As this summer heats up, so has the spread of the hot new version of COVID-19.
Why it matters: This subvariant of Omicron called BA.5 — the most transmissible subvariant yet — quickly overtook previous strains to become the dominant version circulating the U.S. and much of the world.
BA.5 is so transmissible — and different enough from previous versions — that even those with immunity from prior Omicron infections may not have to wait long before falling ill again.
What they’re saying: “I had plenty of friends and family who said: ‘I didn’t want to get it but I’m sort of glad I got it because it’s out of the way and I won’t get it again’,” Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine told Axios. “Unfortunately that doesn’t hold the way it once did.”
“Even this one bit of good news people found in the gloom, it’s like, ‘Sorry’,” Wachter said.
State of play: This week, the CDC reported BA.5 became the dominant variant in the U.S., accounting for nearly 54% of total COVID cases. Studies show extra mutations in the spike protein make the strain three or four times more resistant to antibodies, though it doesn’t appear to cause more serious illness.
Hospital admissions are starting to trend upward again, CDC data shows, though they’re still well below what was seen during the initial spread of Omicron.
It’s unclear whether that could be indicating an increase in patients in for COVID, or patients who happen to have COVID, Wachter said. “We’re up in hospitalizations around 20% but with a relatively small number of ICU patients,” Wachter said about COVID cases at UCSF.
In South Africa, the variant had no impact on hospitalizations while Portugal saw hospitalizations rise dramatically, Megan Ranney, academic dean at the Brown University School of Public Health told Axios.
“So the big unknown is what effect it’s going to have on the health care system and the numbers of folks living with long COVID,” she said.
Yes, but: “I’m certainly hearing about more reinfections and more fairly quick reinfections than at any other time in the last two and a half years,” Wachter said.
Zoom in: That is also largely the experience of the surge seen firsthand in New York City by Henry Chen, president of SOMOS Community Care, who serves as a primary care physician across three boroughs of the city.
With this particular variant, he said: “The symptoms are pretty much the same but a little bit more severe than the last wave. It’s more high fever, body ache, sore throat and coughing,” Chen said, adding his patient roster is mostly vaccinated.
But it is occurring among patients who’d gotten the virus only three or four months ago, he said.
The big picture: Another summertime wave of cases could prolong the pandemic, coming after many public health precautions were lifted and with available vaccines losing their efficacy against the ever-evolving virus.
The bottom line: The messaging isn’t to panic, but to understand the virus is likely spreading in local communities much more than individuals realize due to shrinking testing programs — and without the level of protection they might assume they have.
“If you don’t want to get sick, you still need to be taking at least some precautions,” Ranney said. “[COVID] is still very much among us.”
The right to bear arms has existed since we became a nation. So, too, has the risk of violence that extensive gun ownership creates in our society.
Unfortunately, recent mass shooting incidents, fueled by hatred or mental illness, have sparked a great deal of fear and confusion among Americans.
As healthcare leaders, our concern centers on the treatment of those who are victims of senseless gun violence. And not just those who are shot, but the other victims as well.
Healthcare providers must care for all victims — the ones who are traumatized because a loved one has been hurt or lost, the ones who were at the chaotic scene of the violence, or who are haunted by the endless media stories they cannot seem to tune out. The emotional toll of this violence is incomprehensible.
Healthcare facilities attempt to provide refuge from violence and seek to provide healing and hope to all victims of violence.
Unstable individuals with guns and other weapons of harm find their way into our buildings and hallways as well. Earlier this month, a man who blamed his physician for ongoing pain after a recent back surgery shot and killed his surgeon and three other people before fatally shooting himself in a Tulsa, Okla., medical facility. Also this month, a hospital security officer was shot and killed by a prison inmate who was receiving care in a Dayton, Ohio, emergency room.
These incidents are the latest horrifying tragedies in a wave of deadly gun violence occurring across our country, including two heart-breaking mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas. We mention these tragedies not to make a political statement, but to raise awareness of the consequences of this violence on healthcare providers and the public health.
As healthcare workers, healers, and caregivers, we work to fix what is broken and put people back together. We bring solutions. We engage with our hearts to stand together in the fear and vulnerabilities of those who need us so that we can help them through difficult challenges. We look to bring light to dark situations. We seek to be beacons of hope.
The escalation of recent shootings, suicides and other violent behaviors underscores the urgency for a national conversation on what has become a serious public health crisis. We believe health systems have a credible voice and can play a critical role beyond being places to physically and emotionally care for the victims of violence.
It’s easy to allow ourselves to become numb to the frequency of these unconscionable, violent acts. But we owe it to present and future generations not to let that happen. We recognize there are no easy answers to this national problem. After all, we are dealing with abnormal behavior — the decision to seriously harm or kill other people. That this behavior is increasing calls for something to be done to effect positive change.
