The No. 1 lesson from the 2021 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference: Healthcare is ‘too vital to fail’

Chronic Conditions | HENRY KOTULA

The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is one of the best ways to diagnose the financial condition of the healthcare industry. Every January, every key stakeholder — providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, medical device and supply companies as well as bankers, venture capital and private equity firms — comes together in one exam room, even when it is virtual, for their annual check-up. But as we all know, this January is unlike any other as this past year has been unlike any other year.

You would have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008 to find a similar moment from an economic perspective. At the time, we were asking, “Are banks too big to fail?” The concern behind the question was that if they did fail, the economic chaos that would follow would lead to a collapse with the consumer ultimately picking up the tab. The rest is history.

Healthcare is “Too Vital to Fail” 

2020 was historic in too many ways to count. But in a year when healthcare providers faced the worst financial crisis in the history of healthcare, the headline is that they are still standing. And what they proved is that in contrast to banks in 2008 that were seen by many as “too big to fail,” healthcare providers in 2020 proved that they were “too vital to fail.” 

One of the many unique things about the COVID-19 pandemic is we are simultaneously experiencing a health crisis, where healthcare providers are the front line in the battle, and an economic crisis, felt in a big way in healthcare given the unique role hospitals play as the largest employer in most communities. Hospitals and health systems have done the vast majority of testing, treating, monitoring, counseling, educating and vaccinating all while searching for PPE and ventilators, and conducting clinical trials. And that’s just the beginning of the list.

Stop and think about that for a minute. What would we have done without them? Thinking through that question will give you some appreciation for the critical, challenging and central role that healthcare providers have had to play over the past year.

Simply stated, healthcare providers are the heart of healthcare, both clinically (essentially 100 percent of the care) and financially (over 50 percent of the $4 trillion annual spend on U.S. healthcare). Over the last year they stepped up and they stepped in at the moment where we needed them the most. This was despite the fact that, like most businesses, they were experiencing calamitous losses with no assurances of any assistance. 

Healthcare is “Pandemic-Proof”

This was absolutely the worst-case scenario and the biggest test possible for our nation’s healthcare delivery system. Patient volume and therefore revenue dropped by over 50 percent when the panic of the pandemic was at its peak, driving over $60 billion in losses per month across hospitals and healthcare providers. At the same time, they were dramatically increasing their expenses with PPE, ventilators and additional staff. This was not heading in a good direction. While failure may not have been seen as an option, it was clearly a possibility. 

The CARES Act clearly provided a temporary lifeline, providing funding for our nation’s hospitals to weather the storm. While there are more challenging times ahead, it is now clear that most are going to make it to the other side. The system of care in our country is often criticized, but when faced with perhaps the most challenging moment in the history of healthcare, our nation’s hospitals and health systems stepped up heroically and performed miraculously. The work of our healthcare providers on the front line and those who supported them was and is one thing that we all should be exceptionally proud of and thankful for. In 2020, they proved that not only is our nation’s healthcare system too vital to fail, but also that it is “pandemic proof.” 

Listening to Front Line at the 2021 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference 

There has never been a more important year to listen to the lessons from healthcare providers. They are and were the front line of our fight against COVID-19. If there was a class given about how to deal with a pandemic at an institutional level, this conference is where those lessons were being taught.  

This year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEOs, and CFOs from many of the most prestigious and most well-respected health systems in the world presented including AdventHealth, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Jefferson Health, Mass General Brigham, Northwell Health, OhioHealth, Prisma Health, ProMedica Health System, Providence, Spectrum Health and SSM Health.

I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years and this is my fifth year of writing up the summary of the non-profit provider track of the conference for Becker’s Healthcare to help share the wisdom of the crowd of provider organizations that share their stories. Clearly, this year was different and not because the presentations were virtual, but because they were inspirational. 

What did we learn? The good news is that they have made many changes that have the potential to move healthcare in a much better direction and to get to a better place much faster. So, this year instead of providing you a nugget from each presentation, I am going to take a shot at summarizing what they collectively have in motion to stay vital after COVID.

10 Moves Healthcare Providers are Making to Stay Vital After-COVID

As a leader in healthcare, you will never have a bigger opportunity to drive change than right now. Smart leaders are framing this as essentially “before-COVID (BC)” and “after-COVID (AC)” and using this moment as their burning platform to drive change. Credit to the team at Providence for the acronym, but every CEO talked about this concept. As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we’ve certainly had a crisis, so here is a list of what the top health systems are doing to ensure that they don’t waste it and that they stay vital after-COVID:

1. Take Care of Your Team and They’ll Take Care of You: In a crisis, you can either come together as a team or fall apart. Clearly there has been a significant and stunning amount of pressure on healthcare providers. Many are fearing that mental health might be our nation’s next pandemic in the near future because they are seeing it right now with their own team. Perhaps one of their biggest lessons from this crisis has been the need to address the mental, physical and spiritual health of both team members as well as providers. They have put programs in place to help and have also built a tremendous amount of trust with their team by, in many cases, not laying off and/or furloughing employees. While they have made cuts in other areas such as benefits, this collective approach proved incredibly beneficial. And the last point here that relates to thinking differently about their team is that similar to other businesses, many health systems are making remote arrangements permanent for certain administrative roles and moving to a flexible approach regarding their team and their space in the future. 

2. Focus on Health Equity, Not Just Health Care: This was perhaps the most notable and encouraging change from presentations in past years at J.P. Morgan. I have been going to the conference for over a decade, and I’ve never heard someone mention this term or outline their efforts on “health equity” — this year, nearly everyone did. In the past, they have outlined many wonderful programs on “social determinants of health,” but this year they have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID on low-income communities bringing the ongoing issue of racial disparities in access to care and outcomes to light. As the bedrock of employment in their community, this provides an opportunity to not just provide health care, but also health equity, taking an active role to help make progress on issues like hunger, homelessness, and housing. Many are making significant investments in a number of these and other areas. 

3. Take the Lead in Public Health — the Message is the Medicine: One of the greatest failings of COVID, perhaps the greatest lesson learned, is the need for clear and consistent messaging from a public health perspective. That is a role that healthcare providers can and should play. In the pandemic, it represented the greatest opportunity to save lives as the essence of public health is communication — the message is the medicine. A number of health systems stepped into this opportunity to build trust and to build their brand, which are essentially one in the same. Some organizations have created a new role — a Chief Community Health Officer — which is a good way to capture the work that is in motion relative to social determinants of health as well as health equity. Many understand the opportunity here and will take the lead relative to vaccine distribution as clear messaging to build confidence is clearly needed.

4. Make the Home and Everywhere a Venue of Care: A number of presenters stated that “COVID didn’t change our strategy, it accelerated it.” For the most part, they were referring to virtual visits, which increased dramatically now representing around 10 percent of their visits vs. 1 percent before-COVID. One presenter said, “Digital has been tested and perfected during COVID,” but that is only considering the role we see digital playing in this moment. It is clear some organizations have a very narrow tactical lens while others are looking at the opportunity much more strategically. For many, they are looking at a “care anywhere and everywhere” strategy. From a full “hospital in the home” approach to remote monitoring devices, it is clear that your home will be seen as a venue of care and an access point moving forward. The pandemic of 2020 may have sparked a new era of “post-hospital healthcare” — stay tuned.

5. Bury Your Budget and Pivot to Planning: The budget process has been a source of incredible distrust, dissatisfaction and distraction for every health system for decades. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic forced every organization to bury their budget last year. With that said, many of the organizations that presented are now making a permanent shift away from a “budget-based culture” where the focus is on hitting a now irrelevant target set that was set six to nine months ago to a “performance-based culture” where the focus is on making progress every day, week, month and quarter. Given that the traditional annual operating budget process has been the core of how health systems have operated, this shift to a rolling forecast and a more dynamic planning process is likely the single most substantial and permanent change in how hospitals and health systems operate due to COVID. In other words, it is arguably a much bigger headline than what’s happened with virtual visits.

