America Is Not Ready for Omicron

America was not prepared for COVID-19 when it arrived. It was not prepared for last winter’s surge. It was not prepared for Delta’s arrival in the summer or its current winter assault. More than 1,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every day, and more have died this year than last. Hospitalizations are rising in 42 states. The University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, which entered the pandemic as arguably the best-prepared hospital in the country, recently went from 70 COVID patients to 110 in four days, leaving its staff “grasping for resolve,” the virologist John Lowe told me. And now comes Omicron.

Will the new and rapidly spreading variant overwhelm the U.S. health-care system? The question is moot because the system is already overwhelmed, in a way that is affecting all patients, COVID or otherwise. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” Lowe said.

The real unknown is what an Omicron cross will do when it follows a Delta hook. Given what scientists have learned in the three weeks since Omicron’s discovery, “some of the absolute worst-case scenarios that were possible when we saw its genome are off the table, but so are some of the most hopeful scenarios,” Dylan Morris, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA, told me. In any case, America is not prepared for Omicron. The variant’s threat is far greater at the societal level than at the personal one, and policy makers have already cut themselves off from the tools needed to protect the populations they serve. Like the variants that preceded it, Omicron requires individuals to think and act for the collective good—which is to say, it poses a heightened version of the same challenge that the U.S. has failed for two straight years, in bipartisan fashion.

The coronavirus is a microscopic ball studded with specially shaped spikes that it uses to recognize and infect our cells. Antibodies can thwart such infections by glomming onto the spikes, like gum messing up a key. But Omicron has a crucial advantage: 30-plus mutations that change the shape of its spike and disable many antibodies that would have stuck to other variants. One early study suggests that antibodies in vaccinated people are about 40 times worse at neutralizing Omicron than the original virus, and the experts I talked with expect that, as more data arrive, that number will stay in the same range. The implications of that decline are still uncertain, but three simple principles should likely hold.

First, the bad news: In terms of catching the virus, everyone should assume that they are less protected than they were two months ago. As a crude shorthand, assume that Omicron negates one previous immunizing event—either an infection or a vaccine dose. Someone who considered themselves fully vaccinated in September would be just partially vaccinated now (and the official definition may change imminently). But someone who’s been boosted has the same ballpark level of protection against Omicron infection as a vaccinated-but-unboosted person did against Delta. The extra dose not only raises a recipient’s level of antibodies but also broadens their range, giving them better odds of recognizing the shape of even Omicron’s altered spike. In a small British study, a booster effectively doubled the level of protection that two Pfizer doses provided against Omicron infection.

Second, some worse news: Boosting isn’t a foolproof shield against Omicron. In South Africa, the variant managed to infect a cluster of seven people who were all boosted. And according to a CDC report, boosted Americans made up a third of the first known Omicron cases in the U.S. “People who thought that they wouldn’t have to worry about infection this winter if they had their booster do still have to worry about infection with Omicron,” Trevor Bedford, a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told me. “I’ve been going to restaurants and movies, and now with Omicron, that will change.”

Third, some better news: Even if Omicron has an easier time infecting vaccinated individuals, it should still have more trouble causing severe disease. The vaccines were always intended to disconnect infection from dangerous illness, turning a life-threatening event into something closer to a cold. Whether they’ll fulfill that promise for Omicron is a major uncertainty, but we can reasonably expect that they will. The variant might sneak past the initial antibody blockade, but slower-acting branches of the immune system (such as T cells) should eventually mobilize to clear it before it wreaks too much havoc.

To see how these principles play out in practice, Dylan Morris suggests watching highly boosted places, such as Israel, and countries where severe epidemics and successful vaccination campaigns have given people layers of immunity, such as Brazil and Chile. In the meantime, it’s reasonable to treat Omicron as a setback but not a catastrophe for most vaccinated people. It will evade some of our hard-won immune defenses, without obliterating them entirely. “It was better than I expected, given the mutational profile,” Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute, who led the South African antibody study, told me. “It’s not going to be a common cold, but neither do I think it will be a tremendous monster.”

That’s for individuals, though. At a societal level, the outlook is bleaker.

Omicron’s main threat is its shocking speed, as my colleague Sarah Zhang has reported. In South Africa, every infected person has been passing the virus on to 3–3.5 other people—at least twice the pace at which Delta spread in the summer. Similarly, British data suggest that Omicron is twice as good at spreading within households as Delta. That might be because the new variant is inherently more transmissible than its predecessors, or because it is specifically better at moving through vaccinated populations. Either way, it has already overtaken Delta as the dominant variant in South Africa. Soon, it will likely do the same in Scotland and Denmark. Even the U.S., which has much poorer genomic surveillance than those other countries, has detected Omicron in 35 states. “I think that a large Omicron wave is baked in,” Bedford told me. “That’s going to happen.”

