UPDATED Coronavirus tracker: NY gov. prepares for healthcare short staffing as Sept. 27 vaccine deadline looms

UPDATED: Friday, Sept. 24, at 1:00 p.m.

NY governor prepares for potential healthcare short staffing after Sept. 27 vaccine deadline

Ahead of New York’s first deadline for healthcare workers across the state to be vaccinated for COVID-19, Governor Kathy Hochul said that her office has contingency plans in place to address potential understaffing.

“I will be announcing a whole series of initiatives we are doing to be prepared for a situation on Monday which I hope doesn’t happen,” she said during a Sept. 23 press briefing. “It does not have to happen, … what is looming for Monday is completely avoidable.”

Just 84% of New York’s healthcare workers were vaccinated as of the briefing, although Hochul said she was “optimistic” that the state would see a flurry of last-minute vaccinations as individuals sought to preserve their jobs.

Hochul did not share any details on what the “deployment program” would entail but noted that her office has been coordinating with the unions for state-run hospitals on any enacted measures. Further, health systems across the state “have all told me it’s the right thing to do," she said.

The governor also addressed earlier comments on securing temporary visas for international healthcare workers, saying that the Department of State’s approval process would make this more of a long-term approach rather than an immediate fix.

“Every single person who ends up in your care has the right to know that they are as safe as they can be, that there is no chance they will be infected by the person charged with protecting them and their health. We can get this number higher, I’m confident of that, I’m grateful for those who have stepped up and done the right thing,” Hochul said. “Stay tuned, we’re going to continue focusing on this.”

The press briefing also came with word that New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, a prominent figure throughout the state’s COVID-19 response, has submitted his resignation. Hochul said she agreed with the decision and that Zucker would be staying on until a new commissioner is named.

UPDATED: Friday, Sept. 17, at 11:00 a.m.

NIH, NYU Langone Health distributing $470M for large-scale long COVID research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and New York University (NYU) Langone Health will be doling out nearly $470 in grant money to more than 100 researchers from 35 institutions for a large-scale study of COVID-19’s long-term effects on survivors.

The funds are part of the NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative announced back in June and supported by the American Rescue Plan.

The project seeks to enroll tens of thousands of participants from existing and new large cohort studies to monitor long-term health symptoms directly or indirectly caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, according to announcements from the NIH and NYU Langone Health.

“The goal of the newly funded RECOVER studies, in adults, children, and in pregnant women, is to fully understand the long-term consequences of COVID-19 and the pace and extent of recovery over time,” Stuart D. Katz, M.D., director of NYU Langone’s heart failure program and principal investigator for the RECOVER Clinical Science Core, said in a statement. “We recognize the need to urgently begin nationwide enrollment for collection of the information needed to better understand and improve treatment for long COVID-19.”

The project will enroll patients during their acute and post-acute phases of infection as well as uninfected individuals for comparison, the NIH and NYU Langone Health said. The project will evaluate their tissue pathology, EHR information and other data collected from devices such as smartphone apps and wearables.

“We know some people have had their lives completely upended by the major long-term effects of COVID-19,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., said in a statement. “These studies will aim to determine the cause and find much needed answers to prevent this often-debilitating condition and help those who suffer move toward recovery.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 11:15 a.m.

More states, hospitals report new capacity, staffing challenges as delta continues to surge

Reports continue to stream out of hard-hit states regarding interrupted hospital services or shutdowns tied to rising volumes and dwindling workforces.

Within the last several days, Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare announced it would suspend "urgent but not life threatening" surgeries at 13 of its hospitals due to the influx of COVID-19 patients. 

Henry Ford Health System said staff shortages fueled by COVID-19 led to a decision to cut 120 beds (about 7%) from five of its hospitals, most of which will be in the Detroit and Jackson, Illinois areas.

Lewis County General Hospital, a standalone hospital in New York, said it would be shutting down its maternity ward because too many of its employees resigned over the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Indiana University Health, the state's largest hospital system, put a two-week hold on all elective inpatient procedures last week and said it would extend the pause if necessary.

Idaho public health leaders activated crisis standards of care last week across the state's northern hospitals. The surge in cases has also spilled over to neighboring hospitals in Washington, which was already dealing with its own uptick in cases 

A recent New York Times analysis of HHS data suggests that 95% of ICU beds are occupied at one in four hospitals nationwide. 

This is up from similar cutoffs at one in five hospitals last month and one in 10 hospitals back in June. The Times' report also noted exceptionally high stress across Texas, Florida and Alabama hospitals.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Sept. 1, at 4:17 p.m.

CDC data reveals at least 15.1 million COVID-19 vaccines have been thrown away since March 

The data was released to NBC News on Tuesday as part of a records request. 

Pharmacy chains were responsible for the bulk of wasted doses. Walgreens reported the most waste at nearly 2.6 million doses, followed by CVS with 2.3 million, Walmart with 1.6 million and Rite Aid with 1.1 million. The figures were all self-reported by pharmacies, states and other vaccine providers. The data does not include a complete list of providers, nor does it include the justification for wasted doses. It is probably an undercount, NBC News noted.

The number of wasted doses rose exponentially since March, peaking in July at 4.7 million.

Of state health departments, Texas led in wasted doses with more than half a million, according to the data.

Some reasons for wasted doses include storage mishaps like cracked vials or freezer malfunctions, as well as clinical errors involving diluting the vaccine and simply too many doses that are unwanted. A vial with too few doses could also trigger a wastage report.

"It's really tragic that we have a situation where vaccines are being wasted while lots of African countries have not had even 5 percent of their populations vaccinated,” Sharifah Sekalala, an associate professor of global health law at England's University of Warwick, who studies inequalities in infectious diseases, told NBC News.

In its defense, the CDC noted that the share of discarded doses is still relatively low compared to the total number of vaccines administered in the U.S.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 12:00 p.m.

Study: Lifting eviction moratoriums increased risk of COVID-19 diagnosis

A recent study published in JAMA Network Open suggests that housing insecurity driven by evictions likely contributed to the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The review—which looked at individual-level administrative claims data from states that implemented an eviction moratorium between March 13, 2020 and September 4, 2020—found that all individuals living in a state that lifted its moratorium were at greater risk of a COVID-19 diagnosis at least five weeks after the decision went into effect. 

This risk increased further after 12 weeks, and was even greater for those with comorbidities, those living in nonaffluent areas and those with higher rent burdens. 

"As such, eviction moratoria should be thought of as a health equity intervention that has helped narrow the gap in risk between affluent and nonaffluent neighborhoods and between individuals based on preexisting health conditions, which, especially after age adjustments, are known to be associated with social determinants of health, including individual-level socioeconomic status and exposure to racism," the researchers wrote in JAMA Network Open. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 24, at 4:00 p.m.

CDC studies suggest vaccines still provide protection from delta variant 

Two new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies published today illustrate the protection authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccines provide against the now-predominant delta variant.

The first study, published early in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), reviewed data from 43,127 SARS-CoV-2 infections among residents of Los Angeles County from May 1 to July 25—a period during which the delta became the predominant variant for that area.

By the end of that study period, researchers from the county’s public health department found that unvaccinated persons were 4.9 times as likely to be infected as those who were the same age and fully vaccinated.

Further, the county’s unvaccinated population was also 29.2 times as likely to be hospitalized.

Protection among those who were partially vaccinated was similar, but slightly lower, than those who were fully vaccinated.

“These data indicate that authorized vaccines protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection and severe COVID-19, even with increased community transmission of the newly predominant delta variant,” the researchers wrote.

The second study, also published in MMWR, is an Aug. 14 update on a cohort of frontline healthcare workers that have been monitored since Dec. 14 2020. It compared vaccine effectiveness across eight study sites during the weeks in which the delta variant was predominant in that area.

While full vaccination with the COVID-19 vaccines was 80% effective in preventing confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection among the frontline workers across the entire study period, effectiveness dipped from 91% pre-delta to 66% when the variant was predominant.

Researchers noted that the 66% effectiveness rate “should be interpreted with caution” and may not be entirely related to the variant due to potentially waning effectiveness over time.

“Although these interim findings suggest a moderate reduction in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in preventing infection, the sustained two thirds reduction in infection risk underscores the continued importance and benefits of COVID-19 vaccination,” they wrote.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Aug. 18, at 4:44 p.m.

CMS to require all nursing home staff to get vaccinated

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is developing an emergency rule to require all nursing home staff to get vaccinated if they work in a Medicare and Medicaid-participating facility.

The agency did not say when it plans to issue the rule but noted on Wednesday that it is going through the “necessary steps in the rule-making process over the course of the next several weeks,” according to a release on the move on Wednesday.

CMS said that nursing home employers should use “all available resources to support employees in getting vaccinated, including employee education and vaccination clinics.”

Nursing homes were one of the first to get access to vaccines in the U.S. alongside frontline healthcare workers.

But staff vaccination rates have lagged. As of July 18, approximately one out of every four facilities had at least three quarters of their staff vaccinated, according to an analysis from AARP.

CMS’ notice also comes as the highly transmissible delta variant has increased COVID-19 cases in nursing homes. The agency reported that cases were 319 in June 27 but have exploded to 2,696 on Aug. 8.

The rule got a lukewarm reception from the nursing home and assisted living industry. CMS should require all providers to get vaccinated and not single out nursing homes, according to a statement from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

“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,” said President and CEO Mark Parkinson in a statement. “It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 3:30 p.m.

Georgia governor announces $125M to counter hospital staffing shortages

Georgia Governor Brian P. Kemp announced yesterday afternoon that the state's public health department would be funneling $125 million toward the employment of 1,300 to 2,800 hospital staff.

The investment runs through the first of December, he said, and will add an additional 450 beds across nine regional coordinating hospitals. 

Georgia is among the states hardest hit by the recent surge of COVID-19. According to the CDC's Aug. 16 data, the state has seven-day averages of more than 4,700 confirmed cases and over 600 new hospitalizations.

The governor also said he would be closing state offices on Sept. 3 through Labor Day "to encourage unvaccinated state employees to schedule their appointment and thank those who are already vaccinated." Less than half of the state's population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 2:29 p.m.

CMS gives states more time to handle Medicaid backlog

The Biden administration is giving states another six months to enroll Medicaid beneficiaries after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services outlined the extension in a letter to states on Friday. A COVID-19 relief bill gave states more money for Medicaid in exchange for continuous enrollment of beneficiaries in the program as of March 18, 2020.

The requirement for continuous enrollment ends after the public health emergency period for COVID-19, expected to stretch at least through this year. States have complained to CMS that they will be faced with a large number of eligibility and enrollment actions such as renewals and post-enrollment verification that will be needed to complete after the PHE ends.

 “States have raised concerns that they will need additional time to complete the growing backlog of pending work, especially in states that are relying on manual workarounds to extend coverage during the PHE,” the letter said. “In addition, many states have expressed concern that have to complete all pending actions within six months of the end of the PHE will result in a ‘renewal bulge’ in future years, which would result in ongoing administrative burden.”

CMS issued a letter in December 2020 that said states have six months to complete such actions after the end of the PHE. However, the updated letter gives states a year after the PHE ends.

“CMS believes the additional time is appropriate given the increased program enrollment and to ensure states can reestablish a renewal schedule that is sustainable in future years,” the agency said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 10:24 p.m.

NYT: U.S. set to announce plans for third vaccine shot

The Biden administration is set to offer vaccinated Americans COVID-19 booster shots as early as mid-September, according to a report from the New York Times that has been verified by other major publications. 

The announcement of the new rollout could come as early as this week, according to the Times, and will initially target high-priority individuals such as nursing home residents, healthcare workers and emergency workers. Individuals would receive the additional shot eight months after being fully vaccinated. 

The pending plans are specific to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and are also dependent on FDA authorization, according to the Times. A similar decision is likely for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson, per the report, but is contingent on the results of an ongoing clinical trial. 

The news follows announcements from the FDA and CDC late last week authorizing and recommending, respectively, a third doze of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems. 

UPDATED: Thursday, Aug. 12, at 12:24 p.m.

HHS to require 25K workers to get vaccinated

Health and Human Services will require more than 25,000 members of its healthcare workforce such as the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The mandate announced Thursday also applies to staff at the Indian Health Services and National Institutes of Health that work in federally-run healthcare and clinical research facilities that could interact with people who have contracted the virus.

“This includes employees, contractors, trainees and volunteers whose duties put them in contact or potential contact with patients at an HHS medical or clinical research facility,” according to a release on the mandate.

The IHS, NIH and commissioned corps already require personnel to get the influenza shot each flu season.

The move comes after Veterans Affairs called for its staff and providers to get vaccinated.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Aug. 11, at 1:15 p.m.

CDC now recommends COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant, breastfeeding people

In light of new data, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention have updated their COVID-19 vaccination guidance to include recommendations for those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to become pregnant or possibly will become pregnant in the future. 

The public health agency had previously said that these individuals were eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, but had stopped short of a formal recommendation. 

Vaccination rates have been low among this group. CDC data suggest that fewer than a quarter have received at least one dose of an authorized COVID-19 shot. 

"Evidence about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination during pregnancy has been growing. These data suggest that the benefits of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy," the agency wrote in the updated guidance. "There is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men."

The recommendation update comes as U.S. cases of COVID-19 are rebounding due to the highly infectious Delta variant.

Many public and private groups have also announced requirements for employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, although these generally include an exemption for pregnancy. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 11:20 a.m.

Health policy expert calls for wider use of N95s, less complex masking recommendations

Delta variant cases on the rise and the CDC is advocating a return to indoor masking in areas with high transmission. But while the health agency doesn't currently advocate widespread use of higher quality masks, this morning a policy expert backed wider adoption of N95 masks during a press briefing hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“I do think we need to upgrade our masks," Ezekiel J. Emanuel, M.D., vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, said during the briefing. "The important size protection is .3mm, and I think we need to make sure people have masks that can filter that out. Surgical masks are very good, [but] they’re not quite as good as N95 which filter out 95% of these .3mm [particles]. I think that’s the direction.”

Emanuel stressed that the country is no longer facing the widespread shortage of personal protective equipment that led the CDC to previously recommend that N95 masks be reserved for healthcare professionals. Domestic production has ramped up over the past 14 or 15 months, he said, and most people in the U.S. should be able to easily purchase an N95 for themselves. 

"They’re readily available if you go on the web," he said. "They can be used for multiple days and … the pricing has come pretty far down. I think good masks, worn properly, [are] very important.”

Emanuel also joined the growing chorus of public health experts who have criticized the latest masking guidance from the CDC.

He said he agreed with the agency's decision to avoid a blanket masking recommendation, noting that there's room for subtlety when it comes to smaller home gatherings, interactions with vaccinated family members or sparse crowds in public outdoor spaces. 

On the other hand, he believed that tying specific recommendations with regional transmission rates is unnecessarily complex for those who aren't already up to date on their local spread.

“The messaging from the CDC was less than optimal, talking about high transmission rates and requiring someone to go and look is a high transmission," he said. "One of the problems I think we’re having is a lot of the public is getting tired of trying to parse the messaging. We do need to be clear and probably relatively simple about it.

"We know that it’s transmissible [and] we know that it’s transmissible to people who have been vaccinated. For the times that you’re going indoors in places like grocery stores and pharmacies or others, wear a mask for those 15 or 20 minutes. It’s very, very important—even in places like New England that are very well vaccinated.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 27, at 1:58 p.m.

DOJ and HHS: Long COVID can be a disability

People with long COVID-19 symptoms can be considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to new guidance from Health and Human Services and Justice Department.

The guidance released Monday focuses on people with long-term symptoms of COVID-19 that can range from mild or debilitating impairments.

“As many of our neighbors find themselves with long-lasting effects from COVID-19, we are committed to making sure that people understand their rights under federal nondiscrimination laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The designation of long COVID as a disability ensures several rights for people with the condition, including reasonable modifications that employers have to offer for employees such as if they have to stand too long, according to the guidance.

UPDATED: Monday, July 26 at 11:20 p.m.

DOJ declines to investigate New York's nursing home COVID-19 deaths 

The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) has told lawmakers that it will not be opening up a civil rights investigation into related to New York's requirement that state-run nursing homes accept residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19, the Associated Press and others report. 

In a letter penned by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Joe Gaeta and delivered late last week to Republicans who had backed the investigation, the department said it reached its decision after reviewing data provided by New York and other sources, according to the reports.

The DOJ, under the Trump administration, had requested these data from New York and three other states almost a year ago.

Advocates of the investigation said that New York and other states had worsened nursing home COVID-19 outbreaks with their decisions to require readmittance. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has defended those decisions by pointing to the state's then-crowded hospitals and characterized the calls for investigation as politically motivated. 

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., an advocate for the investigations, said the DOJ's decision was "outrageous" and denied justice to the family members of those who died of COVID-19 in the nursing homes. 

"Where is the justice for nursing home victims and their grieving families? These deadly orders contradicted the CDC’s guidance, and needlessly endangered the most vulnerable among us to the deadly COVID-19 virus," he said in the statement. "Even worse, Governor Cuomo in New York intentionally tried to cover up the true death toll resulting from his mandate. Grieving families deserve answers and accountability. It’s unconscionable that Biden’s Department of Justice refuses to investigate the deadly actions that went against CDC’s medical guidance taken in these states.”

The DOJ's decision does not speak to other investigations of the Cuomo administration's controversial handling of New York's nursing home data.  

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 21 at 1:20 p.m.

Banner Health pairs employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate with $10,000 lottery drawings

Phoenix-based Banner Health has its 52,000 employees that COVID-19 vaccination will be a condition of employment but softened the blow with an incentive tactic that's become common across several state public health programs: a COVID-19 vaccine lottery drawing.

Launched this month, the lottery program will select 10 fully vaccinated Banner Health employees in drawings taking place across July and August, the 30-hospital system announced yesterday. Each chosen employee will be awarded $10,000 through the program, it said. 

Banner Health's mandate takes effect November first and will permit "limited exceptions" to the vaccination policy, the system said. To further encourage its employees to get their shots, Banner Health said it is providing pay for time missed due to vaccination, mileage reimbursement and points toward its wellness program. 

"Safety is an absolute top priority and the COVID vaccine mandate reflects that commitment," Banner Health President and CEO Peter Fine said in a company-wide email shared by the system. "The vaccine data has fully supported the safety and efficacy to prevent disease and reduce its severity. There is overwhelming evidence for us to act on behalf of the communities that rely on us to care for and protect them.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 20 at 2:05 p.m.

AHIP study finds continued 'price-gouging' for COVID tests

"Price-gouging" for COVID-19 test is a widespread problem, according to a new study from AHIP.

The insurance lobbying group found that the average market price for a test is $130. The number of providers charging between 50% and 100% more than the average has grown from the start of the pandemic, according to the study, reaching 36%.

About 18% of providers were charging similarly high prices for COVID tests early in the pandemic, AHIP said.

"As the nation continues to address the pandemic, affordable testing is key to reducing the spread of COVID-19,” said Jeanette Thornton, AHIP’s Senior Vice President of Product, Employer, and Commercial Policy,in a statement.

“COVID-19 testing price gouging threatens the progress we are making against this deadly virus, and we urge the Administration, Congress, and policymakers to take deliberate steps to ensure testing is accessible and affordable for all Americans," Thornton said.

AHIP conducted the survey of commercial insurers between May and June.

UPDATED: Thursday, July 15, at 11:00 a.m.

Feds charge homeopathic doctor with selling fake COVID-19 inoculation, falsified vaccination cards

A homeopathic doctor was arrested yesterday for allegedly selling homeoprophylaxis COVID-19 immunization pellets and falsifying CDC COVID-19 vaccination cards, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The arrest represents the first federal prosecution related to these immunizations and fraudulent vaccination cards, the department said.

“This defendant allegedly defrauded and endangered the public by preying on fears and spreading misinformation about FDA-authorized vaccinations, while also peddling fake treatments that put people’s lives at risk,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said in a statement. “Even worse, the defendant allegedly created counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards and instructed her customers to falsely mark that they had received a vaccine, allowing them to circumvent efforts to contain the spread of the disease.”

Juli A. Mazi, 41, is a homeopathic doctor licensed in the state of California. She is charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of false statements related to healthcare matters, according to the DOJ.

In April, a family member of Mazi’s customers reported through a Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) hotline that she had given the customers homeoprophylaxis immunization pellets and told them that the pellets contained a “very minute amount of this [COVID-19] disease,” the DOJ said.

Mazi allegedly told her customers that the pellets would trigger an antibody response, with the complainant noting that their family members did not receive any injections of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines.

Further, Mazi included a COVID-19 vaccination card with the pellets that indicated receipt of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the DOJ said. She allegedly provided customers with specific Moderna vaccine lot numbers and instructed them on how to mark the cards to indicate they had received the authorized vaccine.

The affidavit also alleges that Mazi relied on disinformation and vaccine fears to fuel her business and falsely claimed that the authorized COVID-19 vaccines contain “toxic ingredients,” according to the DOJ.

“This doctor violated the all-important trust the public extends to healthcare professionals—at a time when integrity is needed the most,” Special Agent in Charge Steven J. Ryan of the HHS-OIG said in a statement. “Working closely with our law enforcement partners, our agency will continue to investigate such fraudsters who recklessly endanger the public’s health during the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis.”   

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 14, at 10:30 a.m.

Tennessee vaccine head fired as public health department recoils from adolescent outreach

After axing its immunizations head due to her stance on teen COVID-19 vaccination, the Tennessee Department of Health now looks to be winding down its adolescent vaccine outreach efforts for COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

As reported by The Tennessean and others, Michelle Fiscus, M.D., a pediatrician and the state’s medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs, was fired on Monday due to what she described as political interference from Republican state lawmakers.

Fiscus told press she had shared an internal memo laying out a 34-year-old legal precedent for minors aged 14 to 17 years to receive a vaccine without parental consent.

Shortly after, she said the public health department began hearing from legislators who were concerned that COVID-19 vaccine outreach targeting adolescents could undermine parents’ authority. Fiscus said that her firing was an effort to appease the lawmakers, whose concern she said was politically motivated.

“This is a failure of public health to protect the people of Tennessee,” Fiscus said Monday in a statement cited by the Tennessean. “When the people elected and appointed to lead this state put their political gains ahead of the public good, they have betrayed the people who have trusted them with their lives.”

Tennessee is one of several states in which new COVID-19 cases have increased in recent weeks.

At the same time, the health department has distributed internal emails telling staff to halt COVID-19 vaccine events on school property and cut off messaging directly targeted at minors, according to The Tennessean.

Another internal email went on to extend the rollback to other immunizations, specifying that the department should conduct “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” as well as “no outreach whatsoever regarding the [human papillomavirus] vaccine],” according to reports. Informational sheets and other disseminated material regarding routine vaccinations will also be stripped of the public health department’s logo, per the email.

In statements to press, the department said that it is still conducting vaccine outreach efforts but is being “mindful” of the national conversation around vaccine hesitancy and avoiding tactics that could harm those efforts.

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 13, at 11:07 a.m.

FDA adds warning of rare complication with J&J vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration has added a warning to Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine of a rare complication of the immune disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

The agency said in a notice Monday that there have been reports of adverse events that suggest an increased risk of Guillain-Barre during 42 days after getting the vaccine.

FDA had already added a warning to the vaccine’s label to alert patients of a small chance of contracting blood clots.

The amount of Guillain-Barre cases is very low, as the federal government reported having about 100 preliminary cases out of more than 12 million people to get the vaccine.

FDA had paused administration of the J&J vaccine earlier this year after reports of blood clots. The shots resumed with the added warning.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 7, at 1:41 p.m.

Study: Ohio vaccine lottery didn’t move needle much

Ohio’s $1 million lottery open to only vaccinated state residents didn’t lead to increased rates of adult COVID-19 vaccinations, a new study posits.

The study published earlier this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association explores one of the key incentives that states have used to persuade reluctant Americans to get vaccinated. Several other states adopted similar lotteries for vaccinated residents.

Researchers looked at the daily vaccination rate from April 15 to June 9. The vaccine lottery was introduced on May 13.

From April 15 through June 9, the vaccination rate among Ohio adults declined from 485 for every 100,000 to 101 per 100,000 persons in the state. It also declined from 700 for every 100,000 persons to 97 in states that did not have a lottery.

Ohio announced the vaccine lottery on May 12 and the rate of decline in vaccinations among adults did slow in Ohio.

However, that slower decline could be due to the “expansion of vaccine eligibility to adolescents,” the study said. The expansion could have led to an increase in adult vaccinations as well, but not because of the lottery, researchers added.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 7 at 10:55 a.m.

HHS redirects $860M in NIH COVID-19 funds to the border

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is planning to redirect $860 million in COVID-19 funds away from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cover growing pandemic-related costs at the Southwest border, Bloomberg reports.

The report cites a Tuesday letter from HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to Congress outlining the increased operating costs of the government’s program to process unaccompanied children crossing the border. Quarantine, social distancing and testing costs among the children and staff have reduced the capacity existing of emergency intake shelters and driven a need for additional locations, Becerra said.

The secretary noted in the letter that shifting the appropriated COVID-19 funds is within his authority, according to Bloomberg, and that the agency will ensure that the redirect “does not disrupt or impede planned NIH activities.”

UPDATED: Thursday, July 1 at 10:46 a.m.

AHIP, BCBSA program helps vaccinate 2M seniors

AHIP and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association joined forces for the Vaccine Community Connectors program earlier this year, which has led to more than 2 million seniors getting vaccinated in 100 days.

More than 50 health insurers are now participating in the program, which includes partnerships between private companies and public organizations. The companies plan to take lessons learned to address other community health challenges.

Through the program, participating insurers harnessed data to break down barriers to vaccination for seniors in vulnerable communities.

“Throughout the pandemic, racial and geographic gaps in our nation’s health care system have shown disproportionate harm to many Black, Hispanic, rural and other underserved communities,” said Tonya Adams, national spokesperson for the VCC program and senior vice president of customer experience and operations at Regence BlueCross BlueShield, in a statement.

“Our collaborative effort reached and vaccinated more than 2 million seniors – but we’re not stopping there. In addition to continuing COVID-19 vaccinations, health insurance providers will continue to break down long-standing barriers to access for other vaccines, as well as to help people in these communities manage their chronic diseases," Adams said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 30, at 12:40 p.m.

HHS releases online calculator for expanding access to COVID-19 antibody treatment

Health and Human Services released an online calculator on Wednesday aimed at expanding access to COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatments.

The goal of the calculator is to help providers that are and are not administering the treatments that can help reduce the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19.

“Clinicians in every community need to be ready to identify, refer and treat high-risk patients and this calculator will help,” said John Redd, M.D., chief medical officer for HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, in a statement.

The goal of the calculator is to help providers determine the needs for any antibody treatments and how much.

Facilities that are currently not treating patients with monoclonal antibodies can use the calculator to be an important planning tool to respond to any COVID-19 surge, HHS said in a release.

“For facilities and providers currently administering monoclonal antibody treatments, the calculator helps ensure staffing is not necessarily high or too low,” the agency added.

Currently, there are two monoclonal antibody treatments that have emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 30 at 11:30 a.m.

KFF: Half of parents are concerned about rare heart conditions following adolescent vaccination

About two-thirds of adults say they've heard about the heart problems infrequently reported among adolescents who have been vaccinated for COVID-19, and about half of all parents with a minor say they are at least somewhat concerned about these cases.

The new Kaiser Family Foundation survey findings suggest that awareness of the cases is lowest among those who are younger or are not a parent. Concern followed a similar trend with younger respondents and non-parents slightly less concerned about the cases. 

Of note, these parents' worries appear to be influencing their vaccination decisions.

Parents of children aged 12 to 17 years who said they were concerned about potential heart problems following vaccination were also less likely to say they planned to vaccinate their child. A substantially larger proportion of those who said they were not concerned or hadn't heard of the cases reported already having their child vaccinated.

The foundation's survey also reinforced prior reports that COVID-19 vaccination rates are slowing down in the U.S. Further, about three-quarters of the respondents said they were optimistic that the country was nearing the end of the pandemic. 

"However, this optimism has the potential to hamper further vaccination efforts, with half of unvaccinated adults saying that the number of cases is now so low there is no need for more people to get the vaccine," KFF wrote.

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 23 at 4:30 p.m.

CDC advisory panel: benefits of adolescent COVID-19 vaccination outweigh myocarditis risks

There is a “likely association” between the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines and cardiovascular health issues among adolescents, but the reported cases are infrequent and mild enough that the benefits of vaccination outweigh those potential risks, members of a CDC advisory panel said today.

In a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, experts from the CDC and other health organizations reviewed the most recent data on COVID-19 incidence, hospitalization and mortality, as well as information on reported incidence of myocarditis among those who had received their second mRNA vaccination.

Myocarditis cases were most common among males younger than 30 years and further increased in prevalence among younger age groups, according to the panel’s data.

More specifically, the numbers suggested that there were 56 to 69 cases of myocarditis among males aged 12 to 17 years for every 1 million final doses administered, compared to only 8 to 10 cases among females who were the same age.

Those 1 million second dose vaccinations among the highest risk adolescent males, however, were found to prevent 5,700 cases of COVID-19, 215 hospitalizations, 71 ICU admissions and two deaths, with the panel noting that these benefits were likely an undercount.

Initial presentations of myocarditis among adolescents and young adults who received their vaccinations have so far been mild, although the panel supported continued monitoring of these cases and their long-term outcomes out of caution.

All told, the panel supported CDC’s current recommendation of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for individuals aged 12 years and older.

UPDATED: Monday, June 21 at 11:30 a.m.

Data suggest birthday gatherings contributed to COVID spread in hard-hit counties

A new analysis found increased COVID-19 diagnosis rates among households with a birthday within the prior two weeks, suggesting that social gatherings like birthday parties fueled transmission of the virus in counties already experiencing high COVID-19 prevalence.

In the study, published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers reviewed private insurance data collected from 2.9 million U.S. households between January 1 and November 8, 2020 by Castlight Health.

“To the extent that birthdays provide an important reason for people to gather; can be identified and linked to COVID-19 diagnoses in large, administrative health care data; and should not be associated with COVID-19 risk because cases are randomly distributed across households … birthdays occurring during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic offer an opportunity to empirically quantify the potential role of small social gatherings in COVID-19 spread,” they wrote.

The researchers’ analysis found that among the 10% of counties in which community infections were most prevalent, recent birthdays drove an additional 8.6 diagnoses per 10,000 individuals— a relative increase of 31%. The diagnosis rate increase dropped to 0.9 more diagnoses per 10,000 individuals among counties in the middle range of community COVID-19 prevalence.

