Thursday, January 13, 2022 – Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News Original Stories
Incidental Cases and Staff Shortages Make Covid’s Next Act Tough for Hospitals
As omicron sweeps the country, many hospitals are dealing with a flood of people hospitalized with covid — including those primarily admitted for other reasons. While often milder cases, so-called incidental covid infections still drain the beleaguered health care workforce and can put them and other patients at higher risk for contracting covid. (Lauren Weber and Phil Galewitz and Andy Miller, )
Long-Excluded Uterine Cancer Patients Are a Step Closer to 9/11 Benefits
More than 20 years after the terrorist attacks, the World Trade Center Health Program is considering covering the most common form of uterine cancer, in what patient advocates say is a key acknowledgment of the women affected by the 9/11 fallout. (Erica Hensley, )
Watch and Listen: Examining the Risks of Covid’s Spread Within Hospitals
KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber talks about the risks of covid’s spread in hospitals on the “1A” radio program and on the Newsy TV network. ( )
Here's today's health policy haiku:
Providers treat us
Time to return the favor —
Lessen their burden!
– Paul Hughes-Cromwick
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Opinions expressed in haikus and cartoons are solely the author's and do not reflect the opinions of KHN or KFF.
Administration News
'Any Mask Better Than No Mask'?: CDC Sticks With Current Guidance
Despite urging from some health experts for people to upgrade from cloth masks to medical-grade ones due to the contagious nature of the omicron variant, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky says that the agency does not plan to change its recommendations. The White House is moving forward with a plan to provide higher-quality masks for free though.
The Hill: Walensky Says CDC Mask Recommendation Will Not Change
Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Wednesday that it does not plan to change its mask guidance to advise Americans to wear higher quality masks amid the omicron surge. The CDC director said during a White House briefing that her agency currently recommends that “any mask is better than no mask" to battle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Coleman, 1/12)
Americans might still receive better masks —
CNBC: Biden Says U.S. To Provide High-Quality Masks For Free To Americans
President Joe Biden on Thursday said the U.S. will give high-quality masks to Americans for free, as new infections from the Covid-19 omicron variant soar across the country. Biden said the U.S. has more than tripled the national stockpile of highly protective N95 masks to make sure they are widely available to the general public. He said masks are a crucial tool to help control the spread of omicron. “I know that for some Americans, the mask is not always affordable or convenient to get,” Biden said in addressing the nation from the White House. “Next week we’ll announce how we’re making high-quality masks available to the American people for free.” (Kimball, 1/13)
Axios: Bernie Sanders Proposes "Masks For All" 
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced a bill Tuesday that would provide every person in the U.S. with three free N95 masks, he announced in a statement Tuesday. The Masks for All Act, first introduced in 2020, aims to improve access to high-filtration face masks by sending them to every person in the country, including people who are homeless, and those living in congregate settings like prison shelters or college dorms, per the bill summary. (Garfinkel, 1/12)
Roll Call: White House Emphasizes Testing Over Mask Update 
The White House COVID-19 Response Team stopped short of announcing major changes to anticipated guidance surrounding masks and instead focused on changes to testing strategy on Wednesday. Experts have been calling for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to update its mask guidance to recommend high-filtration masks such as N95s and KN95s in light of the surge of the omicron variant. “Right now, we are strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans, and we’ll continue to follow the science here. The CDC is in the lead. But this is an area that we’re actively exploring,” said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients. (Raman, 1/12)
And more about masks —
AP: Soaring COVID-19 Cases Renew US Debate Over Mask Mandates 
Officials across the U.S. are again weighing how and whether to impose mask mandates as COVID-19 infections soar and the American public grows ever wearier of pandemic-related restrictions. Much of the debate centers around the nation’s schools, some of which have closed due to infection-related staffing issues. In a variety of places, mask mandates are being lifted or voted down. (Kinnard, 1/12)
Salt Lake Tribune: Salt Lake County Restaurants Say They’re ‘Relieved’ Over Health Department’s Mask Order
Most Salt Lake County bar and restaurant owners are “very relieved” that county health officials ordered a new mask mandate to stall the spread of COVID-19, says the head of their trade group. “It makes [a mask rule] easier to enforce,” said Michele Corigliano, president of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. “If it’s up to the restaurant or the bar to say, ‘I want to keep my employees safe, can you please put on a mask?’, I doubt it would go over very well at many of the restaurants around the valley.” (Russell, 1/12)
In related news about pandemic fatigue and misinformation —
The Hill: New Study Investigates Early Claims Of COVID-19 'Infodemic' 
The “infodemic” many say has been sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic is actually a general feature of online health information, new research suggests. In a study of public social media posts shared in 2019 and 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, researchers found health misinformation had been spreading long before the first case of COVID-19 was detected. (Migdon, 1/12)
NPR: Americans Are Tuning Out As Omicron Rages. Experts Call For Health Messaging To Adapt
Access Health CEO Jeff Fortenbacher's nonprofit tries to provide better health care by offering l0wer-cost health insurance and offering counseling and care to low-income and minority patients around Muskegon, Mich., where the rate of full vaccination in that population is at a mere 14%. He says the challenges of reaching these communities has gotten even harder lately. "It just cuts across that whole issue of trust and suspicion and not getting the information," he says. After two years of recommendations on masking, isolation, travel and vaccines, many are just checked out. "I mean, it's almost like white noise." (Noguchi, 1/12)
The Washington Post: A Rochelle Walensky Interview Sparked Outrage. But The CDC Says ABC Omitted Crucial Context
Context is everything, as was demonstrated this week by ABC News and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky. Walensky suffered a nasty case of backlash after ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired an edited clip of her interview on Friday, discussing the pandemic and the fast-spreading omicron variant. (Farhi, 1/12)
Covid-19 Crisis
Biden Deploying Help To Hospitals In 6 Strained States; 4 Others Near ICU Breaking Point
President Joe Biden will announce Thursday his administration will send military medical teams to 6 states with overtaxed hospitals. None of the states though are on the list of the 4 that currently have less than 10% capacity in their intensive care units. And hospitalizations are on the rise in many other areas due to the omicron surge.