People across our country and the communities we serve are hurting and vulnerable. Many people are weary from the pandemic that has impacted our hearts and our health. Violence and death, and particularly mass shootings, hit adults hard. Now consider what the prevalence and threat of school shootings have done to an entire generation of children, who are growing up with the fear of being shot and killed in a place they should feel safe.
We all can play a role. Recently, our two organizations decided to do something to reduce gun violence by sponsoring a law enforcement gun buyback program to help get guns off the street. This effort was part of the largest single-day gun buyback in New Jersey state history. It successfully removed over 2,800 guns statewide. Private organizations, companies, and individuals must think of additional creative ways beyond criticizing politicians, to bring about the change we need.
We encourage organizations and communities to come together, to pool their minds and their resources to address gun violence in society as the urgent public health crisis that it is. We must create meaningful public health campaigns around the safe storage and handling of firearms, and sensible and innovative ways to prevent gun violence in schools, healthcare settings and public places. Individuals should educate themselves on the issues surrounding gun violence so they may contribute to the effort to bring about necessary and meaningful change.
And yes, we need to accelerate efforts around our nation’s mental health crisis. We know from the data and what we are all experiencing that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated what was already a growing nationwide mental health crisis.
Violence against any person in any venue is unspeakable. Yet just because it is unspeakable does not mean we should not speak up about it. Let us put our anger, shock and heartbreak into positive change. With the same unstoppable resolution that we seek to cure cancer or slow heart disease, let us advocate, educate and take meaningful action to end gun violence and all senseless violence that is taking such a tragic toll on our nation and our wellbeing.
About Virtua Health Virtua Health is an academic health system committed to helping the people of South Jersey be well, get well, and stay well by providing the complete spectrum of advanced, accessible, and trusted healthcare services. Virtua’s 14,000 colleagues provide tertiary care, including renowned cardiology and transplant programs, complemented by a community-based care portfolio. In addition to five hospitals, two satellite emergency departments, 30 ambulatory surgery centers, and more than 300 other locations, Virtua brings health services directly into communities through Hospital at Home, physical therapy and rehabilitation, mobile screenings, and its paramedic program. Virtua has 2,850 affiliated doctors and other clinicians, and its specialties include orthopedics, advanced surgery, and maternity. Virtua is academically affiliated with Rowan University, leading research, innovation, and immersive education at the Virtua Health College of Medicine & Health Sciences of Rowan University. Virtua is also affiliated with Penn Medicine for cancer and neuroscience, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for pediatrics. As a not-for-profit, Virtua is committed to the well-being of the community and provides innovative outreach programs that address social challenges affecting health, most notably the “Eat Well” food access initiative, which includes the unparalleled Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store. A Magnet-recognized health system ranked by U.S. News and World Report, Virtua has received many awards for quality, safety, and its outstanding work environment. For more information, visit Virtua.org. To help Virtua make a difference, visit GiveToVirtua.org.
About Cooper University Health Care Cooper University Health Care is a leading academic health system with more 8,500 employees and more than 800 employed physicians. Cooper University Hospital is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in South Jersey and the busiest in the region. Annually, nearly two million patients are served at Cooper’s 635-bed flagship hospital, outpatient surgery center, three urgent care centers, and more than 105 ambulatory offices throughout the community. The Cooper Health Sciences campus is home to Cooper University Hospital, MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, Children’s Regional Hospital at Cooper, and Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. Visit CooperHealth.org to learn more.
COVID-19 cases have risen in the U.S. to around 100,000 per day, and the real number could be as much as five times that, given many go unreported.
But the situation is far different from the early months of the pandemic. There are now vaccines and booster shots, and new treatments that dramatically cut the risk of the virus. So how much do cases alone still matter?
That question has prompted debate among experts, even as much of America goes on with their lives, despite the recent surge in cases.
How much concern high case numbers alone should prompt is “the trillion-dollar question,” said Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco.
In the early days of the pandemic, dying of COVID-19 was a concern for him, but now, in an era of vaccines and treatments, “it doesn’t even cross my mind anymore,” he said.
But he noted there are other risks, including long COVID-19: symptoms like fatigue or difficulty concentrating that can linger for months.
“I think long COVID is pretty scary,” he said.
While cases have risen to around 100,000 reported per day, deaths have stayed flat, a testament to the power of vaccines and booster shots in preventing severe illness, as well as the Pfizer treatment pills Paxlovid, which cut the risk of hospitalization or death by around 90 percent.
Hospitalizations have risen, but only modestly, to around 27,000, one of the lowest points of the pandemic, according to a New York Times tracker.
Cases have now been “partially decoupled” from causing hospitalizations and deaths, said Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan, such that hospitals are no longer overwhelmed.
