UPDATED Coronavirus tracker: Next two weeks will be 'deadly,' White House says; Healthcare lost 43K jobs in March

A stock image of a virus with stock numbers in the background
More than 43,000 healthcare jobs were lost in March, according to the latest federal data. (Getty/Ca-ssis)

UPDATED: Saturday, April 4 at 6:30 p.m.

White House says next two weeks will be "deadly"

President Donald Trump warned Saturday that the next two weeks would be "deadly" in the U.S. 

Speaking during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing about the federal government's response to the outbreak, Trump said, "Over the next week and two weeks, this is going to be a deadly period. We’re going to make it so we lose as few lives as possible."

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Deborah Birx, M.D., the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, said hot spot locations such as Louisiana, Detroit and New York City and "bedroom communities" around those metro areas are predicted to hit peak mortality for coronavirus cases in the next "six to seven days."

Birx referenced data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington. According to IHME, New York is projected to hit peak daily deaths from COVID on April 10 with 855 deaths.

Trump also announced at the briefing that some 1,000 military troops, mostly doctors and nurses, are deploying to New York City.

On the subject of critical medical supplies, Trump said he would use the Defense Production Act for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to order 180 million masks for medical workers.

Birx also said the task force had concerns about rising cases in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Washington D.C.

"We’re watching them because they are starting to go on the upside of the curve. We’re hoping and believing that if people mitigate strongly, the work that they did over last two weeks will blunt that curve and won’t have the same upward slope and peak that New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and parts of Rhode Island are having," she said.

She added, "The next two weeks are extraordinarily important," referring to the need for people to maintain social distancing guidelines.

Vice President Mike Pence and White House officials also praised the work of U.S. healthcare workers during the outbreak.

"I don’t think people can appreciate the extraordinary efforts by these people," said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "These brave warriors in the hospitals are giving life saving treatment to people and every single day putting themselves at risk. We owe a phenomenal debt of gratitude to these people."

UPDATED: Friday, April 3 at 7:00 p.m.

CDC recommends general public wear "non-medical cloth-based" masks 

President Donald Trump said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans wear "non-medical, cloth" masks in public.

Recent studies have shown that the transmission of the virus from individuals without symptoms is playing a more significant role in the spread of the virus than what was previously believed.

"In light of these studies, the CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth-based covering as part of voluntary public health measures," Trump said during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing.

“You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it,” Trump said. “It’s only a recommendation.”

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D., said the CDC and the World Health Organization had originally recommended against the general public wearing masks. "The best evidence available at the time indicated that masks were not deemed to have a significant impact on a healthy person contracting COVID. We always recommend that symptomatic persons wear masks."

He added, "We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of people with COVID lack symptoms. In light of new evidence, CDC and the Task Force recommends Americans wear cloth-based masks" to slow the spread of the virus.

The CDC is recommending the use of "basic cloth or fabric masks made at home or purchased online" and face coverings that can be easily washed or reused.

The CDC is not recommending the use of surgical grade or medical grade masks by the general public.

"Surgical masks or N95 respirators should continue to be reserved for healthcare workers," Adams said.

In response to the guidance, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Nurses Association issued a statement calling on the public to "be mindful of the need to ensure N95 respirators and medical-grade surgical masks remain prioritized for doctors, nurses and other front line caregivers and workers."

"As this pandemic spreads, our organizations will continue to urge that all levers be used by both the government and private sector to ensure front line caregivers have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to protect themselves and their patients," the healthcare groups wrote.

 UPDATED: Friday, April 3 at 3:20 p.m.

Healthcare lost 43K jobs in March

More than 43,000 healthcare jobs were lost in March, according to the latest federal data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports total nonfarm payroll employment fell by 701,000 in March, and the unemployment rate rose to 4.4% as a result of the effects of COVID-19 and efforts to contain it.

Employment in hospitality and leisure saw the steepest declines last month, with employment falling by about 459,000 jobs.

However, employment in healthcare and social assistance felt the pain with a total loss of about 61,000 jobs in March.

Healthcare employment, specifically, dropped by 43,000 with about 12,000 job losses from doctors' offices, about 17,000 job losses from dentists' offices and about 7,000 job losses from the offices of other healthcare practitioners.

UPDATED: Friday, April 3 at 10:50 a.m.

Blues plans to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association announced that its member plans will waive cost-sharing and copayments for treatment related to COVID-19.

The waivers will be available to people enrolled in Medicare, individual market and fully insured employer plans through May 31.

“It is important that our members feel safe and secure during these unprecedented times, which is why we are committed to ensuring our members who are dealing with a diagnosis of COVID-19 can easily access the care they need,” said Scott Serota, BCBSA president and CEO, in a statement.

Blues plans are also working with state officials to ensure access to testing and care for members in Medicaid and CHIP, BCBSA said.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 3:36 p.m.

HHS allows business partners to share COVID patient data under HIPAA

The Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps to provide guidance for healthcare business associates, such as collections agencies, financial institutions, and technology companies, that share patient data as part of efforts to combat the coronavirus.

In a notification of enforcement discretion published today, the HHS' Office for Civil Right said that it will not impose penalties for violations of certain provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule against health care providers or their business associates for the "good faith uses and disclosures" of protected health information.

This follows earlier guidance from OCR indicating that the HIPAA Privacy Rule permits healthcare providers to share COVID-19 patients' medical information without their express authorization to help protect first responders from the risk of infection.

The latest notification (PDF) was issued to support federal public health authorities and health oversight agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), state and local health departments, and state emergency operations centers who need access to COVID-19 related data, including protected health information, OCR said.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule already permits covered entities to provide this data, and today's announcement now permits business associates to also share this data without risk of a HIPAA penalty, according to OCR.

"The CDC, CMS, and state and local health departments need quick access to COVID-19 related health data to fight this pandemic," said Roger Severino, OCR Director. "Granting HIPAA business associates greater freedom to cooperate and exchange information with public health and oversight agencies can help flatten the curve and potentially save lives."

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 1:34 p.m.

Molina joins other insurers in waiving COVID-19 treatment costs

Molina Healthcare became the latest insurer to waive all COVID-19 out-of-pocket costs for any Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act marketplace customers.

The insurer joins UnitedHealth, Humana, Aetna, Cigna and Anthem alongside some regional plans in waiving cost-sharing for any treatment.

“The coronavirus health crisis is having a devastating effect on our most vulnerable populations and Molina is committed to supporting the swift testing and immediate treatment for all members that require it at no cost to them,” said Dr. Jason Dees, executive vice president and chief medical officer for Molina.

Molina and other major insurers have largely waived co-pays for testing for COVID-19.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 1:05 p.m.

AHA wants private payers to do more to address COVID-19

The American Hospital Association sent a letter to five of the biggest U.S. insurers — Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare — urging them the join hospitals in the fight “ensure that the health care system is there for anyone who needs care.”

AHA also set the letter to America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the industry's largest trade groups.

The hospital group is asking for private insurers to take up similar steps as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, such as allowing providers to opt into accelerated payments.

"Inadequate financial resources and cash flow threaten hospitals’ ability to remain staffed and open," AHA wrote. "While Congress and the Administration have taken a number of steps to address these issues, their actions alone cannot fill the gap resulting from reduced revenue from private insurance."

The hospitals also want insurers to eliminate processes that can slow payments, such as prior authorization.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 12:09 p.m.

Democrats demand ACA special enrollment period

A group of House and Senate Democrats blasted President Trump’s refusal to reopen enrollment in Affordable Care Act exchanges.

Democrats issued a joint statement on April 1 saying that reopening enrollment can help to bolster insurance coverage during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While there is a special enrollment period for people who have lost their jobs, creating a new enrollment period for everyone can help people who are uninsured or underinsured, the statement said.

“The Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces can serve a critical role in helping people access the care they need,” the statement added.

Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Richard Neal, D-Mass., Bobby Scott, D-VA., signed the statement alongside Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2 at 11:53 a.m.

HCSC to offer special enrollment period

Health Care Services Corporation announced that it is offering a special enrollment period to its fully insured employer group plans, which began on April 1.

Employees at these eligible companies will have the option to opt into coverage if they did not select a plan during the initial enrollment window. Covered workers who wish to add a spouse or dependent to their plans will also be able to do so during the special enrollment period, which ends April 30.

The enrollment period extends only to medical and dental coverage, HCSC said.

“These are extraordinary times and an extraordinary response is needed," said Greg Thompson, HCSC spokesperson, in a statement. "We are stepping up to help meet the health care coverage needs of as many people as possible by opening up a special enrollment period.”