More positively, Omicron cases have thus far been relatively mild. This pattern has fueled the widespread claim that the variant might be less severe, or even that its rapid spread could be a welcome development. “People are saying ‘Let it rip’ and ‘It’ll help us build more immunity,’ that this is the exit wave and everything’s going to be fine and rosy after,” Richard Lessells, an infectious-disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, told me. “I have no confidence in that.”

To begin with, as he and others told me, that argument overlooks a key dynamic: Omicron might not actually be intrinsically milder. In South Africa and the United Kingdom, it has mostly infected younger people, whose bouts of COVID-19 tend to be less severe. And in places with lots of prior immunity, it might have caused few hospitalizations or deaths simply because it has mostly infected hosts with some protection, as Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University, explained in a Twitter thread. That pattern could change once it reaches more vulnerable communities. (The widespread notion that viruses naturally evolve to become less virulent is mistaken, as the virologist Andrew Pekosz of Johns Hopkins University clarified in The New York Times.) Also, deaths and hospitalizations are not the only fates that matter. Supposedly “mild” bouts of COVID-19 have led to cases of long COVID, in which people struggle with debilitating symptoms for months (or even years), while struggling to get care or disability benefits.

And even if Omicron is milder, greater transmissibility will likely trump that reduced virulence. Omicron is spreading so quickly that a small proportion of severe cases could still flood hospitals. To avert that scenario, the variant would need to be substantially milder than Delta—especially because hospitals are already at a breaking point. Two years of trauma have pushed droves of health-care workers, including many of the most experienced and committed, to quit their job. The remaining staff is ever more exhausted and demoralized, and “exceptionally high numbers” can’t work because they got breakthrough Delta infections and had to be separated from vulnerable patients, John Lowe told me. This pattern will only worsen as Omicron spreads, if the large clusters among South African health-care workers are any indication. “In the West, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner because most countries have huge Delta waves and most of them are stretched to the limit of their health-care systems,” Emma Hodcroft, an epidemiologist at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, told me. “What happens if those waves get even bigger with Omicron?”

The Omicron wave won’t completely topple America’s wall of immunity but will seep into its many cracks and weaknesses. It will find the 39 percent of Americans who are still not fully vaccinated (including 28 percent of adults and 13 percent of over-65s). It will find other biologically vulnerable people, including elderly and immunocompromised individuals whose immune systems weren’t sufficiently girded by the vaccines. It will find the socially vulnerable people who face repeated exposures, either because their “essential” jobs leave them with no choice or because they live in epidemic-prone settings, such as prisons and nursing homes. Omicron is poised to speedily recap all the inequities that the U.S. has experienced in the pandemic thus far.

Here, then, is the problem: People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone—vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise. The collective threat is substantially greater than the individual one. And the U.S. is ill-poised to meet it.

America’s policy choices have left it with few tangible options for averting an Omicron wave. Boosters can still offer decent protection against infection, but just 17 percent of Americans have had those shots. Many are now struggling to make appointments, and people from rural, low-income, and minority communities will likely experience the greatest delays, “mirroring the inequities we saw with the first two shots,” Arrianna Marie Planey, a medical geographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. With a little time, the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna could be updated, but “my suspicion is that once we have an Omicron-specific booster, the wave will be past,” Trevor Bedford, the virologist, said.

Two antiviral drugs now exist that could effectively keep people out of the hospital, but neither has been authorized and both are expensive. Both must also be administered within five days of the first symptoms, which means that people need to realize they’re sick and swiftly confirm as much with a test. But instead of distributing rapid tests en masse, the Biden administration opted to merely make them reimbursable through health insurance. “That doesn’t address the need where it is greatest,” Planey told me. Low-wage workers, who face high risk of infection, “are the least able to afford tests up front and the least likely to have insurance,” she said. And testing, rapid or otherwise, is about to get harder, as Omicron’s global spread strains both the supply of reagents and the capacity of laboratories.

Omicron may also be especially difficult to catch before it spreads to others, because its incubation period—the window between infection and symptoms—seems to be very short. At an Oslo Christmas party, almost three-quarters of attendees were infected even though all reported a negative test result one to three days before. That will make Omicron “harder to contain,” Lowe told me. “It’s really going to put a lot of pressure on the prevention measures that are still in place—or rather, the complete lack of prevention that’s still in place.”

The various measures that controlled the spread of other variants—masks, better ventilation, contact tracing, quarantine, and restrictions on gatherings—should all theoretically work for Omicron too. But the U.S. has either failed to invest in these tools or has actively made it harder to use them. Republican legislators in at least 26 states have passed laws that curtail the very possibility of quarantines and mask mandates. In September, Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University told me that when the next variant comes, such measures could create “the worst of all worlds” by “removing emergency actions, without the preventive care that would allow people to protect their own health.” Omicron will test her prediction in the coming weeks.