USA Today: Biden Sending Medical Teams To Hospitals In Six States For COVID Help
The federal government is sending medical teams to six states – New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and New Mexico – to help hospitals overburdened by COVID-19, USA TODAY has learned. President Joe Biden is expected to announce the deployments Thursday when discussing steps the administration is taking to address a surge in infections driven by the omicron variant, according to a White House official. His remarks come as hospitalizations for COVID-19 are setting records. Some hospitals are delaying elective surgeries as states are deploying National Guard members to health care facilities. (Groppe and Slack, 1/12)
CNN: 4 States Have Fewer Than 10% Of ICU Beds Left As Health Care Staffing Shortages Complicate Care 
As a record number of Americans are infected with Covid-19, largely due to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, some states' health care systems are beset with nearly full intensive care units. Four states have less than 10% remaining capacity in their ICUs: Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana and New Hampshire, according to data Wednesday from the US Department of Health and Human Services. (Caldwell, 1/13)
AP: Oregon Gov. Deploys National Guard To Hospitals Amid COVID Surge 
Gov. Kate Brown is deploying Oregon National Guard members to help at hospitals that she says are under extreme pressure due to a COVID-19 omicron-fueled surge in hospitalizations. A total of 1,200 Guard members will be deployed to more than 50 hospitals across the state, KATU-TV reported. (1/13)
AP: Strike Teams Aid COVID-19 Battle, Pritzker Preaches Vaccine
Mobile strike teams of medical professionals are being dispatched to parts of Illinois most in need of assistance battling COVID-19 that has sickened record numbers and stretched health care resources thin, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday. But Pritzker and his public health director Dr. Ngozi Ezike continued to pound the drum that vaccinations, booster shots and masks are the best way to prevent the spread of the disease that has landed an unprecedented 7,100 people in hospitals across the state. (O'Connor, 1/12)
On hospitalization rates —
The Boston Globe: New Measure Of COVID Hospitalizations May Obscure Strain On System, But Will Help With Planning
“I am concerned that people will be hearing this [new data] and thinking we are twiddling our thumbs in the hospital,” said Dr. Maren Batalden, chief quality officer at Cambridge Health Alliance, which operates hospitals in Cambridge and Everett. In Massachusetts, the share of patients hospitalized primarily for COVID varied from about 50 percent to 78 percent, according to interviews with hospital executives. Advocates of the reporting change say the new numbers would shed light on the regions hardest hit by COVID and help direct resources, such as new antiviral drugs, to those areas. But others worry the methodology the Baker administration is using may miss patients acutely ill with COVID-19. (Lazar, 1/12)
The Atlantic: COVID-Hospitalization Numbers Are As Bad As They Look
But the “with COVID” hospitalization numbers are more complicated than they first seem. Many people on that side of the ledger are still in the hospital because of the coronavirus, which has both caused and exacerbated chronic conditions. And more important, these nuances don’t alter the real, urgent, and enormous crisis unfolding in American hospitals. Whether patients are admitted with or for COVID, they’re still being admitted in record volumes that hospitals are struggling to care for. “The truth is, we’re still in the emergency phase of the pandemic, and everyone who is downplaying that should probably take a tour of a hospital before they do,” Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Massachusetts, told me. (Yong, 1/12)
In more news about short-staffed hospitals —
Fox News: California Hospital Has 700 Employees In Isolation Because Of Covid
Hundreds of employees at one hospital in California are in self-isolation following COVID-19 exposure, amid a nationwide surge of the omicron variant, health officials said Wednesday. The Community Medical Center in Fresno announced 717 employees would remain in their homes, following the coronavirus protocols to self-isolate, and that 690 of those staff members had tested COVID positive, FOX 26 of Fresno reported. "This reflects how contagious the Omicron variant is to the public and how important it is to be vaccinated, wear a mask, and socially distance," Thomas Utecht, M.D., the hospital's senior vice president and system chief medical officer, told the news outlet. (Richard, 1/13)
Los Angeles Times: Omicron Sends Hospitals Into Overdrive With Sick Staff, Dying Patients And Doctors "Just Scraping By"
On a single day this week, 616 staffers called out sick with COVID-19 at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Without nearly a tenth of its workers — doctors, nurses, administrators and janitors — the hospital assigned the National Guard to help with an unrelenting swarm of patients, many of them critically ill. Such scenes around the nation have been brutal as the highly transmissible — if less deadly — Omicron variant has set a record of nearly 2 million infection cases each week. That surge has battered healthcare systems, sapped the morale of doctors and nurses, delayed thousands of surgeries, postponed treatments for life-threatening diseases such as cancer and turned hospitals into around-the-clock triage centers where nerves bristle and anger echoes alongside despair. (Kaleem and Baumgaertner, 1/13)
Las Vegas Review-Journal: Staffing Crisis At Clark County Hospitals Extends Into 2nd Week
An increasing number of sick employees and a continuing rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations have extended a staffing crisis at Southern Nevada hospitals for a second week, and there’s no indication that the current wave of the disease has peaked, the Nevada Hospital Association said Wednesday. “The NHA continues to work with state government officials to scope the problem and seek solutions that can be immediately implemented,” the trade group said in its weekly COVID-19 update. “In the meantime, hospitals continue to rely on overtime, team nursing, and other mitigation steps, realizing that these short-term solutions are not sustainable between the increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations coupled with the most challenging staff sick call rates.” (Dylan, 1/12)
Philadelphia Inquirer: COVID-19 Staffing Woes Hit Everywhere In Healthcare, Causing Hospital ERs To Overflow With Patients
Philadelphia-area hospitals are jammed with patients, but not always because they are truly sick enough to be there. Staff shortages at nursing homes and home-care companies, difficulty finding dialysis slots for COVID-19 patients, and even a lack of space in city homeless shelters are forcing hospitals to keep patients who should be discharged. The upshot is that emergency departments effectively have become inpatient units, sometimes even housing patients who need intensive care. (Brubaker and Whelan, 1/13)
KHN: Incidental Cases And Staff Shortages Make Covid’s Next Act Tough For Hospitals 
The Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Florida, on Jan. 11 was treating 80 covid-19 patients — a tenfold increase since late December. Nearly half were admitted for other medical reasons. The surge driven by the extremely infectious omicron variant helped push the South Florida hospital with 206 licensed beds to 250 patients. The rise in cases came as the hospital struggled with severe staff shortages while nurses and other caregivers were out with covid. (Weber, Galewitz and Miller, 1/13)
Medications are also in short supply —
Stat: A Cascade Of Omicron-Driven Shortages Puts Hospitals In A Bind 
The Covid-19 medications are supposed to keep people out of the hospital — and to infectious disease doctor Ogechika Alozie, these patients were perfect candidates. One was a vaccinated elderly man who’d tested positive for Covid after cold-like symptoms began spreading through his family. But his family couldn’t find him an open slot for an infusion of monoclonal antibodies. His granddaughter, Krystal Tejeda, called and called. “I couldn’t get an answer from anybody. Mailbox full, mailbox full,” she said. He was sent home after his first two ER visits. On the third, he was admitted, his skin going purple. (Boodman and Cueto, 1/13)
Omicron Tidal Wave Shatters Covid Records In Hot Spots
From hospitalizations to positivity rates to daily infections, last winter's terrible covid records are being toppled in many areas by the latest surge. News outlets report on the state of the pandemic from Colorado, Alaska, Hawaii, Utah and elsewhere.
Bloomberg: Colorado’s Covid Test Positivity Is Highest Of Pandemic At 30%
Thirty-percent of people tested for Covid-19 in Colorado are receiving positive results, the highest of the pandemic, as the omicron variant rages, officials said Wednesday. The data imply a high level of community spread with the number of Covid-19 hospitalizations surpassing an autumn peak, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. There are more hospital beds available in Colorado than during the delta variant peak in late 2021, Scott Bookman, the state’s Covid-19 incident commander, said during an online briefing. (Del Giudice, 1/12)
Anchorage Daily News: Alaska Shatters COVID-19 Case Record As Omicron Adds To Growing Strain On Hospitals
Around the state, some facilities are seeing higher numbers of patients sickened with other respiratory illnesses, or chronic health issues that may have been left untreated during previous surges, hospital administrators say. Other hospitals now have fewer staff than they did in the fall and are being hit with significant absences among workers who were exposed to or infected with the virus recently. The latest developments have dealt yet another blow to an exhausted health care workforce, and come just months after a delta-driven surge pushed many of the state’s hospitals close to a breaking point. (Berman and Krakow, 1/12)
AP: Virus Hospitalizations Rise In Hawaii As Omicron Spreads 
Hawaii recorded an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations Wednesday as the omicron variant continued to spread throughout the islands. State data initially showed was a 35% increase in hospitalizations from the previous day, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. But the newspaper later said the state mistakenly reported more than 400 hospitalizations due to double-counting one hospital’s patient census. (1/13)
The Salt Lake Tribune: Utah Reports More Than 10,000 New Cases, Record COVID-19 Hospitalizations
A record 10,220 new coronavirus cases were reported in Utah in the past day, the health department announced Tuesday. It marked the first time Utah has reported more than 10,000 cases in a single day. (Alberty, 1/12)
Missouri Independent: Missouri Hits New Monthly Record For COVID Cases As Omicron Variant Spreads
Missouri has reported more cases of COVID-19 in the first 12 days of January than any full month of the pandemic so far. As a result of the massive spike of infections tied to the omicron variant, hospitalizations are also at record levels and schools in many communities are shutting their doors. And the state is likely not near the peak of cases. (Keller, 1/13)
KHN: Watch And Listen: Examining The Risks Of Covid’s Spread Within Hospitals
KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber appeared on Newsy’s “Evening Debrief” program to discuss her recent investigative series on the risks of covid’s spread within hospitals. The series, reported with Christina Jewett, documented how more than 10,000 patients were diagnosed with covid after being hospitalized for other medical conditions in 2020 — and how multiple gaps in government oversight fail to hold hospitals accountable for high rates of such infections. Patients and their loved ones have few options to seek improvements to infection control policies after states passed a raft of liability shield laws nationwide. (1/13)
And it’s not just the U.S. —
CNBC: WHO Says Omicron Cases Are 'Off The Charts' As Global Infections Set New Records
A record 15 million new Covid-19 infections were reported across the globe in a single week as omicron rapidly replaces delta as the dominant variant across the globe, and “we know this is an underestimate,” World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at a press briefing Wednesday. (Feiner, 1/12)
Kids Who Get Covid Are At Higher Risk Of Developing Diabetes: Study
And a separate study identifies risk factors that may determine if a child will become severely ill from covid. In related news, despite historic infection levels, less than 20% of American elementary school kids are vaccinated. And debates over protective measures once again rage in schools.