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2 at 10:51 a.m.

DOJ and HHS to distribute supplies confiscated from price gougers

The Trump administration is distributing hoarded personal protective equipment to providers in New York and New Jersey.

The supplies were discovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on March 30 as part of a task force to target hoarding and price gouging during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The supplies found included 598,000 gloves, 130,000 surgical masks, procedure masks, N100 masks, gowns, disinfectant towels, particulate filters, bottles of hand sanitizer and spray disinfectant, according to a release issued on Thursday.

“Cracking down on the hoarding of vital supplies allows us to distribute this material to the heroic healthcare workers on the frontlines who are most in need,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement.

HHS will pay the owner of the equipment fair market value for the supplies and “has begun distributing to meet the critical need for the supplies among healthcare workers in New York and New Jersey,” the release said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 1 at 3:15 p.m.

FCC chief unveils $200M program to boost telehealth

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai wants to use $200 million from the economic stimulus package to expand telehealth services across the country.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last week, earmarks the funds for the FCC to help healthcare providers offering telehealth.

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which Pai proposed as a draft order Monday, would have to be approved by the commission before launching.

Pai said the program will provide immediate support to healthcare providers using virtual care in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country. Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic," Pai said in a press release.

If adopted by the commission, the program would offer qualified healthcare providers full funding to buy “telecommunications services, information services and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during this emergency period.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 31 at 7:15 p.m.

White House task force projects between 100,000 and 240,000 could die

The latest projections from the White House Coronavirus Task Force predict between 100,000 and 240,000 people in the U.S. will die from the coronavirus under the social distancing guidelines extended through April 30.

But, they say, that number could be far higher in the absence of those mitigation strategies, potentially stretching to between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deaths. 

"This begins in the middle and the end with community, this community of American people, that are going to have to do the things for the next 30 days to make a difference," said Deborah Birx, M.D., who serves as the response coordinator for the task force. "

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 31 at 11:15 a.m.

Florida Blue waives cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment

Florida Blue is the latest insurer to waive member cost-sharing for treatment for the novel coronavirus.

The waiver extends through June 1 and is available to members in its Medicare Advantage, individual market and fully-insured employer group plans. Florida Blue is also working with its self-insured employers to make these waivers available.

"Many in our state are already facing financial uncertainty due to this health crisis, and we do not want the fear of health care costs preventing them from seeking potentially life-saving treatment for COVID-19," said Pat Geraghty, Florida Blue president and CEO.

Aetna, Cigna and Humana have also committed to waive cost-sharing for treatment.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 31 at 10:07 a.m.

Alignment Healthcare launches crisis meal delivery program

Medicare Advantage insurer Alignment Healthcare has launched a meal delivery program to assist members who may not be able to access food amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the program, eligible members, including those below the poverty line and those who live alone, are provided with two weeks worth of meals.

“Beyond providing clinical support for COVID-19, we could not ignore the additional challenges our members now face, especially that of food insecurity as seniors are left to fend for themselves or risk exposure at public grocery stores,” said John Kao, CEO of Alignment Healthcare, in a statement. “That’s why the team at Alignment mobilized quickly to deploy a volunteer meal delivery program."

Alignment's team has delivered 3,000 meals so far in partnership with Mom's Meals and Meals on Wheels Orange County to members across four California counties. More than 400 meals are delivered per day.

The insurer is both providing meals to those who request them and also reaching out to the members most at risk.

UPDATED: Monday, March 30 at 2:03 p.m.

Federal watchdog offers providers flexibility on deadlines

Health and Human Services’ watchdog pledged to work with providers that face major deadlines for quality issues.

HHS’ Office of the Inspector General said in a letter to providers on Monday that if a healthcare organization needs an extension of any OIG deadlines to “produce data for an OIG review or to comply with a Corporate Integrity Agreement, are encouraged to ask their OIG contact.”

The inspector general added that it will work with organizations on a “reasonable solution.”

OIG also said during the COVID-19 emergency that it will work hard to “meet its mission while respecting the great challenges currently facing the healthcare industry.”

Several HHS agencies have sought to provide regulatory relief for healthcare organizations facing the strain of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has pushed back reporting deadlines for providers in value-based programs.

UPDATED: Monday, March 30 at 1:34 p.m.

MassHealth, Maven partner to provide free telehealth services

MassHealth is partnering with women and family health startup Maven to provide free telemedicine appointments for members with COVID-19 symptoms.

MassHealth is the Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Massachusetts.

MassHealth members will be connected through an online navigation tool to Maven providers through on-demand chat and video appointments 24 hours a day through the use of any web-enabled device.

"During the COVID-19 emergency, MassHealth has made unprecedented efforts to eliminate barriers to health care access, including expansive coverage of telehealth services," said Acting Medicaid Director Amanda Cassel Kraft. "We are excited to announce this partnership with Maven ​to provide medical support to our members seeking guidance on COVID-19 symptoms or risk factors."

In the wake of COVID-19, women and families are dealing with a myriad of health concerns, from managing conditions related to a high-risk pregnancy to being discharged from hospitals soon after giving birth to caring for a newborn. T

“This pandemic has raised serious concerns for millions of women who are pregnant or have just given birth,” said Kate Ryder, Founder and CEO of Maven. “We have doctors available around the clock to support MassHealth members and alleviate the burden on the healthcare system during this public health crisis. Massachusetts has long been a leader in healthcare and other states should look to their innovative response to this crisis as a model.”

Maven has developed dedicated COVID-19 resources including a Covid-19 support section in its member app for those looking to connect with specific providers and specific Maven provider in-app resources with the most up-to-date information regarding Covid-19.

UPDATED: Sunday, March 29 at 7:27 p.m.

Trump extends social distancing through April 

During a speech in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump announced he is extending social distancing guidelines across the country to last April 30 in response to COVID-19 concerns. 

Trump said the latest data shows the country should hit a peak number of deaths in the next two weeks and urged Americans to continue to stay home to curb the spread of the virus.

"Nothing would be worse than to declare victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all," Trump said. "Therefore, the next two weeks and during this period, it’s important everyone strongly follow the guidelines."

More information would be announced on Tuesday, he said.

During his speech, Trump also announced Humana and Cigna committed to waiving co-pays, co-insurance and deductibles related to COVID-19 treatment. 

He also announced that, on Friday, the Food and Drug Administration developed a new COVID-19 test developed by Abbott Labs that can produce a result within five minutes. They've committed to delivering 50,000 new tests each day starting this week, he said. 

"That's a whole new ballgame," Trump said. "The deployment of rapid testing will vastly accelerate our ability to monitor, track, contain and ultimately defeat the virus. We will defeat the virus. It will also allow us to test doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers immediately and to act quickly and aggressively to shut down the spread of the virus."

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 5:27 p.m.

President Trump signs $2T stimulus bill; invokes Defense Production Act

During an oval office ceremony on Friday, President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion economic stimulus package aimed at addressing the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic into law. 

He was joined by members of Republican leadership, Cabinet members and the 'Coronavirus Task Force.' 

The package includes major requirements for insurers to cover diagnostics and services associated with COVID-19 and gives some flexibility to hospitals. A major part of the legislation is $100 billion to hospitals to help them meet the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also includes massive unemployment assistance and help to businesses.

Trump also said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to require General Motors to prioritize contracts to produce breathing ventilators.

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 1:17 p.m. 

Nancy Pelosi (C-SPAN)

Pelosi promises healthcare 'help is on the way'

As the House wrapped up its deliberations on Friday afternoon over the massive stimulus package sent over from the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged members and Americans to think about the package as a "downpayment," rather than a final solution.

Even as Congress was passing its third package to respond to the coronavirus in recent weeks, she said, they must also advance a fourth bill. 

"For our fight against the coronavirus, our state and local governments will need vastly more support for preventing, preparing for and responding to the crisis," Pelosi said during remarks on the floor at the U.S. Capitol. "Hospitals and health systems still need vast infusions of funding so they can treat those in needs."

She also said Congress must provide more funding to protect healthcare workers. 

"This has been a constant theme on both sides of the aisle: Our gratitude for our healthcare workers. They are our heroes. We are thankful and grateful for them. We pray for them. But we need to do more for them than just to say those words," Pelosi said. "Our frontline healthcare workers — whether they be emergency doctors or firefighters or law enforcement — face a dire lack of personal protective equipment. PPE ... We must ensure the President uses the Defense Production Act to its full extent to provide the tools we need to combat this crisis." 

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 11:27 p.m.

