From excessive waste to greenhouse gas emissions, healthcare organizations play a key role in contributing to climate change.
Research suggests the United States is the highest contributor to the global healthcare climate footprint. The healthcare industry accounts for 8.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.. Worldwide, the healthcare industry is responsible for 4.4 percent of net emissions, which is the equivalent of 514 coal-fired power plants, according to a 2019 report from Arup and Health Care Without Harm, a group dedicated to achieving more sustainable healthcare practices.
The medical supply chain accounts for 71 percent of healthcare’s carbon footprint. Excess waste is created from plastic gloves, surgical supplies, medicine containers and gowns, among other materials. If the American healthcare sector were its own country, it would be the 13th largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, according to a column by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins physicians.
A 2010 study estimated that each occupied U.S. hospital bed created 33.8 pounds of waste per day. Hospitals also dispose of 2 million pounds of supplies that have never been used, which costs them $15 million each year.
Other key contributors to healthcare’s carbon footprint are emissions from facilities, which account for 17 percent of its footprint, and indirect emissions from electricity, heating and cooling, which account for 12 percent, according to the Arup and Health Care Without Harm report.
A study by the National Health Service in England found that 2 to 3 percent of its carbon footprint is created by inhaled anesthetic gases. The drugs are vented through hospital rooftops and can be destructive to the ozone layer. Despite the potential consequences of releasing the gases into the atmosphere, the U.S. has no regulations on how to dispose them.
Hospitals’ performances declined “by almost every metric” during September as volumes dropped, average patient stays rose and expenses increased “dramatically” due to labor and supply chain issues, Kaufman Hall wrote in its latest monthly report.
Although revenue increased compared to this time last year, the industry analyst said that these pressures have led median change in hospital operating margin to decline 18.2% from August to September, not including CARES act funding.
These declines were greatest across regions heavily affected by the recent delta surge, with the west part of the country seeing the largest year-over-year drop in its median change in operating EBITDA margin (38%), Kaufman Hall wrote.
Hospital size also played a role in margin performance, they wrote, with hospitals containing more than 500 beds seeing year-over-year declines of 36% while those with 25 or fewer beds actually seeing their margins increase year over year.
Adjusted discharges dropped 5.1% month over month but remained up 11.4% year over year. Patient days similarly dropped 1.4% month over month, “reflecting a decrease in COVID-19-related hospitalizations,” but are still up 11.4% year over year, according to the report. Notably, the average length of stay saw increases across the board—0.7% month over month and 4.8% year over year.
Expenses and revenues continued their hand-in-hand climb during September.
For the former, total expenses grew 2.2% month over month and 11.2% year over year. Labor expenses increased 1.4% month over month at the same time as workers per patient bed declined, the group wrote. Other non-labor expenses, including drugs and medical supplies, also saw a 1.3% month-over-month increase.
“Multiple factors are contributing to alarming and sustained increases in hospital expenses,” Erik Swanson, a senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall. “Growth in labor expenses are outpacing increases in hours worked, suggesting hospitals are paying more due to nationwide labor shortages. Rising supply and drug expenses also point to worldwide supply chain issues.”
Hospital revenues saw their seventh consecutive month of year-to-date increases when compared to 2020 and 2019 alike, “due in part to yearly rate changes and the continued rise in higher acuity cases,” Kaufman Hall wrote. Specifically, gross operating revenues minus CARES grew 12.3% year over year from 2020 and 12.3% year over year from 2019, with inpatient revenue rising faster than outpatient revenue.
Month over month was a different story, however, with gross operating revenue without CARES dropping 1.4%. While inpatient revenue was up 1.5% from August, a 3.3% decline in outpatient revenue “suggests that consumer worries about accessing care during the recent delta surge have led to another downswing,” Kaufman Hall wrote.
Kaufman Hall’s reports incorporate data from more than 900 U.S. hospitals. The September numbers follow early warnings of delta-fueled recovery roadblocks from the group’s preceding monthly reports as well as recent hospital chain earnings calls highlighting high revenues, costs and COVID-19 patient counts.
Hospitals across the country have spent more than $3 billion on personal protective equipment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, though costs have steadily declined since the worst shortages experienced during the second quarter of 2020, according to an analysis from Premier, a group purchasing organization.