ABC News: Study Finds COVID-19 May Increase Risk Of Diabetes In Kids
Kids who have recovered from COVID-19 may have an increased risk of developing diabetes, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, which looked at databases with information for over 2.5 million patients under 18, found that children diagnosed with COVID-19 were about 2.5 times more likely to receive a new diabetes diagnosis a month or more after infection. (Kindelan, 1/12)
CIDRAP: Global Study Notes Risk Factors For Uncommon Severe COVID-19 In Kids 
A 10-country study of more than 3,000 children who tested positive for COVID-19 in emergency departments (EDs) finds that 3% went on to develop severe disease within 2 weeks, with risk factors being older age, having chronic conditions, and experiencing symptoms longer. The study was published yesterday in JAMA Network Open. (Wappes, 1/12)
Child vaccinations have not picked up —
USA Today: Less Than 20% Of Elementary Students Are Vaccinated
Just over 17% of U.S. children ages 5 to 11 were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, more than two months after shots for the age group became available, according to an Associated Press report. Vermont is at 48% while Mississippi is only at 5%. Vaccinations among elementary school kids surged after the shots were introduced in the fall, but the numbers have crept up slowly since as omicron’s explosive spread appears to have had little effect. The low rates are “very disturbing,’’ said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Hospitalizations of children under 18 have climbed to their highest levels on record in the past few weeks. (Bacon, Ortiz and Tebor, 1/12)
NBC News: Child Covid Vaccinations Off To Uneven Start As Southern States Lag
Two months after children ages 5 to 11 became eligible for Covid-19 shots, vaccination rates are lagging in Southern states. Nationally, more than 1 in 4 of the roughly 29 million children ages 5 to 11 have received their first shot, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, that rate is closer to 1 in 10. (Ramos, 1/12)
In more news about kids and schools —
The Washington Post: New York City High School Students Stage Walkout Over Covid Measures
Students walked out of schools across New York City around lunchtime on Tuesday to protest what many called inadequate protections against the coronavirus — and to demand an option for remote learning until they improve. It’s the latest flash point in an ongoing debate over in-person versus remote learning that has seen new life with the unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant. (Timsit, 1/13)
Oklahoman: Oklahoma City Public Schools To Close Districtwide Over COVID-19
Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's second-largest traditional district, will close all its schools for the rest of the week because too many employees are out with COVID-19. Superintendent Sean McDaniel announced the closures Wednesday afternoon. Students finished school in person on Wednesday and will complete online assignments from home Thursday and Friday. McDaniel said the district has been reassigning staff and hiring substitutes to cover as many classes as possible, but Oklahoma City schools can no longer maintain a safe and meaningful learning environment. "This is a manpower issue, and we are simply out of options," McDaniel said. (Martinez-Keel, 1/12)
Mississippi Clarion Ledger: COVID-19 Spike Leaves Thousands Of Mississippi Students Quarantined
The week most Mississippi schools returned after winter break, thousands of students were out because of the coronavirus' resurgence. Of 633 schools reporting from 66 of Mississippi's 82 counties, there were 3,854 new COVID-19 cases in Mississippi students statewide from Jan. 3 to 7, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health's report Tuesday. The last report, spanning Dec. 13 to 17, showed 292 students with a new COVID-19 infection. In between the two time periods, the COVID-19 omicron variant began spiking daily cases to record-high counts and driving up hospitalization rates. (Haselhorst, 1/12)
The Dallas Morning News: D.C. Delegate Says Ted Cruz’s Effort To Block District’s Student Vaccine Mandate ‘Crosses The Line’
Eleanor Holmes Norton has a message for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republicans in Congress seeking to derail vaccine mandates in the District of Columbia: Butt out. Norton, D.C.’s longtime delegate to the U.S. House, said the effort by Cruz “crosses the line” and interferes with local control. (Caldwell, 1/12)
Delta Hasn't Disappeared: It's Still Showing Up In Sewage
In other covid news, Yale researchers have developed a wearable air sampler to monitor personal exposure to covid-19.
WMFE: Don't Assume You Have The Omicron Variant. Orange County Still Has Some Delta In Its Wastewater 
Orange County Utilities says based on wastewater sampling that delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus are still in the area. Although omicron tends to be the more prevalent variant in Orange County, officials are warning residents that the more deadly delta hasn’t completely disappeared. Ed Torres, director of Orange County Utilities, says both variants have been detected in wastewater sampling that his department conducts. “Just to give you an idea, the omicron variant is circulating in our community between 97 percent to 99 percent. So it’s almost all omicron. Even though that, we still have the more dangerous delta.” (Prieur, 1/12)
San Francisco Chronicle: Omicron In California: Sewage Samples Show COVID Plunging In Boston Area
Boston area epidemiologists are seeing signs of hope in the city’s wastewater samples, which show levels of COVID-19 in the region dropping off at a rapid rate. Data released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s tracking system, which analyzes genetic material in the Boston area’s sewer system, shows that virus levels have plummeted to 6,000 RNA copies of COVID per milliliter from a peak near 10,000 a few weeks ago. Harvard Medical School administrator Stanley Y. Shaw cautioned in a Twitter post that the data are not necessarily a reliable indicator of pandemic trends but may yet offer “a glimmer of better days ahead.” Bill Hanage, an associate professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed the figures in a Twitter thread. (Vaziri, Ho, Beamish and Fracassa, 1/12)
Also —
CIDRAP: Researchers Develop Wearable Air Sampler To Detect COVID-19 Exposure
Yale University researchers have developed a wearable passive air sampler to monitor personal exposure to COVID-19, they reported yesterday in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS)-based air sampler, the Fresh Air Clip, continually monitors exposure to virus-containing aerosols, which could prove helpful to workers in high-risk settings such as healthcare. … The highest viral loads (more than 100 RNA copies per clip) were found in two clips worn by restaurant servers. (1/12)
Detroit Free Press: Officials Dispute Report On COVID-19 Deaths At Long-Term Care Facilities
Michigan health officials are disputing a report that they say is expected to allege the state undercounted potentially hundreds or thousands of COVID-19 deaths of residents at long-term care facilities. In a recent letter to the Michigan Office of the Auditor General released Tuesday, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel says the auditor general made a series of errors, including conflating death definitions, examining data from facilities not required to report deaths and using sources that are unreliable. While the auditor general's office declined to comment on the report, Hertel's letter indicates the state anticipates it will say the department undercounted the number of long-term care residents who died because of COVID-19 by nearly 30%. (Boucher and Hall, 1/12)
CNBC: Bill Gates: Once Omicron Passes, Covid Will Be More Like Seasonal Flu
Covid’s omicron variant is currently tearing through the U.S. and the rest of the world at a record-breaking pace — but Bill Gates sees hope on the horizon. Once the current surge abates, countries can expect to see “far fewer cases” through the rest of 2022, Gates wrote on Tuesday during a Twitter Q&A with Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. Once that happens, Gates continued, Covid can most likely “be treated more like seasonal flu.” (Huddleston Jr., 1/12)
Vaccines and Covid Treatments
Pfizer's Covid Pill In Short Supply; A New One From Europe May Arrive Soon
Despite the promise of Pfizer's antiviral covid drug, CNN reports on how it can be tricky to source the pills. Meanwhile, Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis is seeking a quick U.S. emergency approval for its own promising experimental covid pill, ensovibep, before results from a big clinical trial arrive.