6. Get Your M&A Machine in Motion: It was clear from the presentations that activity around acquisitions is going to return, perhaps significantly. These organizations have strong balance sheets and while the strong have gotten stronger during COVID, the weak have in many cases gotten weaker. Many are going to be opportunistic to acquire hospitals, but at the same time they have concluded that they can’t just be a system of care delivery. They are also focused on acquiring and investing in other types of entities as well as forming more robust partnerships to create new revenue streams. Organizations that already had diversified revenue streams in place came through this pandemic the best. Most hospitals are overly reliant on the ED and surgical volume. Trying to drive that volume in a value-based world, with the end of site of service differentials and the inpatient only list, will be an even bigger challenge in the future as new niche players enter the market. As I wrote in the headline of my summary two years ago,It’s the platform, stupid.” There are better ways to create a financial path forward that involve leveraging their assets — their platform — in new and creative ways. 

7. Hey, You, Get into the Cloud: With apologies for wrapping a Rolling Stones song into a conference summary, one of the main things touted during presentations was “the cloud” and their ability to pull clinical, operational and financial dashboards together to monitor the impact of COVID on their organization and organize their actions. Focus over the last decade has been on the clinical (implementing EHRs), but it is now shifting to “digitizing operations” with a focus on finance and operations (planning, cost accounting, ERPs, etc.) as well as advanced analytics and data science capabilities to automate, gather insight, manage and predict. It is clear that the cloud has moved from a curiosity to a necessity for health systems, making this one of the biggest areas of investment for every health system over the next decade.

8. Make Price Transparency a Key Differentiator: One of the great lessons from Amazon (and others) is that you can make a lot of money when you make something easy to buy. While many health systems are skeptical of the value of the price transparency requirements, those that have a deep understanding of both their true cost of care and margins are using this as an opportunity to prove their value and accelerate their strategy to become consumer-centric. While there is certainly a level of risk, no business has ever been unsuccessful because they made their product easier to understand and access. Because healthcare is so opaque, there is an opening for healthcare providers to build trust, which is their main asset, and volume, which is their main source of revenue, by becoming stunningly easy to do business with. This may be tough sledding for some as this isn’t something healthcare providers are known for. To understand this, spend a few minutes on Tesla’s website vs. Ford’s. The concept of making something easy, or hard, to buy will become crystal clear as fast as a battery-driven car can go from zero to 60.

9. Make Care More Affordable: This represents the biggest challenge for hospitals and health systems as they ultimately need to be on the right side of this issue or the trust that they have will disappear and they will remain very vulnerable to outside players. All are investing in advanced cost accounting systems (time-driven costing, physician costing, supply, and drug costing) to truly understand their cost and use that as a basis to price more strategically in the market. Some are dropping prices for shoppable services and using loss leader strategies to build their brand. The incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services has a strong belief regarding the accountability of health systems to be consumer centric. The health systems that understand this are working to get ahead of this issue as it is likely one of their most significant threats (or opportunities) over the next decade. This means getting all care to the right site of care, evaluating every opportunity to improve, and getting serious about eliminating the need for expensive care through building healthy communities. If you’re worried about Wal-Mart or Amazon, this is your secret weapon to keep them on the sideline.

10. Scale = Survival: One of the big lessons here is that the strong got stronger, the weak got weaker. For the strong, many have been able to “snapback” in financial performance because they were resilient. They were able to designate COVID-only facilities, while keeping others running at a higher capacity. To be clear, while most health systems are going to get to the other side and are positioned better than ever, there are many others that will continue to struggle for years to come. According to our data at Strata, we see 25 percent operating at negative margins right now and another 50 percent just above breakeven. They key to survival moving forward, for those that don’t have a captive market, will be scale. If this pandemic proved one thing relative to the future of health systems it is this — scale equals survival. 

When Will We Return to Normal?

Based on what the projections that these health systems shared, the “new normal” for health systems for the first half of 2021 will be roughly 95 percent of prior year inpatient volume with a 20 percent year-over-year drop in ED volume and a drop of 10-15 percent in observation visits. So, the pain will continue, but given the adjustments that were already made in 2020, it looks like they will be able to manage through COVID effectively. While there will be a pickup in the second half of 2021, the safe bet is that a “return to normal” pre-COVID volumes likely won’t occur until 2022. And there are some who believe that some of the volume should have never been there to begin with and we might see a permanent shift downward in ED volume as well as in some other areas.

With that said, I’ll steal a quote from Bert Zimmerli, the CFO of Intermountain Healthcare, who said, “Normal wasn’t ever nearly good enough in healthcare.” In that spirit, the goal should be to not return to normal, but rather to use this moment as an opportunity to take the positive changes driven by COVID — from technology to processes to areas of focus to a sense of responsibility — and make them permanent.

Thanking Our “Healthcare Heroes”

We’ll never see another 2020 again, hopefully. With that said, one of the silver linings of the year is everything we learned in healthcare. The most important lesson was this — in healthcare there are literally heroes everywhere. To each of them, I just want to say “thank you” for being there for us when we needed you the most. We should all be writing love letters to those on the front line who risked their lives to save others. Our nation’s healthcare system has taken a lot of criticism through the years from those on the outside, often with a blind eye to how things work in practice vs. in concept. But this year we all got to see first-hand what’s happening inside of healthcare — the heroic work of our healthcare providers and those who support them. 

They faced the worst crisis in the history of healthcare. They responded heroically and were there for our families and friends.

They proved that healthcare is too vital to fail. They proved that healthcare is pandemic-proof.

Thank you to our healthcare heroes.

Recovered coronavirus patients should still get the vaccine, experts say

Research suggests most people who recovered from covid-19 are immune for at least eight months. Yet epidemiologists are largely still urging this population to get the vaccine if it’s their turn in line. 

Official guidance says vaccines should be offered regardless of whether people were previously infected. 

That’s per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also says the vaccine is safe for people who have had a prior infection. Former CDC director Thomas Frieden said he’d advise most people to get the vaccine, even if they’ve had covid-19.

But Frieden added that he doesn’t think it’s wrong for someone in a low-risk group who’d already had the illness to defer if they thought someone else could use the dose. 

The limits on vaccine supply bolster the argument that recovered people should let others go first. 

As administration of the vaccine bottlenecks across the country, the pressure is on to get the shots in as many arms as quickly as possible. 

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that prioritizing people who don’t already have natural immunity could allow health officials to get more impact from limited supplies, especially in areas where many people have already been infected, according to a modeling study that has not been peer reviewed

The researchers found that you would need to vaccinate 1 in 5 elderly people in New York to bring death rates down by 73 percent. But you can get the same result vaccinating only 1 in 6 people if you prioritize people who don’t already have antibodies to the virus, according to Kate Bubar, a PhD student in applied mathematics and quantitative biology, who co-authored the study.

And although a previous covid-19 infection isn’t a guarantee of immunity, it’s pretty good protection on its own.Researchers have found that eight months after infection, about 90 percent of patients show lingering, stable immunity. 

Still, risk can vary from person to person.  

“If I were over 70 or otherwise ill, I would certainly take the vaccine even if I’d had [covid-19]. If I were 30 and healthy, I should not be getting it now (unless a health care worker), but if for some reason I did get offered it I would probably decline,” Marc Lipsitch, an infectious-disease specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an email.  

Some epidemiologists worry about the logistics of trying to weed out people with natural immunity.

It could complicate the process as health providers are already struggling to get the vaccine distributed quickly. So far around 6.7 million people have been vaccinated, even though 22.1 million doses have been distributed, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, worried that trying to verify someone’s past illness would add bureaucratic hurdles. 

“Confirming whether or not someone has had COVID already adds an unnecessary layer of red tape onto vaccine prioritization. Given that the prioritization is designed to get vaccine first to those people who are most likely to get infected and/or get very sick from infection, it makes sense to reduce the barriers to vaccinating this group as much as possible,” Murray said. 

Murray also cautioned that we don’t know how long people’s natural immunity lasts and that it could vary from person to person. This uncertainty may be an added reason to encourage people to get the vaccine.