JAMA issues call for PPE conservation ideas

They say necessity is the mother of invention.

So the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is issuing a nationwide call for creativity when it comes to conserving personal protective equipment. 

"We seek creative immediate solutions for how to maximize the use of PPE, to conserve the supply of PPE, and to identify new sources of PPE," the editorial from Editor-in-Chief Howard Bachner, M.D., as well as Executive Editor Phil Fontanarosa and Deputy Editor Eddward Livingston, M.D.  

"We are interested in suggestions, recommendations, and potential actions from individuals who have relevant experience, especially from physicians, other health care professionals, and administrators in hospitals and other clinical settings," they wrote. "JAMA is inviting immediate suggestions, which can be added as online comments to this article."

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 10:17 a.m.

AHA launches nationwide "100 million mask" initiative

The American Hospital Association has launched a nationwide initiative aimed at getting out millions of personal protective equipment to help hospitals tackle COVID-19.

The goal of the initiative is to facilitate public-private partnerships to fight the shortages across the country. The initiative announced Friday builds on one started by Providence, a system comprising of 51 hospitals across Western states, to collaborate with companies to produce PPE. 

"This challenge builds on the incredible efforts of Providence to bring this call to action to the nation," AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement. 

Providence collaborated with a Washington state-based furniture maker called Kaas Tailored to produce PPE and develop and share specs with other manufacturers who want to help out. 

"Providence will maintain focus on Washington State while the national initiative will expand to cover other areas experiencing an influx of coronavirus patients," AHA said in a release. "In recognition that shortages are much greater nationwide, the AHA-led initiative will, over time, expand its scope to meet the growing and ongoing challenges."

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26 at 6:30 p.m

Trump says FEMA shipped millions of PPE; White House to issue new guidelines to relax some social distancing

During a press briefing from the White House coronavirus task force Thursday, President Donald Trump said the Federal Emergency Management has shipped 9 million N95 respirators produced by manufacturer 3M, as well as 20 million surgical masks, and nearly 6,000 ventilators.

FEMA also is shipping 2.6 million gowns and 14.6 million gloves. Trump did not specify the states or cities that would receive a portion of those supplies.

Vice President Mike Pence said with FEMA in the lead, the Trump administration's approach is that COVID-19 response should be "locally executed by healthcare workers and local public health officials, state-managed and federally supported."

Testing is now available in 50 all states and 552,000 tests have been performed and completed across the U.S., Pence said.

Over the weekend the Trump administration plans to release guidelines for state and local governments to use to determine whether to increase or relax social distancing rules to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump said officials are gathering testing data that will suggest guidelines categorizing counties as "high risk, medium risk or low risk" for the virus. The data will drive "the next phase" of the response, according to NPR, which published a copy of the letter to state governors.

"We have to get back to work. We will be talking about dates," Trump said at the press briefing, referring to dates when he expects the country to open back up.

Trump has indicated that he wants to adjust his 15-day social distancing guidelines so that more parts of the stalled U.S. economy can reopen by April 12. The 15th day of the original guidelines is Monday.

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said during the press briefing that the social distancing measures in place curb further spread of the virus and help to "buy time to get better prepare for a rebound."

"When we pull back, which we ultimately will have to do, then we will have to prepare for a rebound or that it might cycle into the next season," he said.

Fauci also said a Covid-19 vaccine will go into production during clinical trials while researchers are still studying if it works as part of an ambitious plan to accelerate vaccine development.

"We didn’t take it that risk with Zika. One of the things we're going to push on is to have [the vaccine] ready if in fact, it works," Fauci said.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26 at 5:10 p.m.

Unclear how much of the $100B for healthcare in coronavirus stimulus package will go to help physician practices

There’s $100 billion in the coronavirus stimulus package for “healthcare providers,” and while most will go to hospitals, it’s unclear how much will go to help physician practices.

There may be a smaller piece of the pie to help practices struggling to stay afloat as many see a dramatic drop in patient visits—and revenues.

“It’s very important that the administration clarify and ensure that at least some of that is earmarked [for practices],” said Dan Bowles, a senior vice president at Aledade, a company that partners with independent primary care physicians to build and lead accountable care organizations.

Physician organizations were taking a close look at the $2 trillion economic stimulus package, which passed the Senate in the early hours of Thursday morning and is set to get through Congress by the end of this week.

“It’s not entirely clear that primary care physicians and physician-owned practices can get access to it,” said Bowles, who is leading Aledade’s efforts to help physicians financially navigate the coronavirus crisis.

At least a portion should go to physician-owned practices and community primary care, which will help hospitals in the long-run and retain the capacity of the primary care system when the crisis is over, he said.

“I understand why hospitals got all of the press and put at the front of the line,” he said, with the need for personal protective equipment, intensive care beds and ventilators to treat coronavirus patients. “But primary care is really on the front lines in a way that hospitals are not. If you want to keep hospital volumes down, you need to invest in primary care.  If these practices close that’s 20 or 30 or 40, maybe more, ER visits that would not have otherwise happened.”

Practices will also be helped by the piece of the stimulus package that provides help for small businesses, said Kyna Fong, co-founder of Elation Health, a company that provides technical tools for physician practices. The package includes $350 billion in loans for companies with 500 employees or fewer and provides eight weeks of cash assistance through loans to cover payroll, rent and other expenses, much of which would be forgiven if the company retains workers.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m.

Anthem joins alliance aimed at driving innovative COVID-19 solutions

Anthem is teaming up with Xprize, a nonprofit that works to kickstart initiatives to address “humanity’s great challenges,” to launch new programs to address the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The insurer is one of the initial members of the Xprize Pandemic Alliance, a global group that’s planning to unite innovators to address the coronavirus pandemic and future potential outbreaks.

As a launch member of the alliance, Anthem will provide access to a database of de-identified information from prior outbreaks such as swine flu.

“In this time of crisis, we see an opportunity to come together as a community via the powerful XPRIZE platform to address the most acute needs in the system today and to accelerate new solutions: from protecting our healthcare workers at the front lines and proactively taking care of the high-risk populations to developing new approaches to diagnostics, therapy and vaccines,” said Rajeev Ronanki, Chief Digital Officer at Anthem.

Other members of the alliance include the Department of Veterans Affairs and Intel.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26, 2:07 p.m.

Fauci chats coronavirus with hoops star Steph Curry

With a basketball hoop hanging behind him, epidemiological star Anthony Fauci, M.D., jumped on an Instagram Live chat about COVID-19 with hoops phenom Steph Curry on Thursday. 

Attracting an audience of up to 60,000 viewers at times, the Warrior point guard lobbed questions on his Instagram about testing and social distancing to the Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID.) 

“Why is it so challenging to get a test if you do have the symptoms?” Curry asked. “What are some of the things that are inhibiting those from being accessible to the masses?” 

“Well, there should be nothing now that’s inhibiting it. But originally, the system the way it was set up, Steph, was not geared for this kind of massive capacity of instantaneously safety getting a test, getting it done in a good period of time," Fauci said. "That has changed largely because it’s being handed over to the commercial firms who know how to do it.”

While the chat — which had an informal, but serious style — didn’t cover new territory, it likely did reach a new audience for Fauci who is more often seen at the podium with the President these days.  

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 25, 8:04 p.m.

Pence: Anesthesiology devices used for outpatient surgery could be converted to ventilators

Vice President Pence said that the federal government has reached out to devices used by anesthesiologists for outpatient surgery to convert them to ventilators to combat COVID-19.

“We literally believe tens of thousands of ventilators can be converted now that the FDA has given guidance,” Pence said during a press conference on Wednesday.

He added that the federal government produced a video to explain how those devices can be converted.

A lack of ventilators is one of providers’ biggest concerns as the number of COVID-19 cases rises.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 25, 3:41 p.m. 

Companies retooling manufacturing plans to produce medical supplies

Several private companies have announced plans in recent days to restart manufacturing in light of shortages of critical medical supplies. 

Among them is Medline which is retooling its Hartland, Wisconsin manufacturing facility from a new manufacturing line to produce 150,000 bottles of hand sanitizer per week by mid-April as hand hygiene becomes a critical defense against the spread of COVID-19, officials said.

Already, Medline's 300-square-foot facility produces infection prevention products including 2% chlorhexidine gluconate solution, skin antiseptics, body washes, lotions, over the counter drug products, povidone-iodine and lubrication gel.

Meanwhile, Walker, Michigan-based Altus, which creates mobile technology stations, began production of ventilator carts to help address the shortage of the equipment. The manufacturer said it is adding production team members and working extra shifts as it ramps up quickly to begin producing the carts which are designed to provide mobile worksurfaces to hold ventilators.