Bloomberg: Novartis Seeks Nod for Covid Drug in U.S. Before Final Test
Novartis AG will seek to bring its experimental Covid-19 drug to patients without waiting for results from a large clinical trial, Chief Executive Officer Vas Narasimhan said, potentially giving governments another option to battle the latest pandemic onslaught. The Swiss pharma giant aims to request an emergency-use authorization for the compound, ensovibep, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within the next month, Narasimhan said in an interview. A larger study to confirm promising data that emerged this week could be finished by the second half of the year, he said. (Kresge, 1/12)
CNN: Pfizer's Covid-19 Antiviral Pill Was Hailed As A Game-Changer, But Supplies Are Scarce 
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing Covid-19 cases to spike, with an average of more than 747,000 new cases a day, according to the latest numbers from Johns Hopkins University. That's almost three times the average daily cases from a year ago, when the country was going through its previous peak, and it's putting an incredible strain on hospitals and emergency rooms. The good news since the last peak is that the US Food and Drug Administration authorized new antiviral pills. Both Paxlovid and molnupiravir were given emergency use authorization in late December to treat mild to moderate Covid-19. They interfere (through different pathways) with the virus' ability to replicate — and they can be taken at home, before someone becomes seriously ill. (Kane and Kounang, 1/12)
In vaccine research —
Bloomberg: J&J Vaccine Gets Additional Warning On Bleeding Side Effect
The fact sheet for Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine has been revised by U.S. regulators to warn of the risk of a rare bleeding disorder. The Food and Drug Administration said in a letter to the company on Tuesday that adverse-event reports suggested an increased risk of immune thrombocytopenia, or ITP, during the 42 days following vaccination. Symptoms include bruising or excessive or unusual bleeding, according to the agency. The changes to the fact sheet include recommendations to vaccination providers about giving the J&J shot to people with existing medical conditions, including those who have a low level of platelets, a type of blood cell that helps stop bleeding. (Rutherford, 1/11)
Reuters: AstraZeneca Says Early Trial Data Indicates Third Dose Helps Against Omicron 
AstraZeneca said on Thursday that preliminary data from a trial showed that its COVID-19 shot, Vaxzevria, generated an increase in antibodies against the Omicron and other variants when given as a third booster dose. The increased response, also against the Delta variant, was seen in a blood analysis of people who were previously vaccinated with either Vaxzevria or an mRNA vaccine, the drugmaker said, adding that it would submit this data to regulators worldwide given the urgent need for boosters. (Aripaka and Burger, 1/13)
Bloomberg: Repeat Covid Booster Shots Risk Overloading Immune System, EU Regulators Warn
European Union regulators warned that frequent Covid-19 booster shots could adversely affect the immune system and may not be feasible.  Repeat booster doses every four months could eventually weaken the immune system and tire out people, according to the European Medicines Agency. Instead, countries should leave more time between booster programs and tie them to the onset of the cold season in each hemisphere, following the blueprint set out by influenza vaccination strategies, the agency said. (Anghel, 1/11)
CNBC: Dr. Fauci: Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine Could Address Covid, Next Pandemic
There’s a new kind of vaccine on the horizon — and it could help target all coronaviruses, not just Covid-19. On Tuesday, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci testified to Congress about the country’s efforts to develop a pan-coronavirus vaccine, meant to combat both Covid and other similar viruses that could emerge in the coming years. The short-term applications of a vaccine that effectively tackles all forms of Covid could be significant, Fauci said: “We won’t be chasing after the next variant.” (Sauer, 1/12)
And a nasal spray might be the answer to stopping superspreader events —
Fox News: Anti-COVID Nasal Spray Could Protect Against Infection For Up To 8 Hours: Researcher
Scientists at the University of Helsinki have developed a novel nasal spray treatment that can reportedly provide protection against COVID-19 "for hours." A release from the university said the Finnish researchers had developed a molecule that has the ability to inactivate the coronavirus spike protein and offers effective short-term protection against the virus. It said that cell cultures in a petri dish and animal studies have shown that the TriSb92 molecule protects against infection for "at least eight hours even in cases of high exposure risk" and is effective immediately after its administration. (Musto, 1/12)
Pandemic Policymaking
6 Army Commanders Relieved Of Duty Over Covid Vaccine Mandate
Meanwhile, cruise lines will no longer be required to follow covid guidance on ships as outlined by the CDC, USA Today reported.
CBS News: Army Has Relieved Six Active-Duty Commanders For Refusing COVID-19 Vaccine 
The Army has relieved six active-duty commanders, including two battalion commanders, and issued 2,994 general officer written reprimands to soldiers for refusing a COVID vaccine.  In a release Wednesday, the Army said the punishments were for refusing the lawful order by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Army has not yet initiated separations for soldiers refusing the vaccine but expects further guidance later this month. (Watson, 1/12)
In news about booster shots —
Bay Area News Group: San Jose City Council Approves Booster Shot Mandate For Large Events At City-Owned Buildings
Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant, San Jose is about to become the first city in California to require all of its employees to get a booster shot in addition to the initial vaccine doses mandated earlier. The City Council on Tuesday night also adopted a new ordinance requiring visitors of large, indoor events held at public facilities such as the SAP Center and San Jose Convention Center to show proof they received a booster shot — or at least submit a negative COVID-19 test — before entering. (Angst and Lin, 1/12)
AP: Trump Slams Politicians Who Won't Say They Got Booster Shots
Former President Donald Trump is slamming politicians who refuse to say whether they have received COVID-19 booster shots as “gutless.” “You gotta say it. Whether you had it or not, say it,” Trump said in an interview that aired Tuesday night on the conservative One America News Network. (Colvin, 1/12)
In updates on cruise line mandates —
USA Today: Cruise Lines' CDC COVID Protocols Will Become Voluntary
Cruise lines will no longer be obliged to follow COVID guidance on ships as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, which was extended and modified in October, will expire Saturday at which point the health agency's COVID guidance for cruise ships will become voluntary, the CDC confirmed to USA TODAY Wednesday. This means cruise lines can choose whether to follow the health agency's guidance or not. The health agency "is transitioning to a voluntary COVID-19 risk mitigation program" the CDC said in a statement shared by spokesperson David Daigle. (Hines, 1/12)
The Washington Post: Cruises Use Quarantine Ships For Isolating Covid-Positive Crew 
While some of the world’s largest cruise lines are scrambling to manage coronavirus outbreaks onboard, at least two companies are offloading crew members who test positive onto ships that are sailing without any passengers. Two industry giants, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International, say they are transferring workers to crew-only ships to wait out their isolation periods. The movement of crews has raised eyebrows among some passengers, who have documented transfers of more than 100 workers. Neither cruise line would disclose to The Washington Post how many employees are staying on quarantine ships. (Sampson, 1/12)
Covid Tests Also Prove Positive When It Comes To Company Profits
For example Abbott, the maker behind the BinaxNow at-home covid tests, reported third-quarter profits up 48% compared to last year's figure. But while for many finding tests is difficult, some corporations are making it easy for staff. There are also warnings over fraudulent testing services.
CBS News: COVID-19 Test Providers Reap Profits As Consumers Pay Through The Nose 
Makers of COVID-19 testing tools are raking in billions while many consumers pay through the nose to find out if they are infected. … Abbott Laboratories‚ maker of the BinaxNow test, one of the most popular at-home screening devices — notched $1.9 billion in third-quarter sales related to COVID-19 testing, up 48% compared to the year-ago period. The BinaxNow test alone was responsible for $1.6 billion in sales. (Cerullo, 1/12)
And not everyone is scrambling to find a test —
The Washington Post: Amid Covid Test Shortage, Corporate Employees Get Them Free 
Workers at corporate giants such as Google and JPMorgan Chase can request tests be sent to them free. At Google, employees can receive as many as 20 tests per month, even if they’re not going into the office. Delta Air Lines allows its flight staff and corporate employees to order sets of six antigen tests every three weeks. (De Vynck and Bogage, 1/13)
The New York Times: Why Some Workers Are Getting All The Covid Tests They Need
The latest Covid-19 wave has left millions of Americans scrambling for tests, braving long lines in the cold at pop-up sites or searching furiously online for kits to use at home. But for a select group of employees at some of the country’s largest companies, tests are free and often readily available. (Goldberg, Hirsch and McCabe, 1/12)
In more news about covid tests —
Dallas Morning News: Tarrant County Warns That Fraudulent COVID-19 Test Sites Are Stealing Personal Info
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said in a statement Wednesday that fake testing sites have popped up across the country, with scammers asking for Social Security and credit card numbers, birth dates and health insurance information. “Be careful,” Wilson said in a news release. “Research the facilities before you go, and make sure it’s a valid testing site.” The Better Business Bureau also issued a warning, urging test seekers to use caution at pop-up sites and when purchasing at-home tests. (Bahari, 1/12)
Cincinnati Enquirer: Company Linked To Complaints About 'Bogus' COVID-19 Tests At Work In Cincinnati
The company, the Center for COVID Control, is based in Illinois and claims to operate hundreds of testing sites across the country, including at least five in southwest Ohio. The other local sites on the company's website are in Finneytown, Anderson Township, West Chester Township and East Price Hill. A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services told The Enquirer on Wednesday that the government agency has "received multiple complaints from different state agencies regarding the Center for COVID Control and temporary testing sites." He did not describe the nature of those complaints, but he said all would be investigated. (Horn, 1/12)
San Francisco Chronicle: Home COVID Testing Becomes Critical Part Of Pandemic Response
As the pandemic drags on and frequent testing is normalized, home tests are becoming essential because of their convenience and immediacy, say local health officials. “I do see us moving towards this,” said Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, though she emphasized lab-based tests are better in clinical settings. Home testing can help people decide whether to get on a plane, go to school or visit an aging relative, for instance, but a lab-based test is better for someone who’s been admitted to a hospital with COVID symptoms and whose doctor is trying to diagnose and treat the illness. (Ho, 1/12)
CBS News: How Will I Be Reimbursed For Rapid COVID Tests? And Other FAQs 
Will I automatically be reimbursed the full amount? It depends. Under the guidelines, the Biden administration encourages private insurers to make tests available to members for free at the point of purchase by creating networks of preferred retailers, including pharmacies. Insurers would then reimburse the retailer, rather than the consumer, for the cost of the test. (Cerullo, 1/12)
The Washington Post: Americans Seeking Covid Tests Are Overwhelming ERs. Here’s How Other Countries Are Handling The Demand.
