bending the curve downward, and the results have been disastrous. The number of daily confirmed cases has more than doubled in nine states over the past two weeks and has increased by more than half in 17 more.

“I have really grave concerns that viral transmission is going to get out of control,” Besser said.

In interviews, public health experts and epidemiologists confess to feelings of depression and disgust over the state of the nation’s response. Some remain exasperated that there is still no coordinated national response from the White House or federal agencies.

President Trump has rarely mentioned the virus in recent weeks, aside from using racial epithets and suggesting his administration would slow testing to reduce the number of confirmed cases. He later said he was joking.

“There should be some sort of federal leadership,” Feigl-Ding said. “Every state’s on its own, for the most part.”

Left to their own devices, some states are trending in the right direction. Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and the District of Columbia have seen their case counts decline for two consecutive weeks or more. New York reported 4,591 new cases in the last week — a startlingly high figure but only a fraction of the 65,000 cases infecting the state during its worst week, in early April.

States with their numbers on the decline have benefited from fast action and strict measures. They’re also viewed as role models for states that are now experiencing surges.

“States who are now on the rapid upslope need to act quickly, take the advice and example of states that have already been through this,” said Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “We know what needs to be done to win this in the short run, and we are working on what needs to happen for the longer term.”

If there is a silver lining, it is that the number of tests American states are conducting on a daily basis has grown to about 600,000, on its way toward the millions the nation likely needs to fully control the spread.

But that silver lining frames a darkening cloud: As the virus spreads, even the higher testing capacity has been strained, and state and local governments are hitting their limits and running low on supplies.

The greater number of tests does not account for the speed of the spread, as Trump has suggested. The share of tests that come back positive has averaged almost 7 percent over the last week, according to The Hill’s analysis of national figures; in the first week of June, just 4.6 percent of tests were coming back positive.

If greater testing were responsible for more cases, the percentage coming back positive should decrease rather than increase. The higher positive rates are an indication the virus is spreading more rapidly.

As with so much else in American life, the coronavirus has become a political battleground. The new front is over face masks, which studies show dramatically reduce transmission. States that have mandated wearing masks in public saw the number of new cases decline by a quarter between the first and third weeks of June; states that do not require masks in any setting saw the number of cases rise by 84 percent over that same span.

“From a public health perspective, it’s demoralizing, it’s tragic … because our public health leaders know what to do to get this under control, but we’re in a situation where the CDC is not out front in a leadership role. We’re not hearing from them every day. They’re not explaining and capturing people’s hearts and minds,” said Besser, the former CDC chief. “If we have a vaccine, that will be terrific if it’s safe and effective. But until that point, these are the only tools we have, these tools of public health, and they’re very crude tools.”