The longer-term future is uncertain. After Delta’s emergence, it became clear that the coronavirus was too transmissible to fully eradicate. Omicron could potentially shunt us more quickly toward a different endgameendemicitythe point when humanity has gained enough immunity to hold the virus in a tenuous stalemate—albeit at significant cost. But more complicated futures are also plausible. For example, if Omicron and Delta are so different that each can escape the immunity that the other induces, the two variants could co-circulate. (That’s what happened with the viruses behind polio and influenza B.)

Omicron also reminds us that more variants can still arise—and stranger ones than we might expect. Most scientists I talked with figured the next one to emerge would be a descendant of Delta, featuring a few more mutational bells and whistles. Omicron, however, is “dramatically different,” Shane Crotty, from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told me. “It showed a lot more evolutionary potential than I or others had hoped for.” It evolved not from Delta but from older lineages of SARS-CoV-2, and seems to have acquired its smorgasbord of mutations in some hidden setting: perhaps a part of the world that does very little sequencing, or an animal species that was infected by humans and then transmitted the virus back to us, or the body of an immunocompromised patient who was chronically infected with the virus. All of these options are possible, but the people I spoke with felt that the third—the chronically ill patient—was most likely. And if that’s the case, with millions of immunocompromised people in the U.S. alone, many of whom feel overlooked in the vaccine era, will more weird variants keep arising? Omicron “doesn’t look like the end of it,” Crotty told me. One cause for concern: For all the mutations in Omicron’s spike, it actually has fewer mutations in the rest of its proteins than Delta did. The virus might still have many new forms to take.

Vaccinating the world can curtail those possibilities, and is now an even greater matter of moral urgency, given Omicron’s speed. And yet, people in rich countries are getting their booster six times faster than those in low-income countries are getting their first shot. Unless the former seriously commits to vaccinating the world—not just donating doses, but allowing other countries to manufacture and disseminate their own supplies—“it’s going to be a very expensive wild-goose chase until the next variant,” Planey said.

Vaccines can’t be the only strategy, either. The rest of the pandemic playbook remains unchanged and necessary: paid sick leave and other policies that protect essential workers, better masks, improved ventilation, rapid tests, places where sick people can easily isolate, social distancing, a stronger public-health system, and ways of retaining the frayed health-care workforce. The U.S. has consistently dropped the ball on many of these, betting that vaccines alone could get us out of the pandemic. Rather than trying to beat the coronavirus one booster at a time, the country needs to do what it has always needed to do—build systems and enact policies that protect the health of entire communities, especially the most vulnerable ones

Individualism couldn’t beat Delta, it won’t beat Omicron, and it won’t beat the rest of the Greek alphabet to come.

Self-interest is self-defeating, and as long as its hosts ignore that lesson, the virus will keep teaching it.

Coronavirus vaccine mandates are working — for now

Coronavirus vaccine mandates imposed by employers seem to be working so far, suggesting that most vaccine holdouts would rather get the shot than lose their job, Axios’ Caitlin Owens writes.

Why it matters: Every vaccine helps in our fight against the coronavirus, although the U.S. still has a long way to go.

Driving the news: States with vaccine mandates for health care workers that have taken effect, like California and New York, have seen a large uptick in vaccinations.

  • These, of course, are blue states and have higher vaccination rates to begin with. But some health systems in red states, like Texas, have seen similar results when their mandates took effect.
  • High-profile mandates outside of the health care sector have also been successful. For instance, United Airlines achieved nearly 100% vaccination among its employees, and Tyson Foods announced that more than 90% of its workers are now vaccinated.
  • The Biden administration announced that it will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly, but this hasn’t yet been implemented.

Yes, but: Hospitals and long-term care facilities are already stretched so thin that it won’t take a mass exodus for them to feel the effects of layoffs.

  • In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order last week to help provide relief to health systems struggling with staff shortages.
  • The Biden administration announced nursing home workers will soon be required to be vaccinated, which could be a much tougher lift. Only about two-thirds of nursing home staff are vaccinated.

What they’re saying: “As we get down to the harder core unvaccinated who are more resistant, what we are seeing is that reality is a more powerful tool to change behavior than information and messaging,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of KFF.

The Fourth U.S. Wave of COVID-19 Could Be Ebbing. The Fifth Might Be Worse

Fourth COVID Wave Could Be Ebbing. The Fifth Might Be Worse | Time

We May Be in for a Repeat of Last Winter

It may feel like eons ago, but try to recall summer 2020: While there were coronavirus surges in some parts of the country, national case rates were low. In some areas, the virus almost faded away entirely. But of course, the respite didn’t last. Cases began rising again in the fall of 2020, peaking at an average of more than 250,000 per day in January 2021.