Before the pandemic, hospitals normally spent about $7 on PPE costs per patient per day. That figure shot to $20.40 during the second quarter of last year, and during the first quarter of this year was around $12.45 per patient per day, according to Premier.
Hospitals are also still paying more for qualified clinical labor — roughly $24 billion more in total per year compared to before the pandemic, according to another Premier analysis out last week.
PPE was in short supply early in the pandemic, spurring bidding wars and financially straining hospitals as they suffered from the budgetary fallout of canceled elective surgeries and other lucrative services.
While supply chain challenges have since eased and costs are down since their peak, hospitals are still spending more on PPE than before the pandemic, and consumption and demand remains strong in light of the delta variant, according to the report.
Premier used a database representing 30% of U.S. hospitals across all regions from September 2019 through last month to track spending trends, looking at costs for eye protection, surgical gowns, N95 respirators, face masks, exam gloves and swabs. It then calculated total costs measuring quantities used per patient, per day, multiplied by the percent change in pricing for the quarter.
Ultimately, hospitals are still using far more N95 respirators than they were prior to the pandemic.
Demand is still up for eye protection, surgical gowns and face masks, though pricing is close to pre-pandemic levels for those items. Costs for surgical gloves and N95 respirators are still above pre-pandemic levels, according to the analysis.
While most PPE costs have steadily declined for hospitals, other expenses have not, namely labor costs.
Contract labor costs have fluctuated, though they reached record highs amid COVID-19 surges, commanding record rates from providers. And nursing shortages, especially, have been so dire that hospitals are spending more on recruiting and retaining for the positions, boosting benefits and offering steep sign on bonuses.
Clinical labor costs are up 8% on average per patient, per day compared to before the pandemic, according to the earlier Premier analysis. That translates to about $17 million in additional annual labor expenses for the average 500-bed facility.
As of last month, overtime hours are up 52% since before the pandemic. The use of agency and temporary labor is up 132% for full-time employees and 131% for part-time employees.
The most expensive labor choices for hospitals are contract labor and overtime, typically adding 50% or more to an employee’s hourly rate, according to Premier.
For that report, Premier used a database with daily data from about 250 hospitals, bi-weekly data from 650 hospitals and quarterly data for 500 hospitals from October 2019 through August to analyze workforce trends among employees in emergency departments, intensive care units or nursing areas.
It was a relatively quiet week on the COVID front—so quiet that President Biden held his first White House press conference last week and wasn’t asked a single question about the pandemic, which continues to be a race between vaccinations and virus variants.
Not that nothing happened this week: it was a rocky week for AstraZeneca, which was hoping to change the narrative over its vaccine, which has stumbled in its rollout in Europe, by reporting positive results from US trials.
After a press release announcing that the vaccine was found to be 79 percent effective against symptomatic COVID, an independent review board called the results into question, pointing out that the report was based on data that had not been fully updated. That earned a swift and unusual rebuke from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), forcing the company to correct its findings—to 76 percent.
A relatively minor difference, but the dust-up served to further undermine confidence in the company’s COVID jab, especially troubling in Europe where hesitancy and distribution have been a vexing problem, and concerns about blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca shot caused several countries to pause inoculations. Given the supply of already-approved vaccines from other manufacturers in the US, it’s not clear that the AstraZeneca shot will play a big role here, but it is critical in other parts of the world, especially as part of the global COVAX initiative targeted at developing countries, since the vaccine can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.
The company’s set-to with American regulators also highlighted another challenge that’s become common during the COVID pandemic: conducting scientific review by press release, as the global emergency has required the otherwise slow-moving research community to move at lightning pace.
Meanwhile, back at that relatively dull White House press conference, one piece of encouraging news:President Biden doubled his “first 100 days” goal for vaccinations to 200M shots, a goal that seemswholly achievable, given that 2.5M Americans are being vaccinated every day, on average.
More than half of adults in the U.S. (55%) say they’ve already gotten one dose of Covid-19 vaccine or they’re eager to get one as soon as they can, an increase in acceptance from January (47%), a new poll reports. About 1 in 5 people are waiting to see how the vaccine rollout goes, but don’t rule out vaccination. Another 1 in 5 people are more reluctant: 7% would get vaccinated only if required by work, school, or some other activity, and 15% say no to vaccine under any circumstance. The increase in eagerness spans all demographic groups, but Black adults and young adults under age 30 were most likely to say they want to wait and see.
The Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine prevented 100% of hospitalizations and deaths in clinical trials, the company said today.
Why it matters:The single-dose vaccine could speed up the vaccinations of America’s vulnerable populations, as new variants spread.
By the numbers:
Overall: 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe COVID in nearly 44,000 participants in Phase 3 trials across eight countries.
In the U.S.: 72% effective.
In South Africa, home of a more aggressive variant: 57% effective.
What they’re saying:
Former CDC director Tom Frieden on the Axios Re:Cap podcast: “It has a lot of advantages, easier to store, easier to make.”
Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb: “The J&J vaccine turns in a fantastic result. We now have three highly effective vaccines. This vaccine showed sustained (and increasing!) immune protection over time, perhaps from a robust early induction of memory immune cells (CD4 and CD8).”
What’s next:J&J is expected to apply for an emergency use authorization next week, the N.Y. Times reports.
“Federal regulators are also still waiting on data from Johnson & Johnson’s new manufacturing facility in Baltimore that prove it can mass-produce the vaccine. The company is counting on that factory to help reach its contractual pledge to the federal government of 100 million doses by the end of June.”
The indictment describes an inside job involving Beaumont employees who sold stolen sponges, adhesives and instruments used to inspect eyes and ears. The equipment included cystoscopes, a thin tube with a camera that is inserted through the urethra and into the bladder.
“Some of the medical devices stolen and re-sold over the Internet were possibly contaminated devices that were previously used in various surgical and other medical procedures on patients,” according to the indictment.
The three individuals charged in the indictment are:
Paul Purdy, 49, of Bellbrook, Ohio
Valdet Seferovic, 32, of Auburn Hills
Zafar Khan, 40, of Fenton
Purdy and Seferovic not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday while Harold Gurewitz, a lawyer for Khan, declined comment. The three defendants are scheduled to make initial appearances Jan. 21 in federal court.
“These defendants used their employment status to circumvent the safety protocols established by Beaumont Hospital to profit from the theft of medical devices and put the health and safety of the general public at risk in doing so,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement.
The wire fraud and conspiracy charges listed in the 18-count indictment are punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.
Beaumont officials have cooperated fully with the investigation, health system spokesman Mark Geary wrote in an email to The Detroit News.
“This kind of theft does a disservice to more than just Beaumont — it does a disservice to the community,” Geary wrote. “We have confidence in the legal process and trust a just result will be achieved.”
Purdy and Seferovic were friends who worked at Beaumont and had access to storage areas inside one of the system’s hospitals, prosecutors alleged. The duo gained access to medical supplies and devices, according to the government, and devised a plan to steal the equipment and sell the items throughout the U.S.
Purdy, who worked for Beaumont until resigning in 2017, never told buyers the items were stolen, prosecutors said. After he quit, Purdy recruited Seferovic to continue stealing items from the medical supply, cleaning and disinfecting rooms, according to prosecutors.
“Medical devices that are removed from their rightful place in a hospital or other medical setting put patients’ health at risk by denying them access to needed diagnostic imaging and treatment,” Lynda Burdelik, special agent in charge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Criminal Investigations field office in Chicago, said in a statement.
Purdy paid Seferovic for stolen items via PayPal and resold the devices on eBay and Amazon, according to the government. On March 28, 2018, the indictment alleges Purdy received a $4,800 wire payment from the sale of two cystoscopes.
That same day, Seferovic received a $2,550 payment via PayPal, according to the government.
In fall 2017, Seferovic also agreed to steal and sell medical devices and supplies to Khan, who owns Wholesale Medical & Surgical Suppliers of America, LLC in Flint, according to the indictment.
Seferovic would transfer stolen supplies to Khan during meetings in metro Detroit, including at a Walmart parking lot, according to the indictment. Khan, in turn, would sell the supplies and devices online at below retail price.
Seferovic’s job duties and status was unclear Thursday.
The investigation and alleged crimes have prompted internal changes at Beaumont.
“…Beaumont has enhanced security protocols and implemented additional checks and balances across the organization to reduce the chances of something like this happening again,” Geary said.
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.
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.
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’scrucial 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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
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.”