Subgroup analyses for additional factors such as milestone birthdays (e.g., an individual turning 40 or 50 years old), regional political leanings, shelter-in-place policies and weekend rain did not demonstrate any differences in birthday-related COVID-19 diagnosis rates, they found.

However, birthdays among children were tied to an increase of 15.8 diagnoses per 10,000 individuals in high-prevalence counties, as opposed to a 5.8 diagnoses per 10,000 individuals increase for adult birthdays.

This trend, they wrote, suggests “an increased likelihood of gathering around children’s’ birthdays, a larger number of participants, relaxed masking and social distancing behavior or a combination of these. Households may also be more likely to have a social gathering for a child’s birthday than for an adult’s birthday.”

UPDATED: Friday, June 18 at 3:45 p.m.

Biden touts 300 million COVID-19 shots in 150 days

President Joe Biden celebrated the 150-day mark of his presidency with a press conference highlighting another milestone for his administration: 300 million total doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered to more than 175 million Americans.

According to the White House, 65% of adult Americans have received at least one shot and 55% are fully vaccinated. Seventy percent of adults in 15 states and Washington, D.C., have received at least one shot, while 26 states and the capital have reached the 50% mark. 

Biden entered the Oval Office with a goal of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days and hit that target in roughly two months. In a speech, he attributed the nationwide decline in new COVID-19 cases and deaths from January to today to his administration's numerous vaccine rollout initiatives. 

"Just remember what the situation was like 150 days ago," Biden said. "We didn't have enough vaccine supply for all Americans. We didn't have the vaccine infrastructure or the people to administer the vaccines or the places where the people could get vaccinated. But we turned it around together by working quickly, aggressively and equitably."

The president upped the ante in May with a new goal of 70% of Americans partially vaccinated by July 4,. So far it appears unlikely that the U.S. will hit the mark at its current rate of vaccination. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 15 at 10:30 a.m.

Assisted living residents' all-cause mortality increased 17% as COVID-19 spread through U.S.

A new study published in JAMA Open found a 17% year-over-year increase in assisted living residents' all-cause mortality during the first eight and a half months of 2020—likely an underestimate for the year when considering surges in COVID-19 during later months. 

The analysis reviewed Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data on assisted living settings with 25 or more beds across the U.S. This included 425,333 Medicare beneficiaries as of January 1, 2019, and 422,262 beneficiaries at the start of the following year. 

Comparing the two years, the researchers found a mean 2.02 deaths per 1,000 residents per week for 2019 and 2.3 deaths for 2020 up to August 11.

All-cause deaths among the population reached 3.28 per 1,000 residents during the peak week of 2020, they wrote. When looking exclusively at the 10 states with the most community spread of COVID-19, mortality increased 24% over the previous year to 2.39 deaths per 1,000 residents per week.

"These results suggest that assisted living residents experienced increased mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic consistent with increases observed among nursing home residents," the researchers wrote.

UPDATED: Monday, June 14 at 1:30 p.m.

CDC: Routine pediatric vaccinations fell behind schedule during COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is highlighting decline in routine vaccinations among children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a recently published review, public health researchers analyzed vaccine administration data across 10 U.S. jurisdictions between March 2020 and September 2020.

Compared to prior years, the researchers said they found fewer records of vaccination for every jurisdiction. These declines were substantial during the first few months of the review when stay-at-home orders were commonplace, they wrote, and still persisted to a lesser degree as the orders were lifted.

Based on these findings, the researchers called for providers to assess the vaccination status of all younger patients and make new efforts to contact and vaccinate those who are behind schedule. 

"Routine child and adolescent vaccination remains an important cornerstone of public health practice and is a critical frontline tool in the prevention of morbidity and mortality in younger populations," they wrote in the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. "Even a transient decline in vaccination coverage can compromise herd immunity and result in the propagation of outbreaks."

UPDATED: Friday, June 11 at 2:40 p.m.

AMA survey: 96% of doctors fully vaccinated against COVID-19

More than 96% of U.S. physicians have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, with no significant difference in vaccination rates across regions, according to a new survey from the American Medical Association (AMA).

Of the physicians who are not yet vaccinated, an additional 45% do plan to get vaccinated, the AMA survey data (PDF) shows. The most common reason for not receiving the vaccine was that it was too new and has unknown long-term effects, according to physician responses.

The national AMA survey polled 300 physicians, including primary care doctors and specialists, between June 3-8. It's the first survey to specifically collect data on practicing physicians’ COVID-19 vaccination rates, according to the AMA.

The survey results show an increase of more than 20% for physicians who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 compared to a May 2021 Medscape poll, AMA said.

“Practicing physicians across the country are leading by example, with an amazing uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines,” said AMA President Susan R. Bailey, M.D. in a statement.

“Physicians and clinicians are uniquely positioned to listen to and validate patient concerns, and one of the most powerful anecdotes a physician can offer is that they themselves have been vaccinated. You can take it from your doctor: the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. With COVID-19 vaccines readily available and approved for all people 12 years old and up, we urge you to get vaccinated—take the single most important step you can to protect yourself, your family, and end the COVID-19 pandemic," Bailey said.

UPDATED: Monday, June 7 at 10:46 a.m.

CDC report: Adolescent hospitalizations for COVID tick up in March, April

A new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that the number of adolescents hospitalized for COVID-19 rose in March and April after a decline early in the year.

The hospitalization rate peaked in 2.1 per 100,000 in early January before falling to 0.6 per 100,000 people in mid-March. The rate rose again in April to 1.3 per 100,000, according to the analysis.

"Recent increased hospitalization rates in spring 2021 and potential for severe disease reinforce the importance of continued COVID-19 prevention measures, including vaccination and correct and consistent mask wearing among persons not fully vaccinated or when required," the CDC researchers wrote.

Pfizer's vaccine for COVID-19 has secured emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to be offered to people as young as 12, and Moderna has also released data suggesting its vaccine is effective in adolescents.

The CDC report said that nearly a third of adolescent COVID-19 admissions required intensive care, and 5% required ventilation. There were no deaths reported.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, at 11:45 a.m.

U.S. to share 25 million COVID-19 vaccine doses

President Joe Biden outlined the federal government’s plan to distribute 25 million COVID-19 vaccines to increase global coverage.

Biden said in a statement Thursday that nearly 19 million of the doses will be shared with COVAX, an initiative led by the World Health Organization to distribute doses to developing countries.

Of those 19 million doses, 6 million will go to Latin America and the Caribbean and approximately 7 million to South and Southeast Asia, according to the White House statement. Approximately 5 million will be distributed for Africa.

The remaining doses of just over 6 million will be shared with countries that are experiencing surges of COVID-19.

“Strong American leadership is essential to ending this pandemic now, and to strengthening global health security for tomorrow — to better prevent, detect and respond to the next threat,” the president said in the statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3 at 10:35 a.m.

Biden admin's latest vaccine incentives range from drop-in child care to free beers

President Joe Biden has unveiled a slew of new incentives and access programs as part of “an all-of-America sprint” to put at least one shot into the arms of 70% of U.S. adults by the Fourth of July holiday.  

During the so-called “National Month of Action,” parents will be able to receive free drop-in child care from major providers while they take time to receive or recover from vaccination, the White House said.

The administration has also partnered to launch a “Shots at the Shop” initiative with black-owned barbershops and beauty salons, redoubled its media messaging campaign and began highlighting new nationwide incentive offerings from the private sector—most notably the announcement from Anheuser-Busch that it would be giving its beer away for free should the country hits Biden’s July 4 goal.

“That’s right, get a shot and have a beer. Free beer for everyone 21 years or over to celebrate the independence from the virus,” the president said during a press event yesterday.

There are twelve states that have already hit the 70% goal outlined by the president in early May, the administration said. At least 28 states and Washington D.C. have 50% of adults fully vaccinated.

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 1 at 10:45 a.m.

Employer vaccination requirements, incentives do not conflict with federal EEO laws, commission says

The government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published new guidance on Friday clarifying to federal equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws and employer policies regarding COVID-19 vaccination.

According to the commission, employers can legally require employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 “so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other EEO considerations.”

Federal EEO laws also do not conflict with employers offering incentives for in-house or third-party vaccination, the group wrote, and employers may distribute information about COVID-19 vaccination to employees and their families.

Employers requiring vaccination may still face restrictions from other laws that don’t fall within the commission’s jurisdiction, according to the guidance. Employers should also keep in mind individuals or demographics that may face barriers to receiving a vaccine and provide reasonable accommodation for those who are exempt from mandatory immunization.

The commission’s update clarifies legal questions tied to employer vaccine requirements and supports their efforts to increase vaccination among employees.

The guidance also lands alongside new data from the CDC describing challenges and shortcomings of the current vaccination effort.

The agency’s researchers said that disparities in vaccine coverage by social demographics have widened as more individuals became eligible for vaccination.

As of May 1, coverage was lower among those living in counties with lower socioeconomic status, as well as among counties that have higher percentages of households with children, single parents and individuals with disabilities, they wrote.

“Ensuring equitable COVID-19 vaccine access will require focused efforts on increasing coverage in counties with high [social vulnerability index) and tailoring efforts to local population needs,” the researchers wrote. “Efforts could include walk-in vaccination clinics and public health messaging about the importance of getting vaccinated.”

UPDATED: Friday, May 28 at 9:15 a.m.

Most unvaccinated people say new CDC mask guidelines aren't enough of an incentive: KFF

New survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on masking aren't enough to sway most people who are unvaccinated.

A majority (85%) of the unvaccinated people who were surveyed said the guidance, which says vaccinated people go without a mask in most places, makes "no difference" in their plans to get vaccinated themselves.

One in 10 said the updated guidance make them more likely to get vaccinated, and 4% said it makes them less likely to get the COVID-19 shot, according to the survey.

In addition, Kaiser's survey found that nearly half (43%) of people find the guidelines confusing, with 54% saying they're clear and easy to follow. The survey noted a partisan divide in how respondents perceive the guidelines, with 56% of Republicans say they are confusing.

A majority of Democrats (59%) and independents (60%) said the guidelines are clear, according to the survey.

"This may reflect partisan differences in trust of the CDC as identified in previous Vaccine Monitor reports," the researchers wrote.


UPDATED: Thursday, May 27 at 2:53 p.m.

CVS offering sweepstakes to drive more people to get vaccinated

CVS Health has launched a sweepstakes with prizes ranging from Super Bowl tickets to cruises to reunions with family members to encourage hesitant people to get vaccinated.

People who were previously vaccinated for COVID-19 at CVS locations are also eligible to enter for the prizes, the healthcare giant announced Thursday. The company said that it hopes that sweepstakes gets at hesitancy as it serves as a reminder "of the activities that are possible when vaccinated."

The contest will close July 10.

“We're grateful for the millions of people who’ve received one of the well over 17 million doses we’ve administered at CVS Health, but we have a long way to go,” said Kyu Rhee, M.D., senior vice president and a chief medical officer of CVS Health, in a statement. “Getting as much of the population fully vaccinated will bring us one step closer to all the things we’ve missed during the past 14 months, and keep our country moving in the right direction.”

CVS said that it has administered 17 million vaccinations to date and is offering them at 9,600 locations in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 26, at 1:20 p.m.

CDC detected just over 10,000 breakthrough infections as of April 30

The Centers for Disease Control and Detection (CDC) identified 10,262 COVID-19 breakthrough infections as of April 30, when roughly 101 million people had been fully vaccinated against the disease across the U.S., the agency reported yesterday in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Among these rare cases, about one in four were asymptomatic, one in 10 were hospitalized and one in 50 died. The median age of identified breakthrough infection patients was 58 years and 63% were female.

The agency was able to review sequence data from 5% of the identified cases. Nearly two-thirds of these were “SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern,” such as those first detected in the U.K., South Africa and California.

The CDC said its tally “is likely a substantial undercount” of the total number of breakthrough cases, which it defines as the detection of viral RNA or antigen from a respiratory sample collected two weeks after an individual received the full dosage of the three authorized vaccines.

“Even though FDA-authorized vaccines are highly effective, breakthrough cases are expected, especially before population immunity reaches sufficient levels to further decrease transmission,” CDC researchers wrote in the report. “However, vaccine breakthrough infections occur in only a small fraction of all vaccinated persons and account for a small percentage of all COVID-19 cases.

“The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths that will be prevented among vaccinated persons will far exceed the number of vaccine breakthrough cases,” they wrote.

CDC also said in the report that it has transitioned its breakthrough infection monitoring and is only investigating patients who are hospitalized or die, “thereby focusing on the cases of highest clinical and public health significance.”

A spokesperson for the agency told the New York Times that the decision was made due to the low rate of breakthrough infections and the lack of significant demographic trends.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 25, at 2:44 p.m.

HRSA to give nearly $5B to fund COVID-19 tests for uninsured

The federal government will give a nearly $5 billion boost to a program that reimburses providers for testing uninsured individuals for COVID-19.

The program administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration will get $4.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan, the Department of Health and Human Services announced on Tuesday.

“This funding will help ensure everyone has access to testing regardless of whether they have health insurance,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

The testing program is different from the program that reimburses providers for uninsured COVID-19 treatments and vaccinations. HRSA reimburses providers at regular Medicare rates for such care and has given out more than $2.5 billion to providers under the program. The vaccination program has paid providers more than $85 million so far.

“To truly return to normal after the pandemic, we must continue to test, treat and vaccinate everyone, regardless of insurance or immigration status,” said Acting HRSA Administrator Diana Espinosa in a statement.

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 19 at 10:35 a.m.

HHS: 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses delivered through community health centers

Community health centers funded through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) have now delivered more than 10 million COVID-19 shots, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced.

Further, 61% percent of those doses were distributed to racial and ethnic minorities, the agency said.

HHS has shifted its vaccination strategy over the last several weeks to engage hesitant or medically underserved Americans through community resources such as these centers.

“The medical professionals and staff at these centers have built trusted relationships in underserved communities, making them key to ensuring we reach hard-hit communities with vaccines,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “They have worked tirelessly and creatively to deliver more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, and are determined to raise the vaccination numbers even higher. This achievement exemplifies the vital role they play in serving those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

HHS said that a collaboration between HRSA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was key to reaching the 10 million benchmark. Called the Health Center COVID-19 Vaccine Program, the effort began in February with 25 health centers before expanding to 1,470 locations over a roughly two-month period, HHS said.

The agency also noted that the community health centers being funded by HRSA are a direct conduit to the underserved. More than 91% of these centers’ patients live at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines while almost 63% are racial or ethnic minorities, HHS wrote. The centers deliver care to nearly 30 million people each year.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 18 at 10:55 a.m.

Two CDC officials who led pandemic responses announce resignations

Word came this week that two high-ranking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials who were heavily involved in the pandemic response will be stepping away from their roles.

The first is Nancy Messonnier, M.D., who served as the directed of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). She was among the first in the agency to sound the alarm about the risk of COVID-19 in February 2020 but had recently been reassigned from her position at the head of the CDC’s COVID-19 task force.

Following the departure, she will now be stepping into a new position as executive director for pandemic and public health systems at the Palo Alto, California-based Skill Foundation.

“After 25+ years of working on many public health issues with amazing teams, I will be leaving CDC on 5/14,” she wrote on Twitter. “Together, we rolled out 3 vaccines & implemented real-time vax coverage in an unprecedented time. It has been an honor to serve as director of NCIRD.”

The other resignation came from Anne Schuchat, M.D., the CDC’s principal deputy director. She had served in the number two position since 2015 and had stepped up to the plate as the CDC's acting director on multiple occasions.

Like Messonnier, Schuchat had voiced warnings regarding COVID-19 early into the pandemic and continued to tackle the public health emergency within her leadership role at the agency. However, Politico, which first reported the departure, noted that she had clashed with new CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., in recent weeks.

"This summer, I'll be leaving the agency for a retirement that I hope will allow more time for creative passions,” Schuchat said in a statement. “I will be leaving with the greatest respect and confidence in CDC's leadership and staff and the important work we do. I could not be more optimistic about the future of our agency and the prospects for our public health system. After a long and fulfilling career in public health, infectious diseases and epidemiology, it is the time for me to smell some roses."

UPDATED: Monday, May 17 at 12:12 p.m.

Poll: Many vaccine-hesitant Americans fearful of inaccurate symptoms

A number of Americans who are hesitant to get vaccinated for COVID-19 are worried about symptoms the shot doesn't actually cause, according to new polling data from Harris.

A majority (60%) of those surveyed said they were concerned about the potential for blood clots, which is a very rare side effect associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. However, 45% said they were worried that the vaccine would cause death, Axios reported.

Nearly a third (26%) said they were concerned about potential DNA alteration and 24% said they feared the vaccine could lead to birth defects or fertility problems.

In addition, 22% said they were worried that the vaccine could cause cancer.

The results come as the U.S. is quickly reaching a point where vaccine supply will significantly oupace demand. Roughly 60% of Americans are vaccinated, polling shows.

UPDATED: Thursday, May 13, at 2:37 p.m.

CDC relaxes mask mandates for fully vaccinated people

The Biden administration has released new guidance that people who are fully vaccinated no longer must wear masks or social distance in large or small indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said during a White House briefing Thursday that the new guidance is based on updated scientific findings on the effectiveness of the vaccines.

“More science emerged in the last week on effectiveness of vaccines in real-world populations and effective against variants,” Walensky said.

But Walensky added that the requirements for masks for travel will continue.

The new guidance also come a few days after several senators grilled Walensky, calling the CDC’s guidance so far as too conservative.

Walensky said Thursday that the decision to relax the guidelines was not in response to those remarks.

UPDATED: Thursday, May 13 at 9:51 a.m.

Poll: 3 in 5 unvaccinated adults say financial rewards would convince them to get vaccinated

A new poll from Morning Consult finds that many unvaccinated adults would be convinced to get a COVID-19 shot.

Fifty-seven percent said a $1,000 savings bond would be enough for them to get vaccinated. In addition, 43% said a much smaller $50 reward would be sufficient to convince them.

Some states are taking this approach, according to the report. In West Virginia, for example, young people can receive a $100 savings bond for getting vaccinated. Ohio's governor recently unveiled a million-dollar lottery drawing for state voters who get vaccinated.

The poll found that adults under age 45 were more likely to say a bigger financial reward would make them more likely to get vaccinated.

Forty-four percent of the adults surveyed said they were concerned about long-term effects related to the vaccine, while 32% said they're worried about short-term impacts. Thirty-nine percent of respondents said there is "conflicting information" about the vaccine that makes them hesitant to get vaccinated.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 11, at 12:30 p.m.

Biden reaches agreement with Uber, Lyft for free rides to COVID vaccine sites

The White House has announced a new partnership with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft to make all rides to and from COVID-19 vaccination sites free until July 4.

The partnership is part of the Biden administration's efforts to get Americans vaccinated and meet President Joe Biden's goal for 70% of the U.S. adult population to have one vaccine shot by July 4.

While the companies were already providing free or discounted rides in some circumstances, the rides will now be free to anyone in the U.S. who is going to a vaccination site to get the shot. Lyft and Uber will promote rides to and from tens of thousands of vaccination sites through their apps, according to White House officials said in a press release issued Tuesday.

The administration will provide data on about 80,000 vaccination sites to Lyft and Uber as part of the transportation partnership, a senior administration official said, The Wall Street Journal reported.

People will be able to simply select a vaccination site near them, follow simple directions to redeem their ride, and then get a ride to take them to and from a nearby vaccination site free of charge. The feature will launch in the next two weeks and run until July 4. 

UPDATED: Thursday, May 6, at 5:25 p.m.

CMS increased Medicare payment for COVID-19 therapy

The Biden administration has increased the Medicare payment for administering monoclonal antibodies to combat COVID-19, including a new policy to reimburse for home use of the treatment.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services raised on Thursday the national average payment rate for monoclonal antibody treatment from $310 to $450 for most of the healthcare settings that administer it under Medicare Part B.

The agency also will establish a higher rate of $750 when the antibodies are administered in a beneficiary’s home.

“The new national payment rate for at-home administration of monoclonal antibodies accounts for increased costs associated with the one-on-one nature of this care model,” CMS said in a release. “These higher national average payment rates reflect additional information provided to CMS about the costs of providing these services in a safe and timely manner, such as clinical staff and personal protective equipment.”

The agency also updated toolkits for providers, states and payers to help administer the treatments.

UPDATED: Thursday, May 6 at 10:55 a.m.

940K have signed up on Healthcare.gov during special enrollment period

The Department of Health and Human Services has announced that 940,000 people have signed up for coverage on Healthcare.gov to date through the special enrollment period.

HHS launched the SEP as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The window continues through Aug. 15.

“Families and individuals are signing up for high-quality insurance that the American Rescue Plan made more affordable,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement.

“Across America there is a need and demand for high-quality, low-cost health insurance. That’s why we are doing all we can to reach people who need coverage. Americans who need health coverage to start as soon as June 1 should visit HealthCare.gov or CuidadoDeSalud.gov today to see what health plans are available to them. A few moments of your time are all that it takes for you to save your family money, get better care, and have peace of mind," he said.

HHS also said that its efforts to boost subsidies and financial assistance for Affordable Care Act exchange plans have brought 2 million current enrollees back to the marketplace to lower their premiums by more than 40% on average.

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 5, at 3:32 p.m.

U.S. backs waiving intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines

The Biden administration announced its support for waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and will participate in World Trade Organization talks to make that happen.

“The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai in a statement Wednesday.

Tai said that the U.S. will participate in text-based talks with the WTO to hammer out an agreement on waiving the rights.

“Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” Tai said.

The decision on Wednesday comes as the Biden administration ramps up efforts to help other countries in the midst of COVID-19 surges, including India that has faced rapid increases in cases over the past several weeks.

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 5 at 10:42 a.m.

Mask use declining as CDC eases restrictions for vaccinated people, poll shows

A new Ipsos poll shows that mask use has declined about 10% among vaccinated people as federal agencies ease restrictions.

The poll found that the number of vaccinated people who say they wear a mask at all times when they leave their homes has declined from 74% to 63%. Use has remained flat among the unvaccinated, decreasing slightly from 49% to 47%.

More than half of Americans overall (57%) said they always wear a mask when they leave the house, and half say they maintain a six foot distance from others. Eight percent said they never wear a mask and 4% said they never maintain a social distance.

The poll also found that 43% of Americans back the CDC's recent guidance update, which eases restrictions for mask use outdoors after people are fully vaccinated. Baby boomers (49%) and Gen Xers (46%) were more likely to back the updates than millennials (35%) and Gen Zers (34%).

Ipsos polled a nationally representative sample of 1,022 adults.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 4 at 12:54 p.m.

Anthem study: Pandemic may have led to decrease in mental healthcare

While more people reported that the pandemic worsened their mental health, fewer diagnoses for behavioral health conditions signal significant access challenges, a new Anthem report shows.

Diagnoses for anxiety and PTSD did grow in 2020, according to the analysis. However, children and older adults saw notably fewer behavioral health diagnoses last year compared to 2019. Behavioral health diagnoses rose among younger adults but at lower rates than were expected.

The report found a 10% decrease in overall diagnoses among young children and a 5% drop for adolescents and older people. The number of young children diagnosed with ADHD decreased by 13%, and the number of adolescents diagnosed with the condition decreased by 8%.

The number of seniors diagnosed with dementia also decreased by 8%.

"While we don’t know for sure why children and older adults had fewer diagnoses, we speculate that they weren’t interacting as often with people in our communities who have increasingly become the starting point for mental health diagnoses,” said Anthem chief health officer Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., in a statement. 

“Children involved in distance learning had less face time with teachers, who often recommend testing for mental health or attention concerns, and older adults may not have been able or were more reluctant to see their primary care provider in 2020, which may play a role in the decrease in dementia diagnoses, and perhaps, decreased diagnoses for depression,” Agrawal said.

UPDATED: Monday, May 3 at 11:00 a.m.

Representatives urge payer CEOs to maintain COVID-19 treatment waivers

Ten Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives cosigned a letter to the CEOs of three leading health insurers on Friday pushing back on the companies’ decisions to end waivers for COVID-19 treatment.

Citing a Kaiser Health News report and other media investigations, the lawmakers wrote that Anthem, UnitedHealth and Aetna/CVS Health had each shifted away from cost sharing in the early months of 2021.

The decisions could be “catastrophic” for patients, they wrote, with millions facing medical cost-related financial hardships and the high costs of both outpatient and inpatient COVID-19 care. They said that these individual challenges are in stark contrast with payers’ 2020 earnings where revenue and profits rose due to lowered care utilization—and CEOs continued to bring home millions in compensation.

“Now is not the time to put profits before the wellbeing of the people in this country, and your respective decisions to roll back cost-sharing waivers for the treatment of this virus do just that,” the legislators wrote in the letter. “Insurers have weathered the economic crisis wrought by the pandemic far better than many other large and small companies, and we ask you to use those profits to help protect patients rather than harm them.”

Cosigners on the letter included: Rep. Katie Porter, D-California; Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut; Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Zrizona; Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California; Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington; Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colorado; Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin; Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri; Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-New York; and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois.

UPDATED: Friday, April 30 at 10:30 a.m.

Novant Health kicks off mobile health units to deliver vaccines 

Novant Health has deployed mobile health units in a move to increase COVID-19 vaccination among “priority ZIP codes” within its active markets, the integrated provider network said.

These units will be able to provide up to 250 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, will have an on-site Spanish-language translator and will not require an appointment, Novant said. The appearances will be repeated at least twice at each location and at the same time of the week to ensure those who attended will be able to return for a second dose.

In its announcement, Novant outlined a handful of efforts launching this week that each focus on high-traffic locations in greater Charlotte area communities. These included appearances at home improvement stores, a supermarket and a community care center.

“While our community pop-up events at schools and churches help us bring the vaccine to our neighborhoods, our mobile health units will take that a step further to reach our neighbors’ doors,” Jesse Cureton, executive vice president and chief consumer officer at Novant Health, said in a statement.

“We understand that not everyone has the luxury of taking time off from work or has reliable transportation to get to clinics. It’s imperative we bring the vaccine directly to communities to reach those that might be unable, or unwilling, to receive it otherwise,” Cureton said.

Novant provides care at more than 800 locations in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Vaccine uptake in the U.S. has slowed over the past few weeks. Novant’s mobile health program arrives as public health leaders are putting out the call for more proactive efforts to reach demographics with less access to health resources and others who are hesitant to receive the vaccine.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 29 at 3:00 p.m.

U.S. at a 'crossroads' in race between COVID-19 virus and vaccines

With COVID-19 vaccination rates falling across the country, the U.S. is at a "crossroads" in the race between the COVID-19 virus and vaccines, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical advisor and the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease.

About 3 million Americans are getting vaccinated per day, but that's down from a peak of 3.38 million. At the same time, average daily COVID-19 cases still sit around 60,000 per day.

"We still have not yet seen the kind of dip in daily infections that we'd like to see. We flattened the curve but we flattened it as a level that is unacceptably high," Fauci said during an interview today at the virtual Aspen Ideas: Health conference.

If the U.S. can successfully continue getting millions of people vaccinated each day, "then we'll start to see a sharp downward slope of that curve," Fauci said.

"When we new do, then we can start talking about gradually progressing more and more towards what we’d like to see, that 'normality.' It will take months to do, but clearly we're on that pathway to do it," he said.

Federal health officials also are preparing for the possibility that Americans who have been vaccinated will need another "booster" shot, he said.

"That’s an entirely conceivable issue there. Sooner or later, you likely will need a boost, when that will be, we don’t know," he said, noting that the currently approved COVID-19 vaccines provide immunity for at least six months.

Fauci also said there are several new vaccines that could come into play, including a vaccine from drugmaker Novavax which had promising rules in a U.K. clinical trial. The company is now preparing to file for U.S. authorization in a matter of weeks, according to Politico.

More good news is that Pfizer-BioNTech said its Phase 3 clinical trials showed its vaccine was safe and 100 percent effective in 12- to 15-year-olds. 

"We hope by the time we get to the full term, or start of the next school year, we will be able to vaccinate high school students. That's an important step forward," he said.

But the global effort to control the pandemic is hampered by a troubling rise in COVID cases in countries such as India. The world's second-most populous nation is in deep crisis, with hospitals and morgues overwhelmed.

"The issue underlying all of this is that this is a global epidemic and a global epidemic requires a global response. As long as there is a degree of viral dynamics anywhere in the world, there’s the threat of variants from those places that might come back and obviate some of the things we’ve done to protect ourselves," Fauci said. "With this race, every single day the vaccine part takes a step in the right direction by getting millions of people vaccinated per day."

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 28 at 2:45 p.m.

HHS turns to community health centers, local leaders to maintain vaccine momentum

As the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations falls off from its peak of 4 million shots per day, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is signaling a more proactive messaging strategy reliant on relationships with community health centers and other local leaders.

“We don’t want to wait until you come to us to find a place to get vaccinated—we’re going to go to where you are,” Becerra said during an interview today at Aspen Ideas: Health. “Today there are more than 75,000 sites around the country where you can get vaccinated. Nine in 10 Americans are within five miles of a vaccination site. We’re [going to] help the community clinics that serve so many of our families get the information out there to people and have the vaccines ready to go.”

To support this, Becerra referenced a $1 billion investment into community clinics announced by the administration this week. These facilities are vital to addressing the issue of vaccine receipt inequity, he said, as 70% of those who receive shots in a community clinic are people of color.

But alongside the challenge of vaccine access comes the hurdle of vaccine hesitancy, especially regarding political affiliation.

Becerra noted that it would “absolutely” help the effort if prominent Republican leaders came out in support of vaccination and noted that some have already done so. More broadly, he said his department will be working to enlist “trusted messengers” within communities to help identify and persuade Americans who are unsure about the vaccines.

“It could be the person of faith in one community, it could be the civic leader in another, it could be the high school wrestling coach in another,” he said. “Whoever it is, we’re going to try to enlist those folks to become the messengers because we want to make sure that people understand it’s not just the folks in Washington who think it’s a good idea to get vaccinated, it’s not just the scientists. It’s your loved ones, it’s your neighbors, it’s the people you count on day in and day out to make sure what you and your family does is not just the safe thing to do, but the right thing to do.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 27 at 1:59 p.m.

CDC eases outdoors mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines Tuesday for mask-wearing, saying that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks outdoors unless they're in large crowds.

The CDC said that people, whether vaccinated or not, can go without a mask when out walking, biking or running alone or with members of their household. They can also attend small gatherings with other vaccinated people without a mask, the Associated Press reported.