The U.S. may be in for something even worse this year, my colleague Chris Wilson warns.

After a heartbreakingly bad summer, the virus’ spread appears to be ebbing, Chris writes. As of today, the U.S. is reporting about 145,000 diagnoses per day—too high for comfort, but at least a modest downward trend from over 160,000 daily cases at the end of August. In many hotspot states, diagnoses are significantly lower than they were a month or two ago.

But kids are now returning to school, cooler weather will force social gatherings indoors and holiday travel season will soon be upon us. With the highly contagious Delta variant now the dominant strain and millions of Americans still unvaccinated, we may be heading for a repeat of last year.

Of course, the situation isn’t exactly the same. More than half the population (and counting) is fully vaccinated, and many other people have at least some level of natural immunity after surviving an infection. That will certainly help keep cases down, but it may not be enough. As Chris points out, seven U.S. states set new daily case records this summer, even with vaccines widely available. As long as there are millions of unvaccinated people in the U.S., the virus will find a way to spread—particularly when it’s as contagious as the Delta variant.

So what can you do? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the advice is the same as ever: get vaccinated if you haven’t, get your kids vaccinated if they’re old enough, wear masks if you gather with people indoors and stay home if you feel unwell.

President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that broadly expanded mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations or at least compulsory weekly testing is a sign, possibly, that the administration sees the writing on the wall. Even with tentative but promising signs that the fourth wave of surging cases in COVID-19 in the United States, dating back to the first days of summer, was waning, without drastic measures, the fifth will be catastrophically worse.

The new requirements are estimated to affect about 100 million people, including most federal workers and a substantial number of private sector employees—many of whom are already vaccinated. This would largely affect working-age residents (age 18-64), who currently number above 200 million, of whom 59.8% are vaccinated, according to TIME’s analysis of daily figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That leaves more than 80 million who remain unvaccinated, though the White House orders will only cover a fraction of them.

The question is now: What happens this fall and winter, when children are at school and Americans once again travel for the holidays? In spite of desperate warnings from the CDC that people stay home for last year’s holiday, they largely did not, which led to the third spike in cases, which reached heights that dwarfed the first two. That doesn’t bode well for Christmas 2021, especially given that, in this current, fourth wave, seven states have already surpassed their previous peaks in cases (with another four doing nearly as poorly):

Within the next several days, we may see a modest surge from travel over the Labor Day weekend, but the real test will come in about two months—still all too soon. The holidays always sneak up on us. Under one possibility, many millions of Americans may be bolstered by a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, though this will be scant protection for those who have yet to receive a first.

Evidence that surging cases could inspire more unvaccinated Americans to change their mind was initially encouraging, but did not extend indefinitely. Should the fourth wave recede considerably, it may take a fifth to convince a significantly greater number.

Implementing a long overdue vaccine mandate

https://mailchi.mp/60a059924012/the-weekly-gist-september-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

There's a Lot That Can Go Wrong With 'Vaccine Passports'

Declaring that “our patience is wearing thin” with Americans who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, President Biden announced sweeping new plans to implement vaccine mandates on Thursday.

Businesses that employ more than 100 people must require their employees to get vaccinated or face weekly COVID testing, federal workers and contractors must be vaccinated or face disciplinary measures, and all healthcare organizations that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds must ensure 100 percent employee vaccination as a condition of continued participation in those federal payment programs. The healthcare component of the mandate will impact about 17 million workers, including those at hospitals, surgery centers, dialysis facilities, and home health agencies. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) already requires nursing home workers to be vaccinated, and yesterday announced plans to release a new regulation by October 1st, implementing the expanded mandate. According to Fierce Healthcare, at least 172 hospital systems have already announced some form of vaccine mandate, but others have expressed concerns that forcing workers to get vaccinated might exacerbate labor shortages and result in employees seeking work elsewhere.
 
Responding to President Biden’s announcement, the American Hospital Association (AHA) echoed those concerns, citing “the critical challenges that we are facing in maintaining the resiliency of our workforce.” In our view, that concern pales in comparison to the imperative to protect patients by reducing the potential for exposure by unvaccinated caregivers. If anything, the national healthcare mandate should provide cover for those hospitals and care providers that have shied away from mandates, letting other organizations take the lead. Once universal healthcare mandates are implemented, vaccine resistant workers will find few employment alternatives left, significantly dampening the risk of widespread resignations. If you don’t want to take the necessary precautions to keep patients safe, you shouldn’t be working in healthcare in the first place. Yesterday’s mandate announcement, while aggressive, is overdue.