“[Cases are] not without any consequence, but in terms of pressure on the health system, so far we’re not seeing that, which is really what drove all of this,” she said.
The behavior of much of America reflects a lessened concern about the risk of being infected. Restaurants and bars are packed. Many people do not wear masks even on airplanes or on the subway.
An Axios-Ipsos poll in May found just 36 percent of Americans said there was significant risk in returning to their “normal pre-coronavirus life.”
In the Biden administration, health officials are still advising people to wear masks in areas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies as at “high” risk. But President Biden himself is talking about the virus far less than he did at the start of his administration, and is not making sustained calls for people to wear masks.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha touted progress in defanging cases on Thursday.
“We see cases rising, nearly 100,000 cases a day, and yet we’re still seeing death numbers that are substantially, about 90 percent lower, than where they were when the president first took office,” he told reporters.
Some experts are pushing back on the deemphasis of case numbers, saying they still matter.
“The bunk that cases are not important is preposterous,” Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, wrote last month. “They are infections that beget more cases, they beget Long Covid, they beget sickness, hospitalizations and deaths. They are also the underpinning of new variants.”
Even if one does not get severely ill oneself, more cases mean more chances for the virus to spread on to someone who is more vulnerable, like the elderly or immunocompromised.
While deaths are way down from their peak earlier in the pandemic, there are still around 300 people dying from the virus every day, a number that would have proved shocking in a pre-COVID-19 world.
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, recommended that people take a rapid test before visiting a more vulnerable person, as a safeguard that avoids more burdensome restrictions.
“Cases alone do not tell the whole story,” she said, adding, “As a policy matter we need to stop using the same comparisons we were in 2020 and 2021.”
There is still much that is unknown about long COVID-19, one of the biggest risks remaining for healthy, younger people who are vaccinated.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of COVID-19 infections result in long COVID-19 symptoms, but there is no precise estimate.
Experts also urge people who have not gotten their booster shots, or not been vaccinated at all, to do so, given that many are more vulnerable to the virus if they are not up-to-date on their shots.
A new variant also always holds the risk of upending the current risk-benefit calculations. The virus has continued to evolve to spread more easily, and a future mutation could cause more severe illness or more greatly evade vaccines.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines to better target the omicron variant, but the Biden administration warns it will not have enough money to purchase those new vaccines for all Americans this fall unless Congress provides more funding. The funding request has been stalled for months, though, itself a sign of the reduced sense of urgency around the virus fight.
At least for now, though, while many people are getting COVID-19, fewer are getting extremely sick.
“It’s a very risky time if you don’t want to get COVID [at all],” Wachter said. “But a relatively less risky time if your goal is to not get severe COVID or die.”
Only 10 days after a racially motivated mass shooting that killed 10 in a Buffalo, NY grocery store, 19 children and two teachers were murdered on Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. The Uvalde shooting was the 27th school shooting, and one of over 212 mass shootings, that have occurred this year alone.
Firearms recently overtook car accidents as the leading cause of childhood deaths in the US, and more than 45,000 Americans die from gun violence each year.
The Gist: Gun violence is, and has long been, a serious public health crisis in this country. It is both important to remember, yet difficult for some to accept, that many mass shootings are preventable.
Health systems, as stewards of health in their communities, can play a central role in preventing gun violence at its source, both by bolstering mental health services and advocating for the needed legislative actions—supported by a strong majority of American voters—to stem this public health crisis.
As Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling said this week, “Our job is to save lives and prevent people from illness and death. Gun violence is not an issue on the outside—it’s a central public health issue for us. Every single hospital leader in the United States should be standing up and screaming about what an abomination this is. If you were hesitant about getting involved the day before…May 24 should have changed your perspective. It’s time.”
Over the past two years, historians and analysts have compared the coronavirus to the 1918 flu pandemic. Many of the mitigation practices used to combat the spread of the coronavirus, especially before the development of the vaccines, have been the same as those used in 1918 and 1919 — masks and hygiene, social distancing, ventilation, limits on gatherings (particularly indoors), quarantines, mandates, closure policies and more.
Yet, it may be that only now, in the winter of 2022, when Americans are exhausted with these mitigation methods, that a comparison to the 1918 pandemic is most apt.
The highly contagious omicron variant has rendered vaccines much less effective at preventing infections, thus producing skyrocketing caseloads. And that creates a direct parallel with the fall of 1918, which provides lessons for making January as painless as possible.
In February and March 1918, an infectious flu emerged. It spread from Kansas, through World War I troop and material transports, filling military post hospitals and traveling across the Atlantic and around the world within six months. Cramped quarters and wartime transport and industry generated optimal conditions for the flu to spread, and so, too, did the worldwide nature of commerce and connection. But there was a silver lining: Mortality rates were very low.