And Toronto-based Canada Goose which will begin production of medical scrubs and patient gowns as part of a response program. They plan open back up two previously closed manufacturing facilities to begin production of the necessary medical gear for frontline healthcare workers and patients across Canada, they announced. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 25, 11:50 a.m. 

Cuomo: New York has enough PPE … for now

New York state has enough personal protective equipment for the state’s hospitals but that may not be the case in the next couple of weeks.

“Today no hospital, no nurse, no doctor can say legitimately I don’t have PPE,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference Wednesday. “Right now and for the foreseeable future we have a supply.”

Cuomo said that they don’t have a supply for three to five weeks from now but “we are still shopping.”

A lack of PPE has been the number one complaint from providers as hospitals start to see more COVID-19 cases emerge.

Cuomo also said that the state’s supply of ventilators is lacking. “We need 30,000,” Cuomo said. “We have in the existing hospital system 4,000 ventilators, purchased 7,000 and still shopping.”

He added that the federal government has sent 4,000 ventilators but Cuomo pressed for more.

“We are exploring splitting where one ventilator can do two patients,” he said. “Italy had to do this because they were forced to do it.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 2:36 p.m.

Doctors, nurses, hospitals to the public: #StayHome

It’s a plea that has come from everyone from the president to top health officials.

Now doctors, nurses and hospitals are giving the public the same message: Stay at home to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Whether all Americans will listen, is an unknown. But the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Hospital Association are adding their voices to the plea.

The leading groups, that represent the country’s physicians, nurses and hospitals that are on the frontlines of battling the coronavirus, issued an open letter (PDF) urging the public to #StayHome as they said the U.S. is reaching the critical stages of the national response to the pandemic. They said staying home will help reduce the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 and limit its long-term health effect on the country.

“Those contracting COVID-19 are your family, friends and loved ones,” they said, in the short letter, appealing to the public for help.

“Physicians, nurses and healthcare workers are staying at work for you. Please stay at home for us,” the groups pleaded.

Physical distancing and staying at home are the keys to slowing the spread of the virus and will healthcare professionals on the “front lines a fighting chance at having the equipment, time and resources necessary to take on this immense challenge,” they wrote.

Those with urgent medical needs, including pregnant women, should seek care as needed. "Everyone else should #StayHome,” the groups wrote.

Millions are doing so, connecting with friends and loved ones through video chats, social media or with telephone conversations, but they said millions more must get on board.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 1:36 p.m.

UnitedHealthcare offers special enrollment period

UnitedHealthcare announced that it would work with its fully insured and level-funded employer clients to open a special enrollment period from workers.

Employees who did not opt-in to coverage will have the option to sign up through April 6. Self-funded employers are also able to offer this enrollment period if they choose, UnitedHealthcare said.

The insurer also unveiled several other initiatives aimed at the COVID-19 outbreak. It said it would suspend prior authorization requirements in post-acute care through May 31, and also suspend such requirements for patient transfers between providers.

UnitedHealthcare said it would offer further options to ease prior authorization in the regions hit hardest by the pandemic.

“UnitedHealthcare is committed to helping people access health care to the fullest extent possible as we come together to address this national emergency,” said UnitedHealthcare Chief Executive Officer Dirk McMahon. “We will continue to help people get coverage for the care they need, as well as ease care provider and health system administrative burdens.” 

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 11:58 p.m.

Cuomo: Give us all the ventilators in federal stockpile

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the federal government to give the state all of the 20,000 ventilators in the national stockpile because the state has by far the highest amount of COVID-19 cases at more than 25,000.

“We need at a minimum an additional 30,000 ventilators,” Cuomo said during a press conference Tuesday. “You cannot buy them, you cannot find them.”

He said that so far the state has procured an additional 7,000 ventilators.

But Cuomo cautioned that the spread of the disease in New York is accelerating and that the state could reach the apex of cases in as soon as 14 days and completely overwhelm hospitals. 

“The inescapable conclusion is the rate of infection is going up,” said Cuomo. “The apex is higher than we thought and the apex is sooner than we thought.”

So with the state unable to buy more ventilators, Cuomo made the request for the federal government to give the state all of the ventilators in the stockpile.

“New York you are looking at a problem of a totally different magnitude and dimension” compared to other states that have a couple thousand cases like California or Washington, he added.

Cuomo said that he could return the ventilators or send them to other states after the apex of the disease has been reached and cases subside.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 10:33 a.m.

AHIP board pledges to assist providers with capacity

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) said its board of directors has committed to working with hospitals to boost capacity as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board, which represents many of the largest health plans in the country, said it would work closely with providers to ensure patients are discharged from the hospital to the most clinically appropriate care setting.

The member insurers added that they would commit to matching Medicare's waivers to relax and ease policies for the regions facing the most dramatic capacity issues.

"Health insurance providers will continue to take action, to help patients get the testing and treatment they need, to help businesses and their workers continue their coverage, and to help  policymakers implement effective solutions," AHIP's board said. "Together, we can and will meet this challenge."

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 10:13 a.m.

CMS approves Medicaid waivers for 11 more states

The Trump administration has granted waivers to 11 more states to allow flexibility on a wide range of Medicaid requirements.

The waivers, announced late Monday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), are intended to help states with relief on prior authorization, provider enrollment requirements and other facets of the Medicaid program.

Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia all got waivers from CMS.

“These waivers give a broad range of states the regulatory relief and support they need to more quickly and effectively care for their most vulnerable citizens,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement Monday.

Florida was the first state to get a waiver last week.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 8:11 p.m.

FEMA distributing N-95 masks, PPEs; HHS to issue new guidance for commercial labs

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is distributing 8 million N-95 respirator masks and 13.3 million surgical masks across the country "right now," President Donald Trump said during what's become a daily press conference on the coronavirus. 

"We're focusing on the areas with the greatest need," Trump said. "We've shipped 73 pallets of personal protective equipment to New York City and 36 pallets to the state of Washington. In the past 96 hours, FEMA has also received donations of approximately 6.5 million masks. We're having millions and millions of masks made as we speak and other personal protective equipment we'll be targeting to medical hot spots." 

Vice President Mike Pence, who is head of the U.S. Cononavirus Task Force, said 313,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed in the U.S. and about 41,000 have received a positive test result. FEMA and the U.S. Public Health Service personnel and resources are being deployed to expand testing and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering testing that would rely on self-collected nasal swabs that can be collected at clinics and drive-through testing sites. 

In the meantime, Pence announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would issue new guidance for commercial labs to prioritize testing for COVID-19 for hospitalized patients. "We also reminded the governors today that all state laboratories, all hospital laboratories are now required by law to report the results of coronavirus tests to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,]" Pence said.

During the press conference, Trump also announced he signed an executive order to block companies from potentially hoarding vital medical equipment such as PPEs or face masks in order to price gouge.

Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department was aware of some activities that were "disrupting the supply chain and suggestive of hoarding." 

"We're talking about people hoarding these goods or materials on an industrial scale with the purpose of manipulating the market and ultimately driving windfall profits," Barr said. "If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about. But if you are sitting on a warehouse with surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door."

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 4:53 p.m.

CDC rolls out coronavirus self-checker bot named Clara

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has launched a COVID-19 assessment bot to help consumers make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care if they feel they have symptoms of coronavirus.

Called "Clara," the coronavirus self-checker tool was created in partnership with CDC Foundation and Microsoft Azure’s Healthcare Bot service.

According to a Microsoft blog post, the chatbot can quickly assess the symptoms and risk factors for people worried about infection, provide information and suggest the next course of action such as contacting a medical provider or, for those who do not need in-person medical care, managing the illness safely at home.

The self-checker bot assesses whether the user has symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, and cough and asks about pre-existing conditions.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rise, there is a concern that hospitals and urgent care centers will be overwhelmed.

"Microsoft's Healthcare Bot service is one solution that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help the CDC and other frontline organizations respond to these inquiries, freeing up doctors, nurses, administrators and other healthcare professionals to provide critical care to those who need it," Microsoft said.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 4:16 p.m.

New York governor mandates hospitals add more beds

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanded hospitals expand bed capacity by 50% as cases in the state continue to increase. 

"We would ask you to try to increase your capacity by 100%," Cuomo said during a press conference on Monday. 

Currently, there are 53,000 hospital beds in the state and Cuomo said they will likely need 110,000. There are also only 3,000 intensive care unit beds and New York may need between 18,000 to 37,000. 