Howard Stern blasts unvaccinated Americans, casting vaccine mandate as ‘freedom to live’

Howard Stern was reflecting this week on the coronavirus deaths of four conservative talk-radio hosts who had espoused anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiments when he took aim at those who have refused to get vaccinated.

“I want my freedom to live,” he said Tuesday on his SiriusXM program. “I want to get out of the house. I want to go next door and play chess. I want to go take some pictures.”

The shock jock, who advocated for the coronavirus vaccine to be mandatory, then turned his attention to the hesitancy that has played a significant role in the U.S. spread of the virus, leading to what Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”He pointed to unvaccinated people who are “clogging” up overwhelmed hospitals, calling them “imbeciles” and “nut jobs” and suggesting that doctors and nurses not treat those who have not taken a coronavirus vaccine.

“I’m really of mind to say, ‘Look, if you didn’t get vaccinated [and] you got covid, you don’t get into a hospital,’ ” he said. “You had the cure and you wouldn’t take it.”

Stern’s comments come after several other celebrities expressed to their large social media audiences their frustration with the ongoing lag in vaccinations when hospitals are being pushed to their limits by the highly transmissible delta variant.

More than 185,000 coronavirus infections were reported Wednesday across the United States, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Nearly 102,000 people are hospitalized with covid-19; more than 26,000 are in intensive care units. A slight decline in hospitalizations over the past week has inspired cautious optimism among public health leaders.

While there is not a nationwide vaccine mandate, President Biden is expected to sign an executive order Thursday requiring that all federal employees be vaccinated, without an alternative for regular coronavirus testing to opt out of the mandate, The Post reported. The order affecting the estimated 2.1 million federal workers comes as Biden plans to outline a “robust plan to stop the spread of the delta variant and boost covid-19 vaccinations,” the White House said.

Health officials, doctors and nurses nationwide have urged those still hesitant to get vaccinated — and some have gone a step further. Jason Valentine, a physician in Mobile, Ala., informed patients last month that he would not treat anyone who was unvaccinated, saying there were “no conspiracy theories, no excuses” preventing anyone from being vaccinated. Linda Marraccini, a doctor in South Miami, said this month that she would not treat unvaccinated patients in person, noting that her office would “no longer subject our patients and staff to unnecessary risk.”

The summer surge also has led celebrities to use their platform to either call on unvaccinated people to get vaccinated or to denounce them for not doing so. Actor and activist Sean Penn said the vaccine should be mandatory and has called on Hollywood to implement vaccination guidelines on film sets. Actors Benicio Del Toro and Zoe Saldana were part of a vaccine video campaign this year to help debunk misinformation about coronavirus vaccination. When actress Melissa Joan Hart revealed her breakthrough coronavirus case last month, she said she was angry that the nation “got lazy” about getting vaccinated and that masking was not required at her children’s school.

Late-night talk host Jimmy Kimmel suggested Tuesday that hospitals shouldn’t treat unvaccinated patients who prefer to take ivermectin — a medicine long used to kill parasites in animals and humans that has soared in popularity despite being an unproven covid-19 treatment and the subject of warnings by health officials against its use for the coronavirus. After noting that Anthony S. Fauci, the chief medical adviser to Biden, warned that some hospitals might be forced to make “tough choices” on who gets an ICU bed, the late-night host quipped that the situation was not difficult.

That choice doesn’t seem so tough to me,” Kimmel said. “Vaccinated person having a heart attack? Yes, come right in; we’ll take care of you. Unvaccinated guy who gobbled horse goo? Rest in peace, wheezy.”

Stern has featured front-line workers on his show and has advocated for people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. In December, the host interviewed Cody Turner, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic, about how the front-line doctor struggled with his mental health while treating infected patients when a vaccine was not widely available.

“We are drowning and we are in hell, and people don’t understand, not only what’s happening to people, you know, but patients across this country,” Turner said.

Stern was a fierce critic of President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic, saying last year that his former friend was “treasonous” for telling supporters to attend large rallies, despite the risk of infection, in the run-up to the presidential election.

On his eponymous program this week, Stern referred to four conservative talk-radio hosts who bashed the vaccine and eventually died of the virus: Marc Bernier, 65; Phil Valentine, 61; Jimmy DeYoung, 81; and Dick Farrel, 65. In the weeks and months leading up to their deaths last month, all four men had publicly shared their opposition to mainstream public health efforts when coronavirus infections were spiking.

“Four of them were like ranting on the air — they will not get vaccinated,” Stern said Tuesday. “They were on fire … they were all dying and then their dying words were, ‘I wish I had been more into the vaccine. I wish I had taken it.’ ”

After he played a clip of Bernier saying he would not get vaccinated, Stern suggested that the coronavirus vaccine be considered as normal as a measles or mumps vaccine.