There’s also a risk that telling people who had covid-19 to hold off on getting the vaccine could end up feeding into anti-vaxxer narratives. Some experts are reluctant to discourage anyone from getting the vaccine if they are eligible, especially given that vaccine hesitancy is widespread. 

There’s already a problem with people being offered the vaccine but not getting it. 

In Santa Rosa County, Fla., only about 40 percent of emergency responders who are eligible to get the vaccine have gotten it or signed up to do so soon. In New York, where around 30 percent of health care workers have declined the vaccine, the state’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has threatened that anyone who skips a dose now won’t be eligible for a priority vaccine later. 

The low participation rate is concerning, especially at long-term care centers. 

But not everyone who turns down a vaccine is a hardcore anti-vaxxer, Frieden cautions. He says that there is a “movable middle” of people. They aren’t going to be camping out overnight to get an early vaccine, but they may be convincible if costs and other barriers are low. Frieden says it’s crucial to keep a door open for those people, for instance, seeing whether they might be willing to schedule a shot three weeks from now instead of immediately. 

The slow pace of vaccinations has sparked a heated debate over how to stretch supplies.

A vocal group of experts has pushed for officials to consider giving as many people as possible the first dose of the two-shot regimen, even if it means risking a delayed second dose. President-elect Joe Biden has announced his incoming administration will take this approach, sending all doses out the door as quickly as possible instead of holding half back. 

“The plan, announced Friday by the Biden transition team, pivots sharply from the Trump administration’s strategy of holding in reserve roughly half the doses to ensure sufficient supply for people to get a required second shot,” our colleagues reported.

But some epidemiologists, including Frieden, argue that distribution is a bigger problem than supply at this point. Although he said he supports releasing most vaccines, he worries that some of the debates about how to stretch supply are “distractions” from the real obstacles of administration, which he blames in part on a lack of a coordinated federal plan for getting shots into arms. 

“What Operation Warp Speed has generally done is said, ‘We’re responsible for getting the drugs to the states, and after that, it’s their problem,’ ” Frieden said. “That’s a way to facilitate finger pointing; that’s neither a plan nor a solution.” 

How Does the AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine Compare to Pfizer’s and Moderna’s?

covid 19 vaccine

It’s cheaper, easier to distribute, and relies on very different tech than its competitors.

  • AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, India, and Mexico.
  • Unlike its competitors, AstraZeneca’s vaccine is a modified version of a common cold virus that spreads among chimpanzees.
  • This is the first vaccine of its kind to be approved for human use, but other companies are developing similar tech to fight COVID-19.

The United Kingdom became the first country to approve AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Dec. 30, just weeks after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccine candidates received a green light from the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. The approval is another promising sign in the global immunization rollout—especially because this option, developed by Oxford University and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, could be key to reaching people in rural and underfunded areas.

Unlike its competitors, the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine can be stored at higher temperatures, costs less per dose, and uses different technology to immunize people. Although the vaccine hasn’t been approved for use in the U.S. yet, it could reach arms stateside in February at the earliest, The New York Times reports. Here’s what we know about the vaccine so far, and how it stacks up against Pfizer’s and Moderna’s.

How does the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine work?

AstraZeneca’s vaccine uses adenovirus-vectored technology. Translation: It’s a harmless, modified version of a common cold virus that usually only spreads among chimpanzees. This altered virus can’t make you sick, but it carries a gene from the novel coronavirus’ spike protein, the portion of the virus that triggers an immune response. This allows the immune system to manufacture antibodies that work against COVID-19, teaching your body how to respond should you become infected.

In other words, AstraZeneca’s vaccine mimics a COVID-19 infection without its life-threatening side effects, per a release from the company. The reason researchers chose a chimpanzee adenovirus is simple: The modified virus needs to be new to the people being vaccinated—otherwise, the body won’t create those all-important antibodies. Anyone could already have antibodies for a cold spread among humans, but far fewer people have been exposed to a cold spread among chimps.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, meanwhile, rely on mRNA technology, which essentially introduces a piece of genetic code that tricks the body into producing COVID-19 antibodies, no virus required. All three vaccines require two shots spaced about a month apart. Although no adenovirus-vectored vaccine has been approved for human use before, companies like Johnson & Johnson, CanSino, and NantKwest are all working on their own versions.

How does the AstraZeneca vaccine compare to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines?

Storage and distribution

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the easiest to transport so far—it can be stored for up to six months between 36 and 46°F, normal refrigerator temperatures. The Moderna and Pfizer options, meanwhile, must be stored at subzero temperatures until they’re ready to be used, at -4°F and -94°F, respectively. (mRNA technology is relatively fragile compared to adenovirus-vectored tech, meaning it must be kept at much lower temperatures to remain effective and stable.)

AstraZeneca’s higher storage temperature could make distribution much easier. “A clinic, a nursing home, or even [regional] health departments may not have freezers that can hold things at -94°F,” says Kawsar Talaat, M.D., an infectious disease doctor, vaccine researcher, and assistant professor in the department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University. Being able to use a typical fridge “allows time for distribution, allows the vaccine time to get to more rural areas, [and allows vaccines] to be kept at a clinic for a longer period of time.”

Cost

The new vaccine also beats its competitors on price: AstraZeneca’s vaccine costs providers about $4 per dose, while Pfizer’s costs $20 and Moderna’s costs $33, Al Jazeera reports. These prices will most likely fluctuate as time goes on and the vaccines evolve.

Efficacy

The two mRNA vaccines have a slight edge in efficacy; both Pfizer and Moderna report being about 95% effective against COVID-19 after the second shot in clinical trials, while AstraZeneca has reported an average efficacy of 70%, and up to 90% if the dosing is adjusted. (For comparison, the annual flu shot is usually between 40 and 60% effective, per the CDC.)

Side effects

All three vaccines’ side effects are similar, including potential injection site pain and flu-like symptoms, including fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle pain, which are to be expected as your immune system is primed.

Which COVID-19 vaccine is the best?

There’s no “best” vaccine option, as there’s not enough research to confirm that yet. Vaccines aren’t a silver bullet, especially as the pandemic rages on: They must be combined with masks, hand-washing, and social distancing to work as effectively as possible, per the CDC. No matter which COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to you first, you can feel confident in its ability to protect you, as long as you continue being cautious until positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are significantly reduced nationwide.

In the meantime, it’s likely “that all the manufacturers are working on making their vaccines more stable at easier-to-manage temperatures,” Dr. Talaat explains. As their formulations change, their pros and cons will, too.

For now, we can be thankful that AstraZeneca’s vaccine is nearing worldwide clearance. “The next generation of vaccines, like AstraZeneca’s, which is kept at refrigerator temperatures, is a major advancement,” Dr. Talaat says. “When you’re talking about distribution to the entire world, it’s much easier to do because we already keep vaccines cold. It’s a lot harder to keep things frozen.”

States ranked by percentage of COVID-19 vaccines administered: Jan. 8

E.U. Starts Effort to Vaccinate 450 Million - The New York Times

North Dakota has administered the highest percentage of COVID-19 vaccines it has received, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration data tracker.

The CDC’s data tracker compiles data from healthcare facilities and public health authorities. It updates daily to report the total number of COVID-19 vaccines that have been distributed to each state and the total number each state has administered.

As of 9 a.m. ET Jan. 7, a total of 21,419,800 vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 5,919,418 have been administered, or 27.64 percent. That means about 1.8 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated. 

Below are the states ranked by the percentage of COVID-19 vaccines they’ve administered of those that have been distributed to them.