Cuomo added that the state has reached out to the entire retirement community of healthcare professionals who are still licensed and registered to press them into service. 

"This is just a request," Cuomo said. "We put it out and we have gotten very good response."

He also singled out insurance companies, saying that they employ healthcare professionals like nurses and doctors who should be enlisted to help facilities. 

"We don't need them in the insurance business now," he said. "We would like them to help in hospitals."

New York is one of the hardest-hit states in the nation, with more than 20,000 cases of COVID-19.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 12:15 p.m.

Harvard Pilgrim offers more than $3 million in grants to community groups

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care announced Monday that it would make more than $3 million in grant funding available to community groups in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire through its foundation.

Efforts include engaging with local restaurants to offer take-out restaurants to families and working to help people get back to work.

The insurer also runs a "mini" grant program, that allows its employees to allocate $500 to charities of their choice.

"As this unprecedented pandemic continues, we are committed to further reinforcing community efforts across the region in addition to caring for our members and supporting our providers," said Michael Carson, CEO of Harvard Pilgrim, in a statement.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 10:10 a.m.

Biden urges Trump to drop ACA case amid pandemic

Former Vice President and Democratic front-runner Joe Biden sent a letter to the Trump administration and state officials on Monday urging them to drop the legal case that leaves the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt.

The coronavirus pandemic that's gripping the country highlights how critical the reforms in the ACA are, Biden wrote.

"At a time of national emergency, which is laying bare the existing vulnerabilities in our public health infrastructure, it is unconscionable that you are continuing to pursue a lawsuit designed to strip millions of Americans of their health insurance and protections under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the ban on insurers denying coverage or raising premiums due to pre-existing conditions," Biden wrote.

The landmark healthcare law was signed ten years ago today, as Biden noted in his letter. Read Biden's full letter over at Axios.

The Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to hear the case over the ACA in the upcoming term, meaning a final call on its future is unlikely until after the election in November.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 9:27 a.m.

CVS will bring on 50,000 workers, offer employees bonuses

With CVS Health's pharmacies remaining open as an essential business while Americans are urged to stay home, the healthcare giant announced several steps to grow its employee base and reward its workers.

CVS said it plans to fill 50,000 full-time, part-time and temporary positions in its stores across the country, including sales associates, delivery drivers, customer service workers and distribution center workers. The company will be using a virtual approach to hiring, including digital job fairs, interviews and tryouts.

CVS also said it will issue bonuses of between $150 and $500 to pharmacists, front-line healthcare workers, store employees and managers and other select employees. Beginning in April, CVS will also cover 25 days of childcare or adult and eldercare for employees in partnership with Bright Horizons.

"Our colleagues have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to providing essential goods and services at a time when they're needed most," said CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo in a statement. "As they continue to be there for the individuals and families we serve, we're taking extra steps to provide some peace of mind and help them navigate these uncertain times." 

UPDATED: Friday, March 20 at 2:09 p.m.

Trump: General Motors will start making ventilators

President Trump said during a press conference Friday that General Motors has agreed to start manufacturing ventilators to help providers cope with the growing spread of COVID-19.

Trump announced earlier this week that he will invoke the Defense Production Act that can direct factories to produce needed supplies such as personal protective equipment and ventilators.

He added that he is working with other companies to make ventilators, but wouldn’t say how many or who they are.

Concerns are growing among the healthcare industry on whether there will be enough ventilators to deal with the influx of patients with respiratory disease associated with COVID-19.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 19 at 10:18 a.m.

Wide coalition of healthcare groups send list of demands to White House

A large collection of pharma, insurer, hospital and physician groups wrote to the White House outlining the needs to battle the COVID-19 outbreak.

The letter released late Wednesday by 18 groups said that a “coordinated government response” is needed to ensure critical supplies such as equipment for testing and personal protective equipment and avoid supply chain disruptions.

“That means assuring that manufacturers can provide a continuous supply of medicines to patients by protecting the free flow of medicines, pharmaceutical ingredients and related goods, while avoiding mandates that could disrupt the supply chain,” said the letter.

Hospitals also need to modify existing facilities in and around hospitals, including making temporary units when needed or making use of “surplus government property,” the letter added.

Groups that signed on to the letter include America’s Health Insurance Plans, American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 19 at 6:29 a.m.

Trump signs massive stimulus package

President Donald Trump signed another economic stimulus package aimed at propping up the economy in the midst of the pandemic. 

Among other things, the bill includes an increase to state Medicaid funding and requirements for coronavirus testing coverage.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Includes funding for the Department of Agriculture for nutrition and food assistance programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children as well as nutrition programs that assist the elderly.

  • Has provisions that establish a federal emergency paid leave benefits program to provide payments to employees taking unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak. It will also require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, but establish a payroll credit.
  • Will establish requirements for providing coronavirus diagnostic testing at no cost to consumers and treating personal respiratory protective devices as covered countermeasures that are eligible for certain liability protections.
  • Will also temporarily increase the Medicaid federal medical assistance percentage determined for each state by 6.2 percentage points.
  • Sets aside $30 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs for health services consisting of COVID–19 related items and services.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 18 at 3:20 p.m.

Match Day goes on, but without some of pomp and circumstance; Changes in medical license exams because of COVID-19

Match Day, when thousands of medical students learn where they will spend their years of residency, takes place on Friday. But for these future doctors, it will happen without the usual pomp and circumstance.

The coronavirus outbreak and the need for social distancing has prompted medical schools to either cancel Match Day celebrations or instead to livestream events to minimize social contact. So, the day that many doctors still recall decades later won’t be marked this year by those typical on-campus celebrations and gatherings.

“The NRMP understands the disappointment for schools and students unable to have a Match ceremony. This is a pivotal day for everyone,” the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) said in an email to FierceHealthcare.

Coronavirus, however, won’t impact the NRMP’s process or administration of The Match, according to the organization. During Match Week, more than 40,000 resident physician applicants will learn their future.

And in other news that impacts doctors, the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) program has announced changes in its testing as a result of coronavirus.

The program announced that Pometric test centers in the U.S. and Canada will be closed for 30 days, starting today. The company, which does licensing testing, said it plans on reopening April 16.

Also this week, USMLE temporarily suspended its Step 2 clinical skills testing. “Given the unique, human-to-human delivery mode of this exam, it is important to take . . . precautionary steps to protect the health of examinees and test center staff,” it said. USMLE said it hopes to reopen clinical skills test centers April 13, but said that date is subject to change. It said it is working on a plan to extend the eligibility periods for all those impacted.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 3:48 p.m.

KFF: What pregnant women need to keep in mind

Medical experts warn that symptoms of the novel coronavirus may be more severe in pregnant women, according to new issue brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, there is no evidence at present that a pregnant woman will pass the virus to an infant during pregnancy, though cases of newborn infection have been found.

There is also no sign that the virus will transmit via breast milk to a newborn, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued precautionary guidance on breastfeeding for pregnant women or new moms who have COVID-19.

Pregnant women may also struggle with social distancing, according to the report, as they require routine, potentially weekly, prenatal care visits. Telehealth can help, but coverage for virtual visits for obstetrics can be spotty, the authors said.

"Keeping in mind the pregnant population during the COVID-19 pandemic may help mitigate potential preventable health disparities," the authors wrote.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 3:38 p.m.

Kaiser Permanente, Anthem flex philanthropic muscle

Kaiser Permanente and Anthem, two titans in the industry, have announced millions of dollars in donations to assist with some of the fallout from social distancing to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Through its Anthem Foundation, the insurer is working to redirect $2 million in grant funding to the Boys and Girls Clubs across the country to assist with distributing meals to needy children and families who are asked to stay home. 

In addition, it's continuing to donate to other organizations, including the Red Cross, Direct Relief, Americares and Feeding America.

Kaiser Permanente, meanwhile, teamed up with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council to put $1 million toward assisting the homeless during the outbreak. Homeless people are often highly vulnerable to infection but overlooked in times of crisis, the health system said.

"Given the elevated risk faced by people living on the streets or in shelters at this time, we are making it a priority to support outreach, prevention, and treatment for this community," said Bechara Choucair, M.D., chief health officer at Kaiser Permanente.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 2:50 p.m.

Telehealth visits surge

There has been a surge in demand for virtual care visits as the coronavirus outbreak has progressed.

On Friday, Teladoc reported that patient visit volume spiked 50% over the prior week and continues to rise. The company had been handling visit demand consistent with peak flu volumes, but on March 11 began to see that number accelerate to as much as 15,000 visits requested per day. 