“When are we going to stop putting up with the idiots in this country and just say it’s mandatory to get vaccinated?” he asked.

Biden unveiled a vaccine mandate for nursing homes. What does it mean for the staffing crisis?

Rethinking How We Approach Long-Term Care In The U.S. | On Point

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden unveiled a new plan requiring nursing homes to vaccinate their employees or lose federal funding. Industry members are concerned the mandate will exacerbate current staffing shortages and make it harder for facilities to care for their residents. 

Biden ties employee vaccination to federal funding for nursing homes

Biden announced on Wednesday that nursing homes will have to require their workers be vaccinated against Covid-19 to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding, the New York Times reports.

CMS is expected to release an emergency rule covering this new requirement in September, according to Roll Call. Officials said the decision will affect more than 15,000 nursing homes with around 1.3 million workers across the country.

In a statement, CMS administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said, “Keeping nursing home residents and staff safe is our priority. The data are clear that higher levels of staff vaccination are linked to fewer outbreaks among residents, many of whom are at an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, or death.”

As of Aug. 8, federal data showed that around 62% of all nursing home staff are currently vaccinated. But vaccination rates vary widely by state, with a high of 88% in some states and a low of 44% in others.

In addition, according to data from CMS, nationwide Covid-19 cases in nursing homes have increased from 319 cases on June 27 to 2,696 cases on Aug. 8. Since the beginning of the pandemic, federal data shows that around 134,000 nursing home residents and nearly 2,000 employees have died from Covid-19.

How will the vaccine mandate affect nursing homes?

According to Roll Call, divisions among nursing home staff about a vaccine mandate has some people in the industry—which has long suffered staffing shortages—concerned that even more workers will leave.

Lori Porter, CEO of the National Association of Health Care Assistants, said she is worried the industry could lose 20% to 30% of its workforce over the new vaccine requirement.

And Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said a broader vaccine mandate for all health care organizations, instead of just nursing homes, is necessary to prevent further staffing shortages.

“Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents,” Parkinson said. “It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse.”

Similarly, Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, a nonprofit that represents more than 5,000 aging services providers, said the vaccine mandate should be extended to all health care workers in all settings. She also voiced concern that cutting funding to nursing homes will further hurt facilities that have struggled financially throughout the pandemic.

“Without Medicaid and Medicare funding, nursing homes cannot provide the quality care that our nation’s most vulnerable older adults need,” Smith Sloan said. “Our mission-driven nursing home members, who operate on narrow margins in the best of times, depend on those funds alone to care for their residents.”

Separately, David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said funding cuts could put some nursing homes “in a precarious position” and that he believes there will be a “tremendous amount of pushback in the industry.”

Grabowski noted that while a national vaccine mandate could “level the playing field” for nursing homes looking for employees, they may still struggle to retain employees with jobs in other areas, such as retail or hotels, offering similar pay. “I think this is a good measure, but it needs to be paired with additional resources to help pay staff and make sure these are jobs they want to stay in,” he said. (Clason, Roll Call, 8/18; LaFraniere et al., New York Times, 8/18; Christ, Modern Healthcare, 8/18) 

Advisory Board’s take

This is a bold step—but it’s the right thing to do. Here’s why.

Mandating vaccinations for staff in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) is definitely a bold step—but ensuring all staff are vaccinated is unquestionably the right thing to do. As health care leaders, it is our responsibility to care for our patients, our staff, and our communities, and during this pandemic, vaccination is the best way to do that. 

Nationally, staff working in post-acute and long-term care settings have been among the groups most hesitant to take a Covid-19 vaccine. The combination of the extremely vulnerable patient populations in those settings and the lack of voluntary vaccination was likely what motivated this move.

I don’t want to imply this will be easy. Many SNFs will struggle to achieve universal vaccination, and there is understandable fear associated with having to let go of staff in what is an extremely tight staffing environment. 

However, in my view, the staffing implications will be less severe than many believe. In some ways, a national mandate actually makes it easier for providers, because individual staff members can’t simply go work for another facility in order to avoid getting their shot. And as more and more employers across the country begin to mandate vaccinations—a list that so far includes large employers like Walmart and Tyson Foods—staff members will have minimal opportunities for alternate work arrangements that do not require them to get the vaccine. For many staff, even those who have refused in the past, the elimination of other options that would allow them to remain unvaccinated may give them the push they need to get the vaccine.

Some staff will refuse and leave the industry. In the short term, this will increase pressure on already tight staffing. In the medium to long term, however, a fully vaccinated workforce is better for providers. It’s better for recruiting, because it attracts potential workers who want to be in a safer environment. It’s better for the existing workforce, who will likely need to take fewer sick days. And it’s better for the reputation of the industry. In our summer consumer survey, we found that 76% of respondents would be more likely to receive care at a skilled nursing facility if all of that facility’s staff were vaccinated. Staff vaccination helps build a level of community trust in the safety of the facility, which will be critical as SNFs seek to return to growth during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Check out our resources for building consumer confidence in post-acute and senior care during and beyond a crisis. For help with how to prepare your staff and residents for the vaccine rollout at your facility, review our guide for long-term care leaders.

