From Medicine and Health

Black Americans Are Getting Vaccinated at Lower Rates Than White Americans

Black Americans are receiving covid vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than white Americans in the first weeks of the chaotic rollout, according to a new KHN analysis.

About 3% of Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine so far. But in 16 states that have released data by race, white residents are being vaccinated at significantly higher rates than Black residents, according to the analysis — in many cases two to three times higher.

In the most dramatic case, 1.2% of white Pennsylvanians had been vaccinated as of Jan. 14, compared with 0.3% of Black Pennsylvanians.

The vast majority of the initial round of vaccines has gone to health care workers and staffers on the front lines of the pandemic — a workforce that’s typically racially diverse made up of physicians, hospital cafeteria workers, nurses and janitorial staffers.

If the rollout were reaching people of all races equally, the shares of people vaccinated whose race is known should loosely align with the demographics of health care workers. But in every state, Black Americans were significantly underrepresented among people vaccinated so far.

Access issues and mistrust rooted in structural racism appear to be the major factors leaving Black health care workers behind in the quest to vaccinate the nation. The unbalanced uptake among what might seem like a relatively easy-to-vaccinate workforce doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country’s dispersed population.

Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are dying from covid at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis. And non-Hispanic Black and Asian health care workers are more likely to contract covid and to die from it than white workers. (Hispanics can be of any race.)

“My concern now is if we don’t vaccinate the population that’s highest-risk, we’re going to see even more disproportional deaths in Black and brown communities,” said Dr. Fola May, a UCLA physician and health equity researcher. “It breaks my heart.”

Dr. Taison Bell, a University of Virginia Health System physician who serves on its vaccination distribution committee, stressed that the hesitancy among some Blacks about getting vaccinated is not monolithic. Nurses he spoke with were concerned it could damage their fertility, while a Black co-worker asked him about the safety of the Moderna vaccine since it was the company’s first such product on the market. Some floated conspiracy theories, while other Black co-workers just wanted to talk to someone they trust like Bell, who is also Black.

But access issues persist, even in hospital systems. Bell was horrified to discover that members of environmental services — the janitorial staff — did not have access to hospital email. The vaccine registration information sent out to the hospital staff was not reaching them.

“That’s what structural racism looks like,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Those groups were seen and not heard — nobody thought about it.”

UVA Health spokesperson Eric Swenson said some of the janitorial crew were among the first to get vaccines and officials took additional steps to reach those not typically on email. He said more than 50% of the environmental services team has been vaccinated so far.

A Failure of Federal Response

As the public health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio, and a Black physician, Dr. Mysheika Roberts has a test for any new doctor she sees for care: She makes a point of not telling them she’s a physician. Then she sees if she’s talked down to or treated with dignity.

That’s the level of mistrust she says public health officials must overcome to vaccinate Black Americans — one that’s rooted in generations of mistreatment and the legacy of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study and Henrietta Lacks’ experience.

A high-profile Black religious group, the Nation of Islam, for example, is urging its members via its website not to get vaccinated because of what Minister Louis Farrakhan calls the “treacherous history of experimentation.” The group, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is well known for spreading conspiracy theories.

Public health messaging has been slow to stop the spread of misinformation about the vaccine on social media. The choice of name for the vaccine development, “Operation Warp Speed,” didn’t help; it left many feeling this was all done too fast.

Benjamin noted that while the nonprofit Ad Council has raised over $37 million for a marketing blitz to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, a government ad campaign from the Health and Human Services Department never materialized after being decried as too political during an election year.

“We were late to start the planning process,” Benjamin said. “We should have started this in April and May.”

And experts are clear: It shouldn’t merely be ads of famous athletes or celebrities getting the shots.

“We have to dig deep, go the old-fashioned way with flyers, with neighbors talking to neighbors, with pastors talking to their church members,” Roberts said.

Speed vs. Equity

Mississippi state Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that the shift announced Tuesday by the Trump administration to reward states that distribute vaccines quickly with more shots makes the rollout a “Darwinian process.”

Dobbs worries Black populations who may need more time for outreach will be left behind. Only 18% of those vaccinated in Mississippi so far are Black, in a state that’s 38% Black.

It might be faster to administer 100 vaccinations in a drive-thru location than in a rural clinic, but that doesn’t ensure equitable access, Dobbs said.

“Those with time, computer systems and transportation are going to get vaccines more than other folks — that’s just the reality of it,” Dobbs said.

In Washington, D.C, a digital divide is already evident, said Dr. Jessica Boyd, the chief medical officer of Unity Health Care, which runs several community health centers. After the city opened vaccine appointments to those 65 and older, slots were gone in a day. And Boyd’s staffers couldn’t get eligible patients into the system that fast. Most of those patients don’t have easy access to the internet or need technical assistance.

“If we’re going to solve the issues of inequity, we need to think differently,” Boyd said.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the limited supply of vaccine must also be considered.

“We are missing the boat on equity,” he said. “If we don’t step back and address that, it’s going to get worse.”

While Plescia is heartened by President-elect Joe Biden’s vow to administer 100 million doses in 100 days, he worries the Biden administration could fall into the same trap.