Unvaccinated people should continue to use masks at gatherings with other unvaccinated people and at outdoor restaurants, according to the CDC guidelines.

Even vaccinated people should wear a mask a crowded events, such as concerts or sporting events, however, according to the article.

The news comes as more than half of American adults have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and a third are fully vaccinated.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 27 at 9:10 a.m.

Uber, empowerDX partner to deliver at-home COVID-19 testing kits

Consumers in some U.S. cities who want to get tested for COVID-19 can have test kits delivered to their homes by Uber.

The ride-hailing giant is teaming up with home health testing company empowerDX to offer at-home COVID-19 test kits delivered on-demand.

Consumers in more than two dozen U.S. cities, including Tampa, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Fort Lauderdale and Austin can order the kit directly from the empowerDX website without a prescription. empowerDX and Uber plan to expand test kit delivery to additional cities in the coming weeks, the companies said.

The empowerDX at-home COVID-19 test has been authorized for FDA-emergency use and can detect the virus in both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients.

The partnership helps to remove transportation barriers to access COVID-19 testing, according to Uber.

"Access to care has been a key social determinant of health for years and years, and the pandemic has augmented this issue," said Lauren Steingold Makler, head of strategic initiatives at Uber Health. "Being able to access reliable COVID-19 tests is certainly an important piece of a larger public health challenge. That's why we're proud to work with empowerDX and the larger Eurofins Clinical Diagnostics Network team to help create easy access to critical testing for our communities and vulnerable populations."

UPDATED: Monday, April 26 at 1:15 p.m.

HIMSS posts update on health, safety plans for August conference

The Health Information and Management Systems Society has appointed an external advisory panel to assist in overall health and safety planning for its August HIMSS21 event.

In an update posted to its website Monday, HIMSS executives said conference planners are engaging in a "comprehensive, evidence-based approach to planning efforts."

"We understand that these are unprecedented times, and we are conducting the detailed and comprehensive planning required to safely and responsibly host an in-person event in Las Vegas in August 2021," the organization said in the update.

HIMSS is evaluating how incorporating digital health care tools could enhance health and safety measures during the event.

HIMSS21 protocols will meet or exceed all applicable requirements for health and safety, the organization said.

Conference organizers will draw from local, national and other relevant guidelines including, but not limited to Clark County, State of Nevada, Venetian Sands Expo Resort, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other events, to "design a set of practices that are intended to keep our community safe," the organization said.

HIMSS said it will provide more detailed guidance on policies around onsite health and safety measures in the coming weeks.

UPDATED: Monday, April 26 at 11:25 a.m.

SCAN Health Plan to vaccinate seniors in their homes

SCAN Health Plan, a California-based Medicare Advantage insurer, will be offering vaccinations to homebound seniors and their families in Los Angeles County.

The vaccines are being made available through a partnership with MedArrive, the insurer announced on Monday. The first emergency medical technicians to distribute the shots began did so Monday morning, SCAN said.

Between 2 million and 4.4 million seniors nationally are homebound, making it a significant challenge for them to access vaccines at designated sites, SCAN said.

The vaccines are being made available at no cost, SCAN said.

“SCAN is committed to providing lifesaving COVID-19 vaccinations to all of our members, including homebound older adults,” said Sachin Jain, M.D., president and CEO of SCAN Group and SCAN Health Plan, in a statement. “We also recognize that many homebound seniors live in multifamily or multigenerational homes, so we’re vaccinating caregivers and relatives in order to extend immunity to entire households, which is a key component of keeping seniors protected against the coronavirus.”

UPDATED: Friday, April 23 at 10:03 a.m.

Cigna offering employees $200 incentive for getting vaccinated

Cigna is offering its employees a $200 reward for getting fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the insurer announced this week.

Employees who self-report that they've gotten the necessary doses can receive the payment into their health savings account or health reimbursement account, Cigna said. The insurer has also extended its deadline for employees to use up to 10 days of paid time off for COVID-19-related needs.

Workers can now use the time through the end of 2021, Cigna said, and getting a vaccine or recovering from symptoms related to the shot are eligible uses.

While Cigna is offering incentives to workers to encourage them to get vaccinated, it is not mandating vaccines.

"Even as vaccination rates increase, we are in a race against more contagious variants, and we must remain vigilant," said Steve Miller, M.D., Cigna's chief clinical officer. "Cigna is committed to doing our part to build a community of immunity – both by encouraging our employees to get vaccinated, and by providing resources to our customers, clients and communities to ensure they can access vaccines."

UPDATED: Thursday, April 22, at 11:34 a.m.

Biden announces paid leave tax credit to support employee vaccinations

President Biden announced yesterday plans for a tax credit provided to employers offering full pay to employees taking off to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, recover from its potential after-effects or complete certain other COVID-19 prevention actions.

The credit is part of the American Rescue Plan and will be available to employers with fewer than 500 employees, according to the White House. Employers will be able to claim up to $17,110 for 14 weeks of paid leave for each employee who is impacted.

“Providing paid time off for vaccinations is an investment in the safety, productivity and health of an employer’s own workforce and their community,” the administration wrote in a release. “No working person in this country should lose a single dollar from their paycheck to take time to get the shot or recover from it. The paid leave tax credit that President Biden signed into the law in the American Rescue Plan ensures that no small businesses or non-profits will lose a single dollar by providing such paid leave to workers receiving a vaccination.” 

Word of the tax credit came alongside the White House’s announcement of 200 million COVID-19 vaccines administered in the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency.

It also lands as certain areas of the country report slowing demand for inoculation, leading some public health departments to decline new shipments of the vaccines.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 21, at 4:02 p.m.

Coalition of 60 hospitals to combat vaccine hesitancy

A group of 60 top hospitals and systems including Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic announced a joint effort to encourage adults to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are asking people to talk to their healthcare providers if they have questions and then get vaccinated,” said Gianrico Farrugia, MD, Mayo Clinic’s president and CEO, in a statement on Tuesday.

The campaign called “Get the Vaccine to Save Lives” coincides with the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all adults ages 16 and over in the U.S.

It hopes to reach adults hesitant to get the vaccine, including those in “racial and minority ethnic groups and people living in rural communities,” according to a release on the campaign.

The hospitals aim to put out print and digital advertising as well as social media outreach and an awareness video and website.

The coalition — which also include Banner Health, Atrium Health, Intermountain and Adventist — said that vaccines are the quickest way to reach herd immunity and end the pandemic, a figure that health officials believe could be around 75% of the population.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 21 at 10:17 a.m.

Amazon's Alexa now able to connect users to vaccine sites

As states open up vaccine eligibility more broadly, Amazon's Alexa home assistant will now offer users additional information about the shots and direct them to vaccination sites.

Users can ask their Alexa device where they can get vaccinated, and then call those sites to schedule an appointment through the platform, Amazon said in a blog post. Alexa can also provide additional details on vaccine eligibility and availability across 85 countries, Amazon said.

"We will continue to evolve our experiences over time to provide customers with information that is important to them," Amazon said.

In the post, Amazon said that Alexa answered tens of millions of questions over the past year related to COVID-19 from people around the world. 

UPDATED: Monday, April 19 at 11:06 a.m.

CVS, Walgreens offering over-the-counter COVID tests

Customers at CVS and Walgreens pharmacies can now buy COVID-19 tests over the counter, the companies announced Monday.

Both CVS and Walgreen's will make Abbott's BinaxNOW self test available online this week, with plans to make the test available nationwide in stores in short order. CVS said the test will be on sale at 5,600 pharmacy locations this week as well.

Walgreens said the BinaxNOW test will be available in its pharmacies and for same-day delivery later this week.

“Working with Abbott and other partners, Walgreens now offers the most comprehensive suite of COVID-19 diagnostic testing options in America, helping encourage consistent, widespread testing," said John Standley, president of Walgreens, in a statement.

CVS will also carry two other home test options. Ellume's home test kit will be available this week in select Rhode Island and Massachusetts locations, with plans to scale up online and in-store availability by the end of May.

Pixel by Labcorp's home kit is also available now online from CVS and in select Alabama, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut stores, CVS said.

"CVS Health has been a leader in providing accessible testing in communities nationwide, and we continue to bring new solutions to market to ensure that consumers have a variety of COVID-19 testing options available to them," said George Coleman, senior vice president and chief merchant at CVS Pharmacy, in a statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 15 at 2:07 p.m.

Cigna offering vaccine transport to Medicare Advantage members

Cigna is offering transportation to vaccine appointments for the majority of its Medicare Advantage members nationwide, the insurer announced.

Cigna said that means rides will be available to more than 500,000 people in 23 states will be eligible for four one-way trips, up to 60 miles each way, to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Trips will be coordinated by Access2Care, Cigna said.

“We are at a critical juncture in our fight to control the global pandemic, and we all can do our part to help people get vaccinated,” said Cigna Medicare Advantage Chief Medical Officer Gina Conflitti. “We know that transportation challenges can be a barrier to care for older adults, which is why Cigna is offering trips to get vaccinated for our Medicare Advantage customers at no extra cost. We believe anyone who wants to get the COVID-19 vaccine should have that opportunity to get it, which benefits not only them and their loved ones, but also the community at large.”

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 14, at 11:29 p.m.

Former CDC head advising air purification company with disputed COVID-19 claims

Former CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D., has joined the health advisory and safety board of Big Ass Fans, the maker of a controversial air purification technology that the company says can eliminate COVID-19 and other pathogens.

The company’s products take the form of ceiling and floor fans outfitted with ultraviolet lights or bipolar ionization, and are intended for industrial and commercial applications. On its website, Big Ass Fans said that its technology can “kill 99.99 [percent] of SARS-COV-2 and other airborne pathogens,” and can reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection within an indoor space from 62.3 percent to 7.5 percent.

Effective airflow and ventilation has been highlighted as a means to reduce the risk of indoor COVID-19 infection by public health agencies including the CDC. However, academics and other industry members have cast doubt over Big Ass Fans’ virus-killing claims in the press.

“Proper ventilation has a major role to play in mitigating transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens,” Redfield said in a release from Big Ass Fans. “Big Ass Fans is a leader in designing airflow systems and making places where we live, work and play, safer.”

Redfield, a virologist who led the top public health agency in the U.S. from March 2018 to January 2021, is also not the first COVID-19 task force member to join an air purification company.

Deborah Birx, M.D., who served as the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator from February 2020 to January 2021, was named the chief medical and science advisor of ActivePure Technologies last month. The company makes similar claims regarding COVID-19 disinfection on its website.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 13, at 10:21 p.m.

White House not concerned with J&J vaccine pause

The White House said the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation to pause use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine will not have a significant impact on its vaccination efforts.

J&J’s vaccine, which is being investigated due to a very rare link to blood clots, makes up less than 5% of the recorded vaccinations in the U.S.

“Based on actions taken by the president earlier this year, the United States has secured enough Pfizer and Moderna doses for 300 million Americans,” said White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients in a statement on Tuesday. “There is more than enough supply to continue the current pace of vaccinations of 3 million shots per day.”

Zients added that the administration is working with states and other partners to get anyone scheduled for J&J to be rescheduled for Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccine.

The White House added that this week it will make available 28 million doses of the two vaccines.

UPDATED: Friday, April 9, at 11:45 a.m.

Most consumers want to keep using telehealth after COVID-19 has passed: survey

In a rise that can only be described as meteoric, telehealth services have grown exponentially in the United States over the past year. The majority of Americans (61%) have now had a telehealth appointment compared to 19% in March 2020, according to a survey of 2,000 consumers from Sykes Enterprises, a customer engagement platform.

The survey looks at how consumers' perspectives on and experiences with telehealth have changed over the past year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 66% of consumers were doubtful of the quality of care someone could receive in a telehealth appointment. Today, 80% now believe that people can receive quality care through telehealth, the survey found.

In March 2020, 32% of our respondents said they believed telehealth care was comparable to the care received during in-person visits; one year later, that number has grown to 41%.

Close to 9 in 10 consumers (88%) who tried telehealth during the pandemic want to continue using telehealth for non-urgent medical consultations even after the pandemic.

“While telehealth usage has surged this past year, our research makes it clear that Americans’ positive experiences with telehealth have also greatly increased. Our respondents told us that telehealth has
made it easier for them to get the medical care they need, they meet with their physicians more often now that they have the option for virtual appointments, and an overwhelming majority plan to continue using telehealth even after the pandemic ends," said A.J. Hanna, vice president client advocacy at Sykes.

Consumers are reporting a number of benefits from virtual care including the ability to fit in an appointment without commuting to a clinic or physician's office (41%), better access to care (85%) and decreased healthcare costs (31%).

The majority of consumers (74%) believe that telehealth visits will become the norm for non-urgent medical consultations after the COVI-19 pandemic, the survey found. And, 64% of respondents would prefer parts of their annual exam to be completed via telehealth.

"Though COVID-19 may have been the catalyst for adoption in most cases, the shifts we’ve seen in attitudes, motivations, and opinions toward telemedicine, and telehealth in general, have been vast. And with some experts already predicting compound annual growth rates as high as 21.4% heading into 2025, the industry is expanding just as rapidly as patients are logging in," Sykes executives said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 7, at 12:51 p.m.

More than 500,000 people signed up for ACA coverage in special enrollment period

More than 500,000 people bought coverage on HealthCare.gov during a special enrollment period created to help people who need coverage due to the pandemic.

The announcement from Health and Human Services on Wednesday comes nearly a week after more generous subsidies to lower the cost of insurance went online.

“Access to quality, affordable healthcare is essential — especially as we tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Wednesday.

The report covers plan selections on HealthCare.gov, which is used by residents in 36 states to sign up for Affordable Care Act coverage, from Feb. 15 to March 31.

The agency added that there were enrollment gains among historically uninsured populations. HHS saw a 17% gain in Black enrollees compared to about 11% in both 2020 and 2019 during the same period.

“Among consumers requesting financial assistance, 41% report being at or slightly above the federal poverty level, compared to 38% in 2020 and 33% in 2019,” HHS added.

UPDATED: Monday, April 5 at 3:40 p.m.

New York first state to roll out IBM's digital vaccine passport

New York is now the first state to debut a digital vaccine pass that consumers can use to gain entry to sporting arenas and other big group settings.

The state's system is built on IBM's digital health pass platform and enables businesses and venues to quickly verify someone's health status.

State officials say the digital vaccine passport, called the Excelsior Pass, provides an efficient way to help the public return to Broadway theaters, concert halls, and sporting arenas, by simply presenting a QR code on their phones or a printout of the code, similar to a mobile airline boarding pass.

The digital pass uses IBM's blockchain technology, which is designed to enable the secure verification of health credentials without the need to share underlying medical and personal information.

The platform combines a smartphone wallet app for individual use and a scanner app for businesses. Users link their vaccination records or negative PCR or antigen test results to the app.

Major venues have already announced they will begin utilizing this technology, including Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Times Union Center in Albany. The Excelsior Pass also will expand to smaller arts, entertainment and event venues. 

The state performed a beta test of the pass at a Buffalo Bills football game in January.

"The question of 'public health or the economy' has always been a false choice — the answer must be both. As more New Yorkers get vaccinated each day and as key public health metrics continue to regularly reach their lowest rates in months, the first-in-the-nation Excelsior Pass heralds the next step in our thoughtful, science-based reopening," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 1 at 12:58 p.m.

CVS has administered more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses

CVS has administered more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to date through its efforts in nursing facilities and its pharmacies, the company announced on Thursday.

The healthcare giant is now offering vaccines in 2,000 stores across 44 states, Puerto Rico and  the District of Columbia. 

CVS Health has conducted targeted outreach to underserved populations, including Black and Hispanic communities, that have been hit hard by the pandemic. Efforts include opening community-based vaccine sites and planning for mobile pop-up clinics, according to the announcement, and the company is seeing that Black and Hispanic patients make up 34% of in-store appointments.

The company has also completed its work to vaccine patients in long-term care facilities, CVS Health said.

"We've experienced some of our highest customer satisfaction scores ever, which speaks to the seamless digital scheduling experience we've built and the professionalism of our health care teams putting shots in arms," said Karen Lynch, Chief Executive Officer of CVS Health, in a statement. "We're working hard to help America fight COVID-19 by breaking down barriers to equitable health care, especially in communities suffering most during the pandemic."

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 31 at 10:43 p.m. 

Nursing homes see major drops in COVID cases, deaths since vaccine rollout

Federal data shows a 96% drop in new COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents since the vaccine rollout began in December, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living said in a new report.

The week of December 20, there was a peak of 33,540 confirmed new resident COVID-19 cases nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. During that same week, there were 6,037 confirmed COVID-related deaths among nursing home residents.

But by the week of March 7, confirmed new resident cases dropped to 1,349 cases — representing the 96% drop in new cases. That same week, the number of COVID-related deaths among nursing home residents dropped to 547, a 91% drop from its previous peak. 

“We are not out of the woods yet, but these numbers are incredibly encouraging and a major morale booster for frontline caregivers who have been working tirelessly for more than a year to protect our residents,” said Mark Parkinson, president, and CEO of AHCA/NCAL. “This trend shows that when long-term care is prioritized, as with the national vaccine rollout, we can protect our vulnerable elderly population. Now we need Congress to prioritize our nursing homes for the long-term by considering the initiatives in the Care For Our Seniors Act to improve the quality of care for our residents.”

UPDATED: Monday, March 29, at 12:46 p.m.

CDC director warns of ‘impending doom’ of COVID-19 surge

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in the U.S. and that people need to continue to perform safe practices to combat the virus.

“We have so much to look forward to and so much reason for hope but right now I am scared,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said during a White House briefing Monday.

Walensky detailed several indicators that the U.S. could be on the brink of another surge of virus cases.

The seven-day average of new cases is slightly below 60,000 cases, which is a 10% increase over the prior seven-day period, Walensky said.

Hospitalizations also increased as the most recent seven-day average is 4,800 admissions, up from the 4,600 the previous period.

The U.S. is also starting to see deaths rise to approximately 1,000 deaths per day. Walensky reiterated that deaths are traditionally a lagging indicator that could rise if cases continue to surge.

UPDATED: Monday, March 29 at 10:30 a.m.

Blue Cross NC backs statewide vaccine transport campaign

United Way of the Greater Triangle has launched Ride United NC, a statewide partnership with Lyft to assist people with accessing COVID-19 vaccines.

The campaign aims to provide 100,000 roundtrip rides to vaccination sites across North Carolina's 100 counties, according to the announcement. The project is funded by initial investment of more than $400,000 from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Coastal Credit Union and Duke Energy.

Beginning in mid-April the program will connect eligible individuals who are already scheduled for a vaccine with transportation credits through local nonprofits and a dedicated call center.

“Now more than ever, we need to think differently about the health care needs of our underserved communities,” said Cheryl Parquet, Director of Community Engagement and Marketing Activation at Blue Cross NC. “And that means meeting them where they are and eliminating barriers to care, like transportation.”

UPDATED: Thursday, March 25, at 11:11 a.m.

CMS: Medicare COVID-19 cases increased by more than 790,000

The number of COVID-19 Medicare cases increased by more than 790,000 and hospitalizations grew by more than 206,000 since the last data was released in January, a new snapshot released by the federal government said.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in an update to the snapshot released Wednesday that Medicare fee-for-service spending associated with COVID-19 hospitalizations increased to $10.3 billion.

The snapshot has Medicare data for services that were provided from Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 26, 2020. The update captured services provided after Nov. 21 and through Dec. 26. The latest update covers major surges in the virus that occurred last fall.

CMS found that the rate of COVID-19 cases in rural areas was 4,271 per 100,000. This was a slight increase over the 4,151 per 100,000 in urban areas. This is the first time since CMS started releasing the snapshot.

The disparity comes as some states in the Midwest such as North Dakota and Idaho experienced major surges in the virus.

The information was compiled from Medicare fee-for-service claims, Medicare Advantage encounters and enrollment data.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 24 at 11:13 a.m.

CMS extending Healthcare.gov special enrollment period

The Biden administration is extending the Healthcare.gov special enrollment period through Aug. 15, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced late Tuesday.

The extension will allow people to take advantage of changes made in the American Rescue Plan, such as enhanced subsidies, CMS said. The potential savings will be available beginning April 1.

Eligible people can choose a plan with coverage to begin as soon as the next month, CMS said.

“Every American deserves access to quality, affordable health care – especially as we fight back against the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement. “Through this Special Enrollment Period, the Biden Administration is giving the American people the chance they need to find an affordable health care plan that works for them."

"The American Rescue Plan will bring costs down for millions of Americans, and I encourage consumers to visit HealthCare.gov and sign up for a plan before August 15," Becerra said.

UPDATED: Monday, March 22, at 2:34 p.m.

Kaufman Hall: Volumes still down for hospitals

Hospital volumes continued to decline in February for hospitals as the financial impacts of COVID-19 still linger for facilities, a new report from Kaufman Hall said.

The consulting firm’s monthly hospital flash report released Monday found that adjusted discharges for hospitals fell 16.8% in February compared to the same month in 2020.

At the same time, adjusted patient days fell 8.8% and operating room minutes decreased by 13%.

Emergency room visits continued to see the biggest declines with a 25.6% year-to-date drop. ER visits have seen the biggest drop for hospitals across the duration of the pandemic.

Hospitals faced major patient volume declines due to the pandemic, with the biggest drops happening at the beginning of COVID-19 in March as states required facilities to postpone or cancel elective procedures to preserve capacity to fight the virus.

While patient volumes rebounded in the summer, they have continued to be persistently below pre-pandemic levels for hospitals.

Hospital systems also have faced higher costs for staff and supplies like personal protective equipment and drugs. Kaufman found that total expenses jumped by 2.6% in February compared with the same month in 2020.

UPDATED: Monday, March 22 at 2:14 p.m.

JAMA analysis highlights COVID-19 postage stamps

Dozens of postage stamps commemorating COVID-19 have been released by governments around the world since the beginning of the pandemic with images reflecting a common sentiment of global solidarity, according to an article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The work led by researchers at the Public Assistance Hospital of Paris and the University of Paris in France found 21 countries and the United Nations released pandemic-related postage series, comprising a total of 68 stamps. 

Among the images most commonly depicted on the stamps? 

Clinicians were the most common, followed by depictions of the novel coronavirus and images of scientists. Soldiers and patients were also depicted. Of those scenes of patients, two depicted critically ill patients and both from nations hit early and hard by the pandemic including China and Brazil, respectively.

A third depicts a critically ill patient tended to by a critical care team, fronted or led by a woman health care worker of color in heroic stance, as part of a 12-part series of essential workers on stamps in France.

"All the images reflect a sentiment of global solidarity; mass public health efforts; and the hope of overcoming this new medical, scientific, and human challenge," the authors wrote. "These stamps prove they remain a creative medium for public health messaging, especially in global regions still reliant on land mail."

UPDATED: Friday, March 19 at 2:58 p.m.

Nearly half of workers have not received a COVID vaccine: survey

Just over half (52%) of healthcare workers have gotten their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new survey from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, that also means nearly half healthcare workers have not gotten a single dose of the vaccine yet.

KFF and the Post surveyed workers across the industry, including hospitals, assisted-living facilities and home health. According to the poll, KFF found that one in three healthcare workers said they do not think the vaccines have been fully vetted for safety and efficacy.

Two in 10 of the healthcare workers surveyed said they had a vaccine scheduled or were planning to, while three in 10 said they were unsure about getting vaccinated. Sixteen percent said they would give up their jobs rather than get vaccinated.

Of the healthcare workers who were not planning to get vaccinated, eight in 10 said they were waiting to see more about the side effects of the vaccines or to see if there were adverse impacts. About two-thirds said they did not trust the government to distribute to ensure the vaccines are safe.

Of those who were vaccinated, 8 in 10 had recieved their vaccine from their employer. Sixty-six percent of those working directly with patients in hospitals had received at least one dose, as did 50% of people working nursing homes.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 17 at 5:00 p.m.

Biden admin gives $12 billion boost to COVID-19 testing strategy

The Department of Health and Human Services will invest $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan to ramp up screening testing to help schools reopen and $2.25 billion to scale up testing in underserved populations.

The testing ramp-up is part of President Biden's overall effort to increase testing nationwide as vaccinations increase. 

The administration also will provide new guidance on asymptomatic screening testing in schools, workplaces, and congregate settings. 

“COVID-19 testing is critical to saving lives and restoring economic activity,” said HHS Acting Secretary Norris Cochran. “As part of the Biden Administration’s National Strategy, HHS will continue to expand our capacity to get testing to the individuals and the places that need it most, so we can prevent transmission of the virus and defeat the pandemic.”

Consistent with the American Rescue Plan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will provide $10 billion to states to support COVID-19 screening testing for teachers, staff and students to assist schools in reopening safely for in-person instruction.

CDC will invest $2.25 billion to address COVID-19-related health disparities and advance health equity among high-risk and underserved populations, including racial and ethnic minority groups and people living in rural areas. This funding represents CDC’s largest investment to date to support communities affected by COVID-19-related health disparities, HHS officials said.

The Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) applauded the Biden administration's steps to boost COVID-19 testing.

"As a parent, increased screening testing in schools will give me the confidence that students, teachers and staff are returning to an environment where safety is a priority," said APHL CEO Scott Becker in a statement. “This is a good and timely use of American Rescue Plan funds. As a public health professional, I recognize that widespread and proper use of screening tests in schools, non-health care workplaces, correctional facilities, and other congregate settings identified in the new CDC guidance joins social distancing and mask-wearing in our arsenal of effective COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the administration and partners in strengthening our laboratory and testing capacity to help stop the spread of this deadly virus," Becker said.

Also, on Wednesday, HHS announced a $150 million investment to increase access to COVID-19 monoclonal antibody therapeutic treatments for patients in vulnerable communities across the country.

This new effort will speed assistance to hard-hit communities to increase administration of monoclonal antibody treatments to prevent hospitalizations and deaths. Assistance may include additional staffing, infusion center capacity in traditional and non-traditional health care settings, and equipment to administer the intravenous infusion treatments, HHS officials said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 17 at 12:30 p.m.

Avalere: COVID relief bill could boost subsidies for 18.3M people

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package could increase subsidies for as many as 18.3 million people, according to a new analysis from Avalere.

The legislation would boost advance premium tax credits for Affordable Care Act exchange plans for people earning between 150% and 400% of the federal poverty level over the next two years. 

Fully subsidizing ACA plan premiums for low-income people would reach 11.6 million Americans, according to the analysis, and expanding eligibility for tax credits alongside a new premium cap would impact 8 million people.

Avalere said that the impacted populations do overlap somewhat.

"While the policies differ in the degree to which they alter existing coverage, millions of Americans could see higher premium subsidies, which may lead to shifts to more affordable forms of coverage in the near term," the analysts wrote in the report.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 16 at 9:46 a.m.

CVS makes antibody tests available at Massachusetts, Texas MinuteClinics

CVS Health will offer antibody testing for COVID-19 at its MinuteClinics in Massachusetts and Texas, the healthcare giant announced Tuesday.

The test, which will determine whether a patient previously had the virus, will produce results in 15 minutes, CVS said. There are 60 MinuteClinic locations in Massachusetts and more than 100 in Texas.

A MinuteClinic provider will gather a sample using a finger prick and then will review the results with the patient. The test costs $38 and can be billed to Medicaid, CVS said.

“CVS Health and MinuteClinic have played an important role in providing Americans with access to COVID-19 testing since the start of the pandemic,” said Sharon Vitti, president of MinuteClinic, in a statement. “We know there is growing interest in affordable COVID-19 antibody testing and believe that MinuteClinic can help patients access this service given our convenient locations, extended evening and weekend hours and our commitment to high quality, evidence-based clinical care.”

UPDATED: Thursday, March 11 at 9:45 a.m.

CVS now offering vaccines in its pharmacies in 29 states

CVS Health is now offering COVID-19 vaccines to eligible people at 1,200 pharmacies across 29 states and Puerto Rico.

The healthcare giant said in announcement that it's nearly doubled the number of states where it's offering vaccines in retail locations through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. Within the past week, vaccines were made available in Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah and Vermont.

CVS was already administering vaccines in Pennsylvania and New York, but has added Philadelphia and New York City as locations.

Appointments in newly-activated locations will be available beginning on March 13, CVS said.

"We're increasing the number of active stores and expanding to additional states as fast as supply allows, with the capacity to administer 20 25 million shots per month," said Karen S. Lynch, CEO of CVS Health, in a statement. "We're also focused on priority populations, including vulnerable communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as well as teachers and school support staff."

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 9 at 3:20 p.m.

Kaiser Permanente launches vaccine campaign in vulnerable communities

Kaiser Permanente has launched a new campaign aimed at providing vaccine education and information to people living in vulnerable communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The education campaign also aims to encourage people to continue wearing masks, maintaining a physical distancing and avoiding gatherings while the pandemic continues, Kaiser Permanente said in an announcement.

The health system giant is working with social media figures and influencers who can effectively deliver messages to different communities, according to the announcement, and is releasing bilingual public service announcements and advertisements.

Kaiser Permanente has also made $5 million in grants available to 24 nonprofit community groups that are providing direct assistance to those impacted most by the pandemic.

"As crucial vaccine supplies begin to increase, it is vitally important that the public feel confident in the safety of the vaccines and are willing to be vaccinated, particularly in communities most affected by the pandemic," said Greg Adams, Kaiser Permanente CEO, in a statement. "We hope that with the information and support from this campaign, the most at-risk communities will be empowered to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated when it is their turn."

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 3 at 10:30 a.m.

CMS: 206K signed up for coverage in first two weeks of ACA special enrollment period

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has released a look at the first two weeks of sign-ups during the special enrollment period launched amid COVID-19.

More than 206,000 people enrolled in coverage on Healthcare.gov between Feb. 15 and Feb. 28, the agency said Wednesday. By comparison, 76,000 people signed up for coverage in the same window in 2020, and 60,000 enrolled in 2019.

The Biden administration opened the SEP to all Americans because of the pandemic, when ordinarily such enrollment peiods are more limited.

In addition, 385,864 people requested coverage on an application submitted on or after Feb. 15, CMS said.

Call center volume was 497,579 for those two weeks, according to the agency.

UPDATED: Thursday, Feb. 25 at 2 p.m. 

BCBSA: HPV vaccinations down amid COVID-19

The pandemic is leading to significantly fewer vaccinations for human papillomavirus, according to new data from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

Blues plan claims data show a 13.5% decrease in HPV vaccinations through October 2020 when compared to 2019. BCBSA said that despite the impact of the pandemic, it is key for patients to continue receiving routine vaccinations.