Teladoc Health reported that it provided approximately 100,000 virtual medical visits to patients in the United States during a seven-day period, helping to alleviate pressure on the broader health care system.

The company also saw respiratory condition diagnoses increase 24% over the same month last year.

"We are seeing more patients and more of those patients are experiencing upper respiratory issues,” said Lew Levy, M.D., chief medical officer at Teladoc Health. “As we saw during the flu epidemic of 2018, a community’s healthcare system can become overwhelmed and virtual care can help provide needed relief."

Salt Lake City, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare has seen a dramatic surge in consumer use of its Connect Care virtual care services. Intermountain is using telehealth to pre-screen patients who are concerned about coronavirus.

In just the past two days, there have been 1,000 downloads of the Connect Care app. While Connect Care typically has 120 visits a day – and about 160 daily during cold and flu season – the app had 258 visits yesterday, more than 75 COVID-19 related, the health system reported.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 1:09 p.m.

Pence urges construction workers to donate N95 masks

In a press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence, who's heading up the administration's coronavirus task force, urged construction companies to donate unused and unneeded N95 masks to hospitals.

In addition, he asked that construction companies avoid making additional orders for such masks amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Doing so, he said, would more effectively protect healthcare workers as masks are in short supply.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 10:30 a.m.

CMS approves Medicaid flexibility for Florida

Florida has become the first state to get more flexibility on Medicaid as part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to remove regulatory barriers in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced on Friday states can apply for additional Medicaid flexibility for states under Section 1135 that include waiving prior authorization requirements and enrollment restrictions.

“CMS is committed to removing all unnecessary administrative and bureaucratic barriers that may hinder an effective response to this public health emergency, and I have directed my team to expeditiously process these requests,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said on Tuesday.

The state got approval to streamline enrollment processes, remove prior authorization requirements and enable care to be provided in alternative settings if a facility needs to be evacuated.

The waiver also extends deadlines for appeals and state fair hearing requests.

“These flexibilities will enable the state to focus its resources on combating this outbreak and provide the best possible care to Medicaid beneficiaries in their state,” according to a CMS release.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 6:44 a.m.

Red Cross warns of blood shortage

The American Red Cross is facing a severe blood shortage as thousands of blood drives in community settings across the country have been canceled due to coronavirus concerns, resulting in about 86,000 fewer blood donations.

More than 80% of the blood the Red Cross collects comes from drives held at locations of this type.

Officials say this could directly impact hospitals soon, affecting patients who need surgery, victims of car accidents and other emergencies or patients suffering from cancer.

“I am looking at the refrigerator that contains only one day’s supply of blood for the hospital,” said Robertson Davenport, M.D., director of transfusion medicine at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. “The hospital is full. There are patients who need blood and cannot wait.”

The Red Cross has implemented new safety measures to ensure safety for donors and staff including temperature checks, providing hand sanitizer, spacing beds to ensure social distancing between donors and increased disinfecting of surfaces and equipment. There are no data or evidence that this coronavirus can be transmitted by blood transfusion, they said.

Individuals can schedule an appointment to give blood with the Red Cross by visiting RedCrossBlood.org, using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or enabling the Blood Donor skill on any Alexa Echo device, officials said.

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 3:58 p.m.

Trump directs states to avoid federal medical supply stockpile

President Donald Trump directed states to buy their own ventilators and personal protective equipment rather than going through the federal stockpile if the states can get the supplies faster. 

Trump said during a news conference Monday that the federal government is also making orders for the federal stockpile of medical supplies as the coronavirus worsens.

His comments come amid concerns that hospitals will be ready for a surge in cases of coronavirus, which has already infected more than 1,600 Americans. 

Trump also demurred when asked about whether he will employ the Army Corps of Engineers to ramp up new hospital sites to meet demand. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had pressed Trump to deploy the army to help construct new hospital sites to meet demand.

"We are looking into it very strongly," Trump said. 

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 10:35 a.m.

AMA approves new CPT code for COVID-19 lab tests

The American Medical Association (AMA) has approved a new Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code for reporting novel coronavirus tests. 

The AMA said last week it would fast track establishment of a new code to empower surveillance and laboratory testing in response to the spread of the coronavirus,

"In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CPT Editorial Panel has expedited approval of a unique CPT code to report laboratory testing services that diagnose the presence of the novel coronavirus," said AMA President Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. "The new CPT code assigned to the test for the novel coronavirus provides analytical advantages for tracking, allocating and optimizing resources as testing ramps up in the United States."

For quick reference, the new Category I CPT code and long descriptor are: CPT code 87635 - Infectious agent detection by nucleic acid (DNA or RNA); severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (Coronavirus disease [COVID-19]), amplified probe technique.

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 10:00 a.m.

U.S. health agency hit by cyber attack during COVID-19 response

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) suffered a cyber-attack on its computer system Sunday night during the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, both Bloomberg and ABC News reported.

The attack appears to have been intended to slow the agency’s systems down, but didn’t do so in any meaningful way, according to Bloomberg, citing three people familiar with the matter. The individuals asked for anonymity to discuss an incident that was not public.

The government realized Sunday that there had been a cyber intrusion and false information was circulating, Bloomberg reported.

The National Security Council (NSC) tweeted just before midnight: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown. @CDCgov has and will continue to post the latest guidance on #COVID19.”

The tweet was in part meant to address the hacking, which involved multiple incidents. HHS officials assume that it was a hostile foreign actor, but there is no definitive proof at this time, Bloomberg reported.

HHS officials did not respond to FierceHealthcare's request for comment.

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 6:26 a.m.

Healthcare groups call for clarification on 'elective' surgeries

Several healthcare groups called for clarification over the weekend after Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted that hospitals should consider canceling "elective" procedures.

His tweet was in response to new American College of Surgeons recommendations advising prudence in elective procedures, including rescheduling of certain surgeries.

But the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Children’s Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals said they are concerned the statements to stop performing elective surgeries come without clear agreement about what that means.

"We agree that the crisis as it develops may require the curtailment of the least critical or time-sensitive hospital services, but any curtailment must be nuanced to meet the needs of all severely ill patients," the groups said in the letter. "Our patients will be best served by carefully evaluating and prioritizing gradients of 'elective' care to ensure that the most time-sensitive medically necessary care can be delivered by physicians and hospitals."

Elective simply means a procedure is scheduled rather than a response to an emergency, they said.

"For example, 'elective' surgeries could include replacement of a faulty heart valve, removal of a serious cancerous tumor, or a pediatric hernia repair. Often, if these types of procedures are delayed or canceled, the person’s condition gets rapidly worse and can even be life threatening," they said. "This is particularly true with children who are all in an active phase of their life growth and development. The resulting decline in their health could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19."

Meanwhile, a growing number of health systems around the U.S. have made announcements about plans to cancel elective procedures to make room for COVID-19 cases and preserve crucial supplies. Those include Tufts Medical Center and Hackensack Meridian Health as well as Seattle Children's Hospital and Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

UPDATED: Monday March 16 at 6:12 a.m. ET

ACEP calls for vigilance as it announces 2 emergency docs in 'critical condition'

Two emergency physicians are in critical condition after contracting COVID-19, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) said in a statement over the weekend

One of the doctors is an emergency physician in his 40s in the state of Washington. The second is a 70-year-old physician in New Jersey.

"I am deeply saddened by this news, but not surprised," ACEP President William Jaquis, M.D., said in a statement. "As emergency physicians, we know the risks of our calling. We stand united with our colleagues and our thoughts and prayers for a full and speedy recovery are with each of them and their families."

It is unknown whether the emergency physician in Washington got the virus through treating patients or by community-based spread. Jaquis said the doctor complied at all times with personal protective equipment procedures.

The physician in Patterson, New Jersey, leads his institution’s emergency preparedness and was admitted to the hospital several days ago with upper respiratory problems. That doctor remains in isolation in its intensive care unit.

"It is my hope that these colleagues and their cases serve as a reminder to each of us to stay vigilant," Jaquis said. "This virus is dangerous, and its impact is still unfolding. As emergency physicians, we answer the call to care for our most vulnerable, even at great personal risk. Knowing that, I urge each of you to meticulously follow the recommended precautions to protect yourself."

UPDATED: Friday, March 13 at 3:53 p.m. ET

President Trump declares national emergency; Announces plan for Google screening website

President Donald Trump has declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency.

Trump made the declaration an address at the White House on Friday, which allows the government to free up $50 billion for a response.

"To unleash the full power of the federal government … I am officially declaring a national emergency," Trump said. "Two very big words."