In part because of press censorship of anything that might undermine the war effort, many dismissed the flu as a “three-day fever,” perhaps merely a heavy cold, or simply another case of the grippe (an old-fashioned word for the flu).
Downplaying the flu led to high infection rates, which increased the odds of mutations. And in the summer of 1918, a more infectious variant emerged. In August and September, U.S. and British intelligence officers observed outbreaks in Switzerland and northern Europe, writing home with warnings that went largely unheeded.
Unsurprisingly then, this seemingly more infectious, much more deadly variant of H1N1 traveled west across the Atlantic, producing the worst period of the pandemic in October 1918. Nearly 200,000 Americans died that month. After a superspreading Liberty Loan parade at the end of September, Philadelphia became an epicenter of the outbreak. At its peak, nearly 700 Philadelphians died per day.
Once spread had begun, mitigation methods such as closures, distancing, mask-wearing and isolating those infected couldn’t stop it, but they did save many lives and limited suffering by slowing infections and spread. The places that fared best implemented proactive restrictions early; they kept them in place until infections and hospitalizations were way down, then opened up gradually, with preparations to reimpose measures if spread returned or rates elevated, often ignoring the pleas of special interests lobbying hard for a complete reopening.
In places in the United States where officials gave in to public fatigue and lobbying to remove mitigation methods, winter surges struck. Although down from October’s highs, these surges were still usually far worse than those in the cities and regions that held steady.
In Denver, in late November 1918, an “amusement” lobby — businesses and leaders invested in keeping theaters, movie houses, pool halls and other public venues open — successfully pressured the mayor and public health officials to rescind and then revise a closure order. This, in turn, generated what the Rocky Mountain News called “almost indescribable confusion,” followed by widespread public defiance of mask and other public health prescriptions.
In San Francisco, where resistance was generally less successful than in Denver, there was significant buy-in for a second round of masking and public health mandates in early 1919 during a new surge. But opposition created an issue. An Anti-Mask League formed, and public defiance became more pronounced. Eventually anti-maskers and an improving epidemic situation combined to end the “masked” city’s second round of mask and public health mandates.
The takeaway: Fatigue and removing mitigation methods made things worse. Public officials needed to safeguard the public good, even if that meant unpopular moves.
The flu burned through vulnerable populations, but by late winter and early spring 1919, deaths and infections dropped rapidly, shifting toward an endemic moment — the flu would remain present, but less deadly and dangerous.
Overall, nearly 675,000 Americans died during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the majority during the second wave in the autumn of 1918. That was 1 in roughly 152 Americans (with a case fatality rate of about 2.5 percent). Worldwide estimates differ, but on the order of 50 million probably died in the flu pandemic.
In 2022, we have far greater biomedical and technological capacity enabling us to sequence mutations, understand the physics of aerosolization and develop vaccines at a rapid pace. We also have a far greater public health infrastructure than existed in 1918 and 1919. Even so, it remains incredibly hard to stop infectious diseases, particularly those transmitted by air. This is complicated further because many of those infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic. And our world is even more interconnected than in 1918.
That is why, given the contagiousness of omicron, the lessons of the past are even more important today than they were a year ago. The new surge threatens to overwhelm our public health infrastructure, which is struggling after almost two years of fighting the pandemic. Hospitals are experiencing staff shortages (like in fall 1918). Testing remains problematic.
And ominously, as in the fall of 1918, Americans fatigued by restrictions and a seemingly endless pandemic are increasingly balking at following the guidance of public health professionals or questioning why their edicts have changed from earlier in the pandemic. They are taking actions that, at the very least, put more vulnerable people and the system as a whole at risk — often egged on by politicians and media figures downplaying the severity of the moment.
Public health officials also may be repeating the mistakes of the past. Conjuring echoes of Denver in late 1918, under pressure to prioritize keeping society open rather than focusing on limiting spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its isolation recommendations in late December. The new guidelines halved isolation time and do not require a negative test to reenter work or social gatherings.
Thankfully, we have an enormous advantage over 1918 that offers hope. Whereas efforts to develop a flu vaccine a century ago failed, the coronavirus vaccines developed in 2020 largely prevent severe illness or death from omicron, and the companies and researchers that produced them expect a booster shot tailored to omicron sometime in the winter or spring. So, too, we have antivirals and new treatments that are just becoming available, though in insufficient quantities for now.
Those lifesaving advantages, however, can only help as much as Americans embrace them. Only by getting vaccinated, including with booster shots, can Americans prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed. But the vaccination rate in the country remains a relatively paltry 62 percent, and only a scant 1 in 5 have received a booster shot. And as in 1918, some of the choice rests with public officials. Though restrictions may not be popular, officials can reimpose them — offering public support where necessary to those for whom compliance would create hardship — and incentivize and mandate vaccines, taking advantage of our greater medical technology.