  1. North Dakota
    Doses distributed to state: 43,950
    Doses administered: 27,289
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 62.09
  2. West Virginia
    Doses distributed to state: 126,275
    Doses administered: 74,016
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 58.61
  3. South Dakota
    Doses distributed to state: 59,900
    Doses administered: 33,389
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 55.74
  4. New Hampshire
    Doses distributed to state: 77,075
    Doses administered: 37,369
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 48.48
  5. Connecticut
    Doses distributed to state: 219,125
    Doses administered: 100,889
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 46.04
  6. Nebraska
    Doses distributed to state: 132,800
    Doses administered: 53,548
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 40.32
  7. Montana
    Doses distributed to state: 69,025
    Doses administered: 27,693
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 40.12
  8. Tennessee
    Doses distributed to state: 454,800
    Doses administered: 179,811
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 39.54
  9. Iowa
    Doses distributed to state: 191,675
    Doses administered: 74,224
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.72
  10. Kentucky
    Doses distributed to state: 244,350
    Doses administered: 94,443
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.65
  11. Vermont
    Doses distributed to state: 48,550
    Doses administered: 18,740
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.6
  12. Maine
    Doses distributed to state: 96,475
    Doses administered: 37,128
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.48
  13. Rhode Island
    Doses distributed to state: 72,175
    Doses administered: 27,696
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.37
  14. New Mexico
    Doses distributed to state: 133,125
    Doses administered: 48,306
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 36.29
  15. Colorado
    Doses distributed to state: 361,375
    Doses administered: 130,445
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 36.1
  16. Utah
    Doses distributed to state: 191,075
    Doses administered: 62,662
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 34.8
  17. Oklahoma
    Doses distributed to state: 264,000
    Doses administered: 85,978
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 32.57
  18. Texas
    Doses distributed to state: 1,676,925
    Doses administered: 545,658
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 32.54
  19. New York
    Doses distributed to state: 1,134,800
    Doses administered: 353,788
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 31.18
  20. Massachusetts
    Doses distributed to state: 449,025
    Doses administered: 137,858
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 30.7
  21. Ohio
    Doses distributed to state: 576,250
    Doses administered: 175,681
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 30.49
  22. Indiana
    Doses distributed to state: 409,625
    Doses administered: 123,835
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 30.23
  23. Florida
    Doses distributed to state: 1,355,775
    Doses administered: 402,802
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 29.71
  24. Illinois
    Doses distributed to state: 737,125
    Doses administered: 213,045
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 28.9
  25. Missouri
    Doses distributed to state: 401,050
    Doses administered: 113,369
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 28.27
  26. New Jersey
    Doses distributed to state: 572,250
    Doses administered: 155,458
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 27.17
  27. Maryland
    Doses distributed to state: 371,425
    Doses administered: 100,049
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 26.94
  28. Delaware
    Doses distributed to state: 64,375
    Doses administered: 16,677
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.91
  29. Hawaii
    Doses distributed to state: 95,200
    Doses administered: 24,558
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.80
  30. South Carolina
    Doses distributed to state: 225,850
    Doses administered: 58,044
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.7
  31. Minnesota
    Doses distributed to state: 378,425
    Doses administered: 97,098
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.66
  32. Pennsylvania
    Doses distributed to state: 789,250
    Doses administered: 202,498
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.66
  33. Wisconsin
    Doses distributed to state: 322,775
    Doses administered: 82,170
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.46
  34. Alaska
    Doses distributed to state: 87,325
    Doses administered: 21,830
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25
  35. Virginia
    Doses distributed to state: 556,625
    Doses administered: 136,924
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 24.60
  36. Oregon
    Doses distributed to state: 262,100
    Doses administered: 61,672
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 23.53
  37. Washington
    Doses distributed to state: 518,550
    Doses administered: 121,354
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 23.40
  38. Wyoming
    Doses distributed to state: 40,400
    Doses administered: 9,324
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 23.08
  39. California
    Doses distributed to state: 2,314,350
    Doses administered: 528,173
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 22.82
  40. Idaho
    Doses distributed to state: 104,925
    Doses administered: 22,822
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.75
  41. Louisiana
    Doses distributed to state: 298,825
    Doses administered: 64,664
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.64
  42. North Carolina
    Doses distributed to state: 647,450
    Doses administered: 139,474
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.54
  43. Nevada
    Doses distributed to state: 187,375
    Doses administered: 39,761
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.22
  44. Michigan
    Doses distributed to state: 662,450
    Doses administered: 137,887
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 20.81
  45. Alabama
    Doses distributed to state: 245,100
    Doses administered: 48,888
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.95
  46. Arizona
    Doses distributed to state: 453,275
    Doses administered: 88,266
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.47
  47. Arkansas
    Doses distributed to state: 212,700
    Doses administered: 40,899
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.23
  48. Kansas
    Doses distributed to state: 191,225
    Doses administered: 36,538
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.11
  49. Mississippi
    Doses distributed to state: 159,625
    Doses administered: 28,356
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 17.76
  50. Georgia
    Doses distributed to state: 619,250
    Doses administered: 103,793
    Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 16.76

Biden plans to release nearly all available vaccine doses in an attempt to speed delivery.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. plans to release nearly all available coronavirus vaccine doses “to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” the Biden transition team said Friday, a move that represents a sharp break from the Trump administration’s practice of holding back some of the vaccine.

The announcement coincided with a letter from eight Democratic governors — including Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, both of whom have clashed with President Trump — imploring the current administration to release all available doses to the states as soon as possible.

“The failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable,” the governors wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times and sent Friday to the secretary of health, Alex M. Azar II, and Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who is in charge of vaccine distribution. “We demand that the federal government begin distributing these reserved doses to states immediately,” the letter said.

Because both of the vaccines with emergency approval require two doses, the Trump administration has been holding back roughly half of its supply to ensure those already vaccinated receive the booster dose. The vaccine rollout has been troubled from the start.

As of Thursday, the Trump administration had shipped more than 21 million vaccine doses, and millions more were already in the federal government’s hands. Yet only 5.9 million people had received a dose. State and local public health officials, already overwhelmed with rising infections, have been struggling to administer the vaccine to hospital workers and at-risk older Americans while most people remain in the dark about when they might be protected. Mr. Biden has promised that 100 million doses of the vaccine would be administered by his first 100th day in office.

Releasing the vast majority of the vaccine doses raises the risk that second doses would not be administered on time. Officials from the Food and Drug Administration — experts whose advice Mr. Biden has pledged to follow — have spoken out strongly against changing the dosing schedule, calling such a move “premature and not rooted solidly in the available evidence.”

A transition official, speaking anonymously to provide insight into the president-elect’s thinking, said would use the Defense Production Act, if needed, to ensure that enough doses are available.

However, the official also noted that the Biden team has “faith in our manufacturers that they can produce enough vaccines to ensure people can get their second dose in a timely manner, while also getting more people their first dose.”

A spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s vaccine initiative, released a statement sharply criticizing Mr. Biden’s approach.

“If President-elect Biden is calling for the distribution of vaccines knowing that there would not be a second dose available, that decision is without science or data and is contrary to the FDA’s approved label,” said the spokesman, Michael Pratt. “If President-elect Biden is suggesting that the maximum number of doses should be made available, consistent with ensuring that a second dose of vaccine will be there when the patient shows up, then that is already happening.”

A spokesman for the transition team, T.J. Ducklo, said Mr. Biden “believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible.”

“He supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now,” Mr. Ducklo said. “He will share additional details next week on how his Administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on January 20th.”

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health expert at the George Washington University School of Public Health, said she was surprised and concerned about the new strategy, which seemed to offer a solution incongruous with the biggest problems in the vaccine rollout. Distribution has sputtered in large part because of a lack of administering capacity and several logistical hurdles, rather than a severe shortage of doses.

“This is not the problem we’re trying to solve right now,” Dr. Wen said.

For such a plan to work, Dr. Wen added, the Biden administration will need to be confident in both improved distribution tactics and sufficient vaccine production, “so all who receive the first dose of the vaccine will receive the second in a timely manner.”

Should a high number of delayed second doses occur — ostensibly shirking the regimens laid out in clinical trials — “it runs the risk of substantially eroding public trust in vaccines,” Dr. Wen said. The recommended timeframe for administering the second dose for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 21 days later, and for the Moderna vaccine, 28 days.

Mr. Biden’s announcement came amid growing pressure to step up the slow pace of mass vaccinations.