The United States is far from the only country battling yet another coronavirus wave coupled with a shortage of antigen and PCR tests. Here’s how some other countries are handling the surge in demand for testing. (Berger, 1/12)
Public Health
America's Cancer Death Rate Has Fallen 32% Over 28 Years
The overall risk of dying from cancer continues to drop at an ever-faster rate, too. News outlets cover the data, noting that while millions of deaths have been averted, racial disparities are still a problem when it comes to treatment and detection.
Axios: Cancer Death Rate Falls 32% Since Peak In 1991 
The cancer death rate fell by 32% between 1991 and 2019, according to an American Cancer Society report released Wednesday. The latest figures show the overall risk of dying from cancer continues to drop at an accelerating rate. The falling mortality rate translates to about 3.5 million fewer cancer deaths over the 28-year period than had the rate stayed the same, the ACS notes in a press release. (Garfinkel, 1/13)
USA Today: Cancer Report: Millions Of Deaths Averted, Racial Disparities Persist
A new report says 3.5 million cancer deaths have been prevented in recent decades, thanks to declines in smoking, advances in treatments and improved early detection. But the cancer statistics paper published Wednesday, a companion to the American Cancer Society's 2022 annual report, cautions pandemic-related impacts to cancer detection and treatment aren't yet known. The scientific paper also calls out racial disparities in cancer rates that have long persisted. (Thornton, 1/12)
In other news about cancer —
KOIN.com: OSU Researchers: Vaccine To Prevent Skin Cancer Is Possible
Oregon State University researchers suggest a preventative skin cancer vaccine could be possible. According to the university, a vaccine stimulating the production of a protein critical to the skin’s antioxidant network could help people bolster their defenses against skin cancer. Arup Indra, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at OSU, explained that the ultraviolet radiation from the sun leads to oxidative stress, which increases the risk of skin cancers such as melanoma. “A messenger RNA vaccine, like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19, that promoted production of the protein, TR1, in skin cells could mitigate the risk of UV-induced cancers and other skin problems,” Indra explained. (Urenda, 1/12)
News-Medical.net: New Study Reveals Why Obesity Increases The Risk Of Developing Cancer
Obesity increases the risk of developing more than a dozen types of cancer. A new study from the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway can now answer why this is. Cancer is caused by genetic changes that break down normal constraints on cell growth. It is known that obesity and overweight increases the risk of developing cancer, but the question until now has been why? Now, researchers at University of Bergen have demonstrated that lipids associated with obesity make cancer cells more aggressive and likely to form actual tumors. The researchers have discovered that the changed environment surrounding the cancerous cell, from a normal weight body to an overweight or obese body, pushes the cancer cell to adapt. This allows the malignant cells to form a tumor. (Henderson, 1/12)
Stat: Biotech Startup Looks To Sidestep Key Problem With CAR-T Cancer Therapies
There are two things Phil Greenberg, the head of immunology at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is especially well-known for: a characteristic wiry gray mop of hair and wide glasses, and a rock-solid reputation as one of the leading researchers in cancer immunotherapy. Greenberg was behind some of the key scientific advances that led to breakthrough CAR-T cell therapies, and co-founded Juno Therapeutics, a biotech that helped launch one of the first of those treatments. Now, he’s co-founding a new venture called Affini-T Therapeutics, a Seattle and Massachusetts-based company that hopes to eliminate cancers by targeting the source of cancer cells. (Chen, 1/13)
KHN: Long-Excluded Uterine Cancer Patients Are Step Closer To 9/11 Benefits
Tammy Kaminski can still recall the taste of benzene, a carcinogenic byproduct of burning jet fuel. For nine months after the 9/11 attacks, she volunteered for eight hours every Saturday at St. Paul’s Chapel, just around the corner from ground zero in New York City. She breathed in cancer-causing toxic substances, like fuel fumes and asbestos, from the smoke that lingered and the ash that blanketed the pop-up clinic where first responders could grab a meal, take a nap or get medical care. But in 2015, when Kaminski, a chiropractor who lives in West Caldwell, New Jersey, was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she didn’t get the same help that other volunteers did. Although Kaminski, 61, and her doctors believe the cancer is linked to her time volunteering after 9/11, the federal health insurance and monitoring program would not cover her treatments for endometrial cancer — or those of anyone exposed to toxic substances from the attacks who then developed that form of uterine cancer. (Hensley, 1/13)
In obituaries —
Philadelphia Inquirer: Beatrice Mintz, Groundbreaking Research Icon At Fox Chase Cancer Center, Dies At 100
Beatrice Mintz, 100, of Philadelphia, a pioneering, award-winning research scientist in developmental biology and genetics, gene-transfer technology, epigenetics, and tumor microenvironment, died Monday, Jan. 3, of heart failure at her home in Elkins Park. Even as she was entering her 62nd year in Philadelphia, Dr. Mintz never officially retired. She started working at the Institute for Cancer Research in 1960, stayed on when it became part of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in 1974, and went on to become one its most celebrated researchers. (Miles, 1/12)
Blood Shortage Briefly Shutters LA County Trauma Unit
The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services hasn't had to take this sort of action in over three decades. The national blood shortage is so bad that the Red Cross is trying to tempt donors by offering the chance to win Super Bowl 2022 tickets.
Los Angeles Times: Blood Shortage Closed L.A. County Trauma Center For Hours
Blood shortages forced the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services to shut down one of its trauma centers to new patients for hours earlier this week — a step it had not taken in over three decades, officials at the county department said Wednesday. The trauma center at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center closed to new patients for more than two hours on Monday, according to a department spokesperson. It had to reach out to other hospitals in the DHS system for blood in order to reopen. (Alpert Reyes, 1/12)
The Wall Street Journal: Red Cross, Facing Blood Shortage, Offers Donors Chance To Win Super Bowl 2022 Tickets
“This crisis is so severe that we are having to limit the amount of blood that can be sent to hospitals,” said Emily Coberly, Red Cross divisional medical officer…. The nonprofit hopes to entice donors by entering those who give blood in January into a drawing to win tickets to Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles next month. January donors will also get a chance to win a home-theater package for the game. (Prang, 1/12)
And in other public health news —
CIDRAP: Multistate Salmonella Outbreak Tied To Bearded Dragon Pets Sickens 44
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that it and state partners are investigating a Salmonella Uganda outbreak linked to contact with pet bearded dragons that has sickened 44 people from 25 states since December 2020. Bearded dragons have been linked to other Salmonella outbreaks in the past, most recently a Salmonella Muenster outbreak in 2020 that made 18 people sick in 11 states. (1/12)
CNN: Men Living Alone Are At Greater Risk Of Inflammation, Study Says 
The bachelor lifestyle may not be all it's cracked up to be, gentlemen. Research has previously shown that years of living alone can have harmful effects on a person's health, and a new study published Monday shows that at least one of those impacts may be particularly bad for men. The study looked at blood samples of 4,835 participants from the Copenhagen Aging and Midlife Biobank to examine levels of inflammation. "We have found a significant association between partnership breakups or years lived alone and inflammation for men only, after adjustment for selected confounders," said Dr. Karolina Davidsen, research associate in the Department of Public Health at University of Copenhagen and publishing author of the study. "In women, we find no such effect." (Holcombe, 1/12)
The Washington Post: Inflation: Food, Gas, Housing And Healthcare Are Getting More Expensive 
Two years into the pandemic, the heath-care industry continues to struggle with too little supply — of both workers and goods — and overwhelming demand. As a result, medical care costs have begun ticking up. (Bhattarai, 1/12)
Also —
USA Today: Pig Heart Transplant: Dave Bennett Recovering, Exceeding Expectations
Dave Bennett, the Maryland man who received the first heart transplant from a genetically modified pig last week, continues to recover well, his doctors said late Wednesday. "The new heart is still a rock star," said Dr. Bartley Griffith, who led the transplant team at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "It seems to be reasonably happy in its new host … It has more than exceeded our expectations." Bennett, 57, is now off of the machine that kept blood circulating through his body for more than 45 days, including several days after the surgery. He is breathing on his own, and speaking with a quiet voice. (Weintraub, 1/12)
Pharmaceuticals
11.5 Hours: New Record Speed For Rare Illness Diagnostic DNA Sequencing
Stat reports on a remarkable case where a young man was suffering mystifying heart problems and an extremely fast diagnosis was possible thanks to speedy gene sequencing. Also in the news, President Joe Biden's FDA nominee; potential for vaccines to help the opioid crisis; and wider impact of Medicare's Aduhelm decision.