And the lack of public data makes it difficult to spot such racial inequities in real time. Fifteen states provided race data publicly, Missouri did so upon request, and eight other states declined or did not respond. Several do not report vaccination numbers separately for Native Americans and other groups, and some are missing race data for many of those vaccinated. The CDC plans to add race and ethnicity data to its public dashboard, but CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said it could not give a timeline for when.

Historical Hesitation

One-third of Black adults in the U.S. said they don’t plan to get vaccinated, citing the newness of the vaccine and fears about safety as the top deterrents, according to a December poll from KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.) Half of them said they were concerned about getting covid from the vaccine itself, which is not possible.

Experts say this kind of misinformation is a growing problem. Inaccurate conspiracy theories that the vaccines contain government tracking chips have gained ground on social media.

Just over half of Black Americans who plan to get the vaccine said they’d wait to see how well it’s working in others before getting it themselves, compared with 36% of white Americans. That hesitation can even be found in the health care workforce.

“We shouldn’t make the assumption that just because someone works in health care that they somehow will have better information or better understanding,” Bell said.

Willy Nuyens has seen too many of his environmental services co-workers at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center lose family to covid. He jumped at the chance to get the vaccine and has been encouraging them to do the same. (Lolito Lacson)

In Colorado, Black workers at Centura Health were 44% less likely to get the vaccine than their white counterparts. Latino workers were 22% less likely. The hospital system of more than 21,000 workers is developing messaging campaigns to reduce the gap.

“To reach the people we really want to reach, we have to do things in a different way, we can’t just offer the vaccine,” said Dr. Ozzie Grenardo, a senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Centura. “We have to go deeper and provide more depth to the resources and who is delivering the message.”

That takes time and personal connections. It takes people of all ethnicities within those communities, like Willy Nuyens.

Nuyens, who identifies as Hispanic, has worked for Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center for 33 years. Working on the environmental services staff, he’s now cleaning covid patients’ rooms. (KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

In Los Angeles County, 92% of health care workers and first responders who have died of covid were nonwhite. Nuyens has seen too many of his co-workers lose family to the disease. He jumped at the chance to get the vaccine but was surprised to hear only 20% of his 315-person department was doing the same.

So he went to work persuading his co-workers, reassuring them that the vaccine would protect them and their families, not kill them.

“I take two employees, encourage them and ask them to encourage another two each,” he said.

So far, uptake in his department has more than doubled to 45%. He hopes it will be over 70% soon.


Covid: 5 razones para seguir usando máscara después de vacunarse

Como médica de emergencias, la doctora Eugenia South fue parte del primer grupo de personas en recibir la vacuna contra covid. Tuvo su segunda dosis a principios de enero, incluso antes que el presidente electo Joe Biden.

Así y todo, South dice que no tiene apuro por dejar de usar máscara

“Honestamente, no creo que vuelva a estar sin máscara en el trabajo”, dijo South, quien es directora del Urban Health Lab de la Universidad de Pennsylvania en Philadelphia. “No creo que me sentiría segura”.

Aunque las vacunas contra covid son altamente efectivas, South planea seguir usando máscara dentro y fuera del hospital.

Expertos en salud dicen que hay buenas razones para seguir el ejemplo de esta doctora.

“El uso de máscaras y el distanciamiento social deberán continuar en el futuro, hasta que tengamos cierto nivel de inmunidad colectiva”, dijo el doctor Preeti Malani, oficial de salud jefe de la Universidad de Michigan. “Las máscaras y el distanciamiento están aquí para quedarse”.

Malani y otros expertos en salud explican cinco razones:

  1. Ninguna vacuna es 100% efectiva

Extensos ensayos clínicos hallaron que dos dosis de las vacunas de Moderna y Pfizer-BioNTech prevenían el 95% de las enfermedades causadas por el coronavirus. Si bien esos resultados son impresionantes, 1 de cada 20 personas queda desprotegida, dijo el doctor Tom Frieden, ex director de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC).

Malani señala que las vacunas se probaron en ensayos clínicos controlados, en los mejores centros médicos, en condiciones óptimas.

Pero en el mundo real, las vacunas suelen ser un poco menos efectivas. Los científicos usan términos específicos para describir el fenómeno. Se refieren a la protección que ofrecen las vacunas en los ensayos clínicos como “eficacia”, mientras que la inmunidad real que se obvserva en la población vacunada es “efectividad”.

La efectividad de las vacunas contra covid podría verse afectada por la forma en que se manipulan, observó Malani. El material genético utilizado en las vacunas elaboradas con ARN mensajero del coronavirus es tán frágil que debe almacenarse y transportarse con cuidado.

Cualquier variante que no siga la guía de manejo de vacunas de los CDC podría influir en su funcionamiento, explicó Malani.

  1. Las vacunas no brindan protección inmediata

Malani explicó que ninguna vacuna ofrece protección apenas la persona se vacuna. El sistema inmunológico tarda aproximadamente dos semanas en producir anticuerpos que bloquean las infecciones virales.

Las vacunas contra covid, sin embargo, tardarán un poco más que otras porque tanto la de Pfizer como la de Moderna, requieren de dos dosis. Las dosis de Pfizer se administran con tres semanas de diferencia, las de Moderna, con cuatro semanas.