Speaking at a news briefing on Friday, Dr. Stephen Hahn, the F.D.A. commissioner, urged states that have utilized only a small part of their supply to begin vaccinating lower-priority groups, while still observing government guidelines.

“We think that will go a long way toward using these vaccines appropriately and getting them into the arms of individuals,” he said.

Mr. Biden also formally announced nearly two dozen members of his National Security Council staff on Friday, including a senior official for global health threats whose office was downgraded before the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the 21 appointees is Elizabeth Cameron, who will be the council’s senior director for global health security and biodefense, the job she held until John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s then-national security adviser, eliminated the office in May 2018, reassigning its responsibilities elsewhere within the N.S.C. Ms. Cameron has argued publicly that the move “contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response” to the pandemic, and Mr. Biden vowed as a candidate to restore the office.

‘Shkreli Awards’ Shame Healthcare Profiteers

Lown Institute berates greedy pricing, ethical lapses, wallet biopsies, and avoidable shortages.

Greedy corporations, uncaring hospitals, individual miscreants, and a task force led by Jared Kushner were dinged Tuesday in the Lown Institute‘s annual Shkreli awards, a list of the top 10 worst offenders for 2020.

Named after Martin Shkreli, the entrepreneur who unapologetically raised the price of an anti-parasitic drug by a factor of 56 in 2015 (now serving a federal prison term for unrelated crimes), the list of shame calls out what Vikas Saini, the institute’s CEO, called “pandemic profiteers.” (Lown bills itself as “a nonpartisan think tank advocating bold ideas for a just and caring system for health.”)

Topping the list was the federal government itself and Jared Kushner, President’s Trump’s son-in-law, who led a personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement task force. The effort, called Project Airbridge, was to “airlift PPE from overseas and bring it to the U.S. quickly,” which it did.

“But rather than distribute the PPE to the states, FEMA gave these supplies to six private medical supply companies to sell to the highest bidder, creating a bidding war among the states,” Saini said. Though these supplies were supposed to go to designated pandemic hotspots, “no officials from the 10 hardest hit counties” said they received PPE from Project Airbridge. In fact, federal agencies outbid states or seized supplies that states had purchased, “making it much harder and more expensive” for states to get supplies, he said.

Number two on the institute’s list: vaccine maker Moderna, which received nearly $1 billion in federal funds to develop its mRNA COVID-19 preventive. It set a price of between $32 and $37 per dose, more than the U.S. agreed to pay for other COVID vaccines. “Although the U.S. has placed an order for $1.5 billion worth of doses at a discount, a price of $15 per dose, given the upfront investment by the U.S. government, we are essentially paying for the vaccine twice,” said Lown Institute Senior Vice President Shannon Brownlee.

Webcast panelist Don Berwick, MD, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, noted that a lot of work went into producing the vaccine at an impressive pace, “and if there’s not an immune breakout, we’re going to be very grateful that this happened.” But, he added, “I mean, how much money is enough? Maybe there needs to be some real sense of discipline and public spirit here that goes way beyond what any of these companies are doing.”

In third place: four California hospital systems that refused to take COVID-19 patients or delayed transfers from hospitals that were out of beds. Wall Street Journal investigation found that these refusals or delays were based on the patients’ ability to pay; many were on Medicaid or were uninsured.

“In the midst of such a pandemic, to continue that sort of behavior is mind boggling,” said Saini. “This is more than the proverbial wallet biopsy.”

The remaining seven offenders:

4. Poor nursing homes decisions, especially one by Soldiers’ Home for Veterans in western Massachusetts, that worsened an already terrible situation. At Soldiers’ Home, management decided to combine the COVID-19 unit with a dementia unit because they were low on staff, said Brownlee. That allowed the virus to spread rapidly, killing 76 residents and staff as of November. Roughly one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been in long-term care facilities.

5. Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, which refused to share intellectual property on COVID-19, instead deciding to “compete for their profits instead,” Saini said. The envisioned technology access pool would have made participants’ discoveries openly available “to more easily develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.”

Saini added that he was was most struck by such an attitude of “historical blindness or tone deafness” at a time when the pandemic is roiling every single country.

Berwick asked rhetorically, “What would it be like if we were a world in which a company like Pfizer or Moderna, or the next company that develops a really great breakthrough, says on behalf of the well-being of the human race, we will make this intellectual property available to anyone who wants it?”

6. Elizabeth Nabel, MD, CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, because she defended high drug prices as a necessity for innovation in an op-ed, without disclosing that she sat on Moderna’s board. In that capacity, she received $487,500 in stock options and other payments in 2019. The value of those options quadrupled on the news of Moderna’s successful vaccine. She sold $8.5 million worth of stock last year, after its value nearly quadrupled. She resigned from Moderna’s board in July and, it was announced Tuesday, is leaving her CEO position to join a biotech company founded by her husband.

7. Hospitals that punished clinicians for “scaring the public,” suspending or firing them, because they “insisted on wearing N95 masks and other protective equipment in the hospital,” said Saini. Hospitals also fired or threatened to fire clinicians for speaking out on COVID-19 safety issues, such as the lack of PPE and long test turnaround times.

Webcast panelist Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the Flint, Michigan, pediatrician who exposed the city’s water contamination, said that healthcare workers “have really been abandoned in this administration” and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has pretty much fallen asleep at the wheel.” She added that workers in many industries such as meatpacking and poultry processing “have suffered tremendously from not having the protections or regulations in place to protect [them].”

8. Connecticut internist Steven Murphy, MD, who ran COVID-19 testing sites for several towns, but conducted allegedly unnecessary add-ons such as screening for 20 other respiratory pathogens. He also charged insurers $480 to provide results over the phone, leading to total bills of up to $2,000 per person.

“As far as I know, having an MD is not a license to steal, and this guy seemed to think that it was,” said Brownlee.

9. Those “pandemic profiteers” who hawked fake and potentially harmful COVID-19 cures. Among them: televangelist Jim Bakker sold “Silver Solution,” containing colloidal silver, and the “MyPillow Guy,” Mike Lindell, for his boostering for oleandrin.

Colloidal silver has no known health benefits and can cause seizures and organ damage. Oleandrin is a biological extract from the oleander plant and known for its toxicity and ingesting it can be deadly,” said Saini.

Others named by the Lown Institute include Jennings Ryan Staley, MD — now under indictment — who ran the “Skinny Beach Med Spa” in San Diego which sold so-called COVID treatment packs containing hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, Xanax, and Viagra, all for $4,000.

Berwick commented that such schemes indicate a crisis of confidence in science, adding that without facts and science to guide care, “patients get hurt, costs rise without any benefit, and confusion reigns, and COVID has made that worse right now.”

Brownlee mentioned the “huge play” that hydroxychloroquine received and the FDA’s recent record as examples of why confidence in science has eroded.

10. Two private equity-owned companies that provide physician staffing for hospitalsTeam Health and Envision, that cut doctors’ pay during the first COVID-19 wave while simultaneously spending millions on political ads to protect surprise billing practices. And the same companies also received millions in COVID relief funds under the CARES Act.

Berwick said surprise billing by itself should receive a deputy Shkreli award, “as out-of-pocket costs to patients have risen dramatically and even worse during the COVID pandemic… and Congress has failed to act. It’s time to fix this one.”

Wisconsin health-care worker ‘intentionally’ spoiled more than 500 coronavirus vaccine doses, hospital says

A hospital employee outside Milwaukee deliberately spoiled more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine by removing 57 vials from a pharmacy refrigerator, hospital officials announced Wednesday, as local police said they were investigating the incident with the help of federal authorities.

Initiating an internal review on Monday, hospital officials said they were initially “led to believe” the incident was caused by “inadvertent human error.” The vials were removed Friday and most were discarded Saturday, with only a few still safe to administer, according to an earlier statement from the health system. Each vial has enough for 10 vaccinations but can sit at room temperature for only 12 hours.

Two days later, the employee acknowledged having “intentionally removed the vaccine from refrigeration,” the hospital, Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, Wis., said in a statement late Wednesday.

The employee, who has not been identified, was fired, the hospital said. Its statement did not address the worker’s motives but said “appropriate authorities” were promptly notified.