Stat: Speed Record For Diagnosing Rare Genetic Diseases Is Shattered 
About a year ago, Matthew Kunzman’s heart was failing, despite doctors’ best attempts to bolster it with every pump and gadget they could think of. But the 14-year-old has bounced back in large part due to super-speedy genetic sequencing that pinpointed the cause of his disease and helped doctors decide how to treat it — in just 11 and a half hours. That speedy diagnosis — faster than any other medical team has previously reported — resulted from a new approach to DNA sequencing to help patients with deadly and rare diseases. On Wednesday, a team of Stanford researchers and collaborators published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine reporting that they had sequenced 12 seriously ill patients and successfully diagnosed five of them (including Matthew). In all five cases, the information led to tangible changes in how patients were treated. (Wosen, 1/12)
In updates on the nominee to lead the FDA —
Axios: Biden's FDA Nominee Faces Uncertain Senate Vote Amid Abortion, Prescription Drug And Opioid Epidemic Concerns
Robert Califf, President Biden's nominee to lead the FDA, is facing a surprisingly tight confirmation vote in the Senate. A handful of Democrats have already announced their opposition to him over concerns about his drug industry ties or the FDA's record on the opioid epidemic, and several others may be on the fence. But abortion politics — not to mention the opportunity to sink a Biden nominee — are complicating efforts to make up for these defectors with Republican votes. (Owens, 1/13)
In other pharmaceutical industry news —
Stat: Medicare's Alzheimer's Decision May Hurt Biogen's Competitors, Too
Medicare may have released a plan to restrict access to Biogen’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug, but the biggest losers may actually be other drug makers readying treatments for the debilitating disease. The question is whether they encounter such difficulties and, if so, to what extent? Under a draft policy announced by Medicare on Tuesday, any company developing a monoclonal antibody — the same type of injectable medicine as the troubled Biogen drug — would have to satisfy the same stiff requirements in order to win Medicare reimbursement. Coverage would be limited to patients enrolled in Phase 3, randomized clinical trials that are approved by the agency. (Silverman, Cohrs and Florko, 1/12)
CBS News: An Experimental Vaccine Could Help Fight The Opioid Epidemic
Tackling the opioid crisis requires changing strategies and the way we think about addiction, says Columbia University professor Sandra Comer. … "One of the mistakes that people make when they think about drug users, 'Oh, it's somebody's choice to have this disorder.' That's not true," she said. "It's a medical disease and we need to treat it." Medically assisted treatments can be effective but have a relapse rate of about 50%, Comer said. "That's why we're continuing to look for new medications," Comer said. That search led to a new type of treatment — a vaccine that targets the chemical makeup of oxycodone. Comer and her research colleague, Marco Pravetoni, are testing the vaccine on volunteers with substance use disorder. (Lapook, 1/12)
The Wall Street Journal: Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Faces September Sentencing 
A federal judge has scheduled a late-September sentencing date for Theranos Inc. founder Elizabeth Holmes, when she could be handed prison time after her fraud conviction. The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Edward Davila comes just over a week after a jury convicted Ms. Holmes of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and three counts of wire fraud for intentionally deceiving investors about her now-defunct blood-testing startup. (Randazzo and Somerville, 1/12)
Health Industry
Labor Union Sues 3 Health Providers, Alleging Racism In Dialysis Care
According to the labor union suing DaVita, Fresenius Medical Care and Satellite Healthcare, Latino and Asian patients are more likely to experience adverse symptoms during hemodialysis. Investment in Black-owned health tech firms and news on the illustrator who drew a black fetus is also reported.
Modern Healthcare: Unions Sue DaVita, Fresenius Over Alleged Discriminatory Dialysis
A labor union sued DaVita, Fresenius Medical Care and Satellite Healthcare on Tuesday, alleging Latino and Asian patients are more likely to experience adverse symptoms during hemodialysis at the companies' California centers. The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West and the National Health Law Program allege nearly one in five treatments delivered to Asian patients and one in seven treatments given to Latino patients are administered at high speeds above 13 milliliters per hour. That's a higher rate than white patients, according to the groups' analysis of renal data submitted to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. (Devereaux, 1/11)
In other news about health and race —
Modern Healthcare: $55M Fund To Invest In Black-Owned Health Tech Firms
Nashville-based Jumpstart Health Investors has launched a new fund that will invest exclusively in Black-founded health tech ventures. The funding round brought together nearly 100 investors — including Eli Lilly and Company, HCA Healthcare, Cardinal Health, Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University, American Hospital Association, Bank of America and Pinnacle Financial Partners — to raise $55 million for the seed-stage fund, dubbed Jumpstart Nova. The firm has already made four investments, including a virtual EHR platform for patients with autoimmune diseases, a biotech platform focused on cell therapy innovations, a tech-enabled behavioral health provider for children with autism and a food allergy management startup. (Hartnett, 1/12)
CNN: The Creator Of The Viral Black Fetus Image Will Have His Illustrations Published In A Book 
An illustration of a Black fetus in the womb went viral last December with many people commenting on social media that it was the first time they had seen a depiction of a dark-skinned fetus or pregnant woman. The attention came as a surprise to Chidiebere Ibe, the Nigerian first-year medical student who created the image, and describes it as "just one of my drawings to advocate for diversity in medical illustrations." (Orie, 1/13)
In other corporate news —
Houston Chronicle: Feds Terminate UMMC Medicare Contract; Hospital Appeals Decision
Federal officials said they terminated the Medicare contract with United Memorial Medical Center after the Houston hospital system failed yet another inspection. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the federal health insurance program for the elderly, said it will no longer reimburse United Memorial Medical Center for patients admitted to the small hospital system after Tuesday. The loss of Medicare would likely deal a crippling financial blow to United Memorial, which serves low-income neighborhoods and depends heavily on the federal reimbursements. (Carballo, 1/11)
Axios: Scoop: GTCR Nears $1.3 Billion Deal For Electronic Health Records Company Experity 
Private equity firm GTCR is nearing a deal to acquire Experity, the country's largest electronic health records company for the urgent care market, from Warburg Pincus, four sources tell Axios. The transaction is expected to value the company at between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion, translating to an EBITDA multiple in the high teens, although no deal has yet been signed. (Pringle, 1/12)
Stat: Telehealth Companies Are Testing The Waters With Taking On More Risk
A handful of telehealth companies are dipping into payment systems that reward them for keeping patients’ costs low and penalize them for overspending — a potentially risky move for companies still finding financial footing, but one that could win them favor with large health plans and employers. These companies are negotiating new contracts that give them a bigger financial stake in patients’ care. They can shoulder that risk in a number of ways, such as by covering the full cost of patients’ care up front and pocketing the savings, or by betting that their offerings can drive down costs and splitting the savings later. (Ravindranath, 1/13)
Axios: Glen Tullman Does It Again 
Health tech veteran Glen Tullman keeps spawning unicorns. Transcarent, a consumer-directed health care navigation company launched and led by Tullman, raised $200 million in a Series C round. The funding brings Transcarent’s total capital raised to $298 million in just over one year, placing its valuation at $1.62 billion, Forbes reports. (Pringle and Brodwin, 1/12)
State Watch
Gene For Dangerous Drug-Resistant Bacteria Found In Georgia Sewer
Studies of Georgia's sewer water have turned up a worrying find: The MCR-9 gene, which can cause bacteria to become resistant to one of the world's most important antibiotics — a potential global health threat. Separately, Florida moves to limit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
FOX 5 Atlanta: Gene Found In Georgia Sewer Water Could Be 'Global Public Health Threat,' Scientists Say
University of Georgia scientists have found a gene that causes bacteria to be resistant to one of the world's most important antibiotics in sewer water in Georgia. Researchers say they discovered the MCR-9 gene, which causes resistance to colistin, while testing sewage water in an urban environment in Georgia. Antimicrobial resistance is a problem that has been declared "one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity" by the World Health Organization in 2020. According to UGA, assistant professor Issmat Kassem's team found evidence of the gene in the very first sample they took during their tests. (1/12)
In news from Florida, Mississippi and Kentucky —
WUSF Public Media: Abortions After 15 Weeks Of Pregnancy Would Be Restricted Under These Florida Bills 
As the 2022 legislative session started Tuesday, two influential Republican lawmakers filed proposals that would prevent doctors from performing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The bills (SB 146 and HB 5), filed by Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and House Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, largely mirror the abortion restriction in a Mississippi law that is before the U.S. Supreme Court. The proposals also will add a highly volatile issue to the 60-day legislative session that kicked off Tuesday with a State of the State address by Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Saunders, 1/12)
WUSF Public Media: Florida Reports A Record Rise In Child Drownings For 2021. Pandemic Shutdowns May Be A Contributor 