HPV is linked to higher risk of certain types of cancers.

BCBSA's analysis also found that while 54% of children aged 10 to 13 receive the first dose of the HPV vaccine, only 29% receive the second, which is critical to ensuring effectiveness.  And while uptake of the first dose has been increasing steadily over the past several years, use of the second dose has remained more stagnant.

The number of children recieving the first dose grew by 46% between the 2013-16 cohort and the 2016-19 cohort, while use of the second dose grew only 16%.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 1 p.m.

CVS to offer COVID vaccines in six more states

CVS Health is adding six more states to the locations where its pharmacies will administer  COVID-19 vaccines.

The healthcare giant will now offer vaccines to eligible patients in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. This brings the total regions up to 17 states, CVS said.

CVS said it will today begin scheduling appointments for vaccines in its latest 570,000 shot allocation, which vaccinations beginning tomorrow.

"Feedback on every aspect of the vaccination process has been incredibly positive, from the digital experience to interacting with our team of health care professionals," said Karen S. Lynch, CEO of CVS Health, in a statement. "We're also making significant progress in reaching vulnerable communities, which will continue to be an essential part of our vaccination effort."

When the public vaccine rollout is fully ramped up, CVS expects to administer 20 million to 25 million shots per month.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 10:42 a.m.

CVS to administer vaccines at 81 Florida pharmacy locations

CVS Health will begin to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to eligible Floridians at 81 CVS Pharmacy, CVS Pharmacy y más and Navarro Discount Pharmacy locations, the healthcare giant announced.

Appointments will be available later this week, according to CVS, and access will be subject to state eligibility guidelines. Supply for the rollout is sourced to the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, and will include about 62,000 weekly doses.

The expansion in Florida comes on the heels of a rollout earlier this month in 11 states including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

"One of our greatest strengths as a company is our presence in communities across the country, which makes us an ideal partner for administering vaccines in a safe, convenient, and inclusive manner," said Ahmed Velez, region director of CVS Health, in statement. "We look forward to continuing to work with the state to defeat the virus and deliver on our shared commitment to increase access to the vaccine for underserved communities, in particular Florida's Black and Hispanic populations."

When public vaccine access if fully rolled out, CVS expects to administer between 20 million and 25 million shots per month.

UPDATED: Monday, Feb. 22, at 4:42 p.m.

White House: Backlogged COVID-19 doses to be delivered by Wednesday

A 6 million-dose backlog of COVID-19 vaccines caused by extreme winter weather is expected to be closed by Wednesday, White House officials said during a briefing Monday.

Workers for the distributor McKesson worked overtime to push out the additional doses of vaccine to states and ease the backlog. White House officials had originally expected the backlog to be closed by the end of this week.

Snow and ice storms across the southern and southwestern parts of the U.S. caused significant snags at manufacturing and distribution sites, causing the administration to hold off on sending doses.

White House COVID-19 Senior Advisor Andy Slavitt said that vaccination sites need to quickly administer the doses to the public.

“We encourage vaccination sites to follow that same lead to catch up on deliveries by scheduling more appointments to vaccinate the anxious public as quickly as possible,” Slavitt said during the briefing.

UPDATED: Monday, Feb. 22 at 11:09 a.m.

Organ transplant patient dies after receiving COVID-infected lungs

An organ transplant recipient at Michigan Medicine has died after physicians say the woman contracted COVID-19 from transplant lungs that were found to be harboring the virus, KHN reported.

Officials said they believe it may be the first recorded case of COVID-19 transmitting via organ transplant. They said a surgeon who handled the lungs also became ill with the virus, but recovered.

Doctors published their findings about the case in the American Journal of Transplantation, KHN wrote.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 12:22 p.m.

Long-term care industry expected to lose $94 billion within two years 

The long-term care industry is expected to lose $94 billion over the two-year period spanning 2020 and 2021, according to a new analysis from the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL).

The losses are due in part to increased costs for both supplies and staffing. For instance, in 2020 alone, nursing homes spent about $30 billion on personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional staffing, the analysis found. At the same time, officials said, long-term care facilities are declining occupancy due to fewer new residents.

AHCA/NCAL President and CEO Mark Parkinson called it a “business nightmare.”

“In three short months, we’ve gone from 71% to 67% … We need census to recover at a rate of about 1% a month, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s not as easy as it might seem," Parkinson said in a statement. "If the census doesn’t recover at all, or recover slower than that, the sector has a real problem.”

The AHCA/NCAL analysis estimates more than 1,600 nursing homes could close in 2021 without financial assistance. That is more than 10 times the number of facilities that closed last year. That could displace thousands of vulnerable seniors, officials said. 

The groups are calling for federal and state health officials to continue prioritizing long-term care residents and workers for vaccine distribution, as well as continued prioritization of long-term care facilities' access to testing and proper equipment. They also called for an allocation of $20 billion to the long term care industry either through an enhanced Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage for long-term services and supports, or through a dedicated portion to the Provider Relief Fund.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 1:25 p.m.

Biden administration shipping COVID-19 vaccines to community health centers

COVID-19 vaccines are being shipped directly to federally qualified health centers this week as part of the Biden administration's plans to ramp up vaccine supply across the country.

The community health center vaccination program will provide easier access to vaccinations for under-served communities,  said Dr. Bechara Choucair, a member of the White House COVID-19 Response Team, during the Health Datapalooza conference Tuesday.

The initial phase will include at least one community health center in each state, expanding to 250 centers in the coming weeks.

The Biden administration also is increasing the vaccine supply to states, tribes, and territories to 11 million doses nationwide beginning this week. The federal goverment has increased vaccine supply by 28% since President Biden came into office three weeks ago, Choucair said.

To date, 10% of the U.S. population has received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 3.5% of the population has received two doses, he said.

The federal government is on target to achieve or exceed President Biden's goal of administering 100 million shots in 100 days, Choucair said.

The administration also is taking steps to increase the visibility of incoming supply.

"It's hard to plan if you don’t have visibility about what’s coming down the pike. Predictability is an important part of what state and local health departments are asking us for," Choucair said, adding that the Biden administration has committed to providing three-weeks' visibility of incoming supply.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 11:39 a.m.

NASA taps Fitbit to monitor astronauts, employees for COVID-19 symptoms

NASA is piloting Fitbit's Ready for Work solution for some of its employees and astronauts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The program will use Fitbit devices, an in-app daily check-in and symptom logging to help employees make more informed decisions about going to work onsite during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said.

As part of the pilot program, 1,000 NASA employees performing mission-critical work at six locations across the United States will receive Fitbit Charge 4 devices and access to Fitbit’s daily check-in app. This includes 150 astronauts and NASA employees critical to future space missions who will use the Fitbit solution as part of the NASA Health Stabilization Program, which is aimed at mitigating the risk of occurrence of infectious disease among astronaut flight crews in the immediate preflight period, NASA said.

There is evidence that resting heart rate data and other key health indicators from wearables have the potential to identify flu-like illness such as COVID-19 before symptoms emerge, according to Fitbit.

Fitbit's app allows users to view key health metrics, such as resting heart rate, heart rate variability and breathing rate, tracked by their Fitbit device alongside self-reported symptoms, temperature logging and COVID-19 exposure. Based on a user’s daily check-in, the solution will provide NASA employees with daily guidance to help them decide whether to go to work or stay home.

NASA will evaluate the pilot program and consider expanding to a larger employee population.

Fitbit was recently acquired by Google.

"The pandemic has underscored the critical role that Fitbit can play in providing much-needed support to help people sleep better, eat better, move more and take control of their health and wellness, as well as the potential to identify illness from specific health metrics, which is especially important now during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Amy McDonough, managing Director and General Manager, Fitbit Health Solutions at Google in a statement.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 1:30 p.m.

Providence, Lumedic partner to roll out digital COVID-19 vaccine cards

Providence has rolled out a new mobile app that offers digital vaccine cards to patients receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

The health system partnered with Lumedic on the commercial technology that is free of charge for both patients and providers. The digital health passport is available to patients receiving COVID-19 vaccinations at sites affiliated with Providence. It integrates with a health system’s electronic health records (EHR) system, offers authenticated vaccine credentials, preserves user privacy and autonomy, and complies with global open standards and governance models, the health system said.

When a patient shares their digital vaccine verification, a simple green check mark alerts businesses that the individual has been vaccinated, with no transfer of any other personal health information. The technology is optional for patients and health care systems, and offers a secure alternative to paper cards.

“This is a significant improvement on the current process, in which patients receive paper cards denoting their vaccination status—cards that are easy to lose or counterfeit,” said Mike Nash, Lumedic CEO. “Through Lumedic Connect, we’re proud to give patients control of their health information and help get society and business moving again.”

The mobile app is rolling out now to patients at Providence vaccination sites across Alaska, California, Montana, Oregon and Washington and will be made available to other health systems free of charge in the coming months, according to the health system. 


UPDATED: Friday, Feb. 5 at 1:20 p.m.

White House invokes Defense Production Act for critical supplies

Federal officials are invoking the Defense Production Act aimed at getting Pfizer more equipment and supplies to enable the drugmaker to ramp up production and deliver more vaccines faster.

Announced during a regular White House COVID-19 briefing, officials said the federal government will begin what's called a "priority rating" in which a company — in this case, vaccine makers — can get first access to the product they need before anyone else. 

"We're expanding the priority ratings for Pfizer to include filling pumps and tangential flow filtration units, critical components Pfizer needs to manufacture the COVID vaccine," said Tim Manning, supply coordinator for the COVID-19 Response Team. "It's actions like these that will allow Pfizer to ramp up production and hit targets of hundreds of millions of doses over the coming months," he said.

He said the U.S. government plans to invest in an additional six suppliers to rapidly increase the supply of point-of-care, or at-home, tests. "The country is well behind where we need to be in testing, particularly with the rapid at-home tests that will allow us all to get back to normal activities like work and school." 

The investment will help suppliers construct new plants and build new production lines in the U.S. to reduce vulnerabilities to the domestic supply chain, Manning said. The expectation is to have 61 million at-home tests will be available by the end of the summer, he said.

A third action will allow more domestic production of surgical gloves for frontline workers, Manning said. 

"We will build plants to make the raw materials, the nitrile butadiene rubber, or NBR, for surgical gloves here in the United States and will help build factories to make those gloves in the U.S. as well," Manning said. "By the end of the year, we'll produce more than 1 billion nitrile gloves a month right here in America."

UPDATED: Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 12:03 p.m.

FEMA to spend $1.7 billion to expedite vaccine distribution

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing $1.7 billion to 27 states and other localities to speed up vaccinations as the federal government starts setting up community vaccination centers.

The funding announced during a briefing of the White House’s COVID-19 response team Wednesday will help cover storage equipment and other supplies to cover the administration of vaccines.

The federal government is also working to build new community vaccination centers across the country. These will include sites such as school gyms or mobile units to reach rural areas, according to Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, during the briefing.

He added the federal government has partnered with California to launch two new community vaccination centers in east Oakland and the east side of Los Angeles, two major hotspots of COVID-19 in the state.

Both centers are primarily staffed with a federal workforce.

“We are working with states across the country to stand up new sites,” Zients said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 12:37 p.m.

Biden administration to begin shipping vaccines to retail pharmacies

The Biden administration will start shipping COVID-19 vaccines directly to retail pharmacies beginning next week, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said during a briefing Tuesday.

Zients said that the effort will begin with 1 million doses allocated to 6,500 pharmacies. He said that there will be a particular focus on ensuring "we pick pharmacies in that first phase that are located in areas that are harder to reach" to allow for equitable distribution.

He added that the plan to start small and continue to ramp up distribution.

"In the early phase, many pharmacies across the country will not have vaccine, or may have a very limited supply," Zients said.

Retail pharmacies expect to be able to vaccine people at a rapid clip once the supply becomes available. CVS Health, for instance, said it expects to vaccinate 20 million to 25 million people per month once the program is opened up broadly.

In addition, Zients said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse states for eligible expenses dating back to the beginning of the pandemic, such as masks and gloves or the mobilization of their National Guard units.

He said this should allow for additional funding to direct the vaccine effort, and expects to dole out about $3 billion to $5 billion to states.

UPDATED: Monday, Feb. 1 at 12:19 p.m.

New CDC order mandates masks on public transit

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has issued a new order that will soon require travelers and commuters to wear masks on nearly all forms of public transit.

The guidelines (PDF), which take effect late Monday, require masks to be worn for passengers on "all passengers on public conveyances" coming both in and out of the United States. This includes airplanes, ships, subways, buses, taxes and rideshares, the CDC said.

Face coverings will also be mandated at transportation terminals such as airports and bus terminals, according to the order.

"Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic," according to the order. "Therefore, requiring masks will help us control this pandemic and aid in reopening America's economy."

UPDATED: Friday, Jan. 29 at 12:29 p.m.

Officials warn about new challenges posed by variants

The new variants of the COVID-19 virus that originated in the U.K. are expected to become the dominant form of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. by the end of March, federal health officials said in call with reporters on Friday. 

"The fact is that when you have a virus that has ability to transmit more efficiently than the wild type in the community, sooner or later by pure viral dynamics itself, it will become more dominant," said Anthony Fauci, M.D., the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"Probably by the end of March, the beginning of April, it actually will become more dominant in this country," Fauci said about the U.K. variant. "The fundamental principle of getting people vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as you possibly can will always be the best way to prevent the further evolution of any mutant." 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said surveillance is actively occurring as part of the ongoing COVID-19 tracking.

"We have scaled up surveillance in the last 10 days, in fact, but our plans for scaling up surveillance are more than what we've done so far," she said.

Walensky said CDC is also participating in cross-agency collaborations with the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). "So when we get these strains, we can do the science and understand the impact of these variants on our vaccines, as well as on our therapeutics."

Officials also said they released data about national COVID-19 pandemic trends not previously available to the public. They said they will continue releasing the data in weekly reports online. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 11:26 a.m.

Lyft urges CMS to address transportation access to vaccination sites

Lyft is urging the Biden administration to plan for potential transportation access issues in open mass vaccination sites.

Many of the planned sites are at public event venues such as athletic stadiums and are being designed as drive-through options. But Lyft said that a drive-through model may make it more difficult for some of the most vulnerable populations to access the vaccines.

"We are already seeing reports of seniors — unable to drive long distances over long periods of time — facing transportation issues as they attempt to get to mass vaccination sites," the rideshare company wrote in a letter (PDF) to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. "We expect this to continue as the vaccine is rolled out to the general population."

Lyft said it estimates that 15 million Americans could face transportation barriers to getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

To prevent these potential challenges, Lyft suggests three steps: first, vaccine sites should have designated pick-up and drop-off zones for people coming for vaccinations via taxi or rideshare. For sites that will operate as drive-through only, they should offer dedicated lanes for people using taxis or rideshare.

In addition, Lyft said all sites should allow for appointments, which would also allow for easier ride-scheduling.

"It is essential that vaccination efforts are designed with the transportation needs of [vulnerable] populations in mind to ensure that that hardest-hit communities can begin to recover and the U.S. can defeat the COVID-19 pandemic," Lyft said.

UPDATED: Monday, Jan. 25 at 11:09 a.m.

CVS wraps up first round of nursing home vaccinations

CVS Health has completed its first round of vaccinations in early 8,000 skilled nursing facilities across the country, and the healthcare giant says its vaccine efforts are on schedule.

CVS said in an announcement that it has begun administering second COVID-19 vaccine doses and expects to have all of them administered within four weeks.

"We've administered nearly two million shots to one of our most vulnerable populations through onsite and, in many cases, room-to-room visits," said Karen Lynch, currently executive vice president at CVS Health and president of Aetna, who will become the company's next CEO on February 1.

"Our dedicated health care professionals are reaching long-term care residents and staff as soon as possible based on activation dates selected by the states, while navigating the challenges of a complex rollout," Lynch said.

CVS Health said it is also currently administering first doses in assisted living facilities, and expects to have completed first doses in all long-term care facilities by mid-February.

UPDATED: Friday, Jan. 22 at 1:11 p.m.

HCA latest hospital to invest in PPE domestic production

Major hospital chain HCA Healthcare announced a new joint venture with healthcare product manufacturer A Plus International to boost domestic production of surgical and procedure masks.

Under the partnership, domestic manufacturing of masks is expected to begin early this year.

“The recent surge in demand for PPE due to the pandemic has underscored how dependent we have been on supplies from overseas and the importance of working to diversify our supply chain,” said Dr. Jonathan Perlin, president, clinical operations group, and chief medical officer of HCA Healthcare

HCA is the latest provider to invest in domestic manufacturing in the wake of major shortages caused by reliance on overseas PPE makers. Health improvement company Premier Inc. and 15 hospital systems such as Banner Health and Advocate Aurora bought a stake in domestic PPE maker Prestige Ameritech.

Premier and 34 hospitals also partnered with global manufacturer DeRoyal to create a new joint venture to make isolation gowns domestically.

Congress and the Biden administration have also called for more investment in domestic manufacturing of healthcare supplies.

UPDATED: Thursday, Jan. 21 at 11:25 a.m.

Amazon offers to help Feds with COVID vaccine rollout

Amazon wants to use its tech and distribution muscle to help the Biden administration with nation-wide COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

In a letter written to President Joe Biden Wednesday, Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark said the e-commerce giant is prepared to leverage its operations to help vaccinate 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of the president's administration.

"We are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration's vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort," Clark said in the letter.

Kevin Beasley, chief information officer at enterprise management software company VAI, said Amazon isn’t just an e-commerce leader but is also a "powerhouse in pharma."

"The company’s recent launch of Amazon Pharmacy coupled with its reliable supply chain, powerful fulfillment network, and loyal consumer base positions Amazon as a soon-to-be leader in the space. Those factors also make Amazon a perfect partner to distribute Covid vaccinations quickly, seamlessly, and reliably," Beasley said.

As the nation's second-largest employer, Amazon also wants its more than 800,000 U.S. employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine "at the earliest appropriate time."

Clark said most of these employees are "essential workers who cannot work from home."

"We have an agreement in place with a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities. We are prepared to move quickly once vaccines are available," Clark said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Jan. 20 at 3:06 p.m.

WellCare to pilot at-home COVID-19 testing for MA members

WellCare Health Plans is launching a pilot for at-home COVID-19 testing for eligible Medicare Advantage members.

The testing kits will be offered as a one-time benefit to eligible beneficiaries. Each kit includes a COVID-19 test, disposable face masks, hand sanitizer and an oral digital thermometer for patients to track their symptoms.

Members who receive a kit will be encouraged to use the test if they're concerned about their symptoms or have been exposed to the virus, WellCare said.

For WellCare members who may not be eligible for a kit or require a subsequent test, the insurer will still cover testing at standard in-person locations.

"As vaccines begin to be administered across the country, appropriate testing and preventive measures continue to play a critical role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Polen, senior vice president and CEO of Medicare Solutions at Centene Corporation, WellCare's parent company. "Through this program, we want to help prevent the spread of viruses like the flu and COVID-19, while helping our members stay safe and healthy at home."

UPDATED: Tuesday, Jan. 19 at 2:45 p.m.

Cybercriminals masquerading as WHO and vaccine makers to attack businesses

Cybersecurity firm Proofpoint uncovered evidence of a new wave of emailed-based cyberattacks using COVID-19 vaccine lures, some masquerading as official emails from the World Health Organization (WHO) and vaccine manufacturers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, cybercriminals have used the pandemic in broad-scale social engineering attacks leading to malware, credential phishing, and business email compromise (BEC) attacks. Over the last two months, Proofpoint researchers observed more attacks that leverage the COVID-19 vaccine news, such as approvals of the vaccine by world governments, logistics of vaccine deployment, and distribution of the vaccine to frontline responders and other individuals.  

Through business email compromise (BEC) attacks, the emails are spreading malware and attempting to steal corporate passwords and funds. Proofpoint has intercepted messages promising access, distribution updates and business opportunities all tied to the vaccine, the company said in a blog post.

These email-borne attacks exemplify abuse of popular brands such as WHO, DHL, and vaccine manufacturers delivered to users in organizations located in the United States, Canada, Austria, and Germany. The lure themes leveraged a range of topics, including fear that a person had encountered an infected individual; government vaccine approvals and economic recovery fueled by the vaccine; as well as sign up forms to receive the vaccine, information updates, and vaccine shipment delivery, Proofpoint said.

Threat actors sent emails urging potential victims to click a link to "confirm their email to receive the vaccine". The goal of this phishing campaign was to steal Office 365 login credentials (email and password), according to the company.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 4:10 p.m.

Moderna, Uber partner to support uptake of COVID-19 vaccines

Moderna is working with ridesharing giant Uber to raise awareness and increase access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The two companies will work together initially to provide accessible, credible information on vaccine safety through Uber’s in-app messaging, the organizations announced Tuesday.

The two companies will also work with public health and other organizations to identify additional opportunities to support ongoing efforts to broaden access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Uber and Moderna said they are evaluating other options, including incorporating ride scheduling directly into the immunization appointment process, and possibly integrating with vaccine providers’ systems to text reminders and enable patients to book rides in advance of their first or second immunization appointments.

“Used by millions of people every day, the Uber platform can both help educate the public about vaccine safety and help eliminate transportation barriers to vaccination. Together with Moderna, we hope to do our part to help increase vaccination awareness and adoption, and we look forward to exploring ways we can help ensure everyone, especially in the hardest-hit communities of color, has access to a vaccine,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

“As part of our commitment to help address COVID-19, Moderna will be working with a coalition of partners to educate, build trust around and increase awareness of the importance of vaccination in those communities significantly impacted by the pandemic. We look forward to combining our expertise with Uber’s capabilities and platform to support this important effort,” said Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel.

In December, Uber committed 10 million free or discounted rides to help ensure transportation is not a barrier to getting a vaccine.

UPDATED: Friday, Jan. 8 at 12:43 p.m.

86% of mild COVID-19 cases include loss of smell, study finds

A new study of 2,500 patients in 18 European hospitals with COVID-19 finds that loss of smell is a symptom 86% of the time for mild cases of the virus.

Sense of smell typically reappeared within 18 to 21 days, according to the study in the Journal of Internal Medicine, though about 5% of those studies had not recovered their sense of smell six months out from recovery.

The study also found that olfactory dysfunction impacted 4.5% of those with moderate cases and 6.9% of those with severe-to-critical cases of COVID-19. In addition, younger patients were more likely to experience loss of smell, but the researchers said this should be studied further.

The researchers hypothesize that the loss of smell could be related to the varied immune response between cases of differing severity, which is why it was so prevalent in mild cases and limited in more severe ones.

"Future studies are needed to determine the long‐term recovery rate of COVID‐19 patients," the researchers said.

UPDATED: Thursday, Jan. 7 at 12:46 p.m.

HHS extends community-based COVID-19 testing sites

The Trump administration has extended its Community Based Testing Site program through April, officials announced Thursday.

The program was initially launched under the pandemic in partnership with companies such as CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreens, Quest Diagnostics (through services at Walmart) and eTrueNorth (through services at Health Mart and Topco locations).

The Department of Health and Human Services said in an announcement that more that 70% of testing sites in communities "with moderate-to-high social vulnerability" are operated through the program.

The partnership has launched 3,300 COVID-19 testing sites in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which have conducted more than 5.6 million tests to date.

“We are proud of our collaborations and accomplishments with national pharmacy and retail chains who are able to offer testing throughout our communities across the United States. These community partners allow us to reach more Americans for their testing needs,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir, M.D, in a statement. “As the pandemic continues across our nation, these testing partnerships are vitally important to continue to provide testing to those who need it."

UPDATED: Wednesday, Jan. 6 at 11:06 a.m.

CVS Health: First vaccine doses to be complete in nursing homes by Jan. 25

CVS has begun administering COVID-19 vaccines in 8,000 skilled nursing facilities across 49 states and Washington D.C. as of January 4. 

States will have activated nearly 31,000 assisted living facilities partnering with CVS Health by next week, officials said, and they expect to complete administration of first doses in skilled nursing facilities by January 25, officials said.

"Our work with long-term care facilities isn't a mass vaccination effort," said CVS Health CEO Larry J. Merlo in a statement. "We're dealing with a vulnerable population that requires onsite and, in some cases, in-room visits at facilities with fewer than 100 residents on average. Despite these challenges, we remain on schedule, and the number of vaccines we administer will continue to rise as more facilities are activated by the states."

CVS Health has begun posting weekday updates on its national and state-level vaccination figures online.

Officials said they number of residents in long-term care facilities receiving the vaccine is about 20% to 30% lower than facility projections that were based on bed count. Initial uptake among staff is low, part of which is likely due to facilities wanting to stagger vaccinations between visits, officials said. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Jan. 5 at 10 a.m.

AMA urges social media companies to combat vaccine misinformation

As the United States begins an unprecedented effort to administer COVID-19 vaccines to more than 300 million Americans, the American Medical Association is urging the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok to combat misinformation about the vaccine on their platforms. 

In a letter (PDF) to six social media and e-commerce companies, including Instagram, Google, and YouTube, the AMA is making the companies to aid the vaccination efforts by remaining vigilant against the proliferation of unintentional misinformation and purposeful disinformation.

The organization urges social media platforms to share timely, accurate information on the vaccine from trusted public health institutions, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Increasing COVID-19 vaccine acceptance is particularly important within marginalized and minoritized communities who have a historically well-founded mistrust of medical institutions, as these same patient populations have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, AMA said.

The immunization campaign now underway will save lives and preserve the well-being of all, including those individuals who cannot receive the vaccine due to underlying health concerns.
“As we work tirelessly to stop the spread of COVID-19, please remain vigilant against the proliferation of unintentional misinformation and purposeful disinformation on your platforms,” wrote AMA CEO and EVP James L. Madara, M.D. “Our AMA appreciates the actions many of you have taken to identify, label and, in some cases, remove misinformation regarding vaccines in general and COVID-19 vaccines in particular, but we know more can be done in this regard."

The AMA encourages social media companies to continue evaluating their existing policies that are designed to combat misinformation to ensure they are as effective and comprehensive as possible.

"Lives--and the success of this historic effort--are on the line," Madara said.

UPDATED: Monday, Dec. 28 at 9:31 a.m.

President Trump signs $900B COVID-19 relief bill

President Donald Trump signed the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill, but said he will be sending a redlined version back to Congress to urge legislators to remove "wasteful items."

"I am signing this bill to restore unemployment benefits, stop evictions, provide rental assistance, add money for PPP, return our airline workers back to work, add substantially more money for vaccine distribution and much more," Trump said in a statement.

Congress passed the bill on Dec. 21. The legislation includes relief for providers, $600 payments to Americans and a surprise billing fix using arbitration.

President Trump posted a video statement to his Twitter account the next day, blasting the package and urging Congress to increase stimulus payments and remove other line items.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 12:45 p.m.

UCHealth frontline workers use wearable for post-vaccine monitoring

Some frontline healthcare workers at UCHealth will wear the BioIntelliSense BioButton medical device after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine dose to detect potential adverse vital sign trends.

UCHealth has begun administering the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers today at the University of Colorado Hospital on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The use of the device among healthcare workers is a foundational step in developing a scalable post-vaccine monitoring program that could be deployed more broadly in high-risk patient populations, the health system said.

UCHealth’s staff and providers will wear the BioButton device for two days prior and seven days following a COVID-19 vaccine dose to detect potential adverse vital sign trends. Together with a daily vaccination health survey and data insights, the wearer may be alerted of signs and symptoms to guide appropriate follow-up actions and further medical management, according to the health system.

The BioButton coin-sized wearable device delivers continuous vital sign monitoring of temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate at rest.

"The participation of our frontline health care workers in this vaccine monitoring program serves as an important operational milestone in scaling the program for the larger population, particularly with vulnerable patient populations and seniors in long-term care environments,” said Dr. Richard Zane, UCHealth chief innovation officer and professor and chair of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

UPDATED: Friday, Dec. 18 at 2:23 p.m.

CVS, Walgreens begin distributing vaccine in long-term care facilities

National pharmacy brands CVS Health and Walgreens have begun distributing vaccines to both staff and residents at long-term care facilities on Friday, CNBC reported

Walgreens said its pharmacists would begin giving the shots at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Ohio, Connecticut and Florida while CVS said it'd give the shots at centers in Ohio and Connecticut.

In October, CVS and Walgreens reached a deal with the Trump administration to provide and administer COVID-19 vaccines directly to nursing homes with no out-of-pocket costs. The agreement was aimed at focusing the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine to the highest-risk individuals.

Both will expand vaccinations to additional long-term care facilties next week, CNBC reported.


UPDATED: Thursday, Dec. 17 at 3:29 p.m.

CVS Health gives $250 pandemic bonus to workers

CVS Health will reportedly give $250 bonuses to its nearly 200,000 workers in January for working during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

CBS News reported the move will cost the healthcare and retail pharmacy about $60 million. 

"The special bonuses are a recognition of the extraordinary efforts of our employees to support patients and communities facing the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic this year," a CVS spokesperson told CBS.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 12:40 p.m.

AHA, AMA call for healthcare professionals to get vaccine

Top healthcare organizations are calling for healthcare workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine and share their experience with others as the initial distribution gets under way.

The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association said in an open letter to healthcare professionals that their position as trusted and valued voices in their communities could encourage others to also seek the vaccine when they are eligible.

"Just as we have been pushing for adoption of the precautions we all know work – masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing – we must also push for high rates of vaccination within the U.S. population if we hope to overcome this virus," the groups said. "This will require trust in the COVID vaccination process, from the development, distribution and administration of a safe and effective vaccine as well as a willing public to get vaccinated.

"As frontline caregivers, our essential role in protecting the health and wellbeing of our communities goes beyond the care we provide. As a valued and trusted voice, our example is perhaps the strongest health resource we have."

A recent poll of 2,000 physicians by Doximity found that 82% said they would recommend the COVID-19 vaccine to their patients.

Doximity's network includes over 70% of all U.S. physicians as members. The poll ran between November 24 and 30 and marks the largest poll conducted to date of physician views on the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in development, according to the company.

Most of the remaining 18% were undecided, citing the need to wait for additional data and guidance from the FDA.

UPDATED: Monday, Dec. 14 at 2:35 p.m.

Feds plan to distribute nearly 6 million doses of Moderna vaccine

Operation Warp Speed announced plans to distribute nearly 6 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine soon after it gets emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, which could happen at the end of this week.

Leaders of the joint Department of Defense-Health and Human Services initiative gave an update to reporters on Monday on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The initiative expects to have 2.9 million doses of a vaccine made by Pfizer, which the FDA granted emergency use authorization on late Friday, delivered by the end of this week.