Wednesday night, police in Grafton, a village of about 12,000 that lies 20 miles north of Milwaukee, said they were investigating along with the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration. In a statement, the local police department said it had learned of the incident from security services at Aurora Health Care’s corporate office in Milwaukee. The system serves eastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and includes 15 hospitals and more than 150 clinics.

Leonard Peace, an FBI spokesman in Milwaukee, would not comment on the Bureau’s involvement but said of the episode, “We’re aware of it.” The FDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The tampering will delay inoculation for hundreds of people, Aurora Health officials said, in a state where 3,170 new cases were reported and 40 people died Wednesday of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker.

“We are more than disappointed that this individual’s actions will result in a delay of more than 500 people receiving the vaccine,” the health system said in a statement.

The Wisconsin incident comes as states continue to grapple with a bumpy rollout of the first doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, which were approved less than a month ago and prioritized for health-care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. So far, distribution has lagged well behind federal projections, raising doubts about whether the outgoing administration will meet its already revised goal of 20 million vaccines distributed by the end of the year.

As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 12.4 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed across the United States, but only 2.6 million of those had been administered. (This means that just 1 in 125 Americans has received the first dose of the vaccine.) Trump administration officials have said these numbers lag behind the actual pace of vaccination, which they also vowed would accelerate starting next week.

The Moderna and Pfier-BioNTech vaccines, the first two regimens to gain regulatory approval for emergency use, are two-shot protocols with intricate logistical requirements. Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t require subarctic temperatures, as does the Pfizer product, but it does need to be kept cold. It can be stored at freezer temperatures for six months, the company says, and kept at regular refrigerated conditions for 30 days. It can be maintained at room temperature for only 12 hours, though, and can’t be refrozen once thawed.

Complex storage requirements are among the reasons state officials are imploring providers to administer vaccine quickly once it is received.

In its original statement, Aurora Health said it had successfully vaccinated about 17,000 people over the previous 12 days. Its initial review, it said, had found that the 57 vials were simply not returned to the refrigerator after “temporarily being removed to access other items.”

The hospital apologized, saying, “We are clearly disappointed and regret this happened.”

It is not clear what motive the employee may have had to spoil the vaccine doses. The hospital said it would release more details about its investigation Thursday.

Fired Nurse Faces Board Review for Wearing Hospital Scrubs

Fired Nurse Faces Board Review for Wearing Hospital Scrubs | MedPage Today

In late November, Cliff Willmeng’s wife handed him a sealed envelope at their Minneapolis home “with some trepidation,” he recalled. He looked at the sender printed on the front: “Minnesota Board of Nursing.” Willmeng, a registered nurse, opened the letter and read that the board was investigating his conduct as a nurse at United Hospital in St. Paul, from which he’d been fired in May. Clearly his license was at stake.

Willmeng was disappointed, but not surprised. He believes the review is due to his standing up for his own safety and that of other nurses, and for filing a lawsuit and union grievance against United’s parent company, Allina Health, after his termination.

He also thinks the investigation, like his firing, has been orchestrated to scare other healthcare workers away from reporting safety violations and concerns as the pandemic rages, and to make an example out of the former union steward.

The investigation is being led by a former Allina executive: “It feels meant to intimidate me,” he said.

Taking a Stand for Safety

Willmeng is a 13-year nursing veteran, husband, and father, who began working at United in October 2019.

When the pandemic hit late last winter, managers instructed nurses to use and reuse their own scrubs rather than hospital-issued scrubs. They were asked to launder their scrubs themselves at home.

Willmeng and others worried about bringing the virus home and pressed for the hospital scrubs. These scrubs were available, he said, and healthcare workers were permitted to wear hospital gear at Abbott Northwestern, another Allina hospital in Minneapolis.

In addition, while United managers told staff their laundering co-op could not keep up with demand for all the scrubs, the co-op denied that assertion, said Brittany Livaccari, RN, an ER nurse and union steward at United.

Willmeng addressed his concerns with management, filed state OSHA complaints, and enlisted the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA). “He was taking action 100% to protect himself and to protect his patients,” Livaccari said.

But management did not change its policy, which was devised before the pandemic, and pointed to early-pandemic CDC and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines — even when Willmeng shared emerging reports suggesting the policy was jeopardizing safety.

“It did feel like a pissing match,” Livaccari said. “We didn’t feel like we were being protected. … We weren’t being valued.”

Managers repeatedly wrote up Willmeng and colleagues who wore the hospital scrubs despite the policy. “It definitely felt like an intimidation tactic — ‘You’re going to do this, you’re going to follow these policies,'” Livaccari said. “A lot of staff chose to stop wearing those scrubs because they needed their job, they have families to pay for, they were afraid.”

Willmeng continued to wear the hospital scrubs. “I had to decide whether that policy was most important, or the safety of my workplace and public health and my family,” he said.

On May 8, the hospital terminated Willmeng. He said its stated cause was violating hospital policies regarding uniform code and a respectful workplace.

Two weeks later, the local nurses’ union held a rally that drew hundreds of supporters for Willmeng and blasted the hospital’s scrub policy.

‘I’m Not a Bad Nurse’

In June, Willmeng sued Allina for whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination. The case is scheduled to be heard next August.

His union grievance is set to be arbitrated in January. He maintains his firing was not for “just cause” because United’s uniform code policy violated standard nursing practices.

Willmeng has been running the website WeDoTheWork, which describes itself as “worker-run journalism.” It’s an independent but union-affiliated publication that “unflinchingly tells our side of the story, and takes the fight to management.”

He’s been publicizing his case on that website. In his Twitter account he notes, “I believe in the working class, democratically run economy, socialism, and revolution.”

Willmeng is applying for jobs, but despite his experience, a national nursing shortage, and reports of severe understaffing as hospitalizations surge again, Willmeng has not even been interviewed by any of the roughly 20 medical centers he has applied to.

He thinks he is being blackballed. “I’m not a bad nurse,” he said.

The board letter cited these concerns: “On April 16, 2020, you received a written warning for not following the uniform policy,” reads one item, citing a report shared with the board. “On May 5, 2020, you were issued a final written warning for repeatedly violating policy. … On May 8, 2020, you were terminated from employment based on violating hospital policies, behavioral expectations, code of conduct, and not following the directions of your manager.” The letter asks Willmeng to respond to eight questions.

“This looks like it was taken right out of my HR file,” he said. The board will not reveal who reported him, citing confidentiality policies. But he is certain — given the detail in the letter — that it was Allina/United management.

The nursing board cannot comment on Willmeng’s review to protect confidentiality, said executive director Shirley Brekken, MS, RN. The board receives about 1,200 complaints annually and first determines whether a complaint would merit disciplinary action if true. If so, it launches a review.

Allina declined to answer questions via a spokesperson, citing the lawsuit. “We cannot appropriately retain employees who willfully and repeatedly choose to violate hospital policies,” according to an emailed statement. Throughout the pandemic Allina has been following CDC and MDH guidelines, “which do not consider hospital issued scrubs as PPE [personal protective equipment].”

“In the early days of the pandemic, our local and national supply chain was extremely stressed,” the statement continues. “Our practices are aligned with other local and national hospitals … and have enabled us to allocate the appropriate supplies for daily patient care and ongoing care for COVID-19 patients.”

But United healthcare workers still lack hospital scrubs and enough N95 masks, Livaccari said, and the hospital is severely understaffed as the patient load increases. “We hear, ‘It’s a pandemic. You have to do more with less,'” she said. “It’s a really bad situation.”

Retaliation and Intimidation

Some think Willmeng’s review was initiated primarily to retaliate against him, not to protect public health and safety.

“Hospitals, they want a docile workforce, they want a workforce they can control,” said John Kauchick, RN, a retired 37-year nursing veteran who advocates for workplace rights. They do so “by fear and intimidation,” he added. “A nurse’s number one fear is to be turned in to a board of nursing for anything.”

“If you’re a whistleblower and you speak truth to power, that will get you a disciplinary hearing even more so than if there is patient harm.”