Employee badges to identify vaccination status a hit, Wisconsin health system says

Covid-19 vaccine buttons, T-shirts, and merch are selling out fast on Etsy  - Vox

About 8,000 Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic Health System employees have requested black ID badge reels to indicate they are fully vaccinated, the health system told Becker’s Aug. 11.

The nine-hospital health system, which has more than 12,000 employees, started offering the black reels in July. Many Marshfield employees are already required to wear white reels. However, the new black reels are voluntary. Employees who have them may meet in person, but must be masked, if all meeting attendees are vaccinated, the health system said. 

“We all look forward to having the opportunity to interact with co-workers outside of the virtual world,” said health system spokesperson Jeff Starck. “The badge reels are a way for more personal interaction and create a sense of normalcy for many employees during what has been a challenging, mostly virtual work environment. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Mr. Starck said that some employees may not have not asked for the new reels because they use clips or other devices to display their name badges. Employees who work off-site and don’t attend in-person meetings may not have requested them since they haven’t needed them, and some employees who are vaccinated simply may not want to identify themselves, he speculated. 

Marshfield Clinic announced Aug. 4 that it would require employees to become fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Nov. 15.

As of Aug. 11, about 72 percent of employees are vaccinated, although the health system said that number will rise as it receives proof of vaccination from employees who were inoculated outside the health system. 

CommonSpirit Health mandates COVID-19 vaccination for employees in 21 states

About Us | Serving the Common Good | CommonSpirit Health

CommonSpirit Health is requiring full COVID-19 vaccination for its 150,000 employees, the Chicago-based health system said Aug. 12. 

The requirement applies to employees at CommonSpirit’s 140 hospitals and more than 1,000 care sites and facilities in 21 states. It includes physicians, advanced practice providers, volunteers and others caring for patients at health system facilities. 

“As healthcare providers, we have a responsibility to help end this pandemic and protect our patients, our colleagues and those in our communities —  including the most vulnerable among us,” Lloyd H. Dean, CEO of CommonSpirit, said in a news release. “An abundance of evidence shows that the vaccines are safe and highly effective. Throughout the pandemic we have made data-driven decisions that will help us best fulfill our healing mission, and requiring vaccination is critical to maintaining a safe care environment.”

The compliance deadline for the vaccination requirement is Nov. 1, although the implementation date will vary by region in accordance with local and state regulations. Employees who are not in compliance and do not obtain a medical or religious exemption risk losing their jobs.

How the delta variant took over the US

https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/567843-how-the-delta-variant-took-over-the-us

3 Things You Need to Know About the Delta Variant - COVID-19, Featured,  Health Topics - Hackensack Meridian Health

The delta variant has overtaken the U.S. in a matter of weeks as it spreads around the world in what President Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci called a “global outbreak” of the strain.

The highly contagious variant of COVID-19 is considered at least two times more contagious than the previously dominant alpha strain, and experts say the increased transmissibility has likely fueled the surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.

But much is still unknown about delta as scientists scramble to better understand the strain.

Here’s what we know about the delta strain and how it blunted earlier momentum in the fight against the coronavirus.


Delta is more transmissible than previous COVID-19 strains

Delta’s contagiousness is considered key to its domination, having spread to at least 117 countries after first being detected in India. Like other viruses, COVID-19 is evolving, particularly through unplanned mutations.

A study from the United Kingdom in May suggested the delta strain could be 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant, which was already more contagious than the original strain.

But experts are split on that figure, with some saying delta could be more transmissible and others saying it could be less.

“You don’t necessarily want to attribute that all to the virus. You know, a lot of it may reflect the people as well,” said David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Researchers aren’t certain about what makes the delta variant more transmissible, but there are some clues.

Michael Farzan, head of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, said one of the variant’s advantages is that it can more strongly attach to a certain receptor when spreading in the body.

“This is one of the reasons why the virus … in a person gets made at a higher level, meaning that there’s a lot more being spit out or coughed out, meaning that it’s more likely to hit the next person,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has its own figures illustrating how the strain became so prevalent this summer. The agency’s latest projection is that 97.4 percent of all coronavirus cases come from all the different lineages of the delta variant, as of the week ending last weekend.

That marks an astronomical increase from the 1.6 percent estimated at the beginning of May and the 14.1 percent from the beginning of June.

Most people infected with COVID-19 at this point won’t know for sure whether they contracted the delta strain since available testing doesn’t make the distinction between strains — it only shows whether the virus itself is present.