As the flu waned in 1919, one Portland, Ore., health official reflected that “the biggest thing we have had to fight in the influenza epidemic has been apathy, or perhaps the careless selfishness of the public.”
The same remains true today.
Vaccines, new treatments and century-old mitigation strategies such as masks, distancing and limits on gatherings give us a pathway to prevent the first six weeks of 2022 from being like the fall of 1918. And encouraging news about the severity of omicron provides real optimism that an endemic future — in which the coronavirus remains but poses far less of a threat — is near. The question is whether we get there with a maximum of pain or a minimum. The choice is ours.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations have been on an upward trend in New York state since last month, but there appears to be a drastic divide between the Big Apple and some of the state’s more rural areas, health data shows.
The story is different in several counties hundreds of miles north, where new COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising at a higher rate. In the Finger Lakes region, officials in several counties declared a state of emergency after the seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people went from 2.9 on Nov. 10 to 4.9 on Dec. 7.
David Larsen, an associate professor of public health at Syracuse University, told ABC News that there are several factors behind this divide, but the most important one is the lower vaccination rates in certain counties upstate.
“At the end of the day, you’re more likely to get severe COVID-19 symptoms and go to the hospital if you’re not vaccinated,” Larsen said.
Health experts and state officials predict the situation upstate is only going to get worse during the holidays and colder months, but the tide can be turned if more people get their shots and heed health warnings.
As of Dec. 8, 74.9% of all New York state residents have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, but those numbers vary by region, according to state health data.
New York City and Long Island had over 78% of their populations with at least one shot, the state data showed. Further north, the rates for at least one dose in the Mohawk Valley, the Finger Lakes and North Country sections were 60.6%, 68.5%, and 63% respectively.
There is even more division within the regions when it comes to vaccination, the data shows; for example, counties that are along the Interstate 87 corridor, such as Hamilton, Schenectady and Saratoga, all have rate of at least one dose above 75% of their populations.
Counties directly west of those locations, Schoharie, Fulton and Montgomery, have one-dose vaccination rates under 65%, the state data showed.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has repeatedly highlighted that the unvaccinated are the ones suffering and being hospitalized.
“It is a conscious decision not to be vaccinated. And the direct result is a higher rate of individuals in those regions upstate as well as it has a direct correlation to the number of hospitalizations,” she said during a Dec. 2 news conference.
Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, an adjunct professor of public health at Cornell University, told ABC News that there are fewer options for upstate residents to turn to for medical help and fewer hospitals in the area are handling patients from more locations.
Weisfuse, a former deputy health commissioner for New York City’s Health Department, noted that New York City residents have much closer access to amenities like free testing sites and medical clinics than their upstate counterparts.
“If you live in a rural county in New York state and it takes a while to get to a doctor, you may put it off. So when you do eventually go get care, you may be sicker versus someone who lives closer and gets a quicker diagnosis,” he said.
Larsen added that there has been pandemic fatigue across the country, and many Americans have scaled back on mitigation measures, especially mask-wearing indoors.
“We’re doing less mask wearing. What that does is it increases transmission, which is fine for the vaccinated people but it does go to the unvaccinated people and they are higher risk,” he said.
Weisfuse said the hospitalizations are likely to grow upstate and have ripple effects for those regions. The governor has ordered elective surgeries to be postponed at 32 hospitals upstate that have seen their available beds decrease.
State officials said they are beefing up their marketing efforts to encourage eligible New Yorkers to get their shots.
Weisfuse said this outreach needs to be done meticulously if upstate officials want to avoid more overcrowded emergency rooms this winter.
“The state needs to take a good look at the pockets of non-vaccination,” he said. “They need to make some targeted intervention in those neighborhoods.”
Anyone who needs help scheduling a free vaccine appointment can log onto vaccines.gov.
LIMA, Peru — The doctor watched the patients stream into his intensive care unit with a sense of dread.
For weeks, César Salomé, a physician in Lima’s Hospital Mongrut, had followed the chilling reports. A new coronavirus variant, spawned in the Amazon rainforest, had stormed Brazil and driven its health system to the brink of collapse.Now his patients, too, were arriving far sicker, their lungs saturated with disease, and dying within days. Even the young and healthy didn’t appear protected.
The new variant, he realized, was here.
“We used to have more time,” Salomé said. “Now, we have patients who come in and in a few days they’ve lost the use of their lungs.”
The P.1 variant, which packs a suite of mutations that makes it more transmissible and potentially more dangerous, is no longer just Brazil’s problem. It’s South America’s problem — and the world’s.