The announcement comes as the administration is facing increasing scrutiny over its response to the outbreak.

During his address, Trump also said Google-subsidiary Verily will build a website that will help prescreen individuals for the COVID-19 virus and direct them to testing sites.

"We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing," Verily officials said in a statement. "Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time."

UPDATED: Friday, March 13 at 1:31 p.m. ET

Doc offers look at San Francisco General Hospital's response

Vivek Jain, M.D., an infectious disease physician and researcher, is part of the team leading San Francisco General Hospital's response to the spread of COVID-19.

In a lengthy twitter thread, Jain offered a look inside the hospital's approach. The hospital is using a quick, low radiation dose cat scan that can evaluate and stratify patients by their risk.

The hospital has also developed its own test for the virus and is leaning on other rapid response tests for respiratory illness to evaluate patients, Jain said.

"We at hospitals are here for you," he tweeted. "We’re doing everything we can to be ready. But we need the public’s help to hand wash, social distance, work from home if your employers have advised/allowed it, and avoid large crowds. This will help blunt the impact on hospitals."

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 4:56 p.m. ET

Lawmakers target supply chain with new bills

Lawmakers have introduced two bills aimed at improving the healthcare supply chain that is in peril due to the coronavirus.

A bill led by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would direct the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to explore supply chain vulnerabilities. For instance, the bill wants to assess the dependence of the supply chain on products manufactured in foreign countries.

The coronavirus, which originated in China, has caused skepticism on the reliance of China to manufacture key active ingredients for drugs and personal protective equipment such as masks.

The bill also wants the academies to provide recommendations and an action plan to improve the resiliency of the supply chain.

A separate bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., would establish a fund to offer loans to investors who want to fund advanced manufacturing startups that want to make products in the U.S.

“To remain competitive and keep innovative technologies and capabilities in the U.S., the federal government must partner with the private sector to increase access to capital,” Booker said in a statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 4:50 p.m. ET

Envision Healthcare promises care for coronavirus patients no matter their ability to pay

Envision Healthcare, a Nashville-based healthcare company, said its patients will receive care for coronavirus without any unexpected costs from surprise medical bills.

Envision’s doctors and caregivers are working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by identifying and treating patients who present symptoms, Envision President and CEO Jim Rechtin said in a statement Thursday.

“Our providers are expediently delivering care to these patients and we will continue to treat every patient, regardless of their ability to pay,” he said.

The healthcare company and national hospital-based physician group, said it considers testing and screening of patients for coronavirus an essential health benefit and that patients should have access to care without undue financial burdens.

Envision said its policy is to treat all patients, regardless of their ability to pay, and offer direct support to patients to help them understand potentially complicated health plan bills.

“Patients screened and treated for coronavirus will not be burdened with unexpected costs related to care, and we will offer direct support for confusing or complicated bills. In the event that patients experience undue charges inadvertently because of the difficulty of identifying the coronavirus, we will work with patients to ensure that they are only responsible for in-network charges,” Rechtin said.

Surprise medical bills occur when patients receive medical care from a doctor or hospital that isn’t in their insurance network.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 4:15 p.m. ET

Health systems roll out their own tests

In the wake of delays and shortages of coronavirus tests, Mayo Clinic and Hackensack Meridian Health are among health systems around the country that have developed their own tests.

Officials at New Jersey-based Hackensack announced their Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) began developed a new rapid response test to shorten the amount of time it takes to get results from days to hours. The health system work on the test in mid-January after the outbreak of the virus was first identified in China in December.

"The CDI test combines elements of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) diagnostic, and a test developed in Germany and adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO)," officials said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Mayo announced it's own "fully validated" test which will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for review and emergency use authorization.

"This test should help ease some of the burden that is currently being felt at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health laboratories," said William Morice II, M.D., president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories, in a statement. "We are doing everything we can to help relieve the burden during this time to provide answers for patients here in Rochester and around the world."

The real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test can identify SARS-CoV-2 from a variety of clinical samples, offficials said. Mayo officials told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the initial estimated capacity is 200 to 300 tests per day.

The health system is also among those that have begun offering drive-through testing for COVID-19.

And in Ohio, Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals say they have ordered tests and reagents to roll out their own testing soon, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 11:57 a.m. ET

World Health Care Congress postponed due to coronavirus

The coronavirus has caused another healthcare conference to close up.

The World Health Care Congress will no longer take place in Washington, D.C., March 28 to April 1, according to an e-mail sent to panel speakers on Thursday. The event was likely to have between 1,200 to 1,500 attendees.

The conference will be moved to a later date that has not been announced.

Where major health conferences stand

World Health Care Congress (March 29-April 1) - Postponed

Muscular Dystrophy Association Clinical & Scientific Conference (March 22-25) - Postponed

HIMSS (March 9-13, Orlando) - Canceled

SXSW health track (March 13-17, Austin) - Canceled

RISE Nashville (March 15-17, Nashville) - Postponed to late June

AHIP National Health Policy Conference (March 18-20, Washington, D.C.) - Canceled

AHIP National Conference on Individual and Small Group Markets (March 19-20, Washington, D.C.) - Canceled

National Quality Forum Annual Conference (March 23-25, Washington, D.C.) - Canceled

American College of Healthcare Executives Annual Congress (March 23-26, Chicago) - Canceled

The Wall Street Journal Health Forum (March 24) - Digital only

Business Group on Health Business Health Agenda (March 26) - Canceled

World Health Care Congress (March 29-April 1, Washington, D.C.) - Postponed

NatCon20 (April 5-7, Austin) - Canceled

American Case Management Association National Conference (April 6-9, Chicago) - Canceled

Institute for Healthcare Improvement Summit on Primary Care (April 16-18, Washington, D.C.) - Still scheduled

American College of Physicians Internal Medicine Meeting 2020 (April 23-25, Los Angeles) - Canceled

Epic's Experts Group Meeting (April 27-May 8, Verona, Wisconsin) - Canceled

The American Academy of PAs 2020 conference (May 16-20, Nashville) - Canceled 

The conference is the latest to be postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus. Last week HIMSS and South By Southwest cancelled major conferences because of the virus.

But last week the congress had expected to take place as scheduled. Organizers told FierceHealthcare they would include measures to mitigate spread of the virus such as more hand sanitizer stations.

Things have changed rapidly though since then. More than 1,000 people have been infected with the virus and major sports teams have decided to close down or play games without fans present.

Washington's city government also recommended that any gathering of 1,000 or more people be cancelled.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 11:15 a.m. ET

Emblem Health partners with Medly Pharmacy for prescription home delivery in NYC

In response to rising concerns of COVID-19, health insurer EmblemHealth is partnering with Medly Pharmacy to provide direct, at-home delivery of prescriptions to members.

Medly Pharmacy is a full-service digital pharmacy that delivers prescription medication and serves customers in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey. The company has 3.2 million members across the New York tri-state area. 
"This partnership is designed to give our members peace of mind knowing they can get their prescriptions delivered. This is an immediate concern for our very elderly members, members who are homebound, or have weakened immune systems," said EmblemHealth President and CEO Karen Ignagni.

She also noted the partnership likely will be popular among members who prefer not to go to the pharmacy in order to minimize risk of exposure to germs.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 11 at 3:55 p.m. ET

Massachusetts, Washington ACA exchanges hold special enrollment periods

The state-run exchanges in Massachusetts and Washington are holding new enrollment periods for uninsured people to sign up in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Massachusetts announced Wednesday it will hold a special enrollment period until April 25 for uninsured state residents to sign up for coverage. Washington’s exchange will hold a period from April 1 through April 8.

Both states cite the growth of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 1,000 people in the U.S., according to federal data.

“Responding to this threat requires adequate access to the resources necessary to receive appropriate testing and treatment,” the Massachusetts Health Connector said in a release Wednesday.

The state added that ensuring someone has insurance coverage can increase the likelihood they will get treatment or testing.

So far major insurers have announced they are waiving cost-sharing for coronavirus tests, but affordability for other healthcare services associated with the virus remains an issue.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 11 at 12:56 p.m. ET

WHO declares coronavirus outbreak a pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) Wednesday declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

The WHO generally defines a pandemic as a disease that has become widespread around the world.

Up until this point, the WHO had declined to designate the rapidly spreading virus as a pandemic, although it became increasing clear the virus was likely to continue to spread around the globe.

It has now been reported in 114 countries.

WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the coronavirus outbreak will worsen. "In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher," he said, in making the announcement.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 11 at 12:12 p.m. ET

Anthony Fauci: Coronavirus likely 10 times deadlier than flu

The coronavirus’ death rate is likely 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu, according to the NIH’s infectious disease point man Anthony Fauci.

Fauci told a congressional panel on Wednesday that the 3.4% death rate released by the World Health Organization earlier this week is likely going to lower.

“If you count all the cases of minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic infection that probably brings the mortality rate down to somewhere around 1%, which means it is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” he told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

Fauci, head of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added that people have to “stay ahead of the game in preventing this.”

He said that mitigation strategies such as canceling large events are important right now, even in areas that don’t have the virus.

“If we wait until we have many, many more cases, we will be multiple weeks behind,” he said. “If we don’t do very serious mitigation now then what is going to happen we are going to be weeks behind and the horse is going to be out of the barn.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 4:35 p.m. ET

American College of Physicians cancels annual meeting

The American College of Physicians (ACP) has canceled its annual scientific meeting, Internal Medicine Meeting 2020, which was scheduled to take place in Los Angeles, April 23-25.

The organization said it’s decision was based on recent reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of rapidly escalating concerns about the coronavirus and in recognition of the role of internal medicine physicians in diagnosing, managing and caring for their patients and communities on the front lines.

ACP members and other meeting participants will be offered a refund, the group said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 4:13 p.m. ET

AHIP heads to White House to discuss coronavirus

Leaders with America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry’s top lobbying group, headed to the White House on Tuesday to discuss the burgeoning coronavirus.

The meeting focused on the insurance industry’s response to the outbreak and included President Trump, Vice President Pence and the coronavirus task force. Several major insurers have announced they will waive cost-sharing for any coronavirus test.

“No one should hesitate to see their doctor to get tested and treated for COVID-19 because of costs,” AHIP President Matt Eyles said in a statement after the meeting. “Health insurance providers across the country have taken action to remove cost barriers to care.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 1:25 p.m. ET

CMS rolls out new provider guidance

As the coronavirus spreads through the U.S., the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has released guidance for providers on billing for diagnostic tests and how Medicare will pay for emergency services.

The agency’s guidance released late Monday comes as testing is ramping up for the respiratory virus that has already sickened 647 Americans, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CMS’ guidance includes a frequently asked questions document on how providers can bill and get payments for testing patients for the virus. It also details Medicare’s payment policies for lab and diagnostic services, drug and vaccine coverage and how to bill for telehealth or in-home provider services.

“We are receiving up-to-the-minute information about COVID-19 and are in turn, making necessary updates to our requirements and sharing that information with our providers throughout the healthcare system,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a release on the guidance.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 1:07 p.m. ET

CPT code expected soon to report and bill for coronavirus tests

The American Medical Association is moving forward to approve a new Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code for reporting novel coronavirus tests.

Approval of a new CPT code that will allow physicians to bill for coronavirus will be considered this week at a special meeting of the committee that makes revisions to the code, the AMA said today.

The AMA said it hoped to fast track establishment of a new code to empower surveillance and laboratory testing in response to the spread of the coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, which is rapidly spreading in the U.S. There are now over 761 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. as of Tuesday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University's real-time dashboard.  

UPDATED: Monday, March 9 at 2:33 p.m. ET

CVS announces resources aimed at ensuring access to medication amid outbreak

CVS Health's Aetna said last week that it would waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing, and on Monday the healthcare giant released additional plans to ensure patients have continued access to medication.

CVS Pharmacy will waive costs for home prescription delivery, and Aetna will begin offering coverage for 90-day maintenance medication prescriptions in its commercial and Medicare plans. The insurer is working with state governments to extend the same option to Medicaid managed care plans, and self-funded Aetna customers will also be able to offer this option to members.

CVS' Caremark pharmacy benefit manager is also working with clients to waive early refill restrictions on 30-day maintenance medication prescriptions.

"Being committed to the welfare of those we serve means being responsive to evolving needs and acting swiftly. This is particularly true in times of uncertainty," said Troyen Brennan, M.D., chief medical officer at CVS Health.

UPDATED: Monday, March 9 at 11:35 a.m. ET

More insurers commit to coronavirus coverage

UnitedHealth Group unveiled a slew of updates at both UnitedHealthcare and Optum for members to address the spread of COVID-19, including waived cost-sharing for tests. The insurer is encouraging members to take advantage of UHC's telehealth benefits to seek treatment and said it has trained clinicians at OptumCare on the latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the novel coronavirus.

“Our top priority is the health and wellbeing of our members and patients – and the safety of those who deliver care,” said Richard Migliori, M.D., chief medical officer, UnitedHealth Group. "While the situation is dynamic, we are committed to adapting and supporting those we serve.” 

Anthem made a similar announcement Friday, waiving cost-sharing for tests and urging members to seek out telehealth treatment when possible. Oscar Health also followed suit.

UPDATED: Monday, March 9 at 7:10 a.m. ET

Fauci to clinicians: 'The risk group is very, very clear'

As clinicians gear up to fight the novel coronavirus spreading throughout the U.S., top officials say they should focus special attention on seniors.

"It’s so clear that the overwhelming weight of serious disease and mortality is on those who are elderly and those with a serious comorbidity: heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, respiratory difficulties," said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci was speaking in an interview with Howard Bauchner, M.D., editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association aimed at addressing the medical community. "If you look at the weight of the data the risk group is very, very clear." It was just one of the observations he shared about COVID-19 which has been grabbing headlines, but for which there is limited information when it comes to treatment.

UPDATED: Saturday, March 7 at 11:48 a.m.

Additional conferences cancel

SXSW, AHIP and ACHE all announced over the weekend that they would cancel conferences this month. SXSW is a massive Austin event over the course of 10 days that includes sessions on film, music and technology, with a growing healthcare presence. In 2019, the conference drew about 280,000 people across all of its events.

America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's top lobbying group, said it will not hold its National Health Policy Conference or National Conference on the Individual and Small Group Markets planned for March 18-20 in Washington, D.C. The American College of Healthcare Executives also decided to cancel its 2020 Congress on Healthcare Leadership that was expected to take place March 28 in Chicago. 

Several other conferences remain on the books for this month, including the World Health Care Congress, set for March 29 to April 1 in Washington, D.C.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 5 at 12:43 p.m. ET

HIMSS cancels 2020 conference

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) today canceled its global health conference.

HIMSS organizers said the 2020 HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition was called off due to the coronavirus outbreak and the "unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week.”

Organizers made the decision following recent reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIMSS said in an announcement posted on its website.

HIMSS20 was slated to take place next week, March 9-13, at the Orlando Convention Center. It's the first time in 58 years that the conference has been canceled. President Donald Trump had been slated to speak on Monday at the conference to address healthcare interoperability. The conference had been a "go" as of Wednesday, according to organizers.

HIMSS organizers have taken a lot of heat on social media and from attendees for going ahead with the conference under the shadow of pandemic fears from the virus known as COVID-19.

“We recognize all the hard work that so many have put into preparing for their presentations and panels that accompany every HIMSS conference,” said Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS. “Based on evaluation of evolving circumstances and coordination with an external advisory panel of medical professionals to support evidence-based decision making, it is clear that it would be an unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week.”

HIMSS had convened a medical advisory board earlier this week to advise it on the evolving coronavirus outbreak.

The advisory panel recognized that industry understanding of the potential reach of the virus has changed significantly in the last 24 hours, which has made it impossible to accurately assess risk, HIMSS said in its announcement.

Additionally, there are concerns about the disproportionate risk to the healthcare system given the unique medical profile of global conference attendees and the consequences of potentially displacing healthcare workers during a critical time, as well as stressing the local health systems were there to be an adverse event.

Organizers said the cancelation was "unavoidable in order to meet HIMSS’ obligation to protect the health and safety of the global HIMSS community, employees and local residents, as well as for the healthcare providers tasked with keeping our U.S. and global communities healthy."

HIMSS20 exhibitors and attendees will be contacted with further information regarding booth contracts and registrations. 

UPDATED Thursday, March 5 at 12:37 a.m. ET

AHIP board commits to easing cost burdens of coronavirus testing

Top insurers committed Thursday to mitigate the costs associated with testing for and treatment of the novel coronavirus that has begun spreading in the U.S.

The board of industry group America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP)—which includes the heads of top insurers like Humana, Anthem, CVS and Cigna—said in a statement they are committed to providing coverage for tests ordered by a physician. They also said they are working to ease network, referral and prior authorization requirements that could hinder access.

The group said their organizations would also potentially waive out-of-pocket costs for the tests.

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