Florida hit a grim new record in 2021, reporting the most child drownings since at least 2009. A Florida Department of Children and Families report shows that deaths rose from 69 in 2020 to 98 in 2021.Florida "loses more children under the age of 5 to drowning than any other state in the nation," according to the department. Petra Stanton is the supervisor of Safe Kids, a coalition of health and safety experts, at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. She said Florida has a high amount of these tragedies because the state is both surrounded by water and dense with water. (LeFever, 1/12)
AP: Medical Marijuana Proposal Moves To Mississippi Senate
A bill to create a medical marijuana program is headed for debate in the Mississippi Senate in coming days. Senate Bill 2095 passed the Senate Public Health Committee on Wednesday. It would allow a person with a marijuana prescription to obtain up to 3.5 grams of the substance per day. (1/12)
Louisville Courier Journal: Gov. Andy Beshear Proposes Billions For Health And Human Services
Gov. Andy Beshear proposed billions of dollars for Medicaid, nursing scholarships, local health departments, child protection and other human services Wednesday during his third and final preview of his state budget plan. "Ensuring opportunity and caring about our people is good business, and it's the right thing to do," Beshear said in unveiling more details of the two-year budget proposal he will present to the General Assembly. Beshear, a Democrat, is to outline his budget to a joint session of lawmakers Thursday evening, although Republicans, who control the legislature, preempted him when the House filed its own plan Friday. (Yetter 1/12)
In news from Maryland, West Virginia, Wisconsin and California —
The Baltimore Sun: Maryland Department Of Health Confirms Ransomware Attack Crippled Its Systems Last Month 
A ransomware attack at the Maryland Department of Health crippled its systems last month and forced many of its services offline, the state agency confirmed Wednesday. For weeks, the department described the event as a “network security breach” and offered few other details about the nature of the incident. Services ranging from the reporting of daily COVID-19 surveillance data to basic local health department functions were rendered unavailable, and officials declined to say definitively when such operations would be restored. (Miller, 1/12)
AP: WVa Health Partnership Includes Products Preparedness Center 
A public-private health care partnership will launch a products preparedness center in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice announced. The center will be located in Morgantown, involves a more than $50 million investment for the state and will create more than 125 jobs, Justice said in a news release Wednesday. (1/13)
AP: Report: Alcohol-Related Deaths In Wisconsin Rose 25% In 2020
Alcohol-related deaths in Wisconsin rose almost 25% in 2020, according to a report released Thursday. Data compiled by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum shows 1,077 Wisconsin residents died of alcohol-related causes in 2020, up from 865 in 2019. The data was compiled from U.S. residents’ death certificates. (1/13)
AP: California Sues 'Sharing Ministry' Health Insurance Plan 
California on Wednesday sued what the state’s attorney general called a sham health insurance company operating as a “health care sharing ministry” — one the state claims illegally denied members benefits while retaining as much as 84% of their payments. The lawsuit names The Aliera Companies and the Moses family, which founded Sharity Ministries Inc. Sharity, formerly known as Trinity Healthshare Inc., is a nonprofit corporation. (Thompson, 1/12)
Global Watch
Quebec's Plan To Tax The Unvaxxed Drives Surge In Shot Uptake
Threatening fines for unvaccinated residents who lack medical exemptions has reportedly led to soaring sign-ups for first shots among the Quebecois. Meanwhile, the Pan American Health Organization says it expects omicron covid to become the dominant variant across the Americas soon.
CNN: Government Says Quebec's 'Unvaxxed Tax' Leads To Spike In First Dose Appointments
One day after the Canadian province of Quebec announced it would financially penalize residents who are unvaccinated, the province's health minister said Wednesday first-time appointments spiked in the hours following the announcement. "It's encouraging!" Quebec's health minister, Christian Dube, tweeted, indicating that Tuesday's first-dose appointments were the highest in several days. The fine for the unvaccinated would not apply to those with a medical exemption, and no details have been announced, although officials said the amount to be levied would be "significant." (Newton, 1/12)
In other news from North and South America —
AP: PAHO: Omicron To Become Dominant Variant In Americas Shortly
The Pan American Health Organization said Wednesday it expects omicron to become the predominant coronavirus variant in the Americas in the coming weeks, where confirmed cases have reached record levels. The health agency added that although healthcare systems face challenges with rising hospitalizations, vaccination has meant that COVID-19 deaths have not increased at the same rate as infections. (Solomon, 1/13)
The Washington Post: Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta To Enforce Vaccine Mandate At Bars, Casinos 
Travelers to popular Puerto Vallarta will soon have to follow new vaccination and testing requirements for many activities ordered by the Mexican state of Jalisco. The state will require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test result for bars, clubs, casinos and concerts, Jalisco Gov. Enrique Alfaro announced Monday. The requirement, which will take effect Friday, also applies to other venues such as convention centers and stadiums. (Diller, 1/12)
CNBC: Why Cuba's Extraordinary Covid Vaccine Success Could Provide The Best Hope For Low-Income Countries
Cuba has vaccinated a greater percentage of its population against Covid-19 than almost all of the world’s largest and richest nations. In fact, only the oil-rich United Arab Emirates boasts a stronger vaccination record. The tiny Communist-run Caribbean island has achieved this milestone by producing its own Covid vaccine, even as it struggles to keep supermarket shelves stocked amid a decades-old U.S. trade embargo. “It is an incredible feat,” Helen Yaffe, a Cuba expert and lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, told CNBC via telephone. (Meredith, 1/13)
Bloomberg: Omicron A ‘Welcome’ Variant, Says Bolsonaro Amid Surge
Bolsonaro has stood out globally for his defiant stance in the face of the pandemic, repeatedly dubbing it “a little flu” despite the more than 600,000 Brazilians who have died from the virus in the past two years. The president, who is up for re-election this year, has been digging in to his position against vaccines. He vowed to not allow his daughter to receive the shot and promised to continue to fight against lockdowns, even as omicron makes landfall in the country, causing cases to surge past 70,000 a day. For most of December, daily infections rarely surpassed the 10,000 mark. (Carvalho and Wanzeller, 1/12)
In news from Asia —
Bloomberg: Hong Kong May Hack BioNTech Shot For Kids Amid Supply Shortages
Hong Kong’s vaccine advisory panel recommended giving a partial dose of BioNTech SE’s adult Covid shot to younger children, resorting to an “off-label use” amid supply shortages for a pediatric formulation. The experts suggested children age 5 to 11 receive 10 micrograms of the German-made shots, which is one-third of the adult dose. The move would “facilitate the timely extension” of vaccine coverage for those age groups, the government advisers said in a statement on Wednesday. (Hong, 1/13)
AP: China Faces Omicron Test Weeks Ahead Of Beijing Olympics
Just weeks before hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics, China is battling multiple coronavirus outbreaks in half a dozen cities, with the one closest to the capital driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. With the success of the Games and China’s national dignity at stake, Beijing is doubling down on its “zero-tolerance” COVID-19 policy. (Wu, 1/13)
Health Policy Research
Research Roundup: Covid; PTSD; Cancer Surgery; Male Infertility
Each week, KHN compiles a selection of recently released health policy studies and briefs.
CIDRAP: Fourth COVID Vaccine Dose Boosts Immunity In Kidney Transplant Patients
A fourth dose of an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine produces a good antibody response in half of kidney transplant recipients who did not respond adequately after three doses, according to a study involving 92 transplant patients yesterday in Annals of Internal Medicine. (1/11)
CIDRAP: Pfizer Booster Tied To Fewer COVID Cases In Health Workers
Israeli healthcare workers who received a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA COVID-19 vaccine had significantly lower rates of infection in the next 39 days, according to a single-center study yesterday in JAMA. (Van Beusekom, 1/11)
In other research —
ScienceDaily: Anxiety And PTSD Linked To Increased Myelin In Brain's Gray Matter
Scientists have shown in both anxious rats and military veterans with PTSD that acute stress is associated with increased myelination of axons in areas of the brain associated with memory and emotions. These areas in the brain's gray matter are normally only lightly myelinated. Since myelin speeds communication in the brain, the increased myelination may be making some neural circuits hyperresponsive to memories of trauma. (University of California – Berkeley, 1/7)
Becker's Hospital Review: UF Health Performs Novel Abdominal Cancer Surgery
The surgery department at Gainesville, Fla.-based UF Health has successfully performed its first cytoreductive surgery and heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy to treat abdominal cancer. The procedure, known as CRS/HIPEC, involves the surgical removal of tumors, followed by chemotherapy administered directly to the abdominal cavity to clear out remaining cancer cells, the academic health system said Jan. 10. The chemotherapy solution is heated, which makes the tumors more permeable and responsive to treatment. The health system said the patient has recovered well. (Carbajal, 1/11)
ScienceDaily: Breakthrough Into The Cause Of Male Infertility
Scientists at Newcastle University have identified a new genetic mechanism that can cause severe forms of male infertility. The study, published today in Nature Communications, shows that new mutations, not inherited from father or mother, play a major role in this medical condition. Experts have found that mutations occurring during the reproduction process, when the DNA of both parents is replicated, can result in infertility in men later in life. (Newcastle University. 1/10)
Editorials And Opinions
Different Takes: Nurses Deserve More Money; How To Lower US Drug Overdose Rates
Editorial writers tackle these public health issues.