In recent weeks, it has been carried across rivers and over borders, evading restrictive measures meant to curb its advance to help fuel a coronavirus surge across the continent. There is mounting anxiety in parts of South America that P.1 could quickly become the dominant variant, transporting Brazil’s humanitarian disaster — patients languishing without care, a skyrocketing death toll — into their countries.
“It’s spreading,” said Julio Castro, a Venezuelan infectious-disease expert. “It’s impossible to stop.”
In Lima, scientists have detected the variant in 40 percent of coronavirus cases. In Uruguay, it’s been found in 30 percent. In Paraguay, officials say half of cases at the border with Brazil are P.1. Other South American countries — Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile — have discovered it in their territories. Limitations in genomic sequencing have made it difficult to know the variant’s true breadth, but it has been identified in more than two dozen countries, from Japan to the United States.
Hospital systems across South America are being pushed to their limits. Uruguay, one of South America’s wealthiest nations and a success story early in the pandemic, is barreling toward a medical system failure. Health officials say Peru is on the precipice, with only 84 intensive care beds left at the end of March. The intensive care system in Paraguay, roiled by protests last month over medical shortcomings, has run out of hospital beds.
“Paraguay has little chance of stopping the spread of the P.1 variant,” said Elena Candia Florentín, president of the Paraguayan Society of Infectious Diseases.
“With the medical system collapsed, medications and supplies chronically depleted, early detection deficient, contact tracing nonexistent, waiting patients begging for treatment on social media, insufficient vaccinations for health workers, and uncertainty over when general and vulnerable populations will be vaccinated, the outlook in Paraguay is dark,” she said.
How P.1 spread across the region is a distinctly South American story. Nearly every country on the continent shares a land border with Brazil. People converge on border towns, where crossing into another country can be as simple as crossing the street. Limited surveillance and border security have made the region a paradise for smugglers. But they have also made it nearly impossible to control the variant’s spread.
“We share 1,000 kilometers of dry border with Brazil, the biggest factory of variants in the world and the epicenter of the crisis,” said Gonzalo Moratorio, a Uruguayan molecular virologist tracking the variant’s growth. “And now it’s not just one country.”
The Brazilian city of Tabatinga, deep in the Amazon rainforest, where officials suspect the virus crossed into Colombia and Peru, is emblematic of the struggle to contain the variant. The city of 70,000 was swept by P.1 earlier this year. Many in the area have family ties in several countries and are accustomed to crossing borders with ease — canoeing across the Amazon River to Peru or walking into Colombia.
“People ended up bringing the virus from one side to the other,” said Sinesio Tikuna Trovão, an Indigenous leader. “The crossing was free, with both sides living right on top of one another.”
Now that the variant has infiltrated numerous countries, stopping its spread will be difficult. Most South American countries, with the exception of Brazil, adopted stringent containment measures last year. But they have been undone by poverty, apathy, distrust and exhaustion. With national economies battered and poverty rising sharply, public health experts fear more restrictions will be difficult to maintain. In Brazil, despite record death numbers, many states are lifting restrictions.(SOUND FAMILIAR)
That has left inoculation as the only way out. But coronavirus vaccines are South America’s white whale: often discussed, but rarely seen. The continent hasn’t distributed its own vaccine or negotiated a regional agreement with pharmaceutical companies. It’s one of the world’s hardest-hit regions but has administered only 6 percent of the world’s vaccine doses, according to the site Our World in Data. (The outlier is Chile, which is vaccinating residents more quickly than anywhere in the Americas — but still suffering a surge in cases.)
“We should not only blame the policy response,” said Luis Felipe López-Calva, the United Nations Development Program’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We have to understand the vaccine market.”
“And there is a failure in the market,” he said.
The vaccine has become so scarce, López-Calva said, that officials are imposing restrictions on information. It’s nearly impossible to know how much governments are paying for doses. Some regional blocs, such as the African Union and the European Union, have negotiated joint contracts. But in South America, it has been every country for itself — diminishing the bargaining power for each one.
“This has been harmful for these countries, and for the whole world to stop the virus,” López-Calva said. “Because it’s never been more clear that no one is protected until everyone is protected.”
Paulo Buss, a prominent Brazilian scientist, said it didn’t have to be like this. He was Brazil’s health representative to the Union of South American Nations, which negotiated several regional deals with pharmaceutical companies before the coronavirus pandemic. But that union came apart amid political differences just before the arrival of the virus.
“It was the worst possible moment,” Buss said. “We’ve lost capacity and our negotiation attempts have been fragmented. Multi-lateralism was weakened.”
Vaccine scarcity has led to line-jumping scandals all over South America, but particularly in Peru. Hundreds of politically connected people, including cabinet ministers and former president Martín Vizcarra, snagged vaccine doses early. Now people are calling for criminal charges.