Es decir que no habrá protección completa hasta cinco o seis semanas después de la primera dosis. Una persona que se vacunó el día de Año Nuevo no estará completamente protegida hasta el día de San Valentín.

  1. Es posible que las vacunas no impidan propagar el virus

Las vacunas pueden poporcionar dos niveles de protección. Por ejemplo, la vacuna contra el sarampión previene que el virus infecte un organismo, por lo que las personas vacunadas no transmiten la infección ni desarrollan síntomas.

La mayoría de las otras vacunas, como la de la gripe, evitan que las personas se enfermen pero no que se infecten o transmitan el virus a otros, explicó el doctor Paul Offit, asesor de los Institutos Nacionales de Salud (NIH) y de la Administración de Drogas y Alimentos (FDA) sobre las vacunas contra covid.

Si bien las vacunas contra covid claramente previenen la enfermedad, los científicos necesitan más tiempo para descubrir si también previenen la transmisión, dijo Saskia Popescu, epidemióloga con sede en Phoenix y profesora asistente en el programa de biodefensa de la Escuela Schar de Gobierno y Políticas de la Universidad George Mason.

“Todavía no sabemos si la vacuna protege contra la infección o solo contra la enfermedad”, dijo Frieden, quien ahora es director ejecutivo de Resolve to Save Lives, una iniciativa mundial de salud pública. “En otras palabras, una persona vacunada podría transmitir el virus, incluso si no se siente enferma”.

Hasta que los investigadores puedan responder esta pregunta, usar cubrebocas es la forma más segura para que las personas vacunadas protejan a quienes las rodean.

  1. Las máscaras protegen a personas con sistemas inmunitarios comprometidos

Las personas con cáncer tienen un riesgo particular de contraer covid. Estudios han mostrado que son más propensos a infectarse y a morir a causa del coronavirus. Y es posible que las vacunas no los protejan dijo el doctor Gary Lyman, profesor del Centro de Investigación del Cáncer Fred Hutchinson.

Los pacientes con cáncer son vulnerables en muchos aspectos. Las personas con cáncer de pulmón son menos capaces de combatir una neumonía, y los que están bajo quimioterapia o radioterapia tienen sistemas inmunes debilitados. La leucemia y el linfoma atacan directamente las células inmunitarias, lo que dificulta que los pacientes combatan el virus.

Lyman dijo que no se sabe cómo reaccionarán a la vacuna los pacientes oncológicos, porque fueron excluidos de los ensayos clínicos. A solo unos pocos participantes se les diagnóstico cáncer después de inscribirse. En este grupo, la protección de las vacunas solo fue del 76%.

“Por ahora, debemos asumir que los pacientes con cáncer pueden no experimentar el 95% de eficacia”, completó Lyman.

También hay algunas personas alérgicas que no pueden vacunarse.

Usar máscaras también ayuda a proteger a estos grupos más vulnerables.

  1. Las máscaras protegen contra cualquier cepa del coronavirus, la original y las nuevas mutaciones

Líderes a nivel global están muy preocupados por las nuevas variantes genéticas del coronavirus, que al parecer son 50% más contagiosas.

Hasta ahora, los estudios sugieren que las vacunas protegerán contra estas cepas. Pero es claro, según explicó Frieden, que los cubrebocas, la distancia física y medidas como evitar multitudes protegen contra todas las formas del virus, y de otros virus respiratorios.

Por ejemplo, los casos de gripe bajaron dramáticamente en todo el mundo desde que se implementaron las cuarentenas y el uso de máscaras.

Lo ideal es combinar las vacunas con las máscaras y el distanciamiento, para poner fin a la pandemia, dijo Offit. “Los tres enfoques funcionan mejor en equipo”.

Related Topics

Noticias En Español Public Health

Biden Terms Vaccine Rollout ‘A Dismal Failure’ as He Unveils His Pandemic Response Plan

In the past 24 hours, President-elect Joe Biden has delivered two speeches focused on the nation’s covid response.

Thursday night, he laid out a $1.9 trillion-dollar plan to address what he’s calling the “twin crises” of the covid-19 pandemic and the economy.

Biden proposed, among other things, that Congress allocate funds for implementing a national vaccination program, reopening schools, sending $1,400 checks to Americans who need them, providing support for small businesses, and extending unemployment insurance. He also proposed increasing subsidies for Affordable Care Act insurance coverage, and providing more assistance for housing, nutrition and child care.

The plan is ambitious and will likely face some pushback in Congress. (Read PolitiFact’s analysis here.)

Friday afternoon he offered a more detailed take on his vaccine distribution plan.

On his first day in office, he said, he will instruct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start setting up mass vaccination centers across the country. Biden promised to have 100 of these sites set up by the end of his first month in office.

He also said his administration will work with pharmacies across the country to distribute vaccine more effectively and employ the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate vaccine supplies. His administration will also launch a public education campaign to address vaccine hesitancy and ensure that marginalized communities will be reached.

Biden maintained during the speech that he intends to reach the goal of “100 million shots the first 100 days in office.” He also said he will stick with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest recommendation to distribute covid vaccines to those who are 65 and older, as well as essential workers, to push states to allocate the supply quickly.