An FDA advisory panel is expected to consider Moderna’s vaccine on Thursday and the agency could issue an EUA soon after. Unlike Pfizer, which distributed the doses to states via UPS and FedEx on its own, Moderna will use McKesson to ship the vaccine to states.

Pfizer used its own distribution process because their vaccine must be in an ultra-cold storage system as opposed to Moderna that can be stored in a refrigerator. Both vaccines require two doses to ensure maximum protection.

Operation Warp Speed Chief Advisor Moncef Slaoui said during a call with reporters that federal government officials still expect to deliver the first doses to 20 million people by the end of the year.

But the number of initial doses of Moderna’s vaccine is lower than the 12 million that Warp Speed officials predicted a few weeks ago.

Hospitals across the country have received the first doses of Pfizer's vaccine on Monday

UPDATED: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 12:14 p.m.

First COVID vaccines to be delivered Monday

The first COVID-19 vaccines are due to arrive at distribution sites on Monday, administration officials said on Saturday. 

"I expect the first shipments to arrive Monday morning. Extensive coordination will ensure this occurs,” said Gen. Gus Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, a joint initiative of the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Defense (DOD) to speed the creation and distribution of a vaccine.

The group has worked with Pfizer, McKesson, UPS, FedEx, federal and local law enforcement agencies to ensure the security of the vaccine, Perna said. Additional vaccines will arrive on Tuesday and Wednesday, completing the initial delivery of the Pfizer orders.

"Make no mistake, distribution has begun. Right now boxes are being packed and loaded with vaccine with emphasis on quality control," Perna told reporters on a call. "Within the next 24 hours, they will begin moving vaccine from the Pfizer manufacturing facility to the UPS and FedEx hubs, and then it will go out to the 636 locations nationwide which were identified by the states and the territories."

Officials have said Pfizer has 6.4 million doses available but are holding back 500,000 doses in reserve as a fail-safe for any problems that arise. From the remaining doses, they plan to hold back half to ship later this month to ensure all those who receive the first dose of the vaccine receive the required second dose. 

"We remain agile and adaptive to what the situation brings to us as we work through many time zones, many areas of concern, we will manage distribution on a day to day basis," Perna said. 

UPDATED: Thursday, Dec. 10 at 2:04 p.m.

CVS aiming to boost access to flu vaccines in underserved communities

Public health experts have put a major spotlight on flu vaccines due to COVID-19, in a bid to avoid putting further strain on hospitals treating a surge of patients with the novel coronavirus.

As such, CVS Health is donating $2 million to the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics to assist in distributing flu vaccines in communities facing the greatest need. The funds will go to free and charitable clinics in 11 states.

CVS also said it will be partnering with General Motors and Bank of America to further boost access to flu shots.

"Underserved communities have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, so supporting flu prevention in these communities is even more important," said Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy at CVS Health, in a statement. "Through our work with Free Clinics, and in teaming up with Bank of America and General Motors, we aim to expand our reach to individuals who may not otherwise have access to flu vaccines."

UPDATED: Monday, Dec. 7 at 3:14 p.m.

Trump admin announces $523M incentive payment for nursing homes

The Department of Health and Human Services will distribute $523 million in second-round performance payments to more than 9,000 nursing homes as a reward for successfully reducing COVID-19-related infections and deaths between September and October.

“As we approach the rollout of safe and effective vaccines for our most vulnerable, we continue the innovative program we created this year to incentivize and assist nursing homes in battling COVID-19 and applying the right infection control practices,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement.

In August, HHS first announced plans to distribute $5 billion in additional Provider Relief Fund (PRF) payments to nursing homes, including $2 billion that would be dedicated to establishing an incentive-based program for nursing homes that create and maintain safe environments for their residents. In October, HHS announced the first round of awardees receiving $331 million in payments for those who reported keeping COVID-19 infection and mortality rates among their residents lower than the communities they serve between August and September. Nursing homes will begin receiving payments December 9.

HHS found that between September and October, of the 13,251 eligible nursing homes, 9,248 — or 69% — met the incentive program’s infection control criteria. Against the mortality criteria, 9,128, or 68% of eligible nursing homes, achieved outcomes that met or exceeded the expected COVID-19 mortality rate for their facility.

UPDATED: Friday, Dec. 4 at 1:25 p.m.

Walmart expanding home testing options

Walmart and Sam's Club are rolling out several new home COVID-19 testing options.

Customers can purchase a code that provides access to an online survey, and once the information is submitted it will generate a physician's order for a test for those who qualify, Walmart said.

The test kit is then mailed out to the customer, who can collect the sample at home and mail it to the lab. Customers can choose between tests that use saliva samples and tests that use a nasal swab, and can also request that the submitted sample be tested for influenza at the same time.

Results are made available typically within 24 to 48 hours after the lab receives the sample. For some kits, a telehealth call will be provided if the results are positive for COVID-19.

Walmart also currently supports 600 drive-thru testing locations and has piloted drone delivery for home tests.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 1:45 p.m.

Ballad Health suspends elective procedures for 30 days

Ballad Health announced it will suspend elective and non-emergent surgical procedures for 30 days to preserve capacity to fight COVID-19.

The 21-hospital system based in Johnson City, Tennessee is the latest to pause procedures again as COVID-19 has surged across the country.

Ballad’s CEO Alan Levine said during a press conference Wednesday that the system is not going to be furloughing any staff and that workers will be redeployed to the bedside.

The system’s chief financial officer Jamie Swift also said Ballad is expecting a surge of cases from those who traveled during the Thanksgiving holiday last week.

Hospital systems across the country have grappled with how to continue providing non-COVID care. The Mayo Clinic has temporarily postponed elective surgeries in its northwest Wisconsin hospitals to conserve enough beds as the virus surges there.

Advocate Aurora Health also announced back on Nov. 17 that it must scale back elective inpatient admissions by 50% or more.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 1:37 p.m.

AMA, AHA, ANA affirm commitment to 'science-based' vaccine process

Three of the healthcare industry's biggest organizations have released a joint open letter that affirms their commitment to a "science-based" process for evaluating and approving a COVID-19 vaccine.

The American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association wrote in the joint letter that backing such a process is key to ensuring Americans trust an eventual vaccine is safe.

"Vaccines have eradicated smallpox, nearly eliminated chickenpox and polio, and minimized the impact of countless other diseases," the organizations said. "To achieve a similar result from COVID-19 vaccines requires trust in the process to develop, distribute and administer a safe and effective vaccine and broad willingness to get vaccinated."

The organizations said that in addition to "following the science" on evaluating and approving a vaccine, they are all committed to establishing "safe and effective processes" for distributing a vaccine once it is made available.

The groups also said they would provide critical information about the vaccine as it becomes available.

"We will share the benefits and risks of a vaccine so that you can make an informed decision for yourself and your loved ones," they said.

As broad immunization remains distant, the three organizations also urged Americans to continue mitigation strategies to stop the spread of the virus, including wearing a mask, maintaining social distance and washing hands regularly.

UPDATED: Monday, Nov. 30, at 2:30 p.m.

California to require hospitals test frontline workers

California will require acute care hospitals to start testing all patients now for COVID-19 and all healthcare staff by Dec. 14.

The announcement Monday by the California Department of Public Health was lauded by nurses’ unions which have expressed concerns about safeguards for frontline workers since the start of the pandemic.

“There are simply too many asymptomatic people with COVID and without robust testing, our hospitals remain centers for spreading the disease instead of centers of healing as they should be,” said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, a registered nurse and president of the California Nurses Association, which is tied to the union National Nurses United.

Hospitals should start testing any high-risk personnel by Dec. 7. The department defines healthcare personnel as anyone with the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients.

The requirement comes as nurses have railed for more testing to ensure their protection from the virus.

“This testing requirement has been a long time coming,” said Cathy Kennedy, another president of the CNA.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Nov. 25 at 8:33 a.m.

Many adults say they'll wait to get COVID vaccines, poll finds

While many adults older than 50 say they plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available, plenty indicated they probably won't rush to get it right away, a new poll found.

According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging from the University of Michigan, 58% of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 years old said they were somewhat or very likely to get the vaccine if it became available at no cost to them.

At least 20% of respondents said they'd want to get the vaccine right away while another 20% were unsure about getting it at all and 14% did not want to get it. Meanwhile 46% of the respondents said they'd rather wait for others to get vaccinated first before doing it themselves. 

In making the decision about whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine, older adults rated the following as very important: how well it works (80%), their own research (56%), and if it was recommended by their doctor (52%), public health officials (42%), or family and friends (13%). Cost was rated as very important by 30% of older adults, officials said in a release

UPDATED: Monday, Nov. 23, at 10:35 a.m.

Ad Council rolling out $50M ad blitz to educate public about COVID-19 vaccine

COVID Collaborative is partnering with the Ad Council on an unprecedented $50 million vaccine education campaign. This initiative will represent one of the largest public education campaigns in history.

The campaign aims to counter concerns and skepticism about coming vaccines.

The Ad Council, a nonprofit advertising group, led a similar effort in the 1950s, when it urged Americans to get vaccinated against polio, according to The New York Times.

The effort is backed by the private sector rather than the government and will be guided by science and health advisors from the COVID Collaborative, a national assembly that has brought together leading experts and institutions across health, education, and the economy to turn the tide on the pandemic by supporting state and local officials.

“Widespread adoption of the COVID-19 vaccine is our generation’s ‘moonshot’ and will represent one of the largest public health interventions in our nation’s history,” said Lisa Sherman, Ad Council President and CEO.

 According to a recent survey fielded by the COVID Collaborative, a majority of Americans (86%) believe that a vaccine will be effective in curbing the virus. Yet the survey found that only one-third (34%) say they will get vaccinated themselves. A new poll released today by the COVID Collaborative, NAACP and UnidosUS showed that trust in vaccines is particularly low in Black and Latinx communities, with only 14% of Black Americans and 34% of Latinx Americans trusting that a vaccine will be safe.

"COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Black Americans, and generational trauma has led to massive distrust of vaccines,” said Derrick Johnson, CEO of the NAACP in a statement. “The national education campaign will be a critical step in providing Black communities with the information they need to rebuild trust and get vaccinated.”

UPDATED: Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 10:33 a.m.

BCBSA: 9M vaccine doses could be missed this year

An estimated nine million doses of vaccines for children could be missed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association found.

BCBSA released data on Wednesday that examined medical claims from millions of Blue Cross Blue Shield members.

“The U.S. is on the precipice of a severe immunization crisis among children,” said Vincent Nelson, M.D., BCBSA’s chief medical officer.

The data shows that 40% of parents and guardians report their child missed vaccinations due to the pandemic.

The majority of delays occurred from March through May at the onset of the pandemic and then again in August when the “typical spike in back-to-school vaccinations largely failed to occur because of the pandemic’s impact and the shift to virtual schooling options in districts across the country,” BCBSA said.

BCBSA found that vaccination rates for measles and whooping cough were down by 26% compared to 2019 and down 16% for the polio vaccine.

UPDATED: Monday, Nov. 16 at 3:28 p.m.

Anthem's HealthCore coordinates study on COVID-linked pediatric syndrome

HealthCore, an outcomes research subsidiary of Anthem, is managing a study into Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a rare condition linked to COVID-19 infection.

MIS-C can lead to severe symptoms including fever and inflammation and can involve multiple body systems and organs, most often the digestive system and the heart and blood vessels, according to the announcement of the study. 

Children who come down with the syndrome can be quite ill, HealthCore said, but most recover.

The study will include about 600 children from the United States and Canada, including patients who have already recovered and children who are diagnosed within the next 24 moonths.

The study will be led by Jane Newburger, M.D., of Boston Children’s Hospital and Dongngan Truong, M.D. of Primary Children’s Hospital in Utah. Ohter collaborators include Pediatric Heart Network, which is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

“Few studies have been conducted to characterize MIS-C-associated coronary anatomy or ventricular function in children using standardized assessments, and there are no data about outcomes during longitudinal follow-up,” Newburger said.

UPDATED: Friday, Nov. 13 at 4:48 p.m.

White House says vaccine distribution likely to start in December

As many as 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine could begin being distributed as early as December, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed said during a news conference at the White House on Friday.

Earlier this week, Pfizer announced its vaccine appears to have a 90% efficacy rate. Moderna also indicated strong results were coming soon. Both are likely to be filing for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration in the next few weeks, said Moncef Slaoui, chief advisor of the government's Operation Warp Speed program.

"Hopefully if approved, they could be used for immunization in the U.S. population in the month of December," he said.

If approved, Slaoui said there would be enough doses to immunize about 20 million individuals in the month of December and an additional 20 million to 25 million more people each month following on an ongoing basis. 

During the news conference, President Donald Trump reiterated a plan that front-line healthcare workers and the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, would be first in line for the vaccine. He said he expected the vaccine to be open to the general population as early as April. 

"They are all ready, waiting for that final approval," Trump said. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, Nov. 11, at  5:30 p.m.

Epic rolls out COVID-19 risk prediction tool for hospitals

Health IT giant Epic has rolled out a new tool for hospitals that helps predict patients’ likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19.

The COVID-19 risk prediction model was designed by Cleveland Clinic researchers and was developed and tested using clinical data from more than 11,000 patients. The model uses information from patients’ comprehensive health records combined with patient-entered information in Epic’s patient-facing app, MyChart, to show an individual’s likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19.

Predicting positive COVID-19 tests could help direct limited healthcare resources, encourage those who are likely to have the virus to get tested, and tailor decision-making about care, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

"We have developed the first validated prediction model that can forecast an individual’s risk for testing positive with COVID-19 and then simplified this tool while retaining exceptional accuracy for easy adoption,” said Lara Jehi, M.D., Chief Research Information Officer at Cleveland Clinic in a statement.

“We are excited to make this tool available to the 250 million patients around the world who have a record in Epic. The ability to accurately predict which patients are likely to test positive will be paramount in effectively managing a patient’s care as well as allocating our resources," Jehi said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 10:11 a.m.

Medicare to cover new COVID-19 treatment at no cost to seniors

Medicare beneficiaries can get a new monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 with no cost-sharing, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced late Tuesday.

The notice applies to the antibody cocktail made by Eli Lilly called balanivimab that got emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Monday. The cocktail is intended to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

“Our timely approach means beneficiaries can receive these potentially life-saving therapies in a range of settings — such as in a doctor’s office, nursing home, infusion centers, as long as safety precautions can be met,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma.

The agency anticipates the antibody treatment will be given to providers initially at no charge. Medicare won’t pay for any products that providers get for free but “today’s action provides for reimbursement for the infusion of the product,” CMS said in a release.

When providers start to purchase the treatment, Medicare will likely set a payment rate using the same approach it employs for vaccines “such as based on 95% of the average wholesale price for COVID-19 vaccines in many provider settings.”

Providers can expect billing and coding instructions for providers “in the coming days,” CMS said in its release.

UPDATED: Thursday, Nov. 5 at 11:20 a.m.

U.S. Army awards Fitbit $2.5M to develop wearable to detect COVID-19

Fitness tracker company Fitbit received $2.5 million from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to develop a wearable diagnostic for the early detection of a COVID-19 infection.

As part of the award, Fitbit is working to initiate a prospective study with Northwell Health’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research to validate a Fitbit COVID-19 early detection algorithm, the company said.

As part of the prospective study, the parties plan to distribute several thousand Fitbit devices to Northwell Health employees, who will receive notifications of potential illness, as well as COVID-19 testing to assess and verify the results.

“We believe Fitbit is uniquely positioned to deliver on USAMRDC’s goals based on our deep wearables expertise and established user base of nearly 30 million users, our early research in machine learning algorithms for detection of presymptomatic COVID-19, and our production and manufacturing capabilities to scale solutions and make them available quickly,” said Amy McDonough, general manager and senior vice president of Fitbit Health Solutions.

Because carriers of COVID-19 can be contagious without symptoms, detecting the virus before symptoms emerge is key to slowing its spread, the organizations said.

Fitbit’s work in COVID-19 research includes its collaborative research consortium with The Scripps Research Institute and Stanford Medicine that launched earlier this year. As part of that effort, Fitbit is conducting a retrospective study to determine whether it can develop an algorithm to detect COVID-19 before symptoms start. 

Early findings from that study show the Fitbit algorithm can detect nearly 50% of COVID-19 cases one day before participants report the onset of symptoms with 70% specificity, the company said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 11:11 a.m.

COVID-19 trails economy as top concern for voters: exit polls

Early exit polls find that the economy is the top concern for voters who headed to the polls this year, putting it ahead of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the national discussion on racial equality.

The Washington Post reported that about two in 10 voters said the coronavirus pandemic was their top issue this year, based on data from Edison Research. About the same number named racial equality as their top concern.

By comparison, one-third named the economy as their top issue, including about six in 10 people who said they voted for President Donald Trump.

In Florida, for example, Trump won eight in 10 people who said the economy was their top issue, according to the Post. Former Vice President Joe Biden, however, won nine in 10 voters who said the pandemic, racial equality or healthcare were their top concerns.

A slim majority of voters said that it was more important to contain the virus, even if that negatively hurt the economy. Voters were also split on the effectiveness of the government's response to the pandemic, according to the polling.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 11:04 a.m.

Former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala loses House race

Clinton administration HHS Secretary and Florida Rep. Donna Shalala, who has been outspoken about the government's COVID-19 response, lost her re-election bid Tuesday.

Shalala, a Democrat, was defeated by Republican challenger Maria Elvira Salazar in a rematch of the 2018 race for the south Florida seat, USA Today reported.

Shalala was serving her first term.

In an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, Shalala said that in the Clinton administration the Department of Health and Human Services anticipated a potential flu pandemic, though getting the message to stick was challenging without tying it to "bioterrorism."

She also urged the Trump White House to treat this fall as a "dry run" for distributing COVID-19 vaccines but inoculating record numbers of people for influenza.

"We need a dry run to make sure we have the infrastructure for distributing the new COVID-19 vaccine, because we know how we now distribute the flu vaccine,"  Shalala said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 10:52 a.m.

CDC warns of COVID risks for pregnant women

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that pregnant women may be at high risk for complications related to COVID-19.

CDC researchers analyzed data on about 400,000 women aged 15 to 44 who had been confirmed to have symptomatic cases of the novel coronavirus, and found that pregnant women were more likely to need to be admitted to the intensive care unit, to be put on a ventilator and to need intensive heart and lung supports in comparison to women who were not pregnant.

Pregnant women were four times as a likely to need invasive ventilation and twice as likely to die from complications related to the virus when compared to nonpregnant women, according to the study.

"Although the absolute risks for severe COVID-19–associated outcomes among women were low, pregnant women were at significantly higher risk for severe outcomes compared with nonpregnant women," the researchers wrote. 

"This finding might be related to physiologic changes in pregnancy, including increased heart rate and oxygen consumption, decreased lung capacity, a shift away from cell-mediated immunity, and increased risk for thromboembolic disease," they wrote.

UPDATED: Thursday, Oct. 29, at 4:54 p.m.

Unions sue Trump administration over COVID-19 protections

Several unions representing nurses and health professionals sued the Trump administration for delaying rules to protect healthcare workers from contracting infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

The lawsuit filed on Thursday centers on a 2017 move by the Trump administration to table work on an infectious disease standard under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The unions charge that the delay has led to frontline healthcare workers without basic workplace protections during the pandemic.

The standard would require employers to create a comprehensive infection control program or face penalties.

“OSHA has failed to regulate employers, which in turn have failed to protect people caring for COVID-19 patients,” according to a release on the lawsuit, which seeks to compel the administration to finish the standard.

The American Federation of Teachers, Washington State Nurses Association and United Nurses Association of California/Union of Health Care Professionals were among the unions behind the lawsuit.

The filing comes as unions have slammed healthcare facilities over a lack of protection for frontline workers, including the controversial practice of reprocessing single-use personal protective equipment like N-95 masks.

An investigation by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian published back in August found that more than 1,000 healthcare workers have died of the virus.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Oct. 28, at 4:31 p.m.

Training collaborative led by CDC offer free online courses

A national training collaborative called Project Firstline led by the CDC and several medical groups is offering free online courses to help frontline workers with infection control.

The training materials include 11 vide-based training modules that detail recommended infection control practices.

The American Hospital Association, which is part of the collaborative, are also offering editorials, webinars, case studies and more to complement the modules.

“Whether a healthcare worker’s role is in environmental services or in the operating room, infection control is a team effort and Project Firstline was developed for them,” said CDC Deputy Director for Infectious Disease Jay Butler.

The American Nurses Association, National Association of County and City Health Offices and American Academy of Pediatrics are also part of the collaborative.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 3:14 p.m.

CVS launches new tool for at-home contact lens renewal

The latest home health option launched by CVS Health will allow customers to renew prescription contact lenses.

QuickRenew allows customers to quickly order new prescription contact lenses for home delivery online. The platform is available in 32 states to people between the ages of 18 and 55.

Patients must have been fitted for contacts before and have had an eye exam in the last four years, CVS said.

"We continue to adapt and evolve our digital offerings in response to the pandemic. This addition to our optical site gives customers a new way to fulfill an important health care need safely and confidently from the comfort of their homes," said Michele Driscoll, Vice President of Customer Engagement, ExtraCare, Digital, & Promotion, CVS Health, in a statement.

"This is especially important at a time when customers are trying to limit their interactions or are finding it difficult to schedule time with an optometrist. Digital screening takes less than 15-20 minutes, and information is reviewed by a licensed independent ophthalmologist," Driscoll said.

CVS Optical also offers an online site for customers to renew glasses for home delivery.

UPDATED: Monday, Oct. 26 at 12:48 p.m.

UnitedHealthcare sending flu season kits to Medicare Advantage members

In anticipation of the potential double whammy of seasonal flu and COVID-19 this fall, UnitedHealthcare is sending out flu kits to Medicare Advantage members at high-risk.

The New York Times reports that 200,000 kits will be mailed out, and that they include Tamiflu, a prescription antiviral drug for influenza, a digital thermometer and a home COVID-19 test.

Members who receive the kit can mail in their sample for analysis to determine the cause of their symptoms from home, as the early symptoms of flu are similar to that of the novel coronavirus.

UnitedHealth began inviting its members to sign up for the kits in late September, NYT reports. So far some-120,000 members have signed on, and kits are shipping out now.

“We thought, ‘Imagine if you start getting sick and already had a mini pharmacy at home,’” Deneen Vojta, M.D., executive vice president for research and development at UnitedHealthcare, told the outlet.

UPDATED: Thursday, Oct. 22 at 12:36 p.m.

Prescription fills for HIV prevention drugs down during pandemic

Prescription fills for pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) medications, which prevent HIV, have declined significantly amid COVID-19, according to new data from GoodRx.

Researchers at GoodRx, which offers prescription discounts to consumers, found that fills have decreased to about 20% below the baseline since the pandemic began. Clinics in both the U.S. and Canada have noted such decreases, according to the report, which indicate lower rates of sexual activity.

Surveys of patients taking PrEP also back up this theory, GoodRx said. About 90% of patients surveyed by the American Academy of HIV Medicine reported a decline in sexual partners and sexual interactions due to social distancing.

As such, about 85% of people surveyed who said they had discontinued taking PrEP said they felt they were not at risk for HIV transmission.

PrEP prescription fills saw a notable bump in the March as the pandemic began in the U.S., but similar trends were reported for other drugs as people stocked up on a slew of necessary items, GoodRx said.

The report warns that while there are not harmful side effects to consider in stopping PrEP use, patients need to be planning ahead if and when they do begin to engage in sexual activity again.

"While it is relatively simple to re-engage in a PrEP regimen, having sex before that time period could have consequences and lead to possible transmission of HIV," the researchers wrote.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 1:26 p.m.

CVS launches education resources on drug abuse for virtual classrooms

CVS Health is offering new educational resources to help prevent opioid misuse as the pandemic continues.

COVID-19 has posed challenges to traditional drug abuse prevention programs for young people, the healthcare giant said in an announcement, so CVS is now offering a suite of digital education tools at no cost.

The Dose of Knowledge resources allow educators to offer additional information about prescription and illegal drug abuse to students in both an in-person and virtual classroom setting. CVS recruited star athletes Allen Robinson, wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, and Adrianna French, goalkeeper for the U.S. Women's National Soccer team, to participate.

"The pandemic has brought new complexities to the way in which prevention and treatment services are provided, but early intervention remains as important as ever," said Troyen Brennan, M.D., chief medical officer at CVS Health, in a statement.

"Our work with Discovery Education accounts for the new definition of a 'classroom,' and delivers the same impactful resources to students regardless of their circumstances," Brennan said.

UPDATED: Friday, Oct. 16, at 1:05 p.m.

CMS: 21% of Medicare beneficiaries delayed non-COVID care

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic 21% of Medicare beneficiaries has foregone non-coronavirus disease care, according to new data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The data released Friday also showed that 98% of beneficiaries have taken preventive measures to protect themselves from the virus.

The data showed that the most common type of care that beneficiaries delayed was going to the dentist (43%) followed by a regular checkup at 36%.

Another 36% reported not getting treatment for an ongoing condition and 32% for a diagnostic or medical screening.

CMS found that 45% of beneficiaries cited COVID-19 risk as the reason for not going to a medical facility.

The data was based on a survey sent to 11,114 Medicare beneficiaries administered from June 10 through July 15.

UPDATED: Friday, Oct. 16 at 12:00 p.m.

Survey finds mistrust of future COVID vaccine

At least 65% of patients say they'd wait to receive a future COVID-19 vaccine, even it if becomes available before the end of the year, according to a new survey

The survey of more than 16,000 people found by Medisafe, a digital therapeutics platform, found survey participants cited "uncertainty in its overall effectiveness" as well as "potential side-effects from the vaccine" as top reasons for delay.

“Despite the apolitical nature of the survey, the open-ended responses and results clearly show that users feel many issues surrounding the vaccine have been politicized, created additional challenges in driving utilization of the vaccine once it becomes available,” said Medisafe Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Butler in a statement.

The survey also found six in 10 respondent did not expect a vaccine to be available before the end of 2020. And while 21% of respondents said they would get the vaccine as soon as becomes available, at least 11% said they would never take the vaccine. Nearly half of the respondents said they felt the COVID vaccine was being rushed to market and side-stepping normal regulations and testing, Medisafe officials said. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, Oct.14 at 2:11 p.m.

Blue Shield of California offering $50M in premium relief

Blue Shield of California is making $50 million in premium relief available to customers facing economic hardship amid the pandemic.

Blue Shield will apply the one-time credit to bills issued in November and December among its fully insured employer group plans. The insurer will also add premium credits on November bills for Blue Shield dental and/or vision plans, as well as its Medicare supplement plans.

Credits will vary by customer, Blue Shield said.

"We are looking for ways to support our customers and members in these unprecedented, challenging times," said Paul Markovich, president and CEO of Blue Shield, in a statement. "It is especially important during this pandemic to serve our nonprofit mission and help all Californians have access to high-quality health care at an affordable price."

Premium credits have been a common strategy for health plans nationwide to assist members and clients in mitigating the costs associated with COVID-19.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 1:30 p.m.

IBM Watson Health develops blockchain-based 'health pass'

IBM is the latest organization to put its tech muscle behind digital solutions to help organizations enable people to return to work or school.

IBM's Watson Health division leveraged blockchain technology to develop its digital health pass to be used by employers, schools, stadiums or airline companies.

The digital tool was designed for an organization to establish their own criteria such as COVID-19 test results and temperature scans so that a verified health pass can be generated for an individual, IBM said.
“There is an emerging opportunity to help organizations as they aim to bring individuals back to their public spaces,” said Paul Roma, general manager, IBM Watson Health, this week during the HLTH 2020 virtual conference 

“Organizations are looking for solutions that can help them manage the return of individuals to public places, while striving to protect their privacy. We are developing the IBM Digital Health Pass with the goal of providing organizations with another resource as they begin to reopen," Roma said.
The IBM Digital Health Pass will allow users to share their verified health pass without exposing any of the underlying data used to generate it to ensure privacy protections, the company said.

 IBM Digital Health Pass uses IBM Blockchain and sophisticated cryptographic techniques so that data exchange can be verifiable and trusted, IBM said.

UPDATED: Monday, Oct. 12 at 1:45 p.m.

University Hospitals pilots sleep pods for nurses, doctors during COVID-19

University Hospitals is teaming up with sleep pod company HOHM to provide overworked healthcare employees a place to rest and recharge.

During the 10 month pilot program, doctors, nurses and staff in the UH Cleveland Medical Center Emergency Department will have access to two HOHM units as a space to rest during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It marks HOHM's first partnership with a health system. HOHM plans to expand its sleeping pod placements to additional hospitals in the coming months.

HOHM is a custom-engineered, sound-blocking sleep pod designed to safely provide individuals with comfort, privacy, and a place to decompress. In each 43.5 square-foot pod, HOHM features a comfortable twin-sized bed, a privacy and sound-blocking curtain, charging stations, and a tablet to control reservations. 

"Our UH Cleveland Medical Center Emergency Department frontline caregivers have been working tirelessly for months to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Robyn Strosaker, M.D.,, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center Chief Operating Officer. “In the midst of all this trauma and stress, we’ve continuously looked for new ways to support our team, and HOHM sleep pods are a way we can help address their wellbeing.”

HOHM is also working with UH Ventures, the innovation and commercialization arm of University Hospitals, to collaborate on news ways to mature and grow the sleep pod platform.

UPDATED: Tuesday Oct. 6 at 4:02 p.m.

Trump halts stimulus talks

President Donald Trump said he will no longer negotiate over a COVID-19 relief package until after the election on November 3. 

In a Twitter thread on Tuesday afternoon, Trump said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif. was "non negotiating in good faith."

"I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election," he said. 



In a statement responding to Trump, Pelosi said he was showing "his true colors: putting himself first at the expense of the country, with the full complicity of the GOP Members of Congress."

“Walking away from coronavirus talks demonstrates that President Trump is unwilling to crush the virus," she said. 

The American Hospital Association, AMA and American Nurses Association asked Congress in July to pass another $100 billion in stimulus funding for providers. This would be in addition to the $175 billion that Congress has already passed. That would be in addition to the $175 billion already passed by Congress to help prop up providers, as well as funding from the Payroll Protection Program and the Medicare Advance and Accelerated Program.

Earlier this month, Trump signed into law la short-term government funding bill that includes pushed back the deadlines for participants to repay loans from advance and accelerated payments program. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 10:46 a.m.

HCSC to provide $240M in premium relief to fully insured customers

Health Care Service Corporation will offer $240 million in premium relief to its fully insured commercial plan clients.