It has a higher magnitude of viral loads

Health experts are examining the delta variant’s viral load, the measure of how much virus a person carries and can potentially transmit, compared to previous COVID-19 strains.

A study from China suggested that the strain’s viral load could be more than 1,000 times higher than the original strain, which Fauci on Thursday said “is a mechanistic reason why you have such a tremendous increase in transmissibility.”

Basically a higher viral load can make it more likely that an infected person can “shed” the virus, allowing someone nearby to contract it.

“If a little droplet that you sent out, it has more particles and that means it’s more likely to infect the next person over and it’s more likely to infect the next person over more times,” Farzan said.

Dowdy of Johns Hopkins cautioned that other variables, including people’s behavior, may be influencing how scientists understand delta’s viral load. With more people relaxing their COVID-19 precautions and interacting with others indoors, those same people could contract more of the virus than they might otherwise.

A study of a Massachusetts outbreak indicated that delta led to fully vaccinated people having a similar viral load compared to the unvaccinated, sparking the CDC to update its mask guidance late last month.

The outbreak on Cape Cod, where nearly three-quarters of confirmed cases were among fully vaccinated people, suggested that vaccinated people could potentially transmit and spread the delta variant. But researchers said at the time that microbiological studies would be needed to confirm whether vaccinated individuals can transmit the strain.


Vaccines are still effective against delta

Studies have found that at least five vaccines, including all three used in the U.S., are effective against the delta variant in lab and real-world settings, Fauci said on Thursday.

It was previously unclear whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose instead of two, was equally effective. But a study released last week found the immune response lasted at least eight months, resulting in the first real-world data for the vaccine, Fauci said.

Recent studies have indicated that vaccines may see a very slight dip in effectiveness against symptomatic versions of the coronavirus caused by the delta variant. The COVID-19 vaccines, like any other, are also not perfect at preventing all delta infection and illness.

But scientists agree that studies have demonstrated that the vaccinated population is less likely to get infected and much less likely to be hospitalized or die from the delta variant than the unvaccinated.

“The only reason our case numbers are lower now than they were back in December is because half of our population has been fully vaccinated,” Dowdy said.


Still more to learn
 

Experts acknowledge there is much more to learn about the delta variant.

“A big thing is we still don’t know how much of what we’re seeing is due to the virus versus due to behavior,” Dowdy said. “That makes a big difference because things that are due to the virus, we can’t really change as a society.”

Although there’s a growing number of studies, not all scientists are certain that the variant itself necessarily causes more serious illness among the unvaccinated, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths. It’s also unclear whether the strain is sparking more severe illness among children as pediatric hospital admissions have picked up.

Additionally, scientists have more analysis to do on under-researched mutations that may give the virus more of an advantage, Farzan said.

Driven by the Delta Variant, the Fourth Wave of COVID-19 in the U.S. Could Be Worse Than the Third. In Some States, It Already Is

Why the delta variant is hitting kids hard in the U.S. and how we can  prevent that in Canada | CBC News

Just a month ago, even as signs of a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. were blossoming in the lower Midwest, the memory of a long, miserable winter kept us warm. Even places with burgeoning case rates were far below their catastrophic peaks over the holidays, when a combination of cold weather and defiant travelers contributed to a third wave in infections and deaths that drowned out the previous two spikes in April and July of 2020.

This is regrettably no longer the case. In four states—Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida—the current number of daily new COVID-19 infections, averaged across seven days, has surpassed that winter peak, even with a substantial percentage of the population having received a complete dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine (though not nearly as many as public officials would prefer).

Hawaii is something of an anomaly, as its winter peak was not nearly as high as in colder, more accessible regions. But several other states threaten to join this quartet in the near future. Oregon’s daily rate of new infections is at 36.5 per 100,000 residents, or 99% of the peak value on Dec. 3, 2020. Nationwide, the rate is 37.7, just under 50% of the winter peak of 76.5.

While plenty of states remain far below the winter peaks, as the Delta variant tears across the country, we can expect more and more states to experience a fourth wave that crests higher than the third, even as new outbreaks are inspiring more vaccine holdouts to hold out their biceps and breakthrough infections, while frightening and non-trivial, remain reasonably rare.

What is perhaps most sobering about this surge is that COVID-19-related deaths, which typically lag behind case surges by about two weeks, are starting to rise again. No state has yet surpassed the winter peak in deaths, but at 65%, Louisiana very well may. That figure is still 15% nationwide, well below the Jan. 13, 2021 peak of 1.04 fatalities per 100,000 people. It is currently at 0.16.

When it comes to the pandemic, no one wants to sound like Chicken Little. The sky might not be falling. But neither is the national case rate, or the number of people dying.