The letter was drafted more than six months after Willmeng was fired, and after he filed the lawsuit and union grievance. Just before he received the letter, he was elected to the MNA board. The timing strikes Willmeng and Kauchick as significant.

“If you think there’s been a violation, you are supposed to report that in a much shorter time period,” Kauchick said. Kauchick thinks Allina filed the complaint as leverage, to persuade Willmeng to drop the grievance and lawsuit.

But Livaccari noted the process can take up to six months, and that every firing is supposed to be reported to the board.

Like Kauchick, she takes umbrage with the review’s leader: Stephanie Cook, MSN, RN, a board nursing practice specialist who spent 24 years as a director with Allina. She was a member of multiple Allina committees, including its ethics committee, according to reports. She was with Allina as recently as 2018. Brekken confirmed her employment with Allina, noting that it’s “a very large system.”

Regardless, that’s a conflict of interest, Kauchick and Livaccari said, arguing that Cook should not be part of the review. “It’s just so blatantly obvious. How are you going to look at this with an unbiased lens when you worked for the organization that says Cliff was in the wrong?” Livaccari said. “It’s so inappropriate.”

This is not uncommon, Kauchick said, noting state nursing board reviews are “really just designed to get rid of whistleblowers. It’s like a buddy system. They hire higher-ups from big hospital systems. It’s just incestuous.”

Brekken was aware of Cook’s background before a colleague assigned this review to Cook, she said, noting the board vets staff for personal involvement in cases. Brekken “might consider” removing Cook from the review given her connection to Allina, she said, but added: “Many individuals on our staff may have worked for a particular health system throughout their career.”

The board could throw out the complaint or take action. Such actions typically range from a reprimand to revoking a nurse’s license, Brekken said. A staff member and board member together will review the report and Willmeng’s response, but she said the board itself makes final decisions.

Willmeng is also focused on the grievance, which asks Allina to provide full back pay and reinstate him.

“I would not feel comfortable; I’d feel very anxious” going back, he said. “But I’m an ER nurse. I belong in the ER…. It’s important for a frontline healthcare worker to demonstrate that when they stand up and speak truthfully and assertively about working conditions and patient safety, that they can’t just be triangulated.”

His salary — about twice his current unemployment benefits — is also a draw, he acknowledged.

Meanwhile, he continues applying for other jobs. His life insurance cost doubled and his family switched to his wife’s lesser health insurance plan, he said. A fourth-grade teacher with a local public school system, her salary is the primary support for themselves and their two children.

Willmeng also just hired an attorney at $250 an hour to help him respond to the board letter. “It’s not something I take lightly,” he said. “There’s cause for real concern. That’s my nursing license, that’s everything.

No Easy Fixes for Drug Supply Chain Problems

Better leadership is needed on both ends of the chain, expert says.

The U.S. drug supply chain works well in the middle, but the beginning and end leave much room for improvement, according to Stephen Schondelmeyer, PharmD, PhD, of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“When a manufacturer imports a drug into the U.S. and sells it to wholesalers and then it goes to group purchasing organizations and through hospital institutional systems, that system works very well,” Schondelmeyer said last week at a public workshop of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Security of Medical Product Supply Chain. “But where problems occur is when the API [active pharmaceutical ingredient] is not being produced or is not available, or is not shipped to the finished dose manufacturer to make enough.” With the current “just in time” manufacturing system, “inventories may only last a month” before supplies dry up, he said.

Leadership on this issue “is certainly needed at the top, but also needed at the end,” said Schondelmeyer, who is co-principal investigator of the Resilient Drug Supply Project at the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

For example, he said, “I routinely meet with groups of pharmacy directors at major hospital systems. I have heard stories from pharmacy directors … who have said they had remdesivir allocated by their state; it showed up in their hospital’s lab. Nobody in the lab knew what it was or why it arrived, and it sat there for several days before they figured out this was a drug and pharmacy should be managing this You can run a marathon, but if you don’t finish the last 200 yards, you don’t finish the marathon, and that’s what happened with remdesivir.”

“We need to be predicting not only demand changes but what things can create a supply disruption, because a lot of shortages we have are from supply disruption,” Schondelmeyer said. In the COVID-19 era, this could include unexpected political moves such as export bans — such as those recently put in place in India and the United Kingdom — which could mean that “we could find whole categories of drugs not available in the U.S., and we don’t have the capacity to replace that supply, in the short run at least,” he said.

Pharmaceuticals are a very unique market, he added. “We established a pharmaceutical market based on monopolies when drugs first come on the market, via intellectual property, and even later on, when you’re down to two or three generics they function like an oligopoly. We have a marketplace that has extreme asymmetries of information, where people selling a drug know a lot more than people buying the drug. We have to establish an infrastructure to understand the pharmaceutical market and the flow of products so we can correct the market when it’s not working.”

“Our current system of fixing drug shortages is a ‘fail and fix’ system,” he said. The list of shortages “is a list of products that have already failed. I think we should have a system that has supply chain maps that identify critical stages — even pre-API — that can suggest where we might have a failure, and do something before the failure occurs. I suggest we move from ‘fail and fix’ to ‘predict and prevent.'”

Schondelmeyer said he and his colleagues are trying to build such supply chain maps, “but really the government should be doing that … I don’t fault the FDA; the FDA may or may not be the right place to do that.” But more agencies and other players need to be involved because “no one player in the market can solve this problem alone.”

Schondelmeyer displayed percentages of various drug types that were in shortage. Among 156 “critical acute care drugs” — those that must be used within hours or days of an illness’s onset to avoid serious outcomes or death — the FDA found 25.6% were in shortage, while the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists (ASHP) found that 41.7% of them were in shortage, “and this was even before COVID-19,” he said. Among a list of 40 “critical COVID-19 drugs,” the FDA has listed 45% of them as being in shortage, while the ASHP rated 75% as being in shortage. “Most were in short supply even before COVID-19 hit,” he added. “These are alarming levels of shortage and they have persisted.”

Many people suggest that the supply chain problem can be solved by moving manufacturing for particular drug products from overseas to a U.S. plant, but that doesn’t quite solve the problem, said Schondelmeyer. “If we manufactured our entire supply of drugs in the U.S., it doesn’t solve the problem if you put all the manufacturing in one facility and it gets wiped out by a hurricane,” he said, recalling what happened when a hurricane hit Puerto Rico, the home of several medical product manufacturers. “Hospitals were scrambling to get things like normal saline. So simply bringing production back to the U.S. but concentrating it in one place doesn’t solve the problem — it just moves the problem.”

Khatereh Calleja, president and CEO of the Healthcare Supply Chain Association, agreed. “We’ve got to focus on this very issue of geographic diversity,” Calleja said. “Otherwise we’re creating a risk when we create that concentration.”

When people are discussing the supply chain, having a common language among institutions is also important, said Chris Liu, director of enterprise services for the state of Washington, “In hospitals, ‘conservation’ of PPE [personal protective equipment] means something different at every hospital you go to,” he said.

Another thing that needs to be taken on is the vulnerability of drug precursors, said James Lawler, director of international programs and innovation at the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security. “It’s one thing if the plant that makes the final small-molecule antibiotic … is in the U.S., but if all the precursor chemicals they require to synthesize that product come from overseas, you haven’t necessarily fixed your supply chain vulnerability.”

Now the U.S. Has Lots of Ventilators, but Too Few Specialists to Operate Them

A patient was placed on a ventilator in a hospital in Yonkers, N.Y., in April.

As record numbers of coronavirus cases overwhelm hospitals across the United States, there is something strikingly different from the surge that inundated cities in the spring: No one is clamoring for ventilators.

The sophisticated breathing machines, used to sustain the most critically ill patients, are far more plentiful than they were eight months ago, when New York, New Jersey and other hard-hit states were desperate to obtain more of the devices, and hospitals were reviewing triage protocols for rationing care. Now, many hot spots face a different problem: They have enough ventilators, but not nearly enough respiratory therapists, pulmonologists and critical care doctors who have the training to operate the machines and provide round-the-clock care for patients who cannot breathe on their own.