During his Thursday speech outlining what he’s dubbed the “American Rescue Plan,” Biden made several claims about the current response to the pandemic and how it’s affecting Americans. We fact-checked and gave context to a couple of the president-elect’s statements.

“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far.”

The vaccine rollout is far short of what officials promised. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker, since mid-December, when vaccines first started being distributed, about 30 million doses have been sent out. But only about 11 million have actually been administered into the arms of Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services had initially issued a goal of administering 20 million doses by the end of December.

A key reason for the slow pace, experts said, is that many state and local health departments lack the funding and resources to execute such a mass vaccination campaign. Communication with the federal government has also been dicey. Many states have complained that they aren’t informed about how much vaccine they will receive and when — making logistical planning difficult. In addition, the outgoing Trump administration recently changed its recommendations for who should qualify, adding an additional layer of confusion.

Still, public health experts say part of the reason the initial rollout was slow was that it occurred during the December holidays, when many locations were understaffed. And since Congress approved a second covid stimulus bill, states will receive about $3 billion in funding, which will help efforts.

“One in 7 households in America — more than 1 in 5 Black and Latino households in America — report they don’t have enough food to eat.”

This is accurate. Estimates vary on the exact number of Americans who live in households that are food insecure, but Biden’s numbers match recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers translate to about 14% of all households and 20% of Black and Latino households.

The Census Bureau estimates food insecurity throughout the pandemic in a weekly report. According to numbers from December, 14% of all adults in the country reported their households sometimes or often not having enough food to eat in the last seven days. The data from December also shows that 24% of Black households and 21% of Latino households did not have enough to eat.

A Northwestern University study estimates that at one point during the pandemic, nearly 23% of households experienced food insecurity.

“These crises are straining the budgets of states and cities and tribal communities that are forced to consider layoff and service restrictions of the most needed workers.”

This is accurate. State and local governments generally by law are required to balance their operating budgets, resulting in layoffs and reductions in services — though federal aid provided through covid relief helped. Late last year, the Brookings Institution projected state and local revenues would decline by $155 billion in 2020 and $167 billion in 2021. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states and localities had furloughed or laid off 1.2 million workers through October 2020. Brookings also noted that, because state and local governments “are at the forefront of the response to the pandemic” they “will likely need to increase their typical spending to provide crucial public health services and help communities adapt to social distancing guidelines.”

Additionally, news reports starting early last summer detail a high number of health care workers being laid off or losing their jobs during the pandemic. Public health workers have also been furloughed or had their hours cut, despite having to create covid testing sites, initiate contact tracing programs and now create mass vaccination campaigns.

“Over the last year alone, over 600,000 educators have lost their jobs in our cities and towns.”

This is a softened version of a previous claim about laid-off “teachers” that we rated Mostly False. This number likely refers to Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows the number of local government education jobs declined from March to October by 666,000.

But that number doesn’t refer only to layoffs. Rather, it notes a net decrease in jobs. Reports show that, during the pandemic, some educators have quit, retired or taken a leave of absence.

It’s also not clear what type of educators Biden is referring to, and though the BLS does track layoff data by industry, it lumps state and local education data together, which means public college staff numbers are included. The BLS data shows that from March to October 39,000 state and local educators were laid off or discharged.

Source List:

Associated Press, “Teacher Departures Leave Schools Scrambling for Substitutes,” Sept. 13, 2020

Becker’s Hospital Review, “Record Number of Healthcare Workers Laid Off, Furloughed During Pandemic,” June 5, 2020

The Brookings Institution, “How Much Is COVID-19 Hurting State and Local Revenues?” Sept. 24, 2020

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics Survey (National), accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID Data Tracker – Vaccinations, accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effect on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” Jan. 8, 2021 (updated Jan. 15)

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Pandemic’s Impact on State Revenues Less Than Earlier Expected But Still Severe,” Oct. 30, 2020

U.S. Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey Data Tables, accessed Jan. 15, 2021

Kaiser Health News and Associated Press, “Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus,” July 1, 2020

Northwestern University, “How Much Has Food Insecurity Risen? Evidence from the Census Household Pulse Survey,” June 10, 2020

NPR, “As Hospitals Lose Revenue, More Than a Million Health Care Workers Lose Jobs,” May 8, 2020

PolitiFact, “Biden Mischaracterizes Teacher Layoffs From Pandemic,” Nov. 20, 2020

Rev.com, “Joe Biden Speech Transcript on COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan,” accessed Jan. 15, 2021

CVS and Walgreens Under Fire for Slow Pace of Vaccination in Nursing Homes

The effort to vaccinate some of the country’s most vulnerable residents against covid-19 has been slowed by a federal program that sends retail pharmacists into nursing homes — accompanied by layers of bureaucracy and logistical snafus.

As of Thursday, more than 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid vaccines had been allocated to the federal pharmacy partnership, which has deputized pharmacy teams from Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate nursing home residents and workers. Since the program started in some states on Dec. 21, however, they have administered about one-quarter of the doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Across the country, some nursing home directors and health care officials say the partnership is actually hampering the vaccination process by imposing paperwork and cumbersome corporate policies on facilities that are thinly staffed and reeling from the devastating effects of the coronavirus. They argue that nursing homes are unique medical facilities that would be better served by medical workers who already understand how they operate.