As officials bicker and the vaccination campaign is delayed, the variant continues to spread. P.1 accounts for 70 percent of cases in some parts of the Lima region, according to officials. Last week, the country logged the highest daily case count since August — more than 11,000. On Saturday, the country recorded 294 deaths, the most in a day since the start of the pandemic.
Peruvians have been stunned by how quickly the surge overwhelmed the health-care system. Public health analysts and government officials had believed Peru was prepared for a second wave. But it wasn’t ready for the variant.
“We did not expect such a strong second wave,” said Percy Mayta-Tristan, director of research at the Scientific University of the South in Lima. “The first wave was so extensive. The presence of the Brazilian variant helps explain why.”
The American Hospital Association on Monday condemned what they called the “senseless killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis,” referring to George Floyd, who died more than a week ago after a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. AHA said the group’s vision is a “society of healthy communities, where ALL individuals reach their highest potential for health.”
Medical societies, providers and other healthcare organizations weighed in to support peaceful protests, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on racial inequities in access to healthcare and job security in America.
Health officials also expressed worry that the protest gatherings could further spread of the novel coronavirus. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said hospitals in the state could be overwhelmed. And some COVID-19 testing sites have been shut down for safety reasons, further exacerbating concerns.
Since protests and occasionally violent police confrontations in recent days were sparked by Floyd’s death, providers have taken to social media with notes of support and pictures of themselves taking a knee in their scrubs under the hashtag #WhiteCoatsForBlackLives.
The American Medical Association responded to ongoing unrest Friday, saying the harm of police violence is “elevated amidst the remarkable stress people are facing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Board Chair Jesse Ehrenfeld and Patrice Harris, AMA’s first African American woman to be president, continued: “This violence not only contributes to the distrust of law enforcement by marginalized communities but distrust in the larger structure of government including for our critically important public health infrastructure. The disparate racial impact of police violence against Black and Brown people and their communities is insidiously viral-like in its frequency, and also deeply demoralizing, irrespective of race/ethnicity, age, LGBTQ or gender.”
The nascent research and data from the pandemic in the U.S. have shown people of color are more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. The reasons behind that are myriad and complex, but many can be traced back to systemic inequality in social services and the healthcare system.
Payers, providers and other healthcare organizations have attempted to address these issues through programs targeting social determinants of health like stable housing, food security and access to transportation.
But despite these efforts over several years to recognize and document the disparities, they have persisted and in some cases widened, Samantha Artiga, director of the Disparities Policy Project at the Kaiser Family Foundation, noted in a blog post Monday.
“Health disparities, including disparities related to COVID-19, are symptoms of broader underlying social and economic inequities that reflect structural and systemic barriers and biases across sectors,” she wrote.
Providers have waded into political issues affecting them before, including gun violence. Several organizations also objected to the Trump administration’s decision to cut ties with the World Health Organization in the midst of the pandemic.
The American Public Health Association in late 2018 called law enforcement violence a public health issue.
The prominent executive is pushing beyond a letter he released last week and is now seeking to rally his peers around solving what he sees as a public health crisis.
‘All of us have allowed this crisis to grow,’ he wrote in a letter published Thursday in The New York Times.
Healthcare CEOs should put pressure on politicians without resorting to ‘blatant partisanship,’ he said.
Northwell Health President and CEO Michael J. Dowling isn’t done pushing fellow leaders of healthcare provider organizations to take political action in the aftermath of deadly mass shootings.
Dowling addressed healthcare CEOs in a “call to action“ published online last week by the Great Neck, New York–based nonprofit health system. Now he’s published a full-page print version of that letter in Thursday’s national edition of The New York Times, while reaching out directly to peers who could join him in a to-be-determined collective action plan to curb gun violence.
“To me, it’s an obligation of people who are in leadership positions to take some action, speak out, and prepare their organizations to address this as a public health issue,” Dowling tells HealthLeaders.
Wading into such a politically charged topic is sure to give some healthcare CEOs pause. Even if they keep their advocacy within all legal and ethical bounds, they could face rising distrust from community members who oppose further restrictions on firearms. But leaders have a responsibility to thread that needle for the sake of community health, Dowling says.
“I do anticipate that there’ll be criticism about this, but then again, if you’re in a leadership role, criticism is what you’ve got to deal with,” he says.
Dowling argues that healthcare leaders have successfully spoken out about other public health crises, such as smoking and drug use. But they have largely failed to respond adequately as gun violence inflicts considerable harm—both physical and emotional—on the communities they serve, he says.