Since the spring, American medical device makers have radically ramped up the country’s ventilator capacity by producing more than 200,000 critical care ventilators, with 155,000 of them going to the Strategic National Stockpile. At the same time, doctors have figured out other ways to deliver oxygen to some patients struggling to breathe — including using inexpensive sleep apnea machines or simple nasal cannulas that force air into the lungs through plastic tubes.

But with new cases approaching 200,000 per day and a flood of patients straining hospitals across the country, public health experts warn that the ample supply of available ventilators may not be enough to save many critically ill patients.

“We’re now at a dangerous precipice,” said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Ventilators, he said, are exceptionally complex machines that require expertise and constant monitoring for the weeks or even months that patients are tethered to them. The explosion of cases in rural parts of Idaho, Ohio, South Dakota and other states has prompted local hospitals that lack such experts on staff to send patients to cities and regional medical centers, but those intensive care beds are quickly filling up.

Public health experts have long warned about a shortage of critical care doctors, known as intensivists, a specialty that generally requires an additional two years of medical training. There are 37,400 intensivists in the United States, according to the American Hospital Association, but nearly half of the country’s acute care hospitals do not have any on staff, and many of those hospitals are in rural areas increasingly overwhelmed by the coronavirus.

“We can’t manufacture doctors and nurses in the same way we can manufacture ventilators,” said Dr. Eric Toner, an emergency room doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And you can’t teach someone overnight the right settings and buttons to push on a ventilator for patients who have a disease they’ve never seen before. The most realistic thing we can do in the short run is to reduce the impact on hospitals, and that means wearing masks and avoiding crowded spaces so we can flatten the curve of new infections.”

Medical association message boards in states like Iowa, Oklahoma and North Dakota are awash in desperate calls for intensivists and respiratory therapists willing to temporarily relocate and help out. When New York City and hospitals in the Northeast issued a similar call for help this past spring, specialists from the South and the Midwest rushed there. But because cases are now surging nationwide, hospital officials say that most of their pleas for help are going unanswered.

Dr. Thomas E. Dobbs, the top health official in Mississippi, said that more than half the state’s 1,048 ventilators were still available, but that he was more concerned with having enough staff members to take care of the sickest patients.

“If we want to make sure that someone who’s hospitalized in the I.C.U. with the coronavirus has the best chance to get well, they need to have highly trained personnel, and that cannot be flexed up rapidly,” he said in a news briefing on Tuesday.

Dr. Matthew Trump, a critical care specialist at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines, said that the health chain’s 21 hospitals had an adequate supply of ventilators for now, but that out-of-state staff reinforcements might be unlikely to materialize as colleagues fall ill and the hospital’s I.C.U. beds reach capacity.

“People here are exhausted and burned out from the past few months,” he said. “I’m really concerned.”

The domestic boom in ventilator production has been a rare bright spot in the country’s pandemic response, which has been marred by shortages of personal protective equipment, haphazard testing efforts and President Trump’s mixed messaging on the importance of masks, social distancing and other measures that can dent the spread of new infections.

Although the White House has sought to take credit for the increase in new ventilators, medical device executives say the accelerated production was largely a market-driven response turbocharged by the national sense of crisis. Mr. Trump invoked the wartime Defense Production Act in late March, but federal health officials have relied on government contracts rather than their authority under the act to compel companies to increase the production of ventilators.

Scott Whitaker, president of AdvaMed, a trade association that represents many of the country’s ventilator manufacturers, said the grave situation had prompted a “historic mobilization” by the industry. “We’re confident that our companies are well positioned to mobilize as needed to meet demand,” he said in an email.

Public health officials in Minnesota, Mississippi, Utah and other states with some of the highest per capita rates of infection and hospitalization have said they are comfortable with the number of ventilators currently in their hospitals and their stockpiles.

Mr. Whitaker said AdvaMed’s member companies were making roughly 700 ventilators a week before the pandemic; by the summer, weekly output had reached 10,000. The juggernaut was in part fueled by unconventional partnerships between ventilator companies and auto giants like Ford and General Motors.

Chris Brooks, chief strategy officer at Ventec Life Systems, which collaborated with G.M. to fill a $490 million contract for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the shared sense of urgency enabled both companies to overcome a thicket of supply-chain and logistical challenges to produce 30,000 ventilators over four months at an idled car parts plant in Indiana. Before the pandemic, Ventec’s average monthly output was 100 to 200 machines.

“When you’re focused with one team and one mission, you get things done in hours that would otherwise take months,” he said. “You just find a way to push through any and all obstacles.”

Despite an overall increase in the number of ventilators, some researchers say many of the new machines may be inadequate for the current crisis. Dr. Richard Branson, an expert on mechanical ventilation at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and an author of a recent study in the journal Chest, said that half of the new devices acquired by the Strategic National Stockpile were not sophisticated enough for Covid-19 patients in severe respiratory distress. He also expressed concern about the long-term viability of machines that require frequent maintenance.

“These devices were not built to be stockpiled,” he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which has acknowledged the limitations of its newly acquired ventilators, said the stockpile — nine times as large as it was in March — was well suited for most respiratory pandemics. “These stockpiled devices can be used as a short-term, stopgap buffer when the immediate commercial supply is not sufficient or available,” the agency said in a statement.

Projecting how many people will end up requiring mechanical breathing assistance is an inexact science, and many early assumptions about how the coronavirus affects respiratory function have evolved.

During the chaotic days of March and April, emergency room doctors were quick to intubate patients with dangerously low oxygen levels. They subsequently discovered other ways to improve outcomes, including placing patients on their stomachs, a protocol known as proning that helps improve lung function. The doctors also learned to embrace the use of pressurized oxygen delivered through the nose, or via BiPAP and CPAP machines, portable devices that force oxygen into a patient’s airways.

Many health care providers initially hesitated to use such interventions for fear the pressurized air would aerosolize the virus and endanger health care workers. The risks, it turned out, could be mitigated through the use of respirator masks and other personal protective gear, said Dr. Greg Martin, the chief of pulmonary and critical care at Grady Health Systems in Atlanta.

“The familiarity of taking care of so many Covid patients, combined with good data, has just made everything we do 100 times easier,” he said.

Some of the earliest data about the perils of intubating coronavirus patients turned out to be incomplete and misleading. Dr. Susan Wilcox, a critical care specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said many providers were spooked by data that suggested an 80 percent mortality rate among ventilated coronavirus patients, but the actual death rate turned out to be much lower. The mortality rate at her hospital, she said, was about 25 to 30 percent.

“Some people were saying that we should intubate almost immediately because we were worried patients would crash and have untoward consequences if we waited,” she said. “But we’ve learned to just go back to the principles of good critical care.”

Survival rates have increased significantly at many hospitals, a shift brought about by the introduction of therapeutics like dexamethasone, a powerful steroid that Mr. Trump took when he was hospitalized with the coronavirus. The changing demographics of the pandemic — a growing proportion of younger patients with fewer health risks — have also played a role in the improving survival rates.

Dr. Nikhil Jagan, a critical care pulmonologist at CHI Health, a hospital chain that serves Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, said many of the coronavirus patients who were arriving at his emergency room now were less sick than the patients he treated in the spring.

“There’s a lot more awareness about the symptoms of Covid-19,” he said. “The first go-around, when people came in, they were very sick right off the bat and in respiratory distress or at the point of respiratory failure and had to be intubated.”

But the promising new treatments and enhanced knowledge can go only so far should the current surge in cases continue unabated. The country passed 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus last week, a reminder that many critically ill patients do not survive. The daily death toll has been rising steadily and is approaching 2,000.

“Ventilators are important in critical care but they don’t save people’s lives,” said Dr. Branson of the University of Cincinnati. “They just keep people alive while the people caring for them can figure out what’s wrong and fix the problem. And at the moment, we just don’t have enough of those people.”

For now, he said there was only one way out the crisis: “It’s not that hard,” he said. “Wear a mask.”