Mississippi’s state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said the partnership “has been a fiasco.”

The state has committed 90,000 vaccine doses to the effort, but the pharmacies had administered only 5% of those shots as of Thursday, Dobbs said. Pharmacy officials told him they’re having trouble finding enough people to staff the program.

Dobbs pointed to neighboring Alabama and Louisiana, which he says are vaccinating long-term care residents at four times the rate of Mississippi.

“We’re getting a lot of angry people because it’s going so slowly, and we’re unhappy too,” he said.

Many of the nursing homes that have successfully vaccinated willing residents and staff members are doing so without federal help.

For instance, Los Angeles Jewish Home, with roughly 1,650 staff members and 1,100 residents on four campuses, started vaccinating Dec. 30. By Jan. 11, the home’s medical staff had administered its 1,640th dose. Even the facility’s chief medical director, Noah Marco, helped vaccinate.

The home is in Los Angeles County, which declined to participate in the CVS/Walgreens program. Instead, it has tasked nursing homes with administering vaccines themselves, and is using only Moderna’s easier-to-handle product, which doesn’t need to be stored at ultracold temperatures, like the Pfizer vaccine. (Both vaccines require two doses to offer full protection, spaced 21 to 28 days apart.)

By contrast, Mariner Health Central, which operates 20 nursing homes in California, is relying on the federal partnership for its homes outside of L.A. County. One of them won’t be getting its first doses until next week.

“It’s been so much worse than anybody expected,” said the chain’s chief medical officer, Dr. Karl Steinberg. “That light at the end of the tunnel is dim.”

Nursing homes have experienced some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. Though they house less than 1% of the nation’s population, nursing homes have accounted for 37% of deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Facilities participating in the federal partnership typically schedule three vaccine clinics over the course of nine to 12 weeks. Ideally, those who are eligible and want a vaccine will get the first dose at the first clinic and the second dose three to four weeks later. The third clinic is considered a makeup day for anyone who missed the others. Before administering the vaccines, the pharmacies require the nursing homes to obtain consent from residents and staffers.

Despite the complaints of a slow rollout, CVS and Walgreens said they’re on track to finish giving the first doses by Jan. 25, as promised.

“Everything has gone as planned, save for a few instances where we’ve been challenged or had difficulties making contact with long-term care facilities to schedule clinics,” said Joe Goode, a spokesperson for CVS Health.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, acknowledged some delays through the partnership, but said that’s to be expected because this kind of effort has never before been attempted.

“There’s a feeling they’ll get up to speed with it and it will be helpful, as health departments are pretty overstretched,” Plescia said.

But any delay puts lives at risk, said Dr. Michael Wasserman, the immediate past president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine.

“I’m about to go nuclear on this,” he said. “There should never be an excuse about people not getting vaccinated. There’s no excuse for delays.”

Bringing in Vaccinators

Nursing homes are equipped with resources that could have helped the vaccination effort — but often aren’t being used.

Most already work with specialized pharmacists who understand the needs of nursing homes and administer medications and yearly vaccinations. These pharmacists know the patients and their medical histories, and are familiar with the apparatus of nursing homes, said Linda Taetz, chief compliance officer for Mariner Health Central.

“It’s not that they aren’t capable,” Taetz said of the retail pharmacists. “They just aren’t embedded in our buildings.”

If a facility participates in the federal program, it can’t use these or any other pharmacists or staffers to vaccinate, said Nicole Howell, executive director for Ombudsman Services of Contra Costa, Solano and Alameda counties.

But many nursing homes would like the flexibility to do so because they believe it would speed the process, help build trust and get more people to say yes to the vaccine, she said.

Howell pointed to West Virginia, which relied primarily on local, independent pharmacies instead of the federal program to vaccinate its nursing home residents.

The state opted against the partnership largely because CVS/Walgreens would have taken weeks to begin shots and Republican Gov. Jim Justice wanted them to start immediately, said Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Health Care Association, which represents the state’s long-term care facilities.

The bulk of the work is being done by more than 60 pharmacies, giving the state greater control over how the doses were distributed, Wright said. The pharmacies were joined by Walgreens in the second week, he said, though not as part of the federal partnership.

“We had more interest from local pharmacies than facilities we could partner them up with,” Wright said. Preliminary estimates show that more than 80% of residents and 60% of staffers in more than 200 homes got a first dose by the end of December, he said.

Goode from CVS said his company’s participation in the program is being led by its long-term care division, which has deep experience with nursing homes. He noted that tens of thousands of nursing homes — about 85% nationally, according to the CDC — have found that reassuring enough to participate.

“That underscores the trust the long-term care community has in CVS and Walgreens,” he said.

Vaccine recipients don’t pay anything out-of-pocket for the shots. The costs of purchasing and administering them are covered by the federal government and health insurance, which means CVS and Walgreens stand to make a lot of money: Medicare is reimbursing $16.94 for the first shot and $28.39 for the second.

Bureaucratic Delays

Technically, federal law doesn’t require nursing homes to obtain written consent for vaccinations.

But CVS and Walgreens require them to get verbal or written consent from residents or family members, which must be documented on forms supplied by the pharmacies.