HCSC has offered more than $930 million in relief through its health plans, including covering $385 million in savings through waivers for telehealth services and COVID-19 testing and treatments, the insurer said.

In addition, HCSC saved $305 million through adjustments to its 2021 group and individual plan rates.

“Our focus is first and foremost on our members, customers and the communities in which we serve. We believe taking action by providing additional support and financial relief is the right thing to do,” said Maurice Smith, president and CEO of HCSC, in a statement.

“Our customers trust us to be good stewards of their premium dollars and ensure they have access to affordable, high-quality care," Smith said. "As part of our commitment, we are always seeking ways to support both the physical and financial health of our members during this unprecedented public health emergency.”

UPDATED: Friday, Oct. 2 at 2:32 p.m.

Framework for COVID vaccine rollout released

Frontline-health workers in hospitals, nursing homes or providing home care, as well as workers who provide healthcare facility services and first responders, should be among the first immunized when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, according to new recommendations released on Friday.

The recommendations are part of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) framework for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. "Phase 1a" would cover approximately 5% of the population and should be prioritized because they have "a critical role in maintaining health care system functionality, high risk of exposure to patients exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, and higher risk of then transmitting the virus to others, including family members," NASEM said. 

 "Phase 1b" would cover about 10% of the populations and include people. ofall ages with comorbid and underlying conditions, such as cancer, serious heart conditions, and sickle cell disease, that put them at significantly higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease or death. 

" This group faces the joint risk factors of severe disease and reduced resilience associated with advanced age and of acquisition and transmission due to their living settings, in which they have limited opportunity to follow public health measures such as maintaining physical distance," NASEM wrote. They also recommended older adults living in congregate or overcrowded settings including nursing homes, long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, group homes, prisons, or jails to be prioritized.

Major healthcare groups praised the framework on Friday.

“[The American Society of Health System Pharmacists] is working to ensure that pharmacists are immunized and empowered to be immunizers. Without question, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians need to be prioritized for vaccination alongside other frontline healthcare workers,” said ASHP Chief Executive Officer Paul W. Abramowitz in a statement. “We applaud the National Academies for reconsidering its initial stance on this point, which is critically important for our members who have been working tirelessly on the front lines and who stand ready to administer the vaccine, when approved and distributed.”

The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges also voiced their support for the framework. 

"The principles outlined in the framework released today are grounded in science and align with the fundamental values of medicine and ethical responsibilities of physicians," said Susan Bailey, AMA's president, in a statement. "We know that COVID-19 vaccine supply will not initially be available to the entire population. These principles are vital to prioritizing the groups that should receive COVID-19 vaccine first to protect public health and reduce virus transmission."

UPDATED: Thursday, Oct. 1, at 11:32 a.m.

House bill aims to incentivize faster COVID-19 test results

A new House bill seeks to give diagnostic laboratories financial incentives for maximizing testing volume and turnaround times for results.

The bill, introduced Thursday, seeks to reduce backlogs of test results by changing the reimbursement rates for laboratories.

Currently a lab that processes a COVID-19 test gets paid a flat rate from Medicare regardless of how quick the results are delivered. Under the legislation, if a lab turns around a COVID-19 test within 24 hours then it will get a 25% add-on to its Medicare reimbursement rate, according to a release on the bill.

Labs will still get the current rate if the results are provided within 48 hours. A lab will also get the reimbursement level used at the start of COVID-19 pandemic if the results are given within 72 hours.

If a lab has results after 72 hours, it will not get any reimbursement, the release said.

The bill also includes safeguards to prevent testing manipulation and gives a 36-hour extension for any labs serving rural and medically underserved areas.

The federal government shouldn’t be paying for what is essentially useless information when our country is in such a crisis,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Reps. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., are the other co-sponsors.

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 3:20 p.m. 

CMS: Medicaid, CHIP added 4M between February and June

New data from the Trump administration show that Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program recorded 4 million new enrollees between February and June of this year.

That represents a nearly 5.7% increase in enrollment since the public health emergency covering COVID-19 began in March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said.

Most of that new enrollment was in Medicaid, with nearly 4 million people signing up for coverage. Medicaid enrollment increased by 6.2% between February and June, CMS said.

CHIP enrollment increased by 24,495 people, CMS said.

Updated Tuesday, Sept. 29 at 6:05 p.m. 

CMS announces change to how COVID positivity rates are calculated

The Trump Administration is tweaking guidelines for determining COVID-19 positivity rates, a number used for assessing community prevalence of an illness, in response to complaints from governors that nursing homes in rural areas were being wrongly burdened by the methodology. 

Positivity rates have become a critical guidepost for nursing homes — a key area of spread of the COVID-19 virus early on in the pandemic — in determining the frequency with which they must test their staff for the virus. In some states, officials said the low overall rate of tests in some rural counties led to seemingly high comparative positivity rates, rather than actual positivity in their respective communities.

Under guidance CMS issued last month, nursing homes are required to test staff one a month if they are in a county with a positivity rate that is less than 5%. They must test staff once weekly if the positivity rate is between 5% and 10% and they must test twice weekly if the county positivity rate rises above 10%. 

Under the new methodology, counties with 20 or fewer tests over 14 days will move to "green" in the color-coded system of assessing the community prevalence of COVID-19, officials said.

Counties with fewer than 500 tests and fewer than 2,000 tests per 100,000 residents and a greater than 10% positivity rate over 14 days — which would have been considered "red" under the previous methodology — will now move to "yellow," officials sad.

Officials said the new methodology removes the burden to nursing homes while still continuing testing levels that will keep nursing home residents safe. In recent weeks, the Trump Administration announced the delivery of point-of-care testing machines to nursing homes  around the country. It also earmarked $21 billion to facilitate testing and offset other costs.

Officials have reported early problems in nursing homes with the testing, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

UPDATED: Monday, Sept. 28, at 5:20 p.m.

HHS reveals strategy for distributing rapid COVID-19 tests

The Trump administration has rolled out how it will distribute to states the Abbot BinaxNOW rapid test for COVID-19.

Health and Human Services purchased back in late August the first 150 million units of the rapid point-of-care test that can produce results in 15 minutes.

“The nation’s governors will not have to compete for the initial BinaxNOW shipments, or take time to set up purchasing contracts,” HHS said in a release on Monday.

BinaxNOW is an antigen test, which may not be as sensitive as laboratory-based nucleic acid tests.

“Results from an antigen test may need to be confirmed with a molecular test prior to making treatment decisions; this may be particularly true for negative results if there is a high clinical suspicion that the patient is infect,” the agency said in a release.

But a negative antigen test result doesn’t need to be repeated or confirmed “with a high-sensitivity molecular test when they are employed for routine screening or surveillance,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir in a statement.

UPDATED: Monday, Sept. 28 at 1:28 p.m.

Blue Cross NC to offer members $200M in health, wellness cards

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will offer $200 million in health and wellness retail cards to more than 600,000 eligible members to assist with their social needs during the pandemic.

The cards will be made available to people under the age of 65 enrolled in fully insured employer plans, Blue Cross NC said. The cards are set to be dispersed between Oct. 19 and Nov. 7, and will be valued at between $100 and $500 depending on the members' plan design.

Members who receive a card can use it for health and wellness needs such as over-the-counter medications, food, first aid supplies, baby care items and exercise equipment at a number of retailers including Walmart, CVS and Walgreens.

“We recognize the unexpected hardship and uncertainty many of our members face because of COVID-19,” said Tunde Sotunde, M.D., Blue Cross NC President and CEO, in a statement. “At Blue Cross NC, we are committed to the well-being of our members and we want to help them prioritize and pay for their health and wellness during this time.”

The insurer said that the funds will be pulled from their allotment of years of unpaid risk corridor payments that were dispersed following a Supreme Court ruling this year. SCOTUS ruled that the federal government was obligated to make the billions in payments under the Affordable Care Act.

Blue Cross NC said it would also use the risk corridor funds do drive down premiums for 2021.

UPDATED: Friday, Sept. 25, at 4:35 p.m.

CMS releases new tools to get quicker approval of lab tests

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released new tools intended to reduce paperwork and administrative burden for laboratories to get approval for new COVID-19 tests.

CMS released a quick-start guide on Friday to help labs navigate the application process for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments for COVID-19. It also includes new information on the expedited review process that enables labs to start COVID-19 testing before getting the official CLIA paperwork.

Labs also can now pay any certification fees through the program’s website.

“Online payments are processed overnight, which is substantially faster than hard-copy checks,” CMS said in a release.

“Today’s announcement will allow testing laboratories to promptly and painlessly register with CMS so they can get to work, focusing on providing reliable information to combat the spread of this disease,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, Sept. 24 at 5:15 p.m.

Google Maps to include COVID-19 data

Google's Map feature will soon include data on COVID-19 case trends in states, counties and some cities.

The tech giant is introducing the COVID layer in Maps, a tool that shows critical information about COVID-19 cases in an area so consumers can make more informed decisions about where to go and what to do. 

Data featured in the COVID layer comes from multiple authoritative sources, including Johns Hopkins, the New York Times, and Wikipedia, according to a blog post by Sujoy Banerjee, product manager at Google Maps.

"These sources get data from public health organizations like the World Health Organization, government health ministries, along with state and local health agencies and hospitals. Many of these sources already power COVID case information in Search, and we’re now expanding this data to Google Maps," Banerjee said.

Users can open Google Maps, then tap on the layers button on the top right hand corner of the screen and click on “COVID-19 info”. The data will provide a seven-day average of new COVID cases per 100,000 people for the area of the map you’re looking at, and a label that indicates whether the cases are trending up or down. 

Color coding also helps to distinguish the density of new cases in an area. Trending case data is visible at the country level for all 220 countries and territories that Google Maps supports, along with state or province, county, and city-level data where available, Banerjee said.

The COVID layer starts rolling out worldwide on Android and iOS this week. 

UPDATED: Thursday, Sept. 24 at 11:30 a.m.

BCBSRI launches COVID-19 public health dashboard

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island has launched a new public health dashboard aimed at helping providers and care managers identify the members most at risk for the novel coronavirus.

The tool will calculate a risk score for each member on a scale of zero to 10, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on the biggest risk factors for COVID-19, such as type 2 diabetes, pulmonary issues, heart conditions or admissions to skilled nursing facilities.

“The BCBSRI risk score is unique in that it is able to leverage a broad base of factors based on a combination of data, including 12 months of claims, social vulnerability index, hospital admissions and discharges, public health data such as coronavirus cases recorded by the Rhode Island Department of Health and other private data sources. The result: a data-driven, targeted response to COVID-19 that maximizes available medical resources for at-risk members” said Amar Gurivireddygari, BCBSRI chief data and analytics officer, in a statement.

BCBSRI's team has used the platform to both track and analyze trends around COVID-19 risk and to improve communication and educational outreach to members.

Provider partners such as Coastal Medical of Rhode Island have also used the tool to enhance and rethink their outreach around the pandemic, BCBSRI said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 12:24 p.m.

Blues plans extend cost-sharing waivers

Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas have extended their cost-sharing waivers for COVID-19 treatment.

Members in Horizon BCBSNJ fully insured employer plans, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid and individual and small group market plans will not pay cost-sharing for inpatient or outpatient care through Dec. 31 when their primary diagnosis is COVID-19.

The policy could also be further extended, Horizon BCBSNJ said.

BCBSTX has extended its own policy through Oct. 23, which will be applicable to fully insured, Medicare Advantage, Medicaid and individual market plans.

The insurer said that a number of its self-funded clients are also adopted similar waivers, and urged members to check on their policies.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 1:56 p.m.

Poll: Americans growing skeptical of first wave of COVID vaccines

A new poll from Axios and Ipsos finds a majority of Americans would be unlikely to take a vaccine for COVID-19 immediately when one becomes available.

The poll found that 60% were not very or not at all likely to get the first wave of vaccines when they're made available, with 39% saying that would.

That's down from 47% saying last month that they would likely get a vaccine as soon as one is available.

The poll found that 30% were likely to wait a few months before getting a vaccine, and 18% were likely to wait a year or longer before being vaccinated. The trend was found among both Democrats and Republicans who responded, with Democrats seeing the largest drop, from 56% saying they would get the vaccine immediately last month to 43% saying they'd get the vaccine.

Among Republicans, the number dropped from 40% to 41%, the poll found.

Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs, told Axios that these trends likely reflect the "political ping-pong" of the White House's messaging around vaccine and the pushback from Democrats.

UPDATED: Monday, Sept. 21 at 3:13 p.m.

200K dead from COVID-19 in U.S.

The United States is on pace to hit a somber milestone this week of at least 200,000 deaths from COVID-19.

As NBC News reported, it was a figure given earlier this spring as an upper range of how many Americans might die from the virus. "If we do things together, well, almost perfectly, we can get in the range of 100,00 to 200,000 fatalities," Deborah Birx, M.D., who is the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, told Savannah Guthrie of NBC News' "Today" show.

Officials warn there is reason to worry the spread of the novel coronavirus could accelerate as temperatures dip. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that 11 states reported more than 1,000 new cases on Sunday. 

“If you look at what’s happening around the country right now, there’s an unmistakable spike in new infections," Scott Gottlieb, M.D., former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

UPDATED: Thursday, Sept. 17 at 1:26 p.m.

AHIP unveils vaccine toolkit as flu season looms

America's Health Insurance Plans has released a vaccine toolkit ahead of flu season to urge people to be vaccinated as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Flu vaccines will be especially crucial to keep the spread of influenza under control to avoid an overload of patients with respiratory illness crowding hospitals, AHIP said.

The toolkit includes an article highlighting the decline in vaccination rates under the pandemic, with the World Health Organization estimating that social distancing has impacted 80 million children's vaccinations globally.

"The coronavirus has captured our attention, but the value of routine immunizations is well documented," AHIP wrote.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans get vaccinated for the flu by early October for the vaccines to have the greatest effect, AHIP said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 12:57 p.m.

NIH announces $12M in community grants

The National Institutes of Health is granting a $12 million award for outreach efforts in ethnic and racial minority communities disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials announced on Wednesday.

The award to RTI International, a non-profit research institution, will support teams in 11 states including Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Established as part of the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, the teams in the respective states wil focus on COVID-19 awareness and education research, especially among African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and American Indians. Those populations account for more than half of all reported cases in the U.S.

They also will promote and facilitate the inclusion and participation of these groups in vaccine and therapeutic clinical trials to prevent and treat the disease.

“Addressing health disparities affecting racial and ethnic minority populations has long been a priority for NIH,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., in a statement. “The burden of the COVID-19 pandemic borne by diverse communities, especially those that include Blacks and Latinos, makes clear the urgent need for treatments and vaccines that are effective for all Americans. Inclusive research that reflects the entire population is essential to this goal.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 10:45 a.m.

Google donating $8.5M to COVID-19 data analytics, AI projects

Google.org is giving more than $8.5 million to 31 organizations around the world to support the use of data analytics and artificial intelligence projects to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

This funding is part of Google.org’s $100 million commitment to COVID-19 relief and focuses on four key areas where new information and action is needed to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

The donation will support the development of data platforms to help model disease and projects that explore the use of diverse public datasets to more accurately predict the spread of the virus, Mollie Javerbaum, program manager of Google.org, and Meghan Houghton, university relations program manager wrote in a recent blog

The funding also supports efforts to map the social and environmental drivers of COVID-19 impact t, such as race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status, to address health equity.

Organizations conducting projects include Carnegie Mellon University, where researchers will inform public health officials with interactive maps that display real-time COVID-19 data from sources such as web surveys and other publicly-available data.

A team from Morehouse School of Medicine’s Satcher Health Leadership Institute is developing an interactive, public-facing COVID-19 Health Equity Tracker of the United States. 

Arizona State University researchers are applying federated analytics, a state-of-the-art, privacy-preserving analytic technique, to contact tracing, including an on-campus pilot.

As part of another project, researchers at University of California Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes are developing rapid at-home CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic tests using cell phone technology. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 10:43 a.m.

Aetna sends care kits to Medicare members ahead of flu season

As flu season begins in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, Aetna is sending out care kits to its Medicare members with keeping themselves healthy at home.

The kits include items such as a thermometer, hand sanitizer and face masks, Aetna said. The kits will be shipped to Medicare members who enrolled on or before Aug. 1, and begun going out last week.

Shipments will continue throughout the fall, Aetna said.

"During this challenging time when many of our most vulnerable members are home, we wanted to provide them with some convenient items to help them stay healthy," said Christopher Ciano, president of Aetna Medicare, in a statement.

"We know that something as basic as an oral thermometer can make a big difference during telehealth visits," Ciano said. "Sending these types of important items to our members at no cost was simply the right thing to do."

Aetna has also waived Medicare Advantage members' cost-sharing for in-network primary care visits and all telehealth visits through Dec. 31 as part of its pandemic response.

UPDATED: Monday, Sept. 14 at 10 a.m.

CVS makes tests available to patients aged 12 and older

CVS Health has announced that it will make COVID-19 testing available at its drive-thru testing sites for children aged 12 and older, as concerns grow about the spread of the virus as kids return to school.

A parent or guardian must complete an online registration form to schedule an appointment, and must accompany those between the ages of 12 and 15 for testing, CVS said. Parents seeking tests for children under the age of 12 should consult first with a pediatrician to determine the appropriate course of action.

"With schools opening across the country, there's an urgent need to make testing for minors more readily available," said Troyen Brennan, M.D., chief medical officer at CVS Health, in a statement. "In response, we've implemented a system that allows parents or guardians to register and accompany their children for a self-swab test close to home."

The self-swab tests available at the drive-thru sites are at no cost to patients, CVS said.

CVS also added 130 new testing sites at its pharmacies, the healthcare giant said. It added that test results are typically available within two to three days.

UPDATED: Friday, Sept. 11 at 2:26 p.m.

CommonSpirit Health opens new lab for COVID-19 testing

CommonSpirit Health announced the opening of its Reference Lab, a nearly 10,000-square-foot space in Scottsdale, Arizona to more than triple its current COVID-19 testing for the nonprofit’s 137 hospitals and more than 1,000 care sites. 

The new lab is expected to boost capacity to 70,000 COVID-19 tests a week. 

“As the coronavirus will affect the health of our communities for the foreseeable future, we all have a role to play in increasing COVID-19 testing capacity across the U.S.,” said Karen Smith, system vice president of laboratory services at CommonSpirit Health in a statement. “By supporting CommonSpirit’s acute and ambulatory care sites with expanded testing, we can free up hospital capacity for critically ill patients and provide greater peace of mind to patients waiting for their results.”

The space is located in the Ilume Innovation Center, a 372,000-square-foot mix of office, wet lab and research and development space. Transwestern provided the heathcare leasing services on behalf of the building owner while JLL provided tenant advisory services for CommonSpirit Health. 

UPDATED: Thursday, Sept. 10 at 12:05 p.m.

Banner recommends docs do post-COVID heart check on athletes

In the latest tweak to guideilnes for patients who've recovered from COVID-19, heath systems like Banner Health are recommending student-athletes get heart checks. 

The recommendation comes after new research found COVID-19 published on bioRxiv found the coronavirus can harm the heart's function due to inflammation known as myocarditis, sparking concern for the potential of heart failure. 

"Recent cases are showing that athletes who have overcome a viral infection such as COVID-19 can result in an inflammatory response that can potentially cause structural damage to the heart," said Steven Erickson, MD, medical director for Banner Sports Medicine and Concussion Specialists in a statement. 

The health system is suggesting all athletes who have been sick for more than three days with COVID-19 to get an electrocardiogram to screen for myocarditis before clearing them to play. In addition, they said, all athletes should be symptom-free for at least 14 days before resuming sports and should gradually resume activities while monitoring them for cardiac symptoms.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 2:09 p.m.

Independent Blue Cross offers nearly $120M in premium credits, rebates

Pennsylvania-based Independence Blue Cross announced it will offer nearly $120 million in premium credits and rebates to its fully insured group employers.

The insurer announced Thursday it will give fully insured group employers a one-time credit in their invoices this month of $35 million. The insurer will also be issuing a one-time dental credit for the month.

Independence also is issuing premium rebates exceeding $84 million to many of the same customers because of its “effective management of medical costs,” according to a release on the announcement.

“We recognize the mounting pressures many are facing due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Independence CEO Daniel Hilferty, in a statement. “By providing premium credits, issuing rebates and providing payment flexibility, Independence is hoping to reduce some of the financial burdens our clients are experiencing.”

The insurer noted that while medical claims plummeted at the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, claims submissions have “consistently increased and are currently returning to levels more typical of this time period.”

Insurers are required under the Affordable Care Act to offer rebates to customers if they do not spend at least 80 to 85% of their premium dollars on healthcare. The rebates for this year are calculated based on a prior three-year average.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 11:01 a.m.

McConnell announces Senate vote on ‘targeted’ COVID-19 relief

The Senate could vote as early as this week on a “targeted” COVID-19 relief bill that will include money for healthcare, but exact numbers are not available yet, according to a statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

His statement released Tuesday comes as the Senate returns from a monthlong recess.

The more targeted proposal will focus on “some of the very most urgent healthcare, education and economic issues,” McConnell said. “It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same.”

McConnell did not give exact numbers on how much healthcare will receive.

Senate Republicans introduced a $1 trillion package in July that included money for testing and research but not to frontline providers.

The House passed the HEROES Act a few months ago, a $3 trillion package that includes $100 billion for providers. But the bill stalled in the Senate, where Republicans charged it was too partisan.

Congress did include $175 billion for providers as part of the CARES Act that it passed earlier this year at the onset of the pandemic.

Relief funding has been critical for health systems and physician offices seeking to offset major declines in patient volume.

UPDATED: Friday, Sept. 4 at 9:03 a.m.

Allina Health, Aetna's joint venture launches campaign urging patients to seek needed care

Allina Health | Aetna, a joint venture between the two companies, has launched a new campaign urging members in Minnesota to seek the care they need even as COVID-19 necessitates social distancing.

The campaign is a local iteration of CVS Health's national Time for Care effort, and both highlight the need for patients to prioritize their health needs. There has been concern in the healthcare industry that fear of exposure to the novel coronavirus has caused some patients to pass on critical care.

Data from Cigna, for example, suggests that the peak of the pandemic significant numbers of its members were deferring care for acute needs like appendicitis and heart conditions.

"While we remain focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19, we also need to make sure that people are continuing to seek care, especially for chronic conditions, during this time," said Tom Lindquist, CEO at Allina Health | Aetna. "Our 'Because Care Doesn't Stop' campaign reminds people of the many avenues for care and resources in place to help meet their needs during these changing times."

As part of the campaign, Allina Health | Aetna will release a series of short video and podcast interviews that highlight the local impacts of the pandemic

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 5:10 p.m.

Apple, Google make contact tracing tech standard smartphone feature

Apple and Google announced Tuesday efforts to expand their contact tracing technology, which has seen a slow uptake by states and public health agencies so far.

The tech giants said future versions of their mobile phone operating systems will include their jointly developed COVID-19 contact tracing platform as a built-in feature that users can voluntarily turn on if their states are using it, according to several media outlets.

By integrating the technology more directly into their mobile operating systems, public health agencies will no longer have to build their own contact tracing apps, according to the companies.

With the new system, iPhone users will no longer need to download a separate public health app in order to opt into the contact tracing feature, while Android users will be prompted to download an app that Google will create on behalf of public health officials, CNN Business reported.

Public health officials in Maryland, Nevada, Virginia and Washington, DC will be the first to use the more streamlined version of Exposure Notification, known as Exposure Notification Express.

Back in May, Google and Apple rolled out their digital contact tracing technology that can be used by public health agencies to track COVID-19.

The existing app-based version of the technology is already in use in Alabama, Arizona, North Dakota, Nevada, Wyoming and Virginia, as well as 20 countries and regions around the world, the companies added, CNN reported.

Those that have yet to adopt the system have cited a lack of engineering manpower needed to build a dedicated app, the companies told reporters Tuesday, highlighting how a simpler process could accelerate the tool's spread.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 4:19 p.m.

HHS, FCC team up to boost rural telehealth

Several federal agencies rolled out a new joint effort to collaborate to increase the use of telehealth in rural areas.

Health and Human Services, Federal Communications Commission and Department of Agriculture signed memorandum of understanding on Tuesday. The goal is to resolve service provider issues and help promote the use of broadband services and technology in rural America.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made the rural healthcare challenge even more serious and has complicated healthcare providers’ efforts to serve rural Americans,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

The agencies intend to create a task force aimed at exploring recommendations for how to boost telehealth. The agencies will also hare information on how to address health disparities that exist in rural areas.

The agreement comes as the Trump administration has sought to expand the use of telehealth amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has made it easier for providers to get Medicare reimbursement for telehealth appointments and President Trump made some of the changes permanent in an executive order last month.

UPDATED: Thursday, Aug. 27 at 11:58 a.m.

More than $400B in COVID relief earmarked for healthcare industry

At least $412 billion of federal COVID relief funding has been earmarked to go toward the healthcare industry, according to a new COVID Money Tracker tool from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. 

The tool follows every dollar authorized and spent by Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the Administration in response to the coronavirus, the group said. In total, about $11.4 trillion in COVID-19 relief spending has been been authorized including $7 trillion in federal reserve actions.

Of the funding earmarked for heatlhcare, $312 bilion was authorized through legislative actions, $100 billion was authorized through administrative actions and at least $331 million was authorized through Federal Reserve actions. 

So far, they said, about $291 billion of financial relief for the heatlhcare industry has been dispersed or committed. Of that funding, about three-quarters of it is direct releif for hospitals and other healthcare providers. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 25 at 11:58 a.m.

CMS to train nursing homes on preventing spread of COVID

The Trump administration is launching a national training program to help frontline nursing home staff more effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will make the training available immediately to the 15,400 Medicare and Medicaid certified nursing homes, the agency announced on Tuesday. The training will focus on topics such as screening visitors, safely admitting and transferring residents and cohorting patients.

The training is built from recent CMS inspections and epidemiological research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CMS said, as well as lessons learned to date from nursing homes in mitigating the pandemic.

“President Trump has directed us to deploy every resource available to ensure nursing homes are prepared, educated, and ready to keep all our seniors safe from this highly contagious, dangerous disease,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma in a statement.

“CMS is taking unprecedented action to ensure that nursing homes are doubling down on efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. This national training program is just the latest example of our coordinated and aggressive response to this unprecedented situation," Verma said. 

UPDATED: Friday, Aug. 21 at 1 p.m.

Morehouse, UnitedHealth team to study impact of COVID on sickle cell patients

Morehouse School of Medicine and UnitedHealth Group are joining forces to research whether patients with sickle cell trait are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities. An estimated one in 12 Black patients have sickle cell trait, and there is limited research to date on how that disease interacts with the virus.

MSM researchers are planning to study 300 sickle cell patients who are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 at Grady Memorial Hospital. They will track the patients through a series of visits, including a followup 30 days after discharge.

UnitedHealth researchers will assist in analyzing the findings.

“We deeply appreciate our ongoing partnership with the Morehouse School of Medicine and remain intensely focused on supporting populations who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 through innovative, practical, real-world research studies,” said Deneen Vojta, executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group Research & Development, in a statement.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 2:29 p.m.

AMA, AHA and ANA issue call to 'Wear a Mask'

In a new public service announcement, top medical associations renewed the call for individuals to 'wear a mask' in public spaces.

In the 30-second spot, the leaders of the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association and and American Hospital Association implored viewers to remember healthcare providers working to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To help, they said, individuals need to be diligent in washing their hands, maintaining social distance and wearing their masks. 

"When you wear a mask, you're protecting your friends, your neighbors, your loved ones, your loved ones and yourself," said Ernest Grant, president of the ANA, who is wearing a mask in the video.

Susan Bailey, M.D., president of the AMA also spoke in the ad. "Science and evidence must shape our actions," said Bailey, who was also wearing a mask.  

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 18 at 1:39 p.m.

CMS resumes routine inspections of providers, suppliers

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has resumed inspections of suppliers and providers that were paused at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

CMS limited surveys to infection control inspections and investigations of complaints and incidents as a way to help providers and suppliers combat COVID-19.

The agency relies on states and independent companies such as the Joint Commission to conduct inspections of hospitals and nursing homes.

CMS on Monday called for the resumption of onsite revisit surveys that verify compliance at a facility, non-immediate jeopardy complaint surveys and annual recertification surveys “as soon as resources are available.”

The agency also released guidance on how to resolve enforcement cases that were put on hold due to the pandemic.

“The agency will also temporarily expand the desk review policy, when states surveyors ensure that facilities return back into compliance with federal requirements without an onsite survey,” CMS said in a statement.

CMS also released a toolkit on state actions that can help stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes.

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 18 at 10:00 a.m.

Only 79% of Americans say they will get a COVID-19 vaccine 

More than a third of Americans (36%) say they will get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as it's available "no matter what."

According to a survey of 1,000 Americans from personal finance website ValuePenguin, 79% of Americans are considering getting the coronavirus vaccine once it's available to the public.

Of that group, 42% say they'll wait at least a week before being vaccinated.

Nearly half (45%) of parents said their child will definitely receive the coronavirus vaccine.

About half of consumers (51%) believe K–12 public schools should require all children to receive the coronavirus vaccine once it's available, and 49% think offices should require the same of employees.

Nearly 4 in 10 respondents said they're more likely to get a flu shot this year because of the coronavirus. However, 12% said they're actually less likely, the survey found.

The survey results indicate that women are less likely to get the coronavirus vaccine than men:18% of women definitely will not get vaccinated vs. 11% of men.

Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats: 46% of Democrats said they would get vaccinated no matter what versus 36% of Republicans.

When broken down by region, people in the New England (39%) and North Atlantic (45%) areas were most likely to say they'll get vaccinated "no matter what."

However, of all the respondents, 26% said their decision will depend on the circumstances, and 17% will only get vaccinated if it's covered by their insurance.

Interestingly, this means nearly half of the survey respondents would put conditions on getting a coronavirus vaccination when it becomes available.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents are very or somewhat comfortable with returning to normal day-to-day activities once they have received a coronavirus vaccination.

Updated: Friday, Aug. 14 at 10:39 a.m.

Biden urges governors to mandate wearing masks

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is calling on all governors to mandate masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Biden and running mate Kamala Harris made a joint appearance in Wilmington, Delaware on Thursday, NPR reports, where he pushed for more people to adapt to wearing masks as the pandemic rolls on.

"Every single American should be wearing a mask when they're outside for the next three months, at a minimum," Biden said Thursday afternoon. "Every governor should mandate mandatory mask-wearing. The estimates by the experts are it will save over 40,000 lives."