“It is easy to point fingers at members of Congress for their inaction, the vile rhetoric of some politicians who stoke the flames of hatred, the lax laws that provide far-too-easy access to firearms, or the NRA’s intractable opposition to common sense legislation,” Dowling wrote in the print version of his letter. “It is far more difficult to look in the mirror and see what we have or haven’t done. All of us have allowed this crisis to grow. Sadly, as a nation, we have become numb to the bloodshed.”
His letter proposes a four-part agenda for healthcare leaders to tackle together:
Put pressure on elected officials who “fail to support sensible gun legislation.” He urged healthcare CEOs to increase their political activity but avoid “blatant partisanship.” The online version of his letter links to OpenSecrets.org‘s repository of information on campaign contributions from gun rights interest groups to politicians.
Invest in mental health without stigmatizing. Most mass murderers aren’t “psychotic or delusional,” Dowling wrote. Rather, they’re usually just disgruntled people who let their anger erupt into violence, which is why firearms sales to people at risk of harming themselves or others should be prohibited, he wrote.
Increase awareness and training. Individuals shouldn’t be allowed to buy or access certain types of firearms “that serve no other purpose than to inflict mass casualties,” he wrote. Healthcare leaders should support efforts to spot risk factors and better understand so-called “red flag” laws that empower officials to take guns away from people deemed to be a potential threat to themselves or others, he wrote.
Support universal background checks. In the same way that doctors shouldn’t write prescriptions without knowing a patient’s medical history to ensure the drug will do no harm, gun sellers shouldn’t be allowed to complete a transaction without having a background check conducted on the buyer, Dowling wrote, adding that a majority of Americans support this idea.
The letter notes that the U.S. has nearly 40,000 firearms-related deaths each year and that several dozen people have died in mass shootings thus far in 2019, including 31 earlier this month in separate shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
The way for-profit companies think about their relationship with the communities in which they operate has been shifting for some time. The most recent evidence of that shift came earlier this week, when the influential Business Roundtable released a revised statement on the principles of corporate governance, responding to criticism over the so-called “primacy of shareholders.”
The 181 CEOs who signed onto the new statement said they would run their business not just for the good of their shareholders but also for the good of customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. There’s some similarity between that updated notion of corporate responsibility and the sort of advocacy work Dowling wants to see from his for-profit and nonprofit peers alike.
Every single organization has a social mission, and large organizations that have sway in a local community have a responsibility to the community’s health, Dowling says.
“A healthy community helps and creates a healthy organization,” he says.
One major factor that may be pushing more CEOs to take a public stance on politically sensitive issues—or at least giving them the cover to do so confidently—is the generational shift in the U.S. workforce. Although most Americans overall say CEOs shouldn’t speak out, younger workers overwhelmingly support such action, as Fortune‘s Alan Murray reported, citing the magazine’s own polling.
Dowling says he has received hundreds of letters, emails, and phone calls from members of Northwell Health’s 70,000-person workforce expressing support in light of his original letter published online last week.
“The feedback has been absolutely universal in support,” he says.
But Which Policies?
Even among healthcare professionals who agree it’s appropriate to speak out on politically charged topics, there’s sharp disagreement over which policies lawmakers should enact and whether those policies would infringe on the public’s Second Amendment rights.
The group Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership (DRGO) rejects the premise of Dowling’s argument: “Firearms are not a public health issue,” the DRGO website states, arguing that responsible gun ownership has been shown to benefit the public health by preventing violent crime.
Dennis Petrocelli, MD, a psychiatrist in Virginia, wrote a DRGO article that called Virginia’s proposed red flag law “misguided” and perhaps “the single greatest threat to our constitutional freedoms ever introduced in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” His concern is that the government might be able to take guns away without any real evidence of a threat.
While gun rights advocates may see Dowling as merely their latest political foe, Dowling contends that he’s pushing for a cause that can peaceably coexist with the constitutional right to bear arms.
“You can have effective, reasonable legislative action around guns that still protects the essence of what many people believe to be the core of the Second Amendment,” Dowling says. “It’s not an either/or situation.”
Others Speaking Out
Dowling isn’t, of course, the only healthcare leader speaking out about gun violence.
On the same day last week that Northwell Health published Dowling’s online call to action, Ascension published a similar letter from President and CEO Joseph R. Impicciche, JD, MHA, who referred to gun violence in American society as a “burgeoning public health crisis.”
“Silence in the face of such tragedy and wrongdoing falls short of our mission to advocate for a compassionate and just society,” Impicciche wrote, citing the health system’s Catholic commitment to defend human dignity.
American Hospital Association 2019 Chairman Brian Gragnolati, who is president and CEO of Atlantic Health System in Morristown, New Jersey, said in a statement this month that hospitals and health systems “play a role in the larger conversation and are determined to use our collective voice to prevent more senseless tragedies.”