Goode said consent hasn’t been an impediment so far, but many people on the ground disagree. The requirements have slowed the process as nursing homes collect paper forms and Medicare numbers from residents, said Tracy Greene Mintz, a social worker who owns Senior Care Training, which trains and deploys social workers in more than 100 facilities around California.

In some cases, social workers have mailed paper consent forms to families and waited to get them back, she said.

“The facilities are busy trying to keep residents alive,” Greene Mintz said. “If you want to get paid from Medicare, do your own paperwork,” she suggested to CVS and Walgreens.

Scheduling has also been a challenge for some nursing homes, partly because people who are actively sick with covid shouldn’t be vaccinated, the CDC advises.

“If something comes up — say, an entire building becomes covid-positive — you don’t want the pharmacists coming because nobody is going to get the vaccine,” said Taetz of Mariner Health.

Both pharmacy companies say they work with facilities to reschedule when necessary. That happened at Windsor Chico Creek Care and Rehabilitation in Chico, California, where a clinic was pushed back a day because the facility was awaiting covid test results for residents. Melissa Cabrera, who manages the facility’s infection control, described the process as streamlined and professional.

In Illinois, about 12,000 of the state’s roughly 55,000 nursing home residents had received their first dose by Sunday, mostly through the CVS/Walgreens partnership, said Matt Hartman, executive director of the Illinois Health Care Association.

While Hartman hopes the pharmacies will finish administering the first round by the end of the month, he noted that there’s a lot of “headache” around scheduling the clinics, especially when homes have outbreaks.

“Are we happy that we haven’t gotten through round one and West Virginia is done?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”

KHN correspondent Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Journalists Examine How Covid Polarizes Communities

California Healthline senior correspondent Anna Maria Barry-Jester discussed public health backlash on WABE’s “Did You Wash Your Hands?” on Jan. 5.


KHN Colorado correspondent Rae Ellen Bichell dissected how covid-19 exacerbates tensions between counties in Colorado on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” on Jan. 9.


KHN chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner talked about mental health care and the pandemic on WAMU/NPR’s “1A” on Jan. 11.

Related Topics

California Public Health

Geography Is Destiny: Dentists’ Access to Covid Shots Depends on Where They Live

Dr. Monte Junker, an Oregon dentist, is waiting for his turn to get vaccinated for covid even though he considers himself a front-line health worker.

“If they offered it to me today, I would be there,” he said.

In December, just before the first vaccines were cleared for emergency use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention immunization advisory board recommended that health care workers — as well as nursing home residents and staff members — be the first to be inoculated because of their high risks of infection.

But Oregon is one of a handful of states, including Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, that have put dentists lower in priority order than other health professionals who treat patients — even though they have their hands in people’s mouths and are exposed to aerosols that spray germs in their faces during procedures.

As a result, dentists in those states must wait while many of their peers got their shots in December.

Dr. Tam Le, president of the Connecticut State Dental Association, was vaccinated in December along with employees at his practice in Cheshire. He said he lobbied the state to include dentists with other front-line hospital and health workers.

“In Connecticut, we are doing really well,” he said, noting that the state set up an online registration system for eligible health workers and then contacted them about when and where they could get the vaccine. Le said he and his staff went to a nearby community health center for their shots.

Dentists gained goodwill from state officials last spring by donating gloves and masks to hospitals, Le said. They also offered to help administer the shots since they have experience with that.

States are increasingly diverging from CDC guidance in their vaccination plans, according to an analysis by KFF. “Timelines vary significantly across states, regardless of priority group, resulting in a vaccine rollout labyrinth across the country,” the report said. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The American Dental Association said it’s aware that the lack of a national immunization strategy has meant that dentists and their staffs are not being treated equally across the country.

The CDC advisory board included dentists when it recommended that front-line health workers get priority.

“Each state government’s approach to vaccination will be different based on populations and need, but all dental team members should be prioritized in the first-tier distribution as the vaccines roll out by the different state and county public health departments,” said Daniel Klemmedson, the ADA president. An oral surgeon in Arizona, he has been vaccinated.

In Florida, dentists and their staffs are included among front-line workers eligible for vaccines in the first wave, but a lack of supply has hindered some from getting their shots, according to Drew Eason, CEO of the Florida Dental Association. Some county health departments have also incorrectly turned dentists away, he added.

Dr. Cindy Roark, a Boca Raton dentist and chief clinical officer of Sage Dental, which has 15 offices in Florida and Georgia, said she has no idea when she’ll get vaccinated. She said Georgia dentists in her company have been vaccinated, while those in Florida must wait. The only exceptions appear to be the relatively few dentists affiliated with hospitals. “We are equally vulnerable,” she said.

Still, Roark said she is not upset. “I know I can protect myself,” she said, adding that her office staffers wear N95 masks, face shields and gloves to protect themselves and patients. “Most dentists feel completely safe running their practice and preventing transmission.”

Junker, regional dental director at Advantage Dental in The Dalles, Oregon, said he understands that intensive care staff members, emergency department workers and the elderly in nursing homes need the vaccine first.

“But we are definitely up there for the copious quantities of aerosol in our faces each day,” he said. “The atmosphere is highly concentrated” with virus.