Biden was quicker than his general election opponent, President Donald Trump, to begin wearing masks as COVID-19 spread.

Biden said in June that if elected he would do everything possible as president to make wearing masks a public requirement.

Updated: Thursday, Aug. 13 at 2:56 p.m.

Kroger Health launches COVID-19 testing program for employers

Add one more non-traditional health player to the companies offering COVID-19 testing options to employers. 

Kroger Health — a part of the Cinncinati-based grocery chain Kroger — is launching an employer-focused COVID testing program. Called COVIDCare Plus, the program combines COVID-19 testing and management with healthcare services to help companies restart and maintain business operations. 

The program will use Kroger Health’s FDA-authorized COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit, which has a self-administered test with virtual supervision by a licensed healthcare provider. Kroger made the testing available to its associates in early July

Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 12 at 11:16 a.m.

BCBSRI expands no-cost Medicare Advantage benefits

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island has expanded its list of $0 Medicare Advantage benefits through the end of the year.

BCBSRI will offer a slew of services at no cost to MA members to assist in the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning Aug. 17, Medicare Advantage mebers will have access to $0 copayments for primary care visits, $0 copays for mental health and substance abuse treatment and $0 inpatient hospital, mental health or observation stays.

In addition, diagnostic labs and imaging, tier one prescriptions, Part B drugs and most insulins, inhalers and dementia medications will be available at no out-of-pocket cost, BCBSRI said.

“For more than 20 years, BCBSRI has had the privilege of serving Rhode Island Medicare-eligible adults who choose a Medicare Advantage plan,” said Corey McCarty, BCBSRI consumer segment vice president, in a statement.

“Now more than ever, helping our members access the care they need as easily as possible is paramount. We are proud to be the only local insurer to offer the opportunity for Rhode Islanders to save money and continue to address their health and well-being needs," McCarty said.

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 11 at 11:35 a.m.

CVS launches COVID conversation podcast

CVS Health launched a new podcast and video series focused on the COVID-19.

Officials at the healthcare giant said the goal of the series, called "Healthy Conversations" will showcase leadership discussing the COVID-19 response of CVS Health executives as well as other industry executives, officials said. 

An inaugural episode focuses on our testing efforts and also includes a discussion of systemic racism in health care and how that is manifesting itself especially during the COVID-19 pandemic with Vice President of Community Health and Chief Community Health Officer Garth Graham, officials said. 

Hosted by Dr. Daniel Kraft and Dr. Dela Taghipour, additional early episodes will feature Chief Medical Officer for CVS Caremark Sree Chaguturu and President of MinuteClinic Sharon Vitti. In addition, Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will discuss his concerns around the need for more testing, especially as we enter the second half of the year, officials said.

UPDATED: Monday, Aug. 10 at 10:04 a.m.

U.S. hits 5M confirmed COVID-19 cases

The United States crossed 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases over the weekend, by far the most of any country in the world.

Health officials believe the total number of cases may be ten times higher, or in the vicinity of 50 million, due to testing limitation at the large prevalence of asymptomatic cases, the Associated Press reported. Experts at Johns Hopkins estimate that as many as 40% of COVID-19 are asymptomatic.

The U.S. has also topped 160,000 COVID-19 deaths, also the highest number in the world, according to the article.

As cases stateside continue to grow, a new report (PDF) finds that more than 97,000 children tested positive for the virus in the last two weeks of July, an increase 40% increase in child cases.

The data comes as public health researchers are taking a harder look at the impact of the virus in children as schools begin to re-open.

UPDATED: Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 2:41 p.m.

NIH launches new AI effort to fight COVID

The National Institutes of Health launched a new effort to harness artificial intelligence and medical imaging to fight COVID-19.

Led by the NIH's National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the effort called the Medical Imaging and Data Resource Center (MIDRC), will create new tools for physicians to use for early detection and personalized therapies for COVID-19 patients, officials said. 

The features of infected lungs and hearts on medical images can help assess disease severity, predict response to treatment and improve patient outcomes, officials said. But first, officials need to rapidly and accurately identify those signautres in combination with other clinical systems and tests. 

“This program is particularly exciting because it will give us new ways to rapidly turn scientific findings into practical imaging tools that benefit COVID-19 patients,” said Bruce J. Tromberg, NIBIB Director, in a statement.

UPDATED: Tuesday, Aug. 4 at 12:41 p.m.

CMS allows insurers to offer temporary premium reductions

The Trump administration is allowing health insurers to offer temporary premium reductions to individual and small group market members due to COVID-19.

Insurers are typically barred from making changes to premiums once the benefit year begins, but the new policy will allow payers to offer reductions for one or more months to ease financial sting of the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Tuesday.

The policy will be in place until the end of 2020, and insurers must comply with state laws if they choose to purse the reductions, CMS said.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration has taken a whole-of-America approach, including working with our private partners, to ensure that the entire healthcare system is activated in our efforts to protect the American people,” said Administrator Seema Verma in astatement.

“Today’s action is just the latest in a series of flexibilities CMS has extended to health insurers to help them support their enrollees during this unprecedented time," she said.

UPDATED: Monday, Aug. 3, at 11 a.m.

FAH launches initiative to extend Medicare repayment deadline

The Federation of American Hospitals launched a new initiative called “Out of Time” to press Congress to adjust the terms of Medicare advance payment loans.

Some providers who took loans under the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment Program will start to see their Medicare claims garnished this month to start repaying the loans. The FAH and other provider groups have pressed Congress to change the repayment terms.

The initiative aims to count the days since providers began losing their Medicare payments to press the need for relief.

“With new COVID hotspots emerging across the country and patients reluctant to return for regular care, most hospitals simply don’t have the resources to immediately pay back the loans in full,” said FAH President and CEO Chip Kahn, in a statement.

The FAH wants Congress and the administration to make several changes, including reducing the amount of repayment taken from each Medicare claim from 100% to 25%.

They also want to change the repayment period from 12 months for hospitals to at least 36 months before providers must pay the outstanding balance and before interest begins to accrue.

FAH also wants the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to restart the program that was suspended back on April 27. CMS said it has doled out $100 billion in loans under the program.

UPDATED: Friday, July 31 at 10:28 a.m.

AHA, AMA, ANA team up to urge people to wear masks

The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association have launched a joint public service campaign to encourage people to wear masks.

The PSA also urges Americans to maintain a social distance and wash their hands frequently.

As states began to reopen because COVID-19 cases declined, people also moved away from those mitigation efforts, allowing for further spikes of the virus in thee summer.

“For months hospitals and health systems and caregivers have heroically battled COVID-19. Following the science, evidence and the advice of our clinical partners when it comes to wearing masks, practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing has proven effective in stopping the spread and now is not the time to go backwards, ” said AHA CEO Rick Pollack in a statement.

UPDATED: Friday, July 31 at 10:03 a.m.

Fauci testifies on NIH's 4 focus areas for combatting COVID

Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, M.D., testified Friday morning at a congressional hearing about the four key elements of the National Institutes of Health's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been the leading clinical voice nationally on the pandemic response.

Here's NIH's four priorities:

  1. Gaining greater understanding of the virus itself
  2. Developing diagnostic tools
  3. Testing potential therapeutics
  4. Developing and testing potential vaccines

Fauci also sought to allay fears that a vaccine, when approved, would be unsafe. He said he is "cautiously optimistic" that a safe and effective vaccine will be available in late fall or the early winter.

"We hope that by the time we get into late fall and early winter, we will have in fact a vaccine that we can say that would be safe and effective. One can never guarantee the safety or effectiveness unless you do the trial, but we are cautiously optimistic this will be successful," Fauci said.

UPDATED: Thursday, July  30, at 12:45 p.m.

CMS releases new codes on COVID-19 treatments, patient counseling

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced new hospital procedure codes for COVID-19 therapeutics and to pay physicians to counsel patients.

CMS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Thursday a payment available to providers that counsel patients at the time they get COVID-19 testing on the importance of self-isolation after they get the test and prior to the onset of symptoms.

The agency uses existing evaluation and management payment codes to reimburse providers for the counseling services that can occur no matter where a test is administered. Patients should be counseled to self-isolate even before COVID-19 results are known and to alert their immediate household to also get tested.

The new payment addition comes amid major backlogs in getting test results in states slammed by COVID-19 cases.

The agency also unveiled new payment codes for COVID-19 therapeutics that go into effect on Aug. 1. The codes apply to the therapeutics remdesivir and convalescent plasma used in hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.

“These codes can be reported to Medicare and other insurers may also use the codes to identify the use of COVID-19 therapies and help facilitate monitoring and data collection on their use,” the agency said in a release.

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 28, at 3:30 p.m.

CMS: Average COVID-19 hospitalization cost Medicare $25,255 per beneficiary

Medicare paid out $2.8 billion, an average of $25,255 per beneficiary, in fee-for-service claims for any COVID-19-related hospitalizations, according to new data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

CMS released updated data on COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on Tuesday. The data, which covers January through June 20, also examines the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations among racial and ethnic groups.

The data found that Black Medicare beneficiaries are hospitalized at a higher rate than other racial and ethnic groups, with 670 hospitalizations per 100,000 beneficiaries.

The group with the second highest rate of hospitalizations was American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Dual eligible beneficiaries also were hospitalized at a rate 4.5 times higher than Medicare-only beneficiaries.

CMS also found that beneficiaries with end-stage renal disease are hospitalized at a higher rate, with 1,911 hospitalizations per 100,000 beneficiaries, compared with 241 and 226 per 100,000.

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 28 at 10:11 a.m.

Amazon offers open source 3D printing kit for face shields

Amazon's engineers have created an open source 3D printing design for protective face shields, approved by the National Institutes of Health.

Supplies of personal protective equipment have been low nationally for frontline health workers, with reusable face shields growing in price. Individuals and small businesses can download the kit to make their own masks through 3D printing or injection molding, Amazon said.

Amazon's model, which were first unveiled in May, are also now available for online purchase.

"We have amazing teams creating and building every day. Watching them quickly adapt to the community’s needs during this stressful time and develop a face shield that we’ve heard from medical professionals is one of the best has been such a rewarding experience," Amazon vice president Brad Porter wrote in a blog post. "It’s important that these critical supplies get to healthcare and government organizations and we want to help make that happen—whether that’s working with the open-source community, donating the shields, or selling these essential supplies."

Amazon has also donated thousands of shields, with plans to donate 150,000 more by the end of the year.

UPDATED: Monday, July 27 at 11:57 a.m.

A third of hospital pharmacies face shortage of remdesivir 

One third of hospital pharmacies say they do not have enough remdesivir available to treat patients with COVID-19, according to a new survey.

A new report from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists polls 112 respondents on a number of concerns related to the pandemic. While some expressed concern about supply of remdesivir, supplies of intensive care medications are improving, the survey found.

For example, no survey respondents said their hospitals are out of dexamethasone, a steroid for treating inflammation. Only 16% said they were down to a seven-day's supply on hand.

Stores of other safety supplies have also improved compared to prior ASHP polls, the survey found, though gaps remain. Shoe covers and gowns worn as part of hazardous-drug preparation remain scarce from wholesalers, the survey respondents said.

UPDATED: Monday, July 27 at 10:55 a.m.

Deaths among patients under 65 higher in South, Sun Belt: KFF

New data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that while the majority of deaths from COVID-19 nationally are people over the age of 65, states in the Sun Belt and the South are seeing higher mortality rates among younger people.

Rates range from 94% of deaths being people aged 65 and older in Idaho to 70% of deaths in people aged 65 and over in the District of Columbia and Texas, according to the report.

The national average is 80% of deaths among people over the age of 65, KFF found. Eighteen states fall below the national average.

The analysis posits two reasons for the trends. For one, many of the states on the highest end of the spectrum have large numbers of long-term care facilities, including Idaho, New Hampshire (92%), Massachusetts (90%) and Rhode Island (90%).

States on the lower end, meanwhile saw spikes in the pandemic later, so their numbers may lag comparatively, KFF said.

"The majority of people who have died of COVID-19 are 65 and older nationwide; however, there is a fair amount of variation across states," they wrote. "These differences may reflect a number of factors, including underlying demographic characteristics, other state-specific factors, and the timing of outbreaks."

UPDATED: Friday, July 24 at 1:58 p.m.

Trump administration renews public health emergency declaration

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tweeted late Thursday that the Trump administration has renewed a national public health emergency declaration for COVID-19.

"The Administration will continue its whole-of-America response to ensure Americans can get the care they need throughout the pandemic," Azar tweeted.

The renewal comes after states pressed the administration to do so, as allowing the declaration to expire could restrict critical resources needed to effectively combat the pandemic.

The declaration will last for an additional 90 days, and as such will next be set to expire in October.

UPDATED: Thursday, July 23 at 10:30 a.m.

Humana to mail 1M preventative screening tests to members

Humana will mail more than 1 million in-home preventative screening tests to its members by the end of the year.

The goal, the insurer said, is to help its members identify potential complications related to diabetes or colorectal cancer. This is especially crucial as more people skip out on potentially necessary care due to fear of contracting COVID-19.

The tests will be made available from June to September at not cost to Medicare Advantage members. The diabetes tests will also be made available for eligible Medicaid members.

“Because of the pandemic, many of our members – who are primarily seniors – have not been comfortable leaving their homes for routine health care,” said William Shrank, M.D., chief medical officer at Humana, said in a statement. “Now more than ever, proactive, preventive care can be lifesaving and life-changing for our members."

"During these complex times, patients should not be distancing themselves from their doctors," Shrank said.

The new initiative triples the amount of these tests sent to members previously, and builds on the insurer's announcement that it would cover home COVID-19 tests and was also expanding access to drive-thru testing for the virus in partnership with Walmart.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 22 at 10:55 a.m.

Health groups urge Congress to further fund testing efforts

A slew of healthcare organizations sent a letter to congressional leaders this week, urging them to include greater funding for testing in future COVID-19 legislative packages.

Groups signed on to the letter include America's Health Insurance Plans, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. the Business Group on Health, the Chamber of Commerce, the American College of Physicians and the American Clinical Laboratory Association.

The groups argue that a sustained testing program is critical to reopening businesses, making the additional funding an imperative.

"COVID-19. Dedicated federal funding, and clear coverage guidelines are critical for the scale and degree of testing that is needed to reopen, to reduce the risk of transmission, and to understand the progression of the disease and aid in development of better treatments and vaccines," the wrote.

Congress is currently working on a new legislative package to assist with the pandemic.

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 21 at 5:59 p.m.

Trump: "It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better"

President Donald Trump took a decidedly different tone as he revived the coroanvirus briefings at the White House on Tuesday evening.

While he praised the work being done to develop a vaccine and find effective therapies for the virus, he also warned the spread of the disease was likely far from over.

"It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better. That's something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is," Trump told reporters. "That's what we have. You look over the world, it's all over the world. And it tends to do that."

During a roughly 26-minute briefing, Trump was asked whether he would support federal funding to states for testing, including to fund tests that provide faster results in light of the fact labs have begun taking upwards of a week to return results.

"They're going to make a presentation to me tonight and tomorrow on that," Trump said, referring to efforts on Capitol Hill to secure the funding. "We're leading the world. I think we're the second country with 50 million tests ... I think we're doing a tremendous amount of testing. But again, if the doctors and the professionals feel that — even though we're at a level that nobody ever dreamt possible — they would do more, then I'm OK with it." 

Trump disagreed with a reporter's characterization when asked about his "change of tone" including when it came to his support of masks and acknowledgement the pandemic may get worse.

"We have embers, we have fires. We have big fires. Unfortunately, right now Florida is in a tough position," Trump said. "But you've got a great governor there. You've got a great governor in Texas. You have people that are very skilled people and I think they're going to handle it very well. Their hospital capacities are holding up. But Texas is a big state but it's well run, so is Florida and I think they'll do a very good job." 

Trump said he hoped to advance a fourth economic relief package soon.

Previous packages have included relief earmarked specifically for hospitals and doctors. Lobbying efforts for additional healthcare funding, including for testing and contact tracing, have been fierce. "We're working very hard on it. We're making a lot of progress," Trump said. "I also know both sides want to get it done." 

UPDATED: Monday, July 20 at 11:46 a.m.

HHS releases guidance to prohibit discrimination in COVID-19 care

Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights issued guidance to ensure that providers who get COVID-19 relief funds understand they must meet federal laws that prohibit racial discrimination.

The guidance released Monday is intended to help address major health disparities among minorities that have existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified those disparities, but it has also given us the opportunity to acknowledge their existence and impact, and deepen our resolve to address them," said Surgeon General Jerome Adams in a statement.

Recipients of federal COVID-19 assistance must attest to HHS that they have adopted policies to prevent and address harassment and confirm existing policies regarding COVID-19 services such as testing don’t discriminate based on race, color or national origin.

Providers that get HHS funds have to also ensure that services such as testing are accessible.

“For example, to support this end, recipients may consider making walk-in testing sites available in urban areas where racial and ethnic minority populations may not have access to vehicle transportation, or providing home visitation testing in rural areas where transportation is a challenge for racial and ethnic minorities,” the guidance said.

UPDATED: Monday, July 20, at 10:50 a.m.

FDA approves new method to pool COVID-19 tests

The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization to Quest Diagnostics to use pooling testing technology for COVID-19 cases.

The decision Saturday means that Quest can test pooled samples of up to four patients to determine if they have COVID-19.

“Sample pooling is an important public health tool because it allows for more people to be tested quickly using fewer testing resources,” FDA said in a release.

Pooling works by testing a batch of samples for the virus rather than just individual tests.

“If the pool is positive, it means that one or more of the individuals tested in that pool may be infected, so each of the samples in that pool are tested again individually,” the FDA said.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said that sample pooling is going to become more important as infection rates decline and large portions of the population need to be tested.

UPDATED: Friday, July 17 at 8:45 a.m.

3.3M people over 65 live with school-aged children: analysis

One of the biggest questions facing public health officials amid the COVID pandemic this summer is how exactly to get students back into school in the fall.

Among the complications: About 3.3 million adults older than 65 years old live in a household with school-aged children, according to a new KFF Analysis. These older adults, about 6% of the senior population in the U.S., live with 4.1 million school-aged children. 

While children appear to be a lower risk for COVID-19 infection or serious complications from the virus, older adults — as well as people of all ages with serious medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes — are among the high-risk groups for developing serious complications, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have thrown their support behind the importance of reopening schools for the health of children while also urging caution. AAP released updated guidance for pediatricians. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 15 at 2:45 p.m.

AMA President: PPE still a struggle for practices

Getting their hands on personal protective equipment isn’t just a lingering issue for hospitals.

Now physician practices are having a hard time getting PPE, according to Susan Bailey, the new president of the American Medical Association.

“There are many practices that are having a hard time obtaining PPE because they have no supply chain,” said Bailey during a health summit Wednesday sponsored by the Atlantic.

She noted that her practice containing three physicians including herself didn’t have a source to buy masks.

“I had 10 N-95 masks sitting in a close left over from H1N1 10 years ago and those are the only masks we had,” Bailey said.

The issue around PPE comes as physician practices are trying to get patients to return to their offices to get needed screenings and immunizations that have been put off due to the pandemic.

“We are very concerned even though physician doors might be open their patients are afraid to come in,” Bailey said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 15 at 10:33 a.m.

Blue Cross NC lowers copays for 90-day maintenance prescriptions

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will offer discounts on copayments for 90-day maintenance medications for its commercial, fully insured members.

The insurer will offer discounts of up to 33% on copays, the equivalent of two copayments instead of three for the prescriptions, it announced Wednesday. The discounts will be available through the end of the year.

“We understand that the COVID-19 public health crisis has caused financial strain for many North Carolinians,” said Rahul Rajkumar, chief medical officer at Blue Cross NC. “By reducing how much members pay for their 90-day prescription supply, we hope we can make things a little easier for members in addition to helping them stay home to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Blue Cross NC will offer the discounts at both retail and mail-order pharmacies. Members enrolled in individual market plans will see the discounts immediately, while fully insured members who fill a 90-day prescription between July 1 and Sept. 1 will receive a refund check in October.

The discount will be available at retail and mail-order pharmacies for fully insured group members beginning Sept. 1.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 15 at 10:20 a.m.

CVS launches campaign urging people to prioritize primary care

CVS Health has launched a new ad campaign that seeks to remind members that seeking primary care when needed is crucial, even as COVID-19 necessitates social distancing.

The Time for Care initiative includes a national television add that will begin airing today, along with a microsite and other digital content to educate patients. Aetna members will receive direct messaging on the risks for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes.

"While we remain focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19, we also need to make sure that we're encouraging people to get the care they need to avoid worse health outcomes in the future particularly people with chronic health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease," said Garth Graham, M.D., chief community health officer for CVS Health, said in a statement.

To assist in designing the campaign, Aetna and Morning Consult surveyed 4,000 members on the challenges they face in accessing care due to the pandemic. The survey found that 60% of people had delayed or canceled an appointment because they were afraid of being exposed to the virus.

In addition, the survey found that close to 60% of people with chronic conditions fear that the pandemic has worsened their health.

UPDATED: Monday, July 13 at 10:53 a.m.

Insurers urge feds to pay for COVID-19 surveillance testing

America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association are urging Congress to include funding to cover the cost of surveillance and testing needed to get people back to work.

The groups said in a letter (PDF) to Congressional leaders that affordable access to testing is critical to bringing workers back to their jobs.

"We strongly support federal funding to account for the magnitude of tests that will be required to get the economy back on track, reduce the risk of transmission in different settings, and understand the progression of the disease," they wrote.

The groups also pushed for direct-to-employer subsidies to help these companies continue to provide health coverage for workers, and for full federal subsidization of COBRA premiums for people who have lost their jobs.

They also suggested enhanced subsidies for Affordable Care Act exchange plans, which would make it easier for people who are unemployed to regain coverage.

UPDATED: Friday, July 10, at 4:03 p.m.

FAH calls for permanent policy changes to Medicare

The Federation of American Hospitals sought to make several COVID-19-related waivers to Medicare permanent to help providers.

The letter sent to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Friday comes as the public health emergency is set to expire by the end of the month. The waivers are expected to expire when the public health emergency does.

The hospital groups want to make these waivers permanent policy:

  • Telehealth services such as the elimination of originating site restrictions to allow services to be provided in any area of the country.
  • Allow pathologists to review pathology slides remotely and enable payment for COVID-19 lab testing without an order from a treating physician.
  • Expanding the list of eligible practitioners that could furnish healthcare services via remote technology including professional counselors.

UPDATED: Thursday, July 9, at 3:20 p.m.

Azar pledges to support the permanent expansion of telehealth services

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration will take regulatory steps to support the permanent expansion of telehealth services.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has opened up access to telehealth with sweeping—but temporary—changes to reimbursement policies.

Some of the regulatory flexibility on reimbursement is going to stick around, according to Azar, speaking during an event Thursday sponsored by The Hill newspaper

"Telehealth is now an embedded part of the healthcare system. It has changed the nature of delivery. We’re going to do everything we can through regulations to keep the gains that we’ve had and to keep the patient and the doctor relationship in the center," he said.

Azar said HHS plans to work with Congress to make the necessary statutory changes to make Medicare reimbursement telehealth policy changes permanent.

Azar credited the Trump administration with waiving many embedded requirements that had been barriers to healthcare innovation and kept U.S. healthcare "in a 1960s-style of delivery," he said.

The HHS Secretary said he has met with doctors, hospital executives, and nurses who have all supported expanded access to telehealth.

"I think we’d have a revolution if anyone tried to go backward on this, he said.

UPDATED: Thursday, July 9, at 12:41 p.m.

Geisinger CEO sees a ‘mixed bag’ in COVID-19’s future

The CEO of major hospital system Geisinger has mixed feelings about the extent of a second surge of COVID-19, largely based on how the public will respond.

“I am optimistic because we have learned a lot,” said Jaewon Ryu, president and CEO of Geisinger, during an event Thursday sponsored by The Hill newspaper. “We are in a very different place now whether it is PPE or testing or understanding more about the virus and its biology.”

But Ryu said that overall the future could be a “mixed bag,” and the severity of a second surge will depend on whether the public plays its part by wearing masks, social distancing and hand hygiene.

“The battle is not just clinical, but it is communication,” he added.

He said that education and communication in the community will be a major issue moving forward.

“If we do those things we will be in a much better position,” Ryu said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 8 at 11:56 a.m.

Health systems, payers team up on PSA to encourage people to seek care

Big-name health systems and payers including Humana and Providence have joined forces to launch a new public service announcement to encourage social distancing while also seeking care when needed.

The "Stop Medical Distancing" aims to draw a clear line between social distancing to mitigate the spread of the pandemic and avoiding necessary care out of fear of catching COVID-19, which could lead to significant health problems down the road.

That includes encouraging the use of telehealth when possible and emphasizing the efforts of providers to ensure that their facilities are clean and safe when patients do need to come in person.

"We are seeing a troubling pattern that people are avoiding medical visits in fear of contracting COVID-19," said William Shrank, M.D., chief medical officer of Humana, in a statement. "While we understand the fears that many people have around contracting the virus, our country's medical facilities have adopted CDC guidelines and best practices and even telemedicine options to make your visit as safe as possible to prevent the spread of the virus."

"The intent of the campaign is to let people know that protecting yourself against getting this virus does not need to come at the expense of your overall health," Shrank said.

Other members of the alliance backing the PSA include  Baptist Health South Florida, Baylor Scott & White Health, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Health Mart, Kindred Healthcare, LabCorp, McKesson Corporation and Walgreens.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 8 at 10:34 a.m.

Epidemiologists call for 'Universal Pandemic Precautions' for patients and healthcare workers

The Board of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America — an organization that represents epidemiologists in hospitals and other healthcare settings — is calling for new evidence-based "Universal Pandemic Protections" or UPP for patients and healthcare workers. 

In a commentary published in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology, the board proposed widespread COVID-19 testing of patients, visitors, and healthcare workers, even when no symptoms are present. They also called for the required use of masks by patients and masks and eye protection for healthcare workers in nearly all patient interactions.

The board pointed to data that shows the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 2.2 million infections and more than 118,000 deaths in the U.S. as of June 19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reports about 11% of those infections are among healthcare personnel.

They also recognized the implementation of UPP would require careful messaging for our colleagues and patients.

"We realize that paradigm shifts are difficult," board members wrote in the State of the Pandemic Commentary. "We believe that Universal Pandemic Precautions will be accepted by patients and staff and that it will ultimately result in a safer healthcare environment for all."

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 7, at 2:47 p.m.

Alabama, Florida hospitals scales back surgeries as COVID-19 spike

Huntsville Hospital in Alabama has stopped certain elective procedures as COVID-19 cases in its locality have increased.

The 971-bed hospital located in northern Alabama said on Monday that it will pause inpatient surgical procedures at its main facility but outpatient procedures will continue, according to AL.com. The announcement comes as hospital systems in emerging COVID-19 hotspots try to balance performing surgical procedures and keep enough capacity to treat virus cases.

Huntsville Hospital told AL.com that the cancellation only affects surgical procedures that require a hospital stay and that it will move some procedures to other facilities.

It added that the hospital has 71 COVID-19 cases, mirroring an increase in the state overall.

Huntsville said that it has converted three surgical floors into COVID-19 wards and that it has enough staff and supplies to combat the pandemic.

The issue is similar to what other hospital systems have been experiencing as COVID-19 cases reach record highs in sunbelt states.

In Florida, two of Tampa Bay's largest health system — HCA Healthcare and BayCare Health Systems — said they will halt elective procedures to make capacity for a surge of COVID cases, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Banner Health, a health system that has a major footprint in Arizona, said that it is continuing to perform elective procedures as cases in the state spike. But the system is making some changes to ensure it has enough capacity, including delaying procedures that require a stay in the intensive care unit.

UPDATED: Tuesday, July 7 at 2:15 p.m.

New polling highlights growing partisan schism over COVID-19

New data released by Axios and Ipsos puts a spotlight on the partisan divides that are growing around wearing masks and avoiding crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In April, when the survey was first conducted, 16% of Republicans, 20% of independents and 26% of Democrats said they were wearing a mask at all times. While that figure has grown across categories through the end of June, it lags among Republicans and independents.

By June 29, 34% of surveyed Republicans, 50% of independents and 68% of Democrats said they wear a mask at all times.

Similar fault lines emerged on the level of concern about COVID-19. In April, 72% of Democrats said they were either extremely or very concerned about the virus, which rose to 77% by the end of June.

Sixty percent of independents said they were extremely or very concerned about COVID-19 in April, compared to 55% by June 29. Among Republicans, 49% said they were extremely or very concerned in April, a number that dropped to 36% by the end of June.

"We know that America has failed to contain the coronavirus pandemic, and we can't get past partisanship," pollster Chris Jackson, senior vice president for Ipsos Public Affairs, told Axios. "Looking forward the real question is going to be, does having first-hand experience get people past the partisanship?"

UPDATED: Monday, July 6 at 9:54 p.m.

Provider groups urge public to wear a mask

A trio of leading provider groups issued an open letter to the public urging Americans to wear masks to stop COVID-19 transmission amid resistance to the public health measure.

The letter released Monday by the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association comes as mask wearing has become a political issue and COVID-19 has hit record highs in several sunbelt states.

“We are not powerless in this public health crisis, and we can defeat it in the same way we defeated previous threats to public health—by allowing science and evidence to shape our decisions and inform our actions,” the letter said.

The groups called for the public to wear a face mask, maintain social distancing and wash their hands.

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 1 at 9:58 p.m.

Society of Actuaries launches tool to help payers model COVID-19 costs

The Society of Actuaries (SOA) has created a tool that will allow health plans to model the costs they could face next year due to COVID-19.

The tool was backed by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and models several potential scenarios for costs in 2021. Insurers can use the tool to model costs for testing, the cost associated with deferred care and costs for the eventual vaccine.

For example, researchers at SOA estimate that for each month that there is a high level of social distancing, annual insured healthcare costs decrease by 4%. 

“This modeling tool helps insurance carriers and regulators as they look to 2021 health insurance costs, the impact of COVID-19 treatment costs and how these trends may progress over the next year,” said R. Dale Hall, managing director of research at the SOA, in a statement. “We developed this model to help understand the first wave and plan for a variety of potential future scenarios of COVID-19, as well as to see how the different factors play out over time, such as when there is a vaccine and how insurers cover future costs.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 30 at 2:11 p.m..

Fauci would not be surprised if COVID-19 cases rise to 100K a day

Top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, M.D., told lawmakers that he wouldn’t be surprised if COVID-19 cases rise to 100,000 a day after massive spikes in the sunbelt states.