Stat: The Solution To The Wave Of Nurse Resignations? Cold, Hard Cash 
It’s been said so often it’s almost trite: Burnout among nurses drags down hospitals’ quality of care, hollows out the ranks of nurses, and smashes to smithereens any resilience they might have built. But just as plain as the human tragedy of burnout and attrition in this group of health care workers is the frankness of its remedy: What ails our nation’s nurses can be solved with changes in how they are paid, an infusion of cash to support them, and policies that link nurse burnout and attrition rates to hospitals’ bottom lines. (K. Jane Muir, 1/13)
Chicago Tribune: The Other Deadly Plague Is Only Getting Worse 
Long before the arrival of COVID-19, America was being ravaged by a deadly epidemic. Unlike the coronavirus, though, the drug overdose plague didn’t elicit a massive response from public officials. And the epidemic has not only continued but gotten worse. In 2020, more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses, most of them after ingesting fentanyl or similar synthetic opioids. That’s double the death toll in 2014, and the number continues to rise. (Steve Chapman, 1/12)
Stat: Is It Time To Start Routine Covid Testing For Health Care Workers? 
“Have they stopped caring about our health?” reads a text from my friend and fellow surgical resident. With it comes a link to a New York Times article displaying the headline “C.D.C. Shortens Covid Isolation Period for Health Care Workers.” I opened the article while waiting in line to get a Covid test at the first appointment I could snag four days after caring for a patient recovering from surgery who became Covid positive in the hospital. In those few days, I had taken care of more than 40 other patients and interacted with a dozen or so nurses, physicians, and cafeteria workers. (Orly Nadell Farber, 1/11)
The Washington Post: Texas Abortion Law Resurrects Jim Crow Tactic Used For Fort Bend's White Primary
Texas has a legal fantasy that it can evade Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion case. State officials claim that its new abortion law — which took effect in September and bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — is constitutional because the law is enforced only by private citizens, not the state. But such an argument is not new. In fact, it was the same legal justification used by states trying to preserve Jim Crow. The Supreme Court consistently rejected the ploy. The court was not fooled then, offering a road map for handling the current case. (Orville Vernon Burton and Armand Derfner, 1/12)
Modern Healthcare: The Connection Between Credentialing And Physician Mental Health: A Call To Action 
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the mental health of the healthcare workforce is widely reported as worsening. Despite increased attention, barriers to seeking mental health care remain high. Physicians, for example, are often required to divulge details about their mental health history on medical license applications ostensibly in service of patient safety. While there is no published evidence that these questions improve patient safety, there is ample evidence that asking such questions on medical license applications can deter physicians from seeking care due to risks to their privacy, reputation and employment. (Drs. Saranya Loehrer, Joshua Allen-Dicker and Eileen Barrett, 1/12)
The Tennessean: Expanding Telehealth Access Is A Lifesaver For Vulnerable Patients
It's hard to find a silver lining in a pandemic. But COVID-19 has convinced the medical and policymaking establishments, perhaps unwittingly, that high-quality care can be delivered remotely. The telehealth revolution is upon us. Lawmakers waived numerous arcane and outdated regulations governing the use of telemedicine to make the service more available for everyday patients. Onerous restrictions that required patients to receive telehealth care in medical facilities and barred doctors from conducting appointments across state lines were as nonsensical before the pandemic as they are now. (Sally C. Pipes, 1/13)
Stat: Accommodating People With Disability Still Befuddles Many Doctors 
Shortly after one of my younger sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 50s, I scheduled a routine check-up with my new primary care physician. I use a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis and so I’m typically hypervigilant about accessibility. But I was so relieved to have this new physician, who came highly recommended both for clinical skills and kind demeanor, that I let my guard down and didn’t visit the practice beforehand. That was a mistake. (Lisa I. Iezzoni, 1/13)
Viewpoints: Global Collaboration Can Prevent Future Pandemics; ALI In Covid Patients Leading To Amputations
Opinion writers examine these covid issues.
NBC News: Covid-19 Omicron Variant Spread Shows Urgent Need For Global Pathogen Tracking Network
Just like the year before, the pandemic was the silent uninvited guest at gatherings this past holiday season. As we now enter year three of dealing with Covid, it’s only human nature to wonder when we will return to normalcy. But if “normalcy” is defined as completely eradicating Covid-19, we’ll never be normal again, as the likelihood that we’ll face another variant like omicron or delta, not to mention a future coronavirus or another pathogen, is very real. (Francis deSouza, 1/12)
Scientific American: Some COVID Patients Need Amputations To Survive 
In late summer Candice Davis and her brother, Starr, returned to South Philadelphia from a trip to Mexico, and Davis quickly knew that something was wrong. Both she and Starr felt ill, and both subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. But Starr, who had been immunized, experienced only mild flulike symptoms and felt better within a few days. For his unvaccinated sister, a nightmare began to unfold. (Carolyn Barber, 1/12)
The New York Times: Our Patients Are Scared Of Omicron. Here’s What Can Be Done To Help
From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the risk of getting infected with the coronavirus and developing severe disease from it was substantially higher for the millions of Americans with weakened immune systems because of treatment for cancer, autoimmune disorders, transplants and many other conditions. Vaccines promised a respite. But physicians like us who care for immunocompromised people quickly learned that our patients’ immune responses from vaccines were often weak. (Dorry Segev and William Werbel, 1/13)
The Baltimore Sun: We All Have Pandemic Fatigue, But We Can’t Give Up Now 
With the holiday travels and gatherings behind us, we can expect that the next few weeks will see an unprecedented surge in COVID infections and hospitalizations. As an immunologist with a Ph.D. and over 40 years’ experience, it has been extremely frustrating to see high levels of noncompliance with common-sense COVID safety precautions that are recommended by many health organizations. I’ve been called stupid, an idiot, or worse many times for advocating wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Nevertheless, I persist. (John F. Krowka, 1/11)
Los Angeles Times: Officials Have Been Relaxing Some COVID Protocols, Leaving The Public Dazed And Confused 
Even as COVID-19 cases spiked last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the amount of time that people should remain in isolation after infection if they are without symptoms — and eliminated the recommendation that they get a negative test before they start interacting with other people. The change caused an outcry among many scientific experts who thought it was reckless. Just a week earlier, the CDC reduced the amount of time that healthcare workers were advised to stay off the job after a coronavirus infection if they tested negative and were symptom-free. (1/12)
The Boston Globe: With Students Remote, Universities Should Put COVID-19 Testing Capacity To Good Use 
We are graduate students who can access free COVID-19 PCR tests in minutes through our university, despite not taking any classes in person. Meanwhile, our friends who are health care workers must often wait days to get tested because of a lack of access to testing, even though they are at a much higher risk of catching and spreading the virus. Massachusetts is reporting an average of 25,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, with levels expected to rise and Omicron being the dominant COVID-19 variant. Massachusetts residents have been forced to wait in hours-long lines to get tested, and even though state and local governments have begun to distribute rapid antigen tests to some communities, many people remain unable to access testing. (Haley Sullivan and Leah Pierson, 1/12)
Bloomberg: Omicron Shows We Need New Covid Rules After The Pandemic Ends 
At the start of “Station Eleven” (both the excellent novel and the excellent TV show), a pandemic kills 99% of all the people on Earth in the span of roughly an afternoon. The remaining 1% struggle a wee bit to adjust to a new world without a functioning government, grocery supplies or Wordle. (Mark Gongloff, 1/12)
Newsweek: Emerging From Quarantine With Thoughts Of Our COVID Future 
Nothing crystallizes one's opinions on this winter of Omicron like getting a breakthrough case during the holidays. In between Netflix offerings during quarantine, I had plenty of time to consider our two-year COVID nightmare, and what 2022 holds for folks like me who now have antibodies, and those who don't—and for folks like me who are vaccinated and boosted, and those who aren't. As with many other issues, the first concern is language. Did I really have a "breakthrough case?" The term suggests the virus broke through a shield that should have kept it out. I've been a longtime vaccine advocate, but I never viewed my Moderna shots as a guarantee of never getting sick. (Mark Davis, 1/12)
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