He’s upset at the poor planning and coordination between states and the federal government to make dentists a priority.

In cases where hospital staffers are declining the vaccine because they don’t trust it, Junker said, hospitals should offer shots to dentists and others who are eager for them.

“I don’t think it’s fair for them to sit on the vaccine for a month or two. It needs to get used, and if the hospital workers later decide to get vaccinated, they can get back in line,” he said.

Dr. Stan Hardesty, a Raleigh, North Carolina, dentist and president of the state dental society, said it’s disappointing to see dentists in other states get the vaccine while he and his colleagues have been told to wait.

“We have been advocating on behalf of our members to have dentists and our team members included in phase 1a as recommended by the CDC,” he said. “Unfortunately, the decision-makers [in the state government] have decided to utilize a different prioritization in their vaccine implementation.”

North Carolina dentists will be in “phase 1b,” which includes adults 75 and older, essential workers such as police officers and firefighters.

When Covid Deaths Aren’t Counted, Families Pay the Price

On Sundays, Bishop Bruce Davis preached love. Through his Pentecostal ministry, he organized youth parades and gave computers, bicycles and food to families in need.

During the week, Bruce practiced what he preached, caring for prisoners at a Georgia hospital. On March 27 he began coughing, and on April 1 he was hospitalized. He’d tested positive for covid-19. The virus swept through his household, infecting his wife and daughter and hospitalizing their disabled son. Ten days after landing in the hospital, Bruce died.

But when Gwendolyn Davis received her husband’s death certificate, she was taken aback. The causes of death? Sepsis and renal failure. No mention of covid-19.

“He wouldn’t have had kidney failure if he didn’t have covid,” Gwendolyn said.

After Bruce died, his wife applied to two pandemic relief programs seeking help with $1,500 in missed payments on a truck and an electricity bill. But, she said, she was denied because his death certificate didn’t mention covid-19.

“I think it’s wrong,” Gwendolyn said. “It’s almost like we didn’t count.”

The count has profound implications for families and the country. Omitting covid-19 on death certificates threatens to undercount the toll of the pandemic nationwide. For Davis’ family and others, it can pile financial hardship onto emotional despair, as death benefits and other covid-19 relief programs are withheld. Interviews with families across the U.S. shed light on reasons covid deaths are being undercounted — and the consequences loved ones have endured.

When covid patients die, the “immediate” cause of death is always something else, such as respiratory failure or cardiac arrest. Residents, doctors, medical examiners and coroners make the call on whether covid was an underlying factor, or “contributory cause.” If so, the diagnosis should be included on the death certificate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even beyond the pandemic, there is wide variation in how certifiers describe causes of death: “There’s just no such thing as an objective measure of cause of death,” said Lee Anne Flagg, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Partly because of a lack of training in how to fill them out, “the quality of the death certificates is not good,” said Dr. James Gill, vice president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. And in cases in which people had other chronic conditions, it can be difficult to determine whether covid was a contributing cause of death, he said. That was especially true early on, when reliable testing was not widely available.

Since early in the pandemic, the CDC has encouraged certifiers who suspect covid as a cause of death to list it on the death certificate as “probable” or “likely.”

Still, some clinicians are “reluctant to certify a death as a covid death without a test in hand,” Gill said.

It’s not clear how Bruce Davis’ case slipped under the radar. His death was certified by William Ken Garland, deputy coroner in Baldwin County. Reached by phone, Garland said the causes of death were provided by Dr. Joseph Coppiano, a medical resident who pronounced Davis dead at Augusta University Medical Center, about 90 miles away. No autopsy was done.

“I did certify the record, but that’s about all I did,” Garland said.

Hospital spokesperson Danielle Harris declined to comment on the case, citing patient privacy. She said the hospital follows Georgia Department of Public Health guidelines.

In the absence of certainty, the CDC has encouraged coroners to document the virus. “We’re not worried that we’re overcounting the number of [covid-19] deaths,” Farida Ahmad, epidemiologist and mortality surveillance team leader at NCHS, said in April.

Missed cases are one reason that experts agree covid deaths are being undercounted nationwide. As evidence for that, they point to the vast number of excess deaths — additional deaths compared to what would be expected based on prior-year numbers and demographic trends.

Over the past year, the U.S. had endured up to 431,792 excess deaths as of Jan. 6, with 68% directly attributed to covid, according to the CDC.

These excess deaths “tend to track pretty closely with covid cases, trailing by a couple of weeks,” said Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health who has published on this topic. “This strongly suggests that a large proportion of these uncounted deaths are due to covid but not recorded as such.”

We may never know how many covid deaths went uncounted: Postmortem tests can detect the virus, but it’s “unlikely that this type of testing will be performed at a [sufficient] scale,” Weinberger said. Early in the pandemic, especially in the Northeast, many of those who were treated clinically for covid and then died were not tested for the virus — so they never made it into the statistics.

Testing Troubles Affect Lawsuits, Hospital Bills

Inaccurate death certificates can make it harder to pursue a lawsuit or win a workers’ compensation case when a loved one dies after contracting covid on the job. Gwendolyn Davis did win workers’ compensation death benefits from Bruce’s employer, a state psychiatric facility in Milledgeville, by providing medical records. But problems with covid testing can complicate the process.