Fauci spoke before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday on the pandemic.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, asked Fauci how many deaths and infections Americans should expect before the end of the pandemic.

“I can’t make an accurate prediction, but it is going to be very disturbing,” Fauci, the head of the National Institutes for Allergic and Infectious Diseases, responded.

He said that an outbreak in one part of the country could put other parts that are doing well at risk. Currently the U.S. is experiencing around 40,000 cases a day, but “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around,” Fauci said. “I am very concerned.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 30 at 12:59 p.m.

Mayo Clinic guiding Delta Air Lines COVID-19 safety measures

Delta Air Lines is partnering with Mayo Clinic for guidance on safety and infection control measures amid COVID-19 pandemic concerns. 

Officials said the Mayo will be offering expert advisors to review, enhance and advise on improvements to Delta's safety protocols to mitigate the risk of virus transmission during travel. 

"As we continue adjusting our business to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, there’s no organization in the world better equipped than the Mayo Clinic to act as Delta’s medical advisor," says Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines in a statement. "The role Mayo will play in testing our employees and advising on safety practices at airports and work spaces will help deliver the additional layers of protection needed to safeguard our customers and employees."

Specific areas Delta will consult with Mayo on include its COVID-19 Testing for the full Delta workforce, the creation of an integrated advisory council and customer health consulting.

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 30 at 10:04 a.m.

HHS spokesman expects public health emergency will be renewed

A spokesman for Health and Human Services said he expected the public health emergency for COVID-19 will be renewed, giving a major win for providers.

Spokesman Michael Caputo tweeted on Monday that the public health emergency has already been renewed once, which HHS Secretary Alex Azar decided to do back in late April. The current emergency will expire on July 25.

The duration of the emergency is critical to providers as several pieces of regulatory relief are tied to the emergency.

The American Hospital Association wrote to HHS two weeks ago laying out criteria to end the public health emergency. Criterion includes that the supply chain is able to meet the continued increased demand for personal protective equipment and the number of patients in intensive care unit beds in the U.S. is fewer than 5,000 per day for 14 days.

UPDATED: Monday, June 29 at 9:59 a.m.

HHS secures 500K courses of remdesivir for distribution to hospitals

The Department of Health and Human Services has secured more than 500,000 courses of remdesivir, an antiviral treatment for COVID-19, that it will distribute to hospitals for purchase.

The amount secured represents 100% of drugmaker Gilead's projected production for July (94,200 courses), 90% of production projected for August (174,900 courses) and 90% of production projected for September (232,800 course).

AmerisourceBergen will ship the product hospitals, who will pay no more than the wholesale acquisition price per course, which is about $3,200, HHS said.

“To the extent possible, we want to ensure that any American patient who needs remdesivir can get it," HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. "The Trump Administration is doing everything in our power to learn more about life-saving therapeutics for COVID-19 and secure access to these options for the American people.”

HHS expects that shipments will go out every two weeks, in a similar fashion as the 120,000 courses donated by Gilead were allocated. The last shipment of those donated drugs is going out to hospitals today.

UPDATED: Friday, June 26, at 2:55 p.m.

HHS extends funding for Texas testing sites after outcry

The Department of Health and Human Services decided to extend funding for five Texas-based COVID-19 testing sites after a request from the state.

The agency had planned to stop funding for 13 testing sites on June 30 , including seven sites in Texas.

The sites were set up at the beginning of the pandemic and the federal government had planned to turn over control to the state government.

However, the announcement of closing the seven Texas sites drew a rebuke from public health officials as cases have rose dramatically in the state.

The administration defended the funding decision earlier this week by noting that it had long-planned to transition the sites to state control and it had delayed the transition for the 13 sites to give states more time to prepare.

Now the state’s public health leaders asked HHS to extend funding for five sites for an additional 14 days.

“We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir, who coordinates testing for the federal government.

UPDATED: Friday, June 26, at 12:45 p.m.

CMS proposes permanent telehealth changes for home health agencies

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wants to make telehealth expansion a permanent part of home health under a proposed rule released by the agency Thursday.

The rule will allow home health agencies to continue to use telecommunications technologies including remote patient monitoring, virtual care, and two-way audio-visual technologies to provide care to Medicare beneficiaries beyond the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The technology usage must be related to the skilled services being furnished, is outlined on the plan of care, and is tied to a specific goal indicating how such use would facilitate treatment outcomes, CMS said.

If finalized, the proposed changes would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma highlighted the changes in a tweet: "Today, CMS  is sharing one of the many system upgrades we’re making to ensure our Medicare program runs smoothly for our beneficiaries & providers – ready to handle any curves in the road ahead."

A CMS official said this week that an upcoming Medicare payment rule for providers will include proposals for permanent changes to telehealth flexibilities.

The proposed changes for home health agencies accompanied CMS' Home Health Prospective Payment System for 2021 rule which will boost Medicare pay for providers by 2.6%, or about $540 million.

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 24, at 3:59 p.m.

HHS ends funding for 13 states amid rising case numbers

Department of Health and Human Services officials defended a decision to transition 13 testing sites spread across five states, including Texas where COVID-19 cases skyrocket in the state.

HHS Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir told reporters on Wednesday that the federal government had developed 41 community-based testing sites across the country at the onset of the pandemic back in March. However, the sites were meant to be limited through one or two months, he said.

But the federal government agreed at the end of May to continue the 13 sites until the end of this month.

“Those sites are not ending,” Giroir, who coordinates testing for the federal government, said. “They are transitioning to state control and state funding. The other ones might be completely redundant, that is up to the governors.”

However, local officials in Texas told Talking Points Memo that they had tried to get HHS to extend funding for the seven sites still operating in the state.

Giroir said that the federal government is still supplying free tubes and swabs for the tests and that insurers, Medicare and Medicaid can cover the cost of a test.

“These 13 sites kept up long after expiration date at the request of the state and abundance of caution to do everything we could to make sure states were comfortable in assuming those sites,” Giroir said.

He also pushed back that the Trump administration is not slowing down testing despite President Trump’s remarks made during a rally Saturday that he wants to slow down testing because it increases reported cases.

“Neither the president, vice president or no one on the task force or White House has told us to decrease testing,” he added.

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 24 at 10:14 a.m.

A look at how COVID-19 is impacting job-based health coverage

A new survey found that two in five people experienced disruptions at the jobs that provide their health coverage.

The Commonwealth Fund polled 2,271 people between May 13 and June 2 and found that of those who experienced disruptions in their jobs, one in five lost coverage entirely, or reported that their spouse did, due to the pandemic.

The results highlight the gaps that people can fall into in the design of the current health insurance ecosystem, the report's authors said.

“This survey shows how our piecemeal approach to health insurance coverage in the United States leaves too many people without coverage or just a layoff away from losing it," Sara Collins, lead author of the study and Commonwealth Fund Vice President for Health Care Coverage and Access, said in a statement. "Here in the fourth month of COVID-19 related job losses, a growing number of people won’t be able to afford health care in the midst of the worst public health crisis in modern times."

The survey found that Hispanic workers and workers with low- and middle-incomes were the most likely to experience disruption amid the pandemic. For example, 31% of Hispanic respondents reported job disruption compared to 18% of whites.

Twenty-seven percent of those with incomes below $50,000 said they experienced job disruption, compared to 16% of those with incomes above $50,000.

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 23 at 2:00 p.m.

Apple Watch adds handwashing detection feature in latest update

Apple wants to make sure that you wash your hands properly to help curb the spread of COVID-19. 

Among the announcements at Apple’s 2020 Worldwide Developer Conference Monday, the tech giant previewed watchOS 7 updates for the Apple Watch, including automatic handwashing detection.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people spend at least 20 seconds washing their hands to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

The Apple Watch now uses its motion sensors, microphone, and on-device machine learning to automatically detect handwashing motions and sounds, Apple announced.

It then initiates a 20-second countdown timer, and if the user finishes early, they will be prompted to keep washing. Apple Watch can also conveniently remind the user to wash their hands when they return home. Watches will sense when a user is coming back from a trip outside by using location data and send them an alert. 

"The Health app on iPhone will show frequency and duration of the user’s handwashing, as well as information on the importance of handwashing, as it relates to overall health," the company said.

UPDATED: Monday, June 22, at 3:21 p.m

CMS: 325K Medicare beneficiaries diagnosed with COVID by May 16

The Trump administration released new data Monday examining how COVID-19 has impacted Medicare beneficiaries, saying that 325,000 were diagnosed with the virus between Jan. 1 and May 16.

The equals about 518 cases per 100,000 beneficiaries, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said. CMS said that 110,000 Medicare beneficiaries were hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment in that same window, making for 175 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 beneficiaries.

In addition, CMS' data revealed significant racial disparities in hospitalization rates. Black Medicare beneficiaries had the highest rate of hospitalization, at 465 per 100,000. Hispanic beneficiaries were hospitalized with COVID-19 at a rate of 258 per 100,000.

Asians were hospitalized at a rate of 187 per 100,000 and whites at a rate of 123 per 100,000, according to CMS.

CMS also found that Medicare beneficiaries with other chronic illnesses were at far greater risk for COVID-19 hospitalization. Beneficiaries with end-stage renal disease, for example, were hospitalized at a rate of 1,341 per 100,000 beneficiaries.

Dually eligible beneficiaries, who are also enrolled in Medicaid and frequently have complex health needs, were hospitalized at a rate of 473 per 100,000.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma said that the findings reflect the critical need for the healthcare industry to continue pushing for more value-based care.

“The disparities in the data reflect longstanding challenges facing minority communities and low income older adults, many of whom face structural challenges to their health that go far beyond what is traditionally considered ‘medical’,” Verma said in a statement. “Now more than ever, it is clear that our fee-for-service system is insufficient for the most vulnerable Americans because it limits payment to what goes on inside a doctor’s office. The transition to a value-based system has never been so urgent."

UPDATED: Monday, June 22, at 3:21 p.m.

Majority of healthcare execs prepared for second surge: survey

A majority of leading healthcare executives said in a recent survey they are prepared to handle a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus that could occur this fall.

The survey released Friday by the consulting firm Advis found that 65% of the 135 executives, the majority of which were from health systems and individual hospitals, say they are ready. That is a 15-percentage point increase from a March poll that asked the same question.

The reason providers feel they are more prepared is due to a relaxation of regulations and guidelines, Advis said.

However, while providers feel they are better prepared to meet a second surge they are still worried about the financial hit they took from the pandemic.

“Almost 70% of respondents are worked about replacing lost patient volume and revenue,” Advis said.

Another 55% are worried about staffing issues and burnout among providers, and nearly 54% are concerned that a second wave is likely to occur.

But even if a second surge is to occur, 62% said they didn’t want another lockdown or cancellation of elective procedures.

UPDATED: Friday, June 19, at 2:37 p.m.

COVID-19 could cause additional 10K breast, colon cancer deaths

The COVID-19 pandemic could cause an additional 10,000 deaths from breast and colon cancer over the next decade due to delays in screening and treatments, a top National Institutes of Health official said.

Ned Sharpless, head of the National Cancer Institute, wrote an article in the journal Science on Friday on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on cancer. Sharpless said that fear of contracting the virus has dissuaded people from getting screening, diagnosis and treatment for non-COVID-19 diseases.

“There has already been a steep drop in cancer diagnoses in the United States since the start of the pandemic, but there is no reason to believe the actual incidence of cancer has dropped,” Sharpless wrote. “Cancers being missed now will still come to light eventually but at a later stage (“upstaging”) and with worse prognoses.”

Another concern is that elective cancer treatments and surgeries have been de-prioritized at hospitals to conserve clinical capacity for COVID-19.

Sharpless added that the institute’s analysis of excess cancer deaths is conservative and doesn’t factor in other cancer types. He added the effects could be less severe in parts of the country with a shorter or less severe lockdown.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 18 at 10:23 a.m.

Blue Cross NC keeps expanded telehealth polices in place through end of year

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is keeping its expanded telehealth reimbursement options in place through the end of the year.

The insurer said that it will continue covering video and telephonic visits at the same rate as in-person visits for the rest of 2020. The policy was enacted in response to COVID-19.

“Blue Cross NC is committed to helping members get the quality, affordable care they need, when they need it,” said Rahul Rajkumar, M.D., chief medical officer at Blue Cross NC, in a statement. “We strongly encourage members to seek virtual care whenever possible and are committed to continuing to respond to this crisis to best serve our members, support doctors, nurses and hospitals.”

UPDATED: Thursday, June 18 at 10:10 a.m.

BCBSA survey highlights COVID's impact on pregnant women

New data from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association finds that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on pregnant women.

The survey of more than 1,000 commercial plan members found that 53% of women surveyed said they gave birth without a loved one in the room due to procedures put in place to avoid the spread of the virus.

In addition, 15% of women said they opted to give birth at home due to the pandemic.

The survey also found that the pandemic is pushing pregnant women to increasingly seek out virtual options, within 48% switching their prenatal care to virtual visits. 

“Protecting the health and wellbeing of expecting and current mothers remains of paramount importance to the generational health of America moving forward, especially during these uncertain times,” said Vincent Nelson, M.D., vice president of medical affairs for BCBSA, in a statement. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 17 at 12:00 p.m.

CHIME survey: Health executives report massive spike in telehealth visits

Most healthcare executives were doing less than 25 virtual visits a day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority are now doing 50 telehealth visits a day and a full one-third of executives are doing more than 250 visits a day, according to a survey from the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME).

Perhaps not surprising the survey of nearly 200 digital healthcare executives revealed huge increases for virtual visits and appointments.

Even organizations that already had been seeing high volumes of patients virtually prior to COVID-19 experienced a 366% increase in the number of virtual visits. Organizations also reported a pre vs. post-COVID-19 hike in the use of remote patient monitoring, according to the survey.

CHIME conducted the online survey of CHIME’s membership between May 16 and June 1.

Many respondents listed the swift deployment and implementation of telehealth and virtual visits – some within mere days or a week – as their greatest success, CHIME reported.

Many executives noted quick adoption by clinicians and physicians as a win, along with physician and patient satisfaction with the ability to safely provide and get remote care.

Executives also faced challenges with ramping up telehealth during the pandemic, including limited supplies of high-demand technology, integration issues, patients’ lack of resources like broadband and unfamiliarity with the technology, the survey found. 

Based on their experience handling COVID-19, almost 80% suggested that telehealth would require more future funding and more than 60% supported more funding for remote monitoring.

The federal government has allowed regulatory flexibilities during the public health emergency, a move that some respondents praised and wanted to see continue. 

When asked in the survey how concerned members are with meeting upcoming federal deadlines on information blocking, more than 45% were extremely or very concerned and 25% were concerned. About 7% said they hadn’t had time to learn about the deadlines because they were devoting their attention to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services extended the compliance deadline for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT’s information blocking provisions to Nov. 2. 

UPDATED: Monday, June 15 at 3:18 p.m.

FDA: Apple Watch ECG app can replace in-clinic diagnostic testing during pandemic

Apple has expanded the use of heart monitoring features of its Apple Watch under new guidance issued by the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has issued changes to encourage the use of remote monitoring technologies and telemedicine devices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 national emergency in the U.S., the ECG app on Apple Watch can serve as a substitute for in-clinic diagnostic testing during a telemedicine visit or virtual care, according to Apple, citing the FDA's recent guidance (PDF) that expands the use of certain noninvasive patient-monitoring technologies, including the ECG app, during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) public health emergency.

The Apple Watch received FDA clearance in 2018 for its electrocardiogram feature, officially classifying it as a medical device capable of alerting its user to abnormal heart rhythms.

With this FDA guidance, healthcare providers can now access, for the duration of the pandemic, the expanded capability of the ECG app on Apple Watch for telemedicine services, Apple said in a notice (PDF). Healthcare providers can use the Apple Watch ECG app for clinical use cases where a single-Lead or Lead I ECG test can help effectively diagnose certain arrhythmias or manage related conditions.

Using the Apple Watch, patients can send ECG waveform recordings as a PDF to a health provider. 

"In the context of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the leveraging of current non-invasive patient monitoring technology will help eliminate unnecessary patient contact and ease the burden on hospitals, other health care facilities, and health care professionals that are experiencing increased demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to diagnosis and treatment of patients with COVID-19 and ensuring other patients who require monitoring for conditions unrelated to COVID-19 can be monitored outside of health care facilities," the FDA said in its guidance.

Other digital health companies have taken advantage of the FDA's guidance, including Livongo, which received an emergency use authorization to allow its blood glucose monitors to be used in hospitals.

FDA also has temporarily waived requirements around low-risk software tools to address mental health.

UPDATED: Monday, June 15 at 1:30 p.m.

FDA ends emergency use authorization for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine

The Food and Drug Administration said Monday it is ending its emergency use authorization for malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

The FDA said it has determined that the drugs are "unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19 for the authorized uses in the EUA."

"Additionally, in light of ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other serious side effects, the known and potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine no longer outweigh the known and potential risks for the authorized use," the FDA wrote in its notice Monday.

The FDA issued the emergency use authorization for the drugs in March. 

The drugs were heavily promoted by President Trump after a handful of small, poorly controlled studies suggested that they could work in treating the disease. Trump said he took hydroxychloroquine after he had been exposed to two people who tested positive for the coronavirus.

According to a letter on Monday revoking the authorization, Denise Hinton, the FDA’s chief scientist, said the request to revoke the authorization came from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the unit of the Department of Health and Human Services that had initially asked for the authorization.

Several trials of hydroxychloroquine are still underway, including additional studies of whether it can be used to prevent coronavirus infection, according to The New York Times. The World Health Organization has also resumed a study of the drug.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 11, at 3:40 p.m.

FCC doles out $100 million for COVID-19 telehealth programs

The Federal Communications Commission has allocated almost $105 million in funding for 305 health providers to build up their telehealth infrastructure in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, earmarked $200 million for telehealth funding. FCC has allocated half the total amount to date.

In the later round, the FCC approved an additional 67 applications for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program for $20.2 million in funding to provide telehealth services.

The FCC has faced criticism about delays in disbursing the funds. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee in May that only one provider had so far presented a certified invoice required by the FCC for the award money.

The latest round of funding includes close to $1 million to NYC Health + Hospitals in New York City and Northwestern Kentucky Mental Health in Covington, Kentucky. 

St. Thomas Community Health Center in New Orleans was awarded $900,000 to for its telehealth program. Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno also was awarded $977,000 to fund a virtual screening system, remote patient monitoring equipment, and laptop computers. 

Other funding recipients include Community Hospital North in Indianapolis ($872,000); Providence St. Jospeh Health Consortium in Renton, Washington ($866,000), and Greene County Health Care in North Carolina ($948,000). 

UPDATED: Thursday, June 11, at 11:42 a.m.

Hoyer: House open to liability protections for businesses

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the House is open to liability protections for businesses, a key demand of the hospital industry fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There may well be room to talk,” Hoyer said Thursday on a webinar hosted by the law firm BakerHostetler.

The House passed a $3 trillion economic stimulus bill that gives another $100 billion to providers and half a trillion to states and localities. But the bill has not been taken up by the Senate, where Republicans have blasted it as a partisan wish list.

Republicans have also been reluctant to pass more stimulus funding before seeing how the trillions of dollars already approved are distributed and helping the economy.

However, Republicans have wanted to include liability protection for businesses from lawsuits, a major ask for the hospital industry as well.

Hoyer seemed open to those protections if it brings Senate Republicans to the table for a deal on another round of stimulus funding.

“What we don’t want to see is blanket liability protections so there is no redress if someone does not act in a way that does not follow best practices and follow rules and regulations and the law,” he said.

But he mentioned that House Democrats agreed to give 3M liability protection for an order of masks during an earlier stimulus package back in March.

“We did it before, and if the Senate comes to the table and wants to compromise and that is part of their proposal I certainly think that would get fair and fulsome consideration,” he said.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 11 at 10:04 a.m.

HHS awards $8M for training, technical assistance

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $8 million to support training for health centers in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than 70 organizations were awarded the funding to provide the training and technical assistance to health centers funded by HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration.

Primary care associations received nearly $6 million to conduct COVID-19 training activities based on the needs of states and regions, officials said. As well, National Training and Technical Assistance Partners (NTTAP) received $2.5 million for helping to strengthen health center operations and capacity to ensure access to comprehensive primary care services.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical to continue providing Americans with access to comprehensive primary care services, and these funds will provide the training and technical assistance for health centers to accomplish that goal,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 9 at 12:28 p.m.

BCBSRI offers 25% dental premium credit

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island is making a 25% premium credit on dental plans available, while also growing its teledentistry offerings.

The premium credit will be applicable to fully insured plan members, the insurer announced. It will cover March, April and May and appear as a one-time credit on July invoices for those who purchase dental care directly through BCBSRI.

Customers who buy dental coverage from HealthSource RI will receive a check in the mail for the credit.

BCBSRI also said it will extend coverage for teledentistry provided by in-network dentists through July 31.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home order have made it incredibly challenging for our dental members to access routine dental care, and offering premium relief is just one of the ways we can help,” said Kim Keck, BCBSRI president and CEO, in a statement. “We also recognize that visiting a dentist in person may not be a viable option for those who are older or who have underlying health conditions that put them in the higher risk category."

UPDATED: Monday, June 8, at 4:34 p.m.

Molina extends COVID-19 cost waivers till end of 2020

Molina Healthcare said it will continue to waive all out-of-pocket costs associated with COVID-19 treatment through the end of 2020.

The extension applies to its Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act exchange customers.

“We want to entirely remove the burden of any expenses associated with testing and treatment for COVID-19,” said Jason Dees, the insurer’s executive vice president and chief medical officer.

Molina had announced the cost waivers a few months ago but did not say when they would expire.

The announcement comes a few days after Anthem decided to extend the cost-share waivers through the end of 2020. Anthem also extended the coverage and waived cost-sharing for virtual care through Sept. 30.

UPDATED: Monday, June 8 at 1:20 p.m.

Study: Shutdown measures prevented 60M coronavirus infections in the U.S.

Wide-spread closings and stay-at-home orders prevented about 60 million novel coronavirus infections in the United States and 285 million in China, according to a new research study published Monday.

Researchers examined how six countries — China, the United States, France, Italy, Iran, and South Korea — responded to the pandemic and how social distancing restrictions, business closings, travel bans, and stay-at-home policies limited the spread of the contagion.

The researchers concluded that the six countries collectively managed to avert 62 million confirmed COVID-19 cases. As most people who are infected never get tested, the actual number of infections that were averted is much higher, corresponding to preventing roughly 530 million total infections, according to the research published in the journal Nature.

The estimates suggest that there would be roughly 37 million more cumulative confirmed cases in China (or 285 million more total infections, including the confirmed cases); 11.5 million more confirmed cases in South Korea (38 million total infections); 2.1 million more confirmed cases in Italy (49 million total infections); 5 million more confirmed cases in Iran (54 million total infections); and 1.4 million more confirmed cases in France (45 million total infections) had these countries never enacted any anti-contagion policies since the start of the pandemic.

In the U.S., without these lockdown measures, there would be 4.8 million more confirmed cases, or 60 million total infections, the researchers said.

Large-scale anti-contagion policies are slowing the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers said.

"We hope these results can support critical decision-making, both in the countries we study and in the other 180 + countries where COVID-19 infections have been reported," the study authors said.

"Societies around the world are weighing whether the health benefits of anti-contagion policies are worth their social and economic costs. Many of these costs are plainly seen; for example, business restrictions increase unemployment and school closures impact educational outcomes," Solomon Hsiang, director of the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, and the leader of the research team wrote.

"It is therefore not surprising that some populations have hesitated before implementing such dramatic policies, especially when their costs are visible while their health benefits – infections and deaths that would have occurred but instead were avoided or delayed – are unseen," Hsiang said.

“Without these policies employed, we would have lived through a very different April and May," Hsiang told The Washington Post.

UPDATED: Friday, June 5 at 1:56 p.m.

Intermountain offering acute-level care in patients' homes

Intermountain Healthcare is offering hospital-level care in patients' homes in partnership with Castell.

The health system accelerated the process of launching the program as part of its work to manage a surge of patients with COVID-19. The service will be offered to patients with congestive heart failure, some kidney conditions, certain intestinal or vein conditions, infections such as cellulitis and certain cancer diagnoses.

Intermountain said that the home care program is meant to avoid unnecessary trips to the emergency department, and shorten the length of hospital stays, while maintaining patients' acute care needs.

“The hospitals of the future will expand virtually into homes to provide appropriate acute-level care. This new service supports patients who are at risk for hospitalization or complications, along with their families,” said Rajesh Shrestha, Castell CEO and Intermountain vice president and chief operating officer for community-based care, in a statement.

“Many patients find they feel more calm and comfortable at home than in a hospital, and that in itself can be conducive to healing. It also allows people to be more independent,” Shrestha said.

UPDATED: Friday, June 5, at 12:45 p.m.

BARDA, Evidation Health developing earning warning system for COVID-19

Technology company Evidation Health is working on an early warning algorithm for coronavirus symptoms, with backing from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

The system, which is also funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will analyze behavior, including sleep and activity patterns, alongside self-reported symptoms for 300 people at high risk of developing COVID-19.

The analysis, performed in collaboration with non-profit 4YouandMe, will use de-identified data generated by self-reporting and wearable devices to track symptoms of COVID-19 in those at particularly high risk, including health care workers and other first responders, in order to better understand susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

One potential outcome of this work is an early warning algorithm to help individuals better understand and monitor their respiratory disease symptoms and take precautions against their spread, the organizations said.

"This pilot study is not only an early step in demonstrating the utility of models developed using person-generated health data but also may provide data to better understand the varied symptoms of COVID-19," said BARDA Acting Director Gary Disbrow, Ph.D., in a statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 4, at 1:30 p.m.

Nursing home deaths increase to 32,000 as more report data

The number of COVID-19 deaths increased to 32,000, up from 25,000 reported earlier this week, the Trump administration said on Thursday.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said there have been more than 95,000 confirmed cases in nursing homes, an increase from the roughly 60,000 cases that the agency reported on Monday.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma told reporters on a call Thursday that the increase is likely due to more nursing homes reporting data to the federal government.

She said that on Monday there were 80% of nursing homes giving out data, compared with 88% on Thursday. That represents almost 14,000 nursing homes out of the roughly 15,000 that exist in the U.S.

“These numbers are going to move in the next couple of weeks. We see more nursing homes reporting in,” she added.

Verma added that the Nursing Home Compare website will be updated so people can view the COVID-19 infections and death data for a specific nursing home.

She expects to have a weekly update on the nursing home infections and deaths due to COVID-19.

UPDATED: Thursday, June 4 at 1:08 p.m.

Majority of counties lack infectious diseases physicians

Nearly two-thirds of Americans live in areas with little or no access to infectious disease specialists, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study comes amid the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Researchers led by Rochelle Walensky, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, also found 80 percent of counties with the highest numbers of people diagnosed with the virus have below-average access to infectious disease physicians.

“The deficits in the [infectious diseases] workforce today have left us poorly prepared for the unprecedented demand ahead," Walensky said in a statement.

The expansion of telehealth, or virtual doctor visits, can expand the reach of infectious disease physicians, but will need to be supported by health coverage providers, the authors wrote.

UPDATED Wednesday, June 3 at 4:53 p.m.

Fitbit received emergency use authorization

Wearables company Fitbit received emergency use authorization from the FDA for a new emergency ventilator device.

The FDA nod pertains to use during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Fitbit’s R&D, engineering and design teams worked quickly to apply their collective expertise in advanced sensor technology, signal processing, robotics, hardware development, and manufacturing to develop the device, called Fitbit Flow.

The company also consulted with clinicians at Oregon Health & Science University and MassGeneralBrigham Center for COVID Innovation, who are treating COVID patients, on the design to meet the needs of practitioners.

Fitbit Flow is an automatic resuscitator inspired by the MIT E-Vent Design Toolbox and based on specifications for Rapidly Manufactured Ventilation Systems, the company said.

 Fitbit Flow builds on standard resuscitator bags, like those used by paramedics, but the device is designed to be intuitive and simple to use, potentially helping to reduce the strain on specialized staff who are typically needed to operate a commercial ventilator, according to the company.

Other similar emergency ventilators vary in the combination of features they offer, but Fitbit believes that none delivers all of the attributes of its device at the same lower price range.

The company is in talks with state and federal agencies to understand current domestic needs for emergency ventilators and plans to work with U.S. and global aid organizations. Fitbit’s intent is to make the devices available to help address both current needs and potential future resurgences of the virus. 

Fitbit also plans to make the design available via open-source software to promote further collaboration. 

UPDATED Wednesday, June 3 at 11:50 a.m.

Banner Health launches telehealth in all hospital COVID-19 units 

Banner Health is deploying telehealth in all of its inpatient COVID-19 units, the Phoenix-based health system announced Wednesday. 

Banner partnered with VeeMed, a global telehealth company focused on virtual technology and physician services to rollout the new tool. They also partnered with Intel, which through their Pandemic Response Technology Initiative, provided NUC compute devices with Intel vPro Technology, which transformed the patient room televisions to allow two-way video conferencing.  

Using the technology, physicians and specialists can now access patients via two-way audiovisual technology from a safe and private location in the hospital instead of having to physically enter each patient room. They can speak with patients, view their vital sign monitors and, using the advanced camera option, can zoom in close enough to even check a patient’s pupils, officials said. 

The telehealth offering will help preserve personal protective equipment (PPE) and improve patient and staff safety in the busy patient care units, they said. 

“The process is streamlined to maintain efficiency in our existing workflows, while preserving vital PPE supplies,” said Syed Ismail A. Jafri, MD, physician executive for hospital medicine with Banner Medical Group in a statement. “More importantly, the physician-patient relationship has gotten stronger along the way.” 

Banner plans to expand the telehealth to its Banner Health Emergency Rooms next. 

UPDATED Tuesday, June 2 at 10:20 a.m.

Blue Cross NC extends Medicare Advantage copay waivers through end of 2020

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will waive Medicare Advantage copayments for primary care and outpatient behavioral healthcare through the end of 2020, the insurer announced Tuesday.

Blue Cross NC said that the covered visits must be to in-network providers but do not have to be specifically for COVID-19-related visits. Both in-person and telehealth visits will be applicable.

The Blues plan has 69,000 Medicare Advantage members.

“Blue Cross NC is committed to doing all we can to best serve our members during this public health crisis,” said Rahul Rajkumar, chief medical officer at Blue Cross NC. “By eliminating these copays, we hope that it will make it easier, and encourage our senior members to get the care they need.”