Bruce’s supervisor at work, Mark DeLong, also died after contracting covid, but it did not appear on his death certificate with the other causes: cardiopulmonary arrest, respiratory failure and diabetes.

The omission on DeLong’s certificate seemed to stem from a delay in test results: His covid-positive results didn’t arrive until three days after he died, according to his widow, Jan DeLong. She has asked the local coroner to correct the record.

In New Jersey, attorney Paul da Costa represents 75 family members who lost loved ones at veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus in April and May. He said he knows of at least five patients whose death certificates did not list covid-19 despite evidence suggesting it killed them.

The root problem, he said, was a “complete dearth of testing.” Patients were transferred to hospitals, or dying in the veterans facilities, without ever being tested, he said.

The gap between excess deaths and confirmed covid deaths has “narrowed over time as testing has increased,” Weinberger said.

Early testing inaccuracy may also have led to undercounting, which creates a different burden: hospital bills. Without a diagnosis, families can be on the hook for thousands of dollars in charges that otherwise would have been covered under the CARES Act.

Correcting the Record

In some cases, families have sought to have death certificates changed to reflect covid. Dorothy Payton, 95, who lived in the ManorCare nursing home in Denver, first showed covid symptoms April 5. Five days later, Payton — known as “Nana Dee” — tested positive for it. And on April 13, her husband, Edward Benjamin, received a call that she had died.

The death certificate offered a litany of causes: vascular dementia, atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, gait instability, difficulty swallowing and “failure to thrive.”

But not covid-19. So it “seemed logical to fight for listing her cause of death under her cause of death,” Benjamin said.

After a few calls, her husband was able to get the certificate amended. ManorCare could not be reached for comment.

For Benjamin, it wasn’t about public health statistics or financial considerations. It simply offers a sense of closure.

“I want her life and death remembered the way it was, and I’m glad we set the record straight,” he said. “It’s the first step towards moving on.”

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

5 Reasons to Wear a Mask Even After You’re Vaccinated

As an emergency physician, Dr. Eugenia South was in the first group of people to receive a covid vaccine. She received her second dose last week  — even before President-elect Joe Biden.

Yet South said she’s in no rush to throw away her face mask.

“I honestly don’t think I’ll ever go without a mask at work again,” said South, faculty director of the Urban Health Lab at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe doing that.”

And although covid vaccines are highly effective, South plans to continue wearing her mask outside the hospital as well.

Health experts say there are good reasons to follow her example.

“Masks and social distancing will need to continue into the foreseeable future — until we have some level of herd immunity,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan. “Masks and distancing are here to stay.”

Malani and other health experts explained five reasons Americans should hold on to their masks:

1. No vaccine is 100% effective.

Large clinical trials found that two doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines prevented 95% of illnesses caused by the coronavirus. While those results are impressive, 1 in 20 people are left unprotected, said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Malani notes that vaccines were tested in controlled clinical trials at top medical centers, under optimal conditions.

In the real world, vaccines are usually slightly less effective. Scientists use specific terms to describe the phenomenon. They refer to the protection offered by vaccines in clinical trials as “efficacy,” while the actual immunity seen in a vaccinated population is “effectiveness.”

The effectiveness of covid vaccines could be affected by the way they’re handled, Malani said. The genetic material used in mRNA vaccines — made with messenger RNA from the coronavirus — is so fragile that it has to be carefully stored and transported.

Any variation from the CDC’s strict guidance could influence how well vaccines work, Malani said.

2. Vaccines don’t provide immediate protection.

No vaccine is effective right away, Malani said. It takes about two weeks for the immune system to make the antibodies that block viral infections.

Covid vaccines will take a little longer than other inoculations, such as the flu shot, because both the Moderna and Pfizer products require two doses. The Pfizer shots are given three weeks apart; the  Moderna shots, four weeks apart.

In other words, full protection won’t arrive until five or six weeks after the first shot. So, a person vaccinated on New Year’s Day won’t be fully protected until Valentine’s Day.

3. Covid vaccines may not prevent you from spreading the virus.

Vaccines can provide two levels of protection. The measles vaccine prevents viruses from causing infection, so vaccinated people don’t spread the infection or develop symptoms.

Most other vaccines — including flu shots — prevent people from becoming sick but not from becoming infected or passing the virus to others, said Dr. Paul Offit, who advises the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration on covid vaccines.

While covid vaccines clearly prevent illness, researchers need more time to figure out whether they prevent transmission, too, said Phoenix-based epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor in the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

“We don’t yet know if the vaccine protects against infection, or only against illness,” said Frieden, now CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health initiative. “In other words, a vaccinated person might still be able to spread the virus, even if they don’t feel sick.”

Until researchers can answer that question, Frieden said, wearing masks is the safest way for vaccinated people to protect those around them.

4. Masks protect people with compromised immune systems.

People with cancer are at particular risk from covid. Studies show they’re more likely  than others to become infected and die from the virus, but may not be protected by vaccines, said Dr. Gary Lyman, a professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Cancer patients are vulnerable in multiple ways. People with lung cancer are less able to fight off pneumonia, while those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment have weakened immune systems. Leukemia and lymphoma attack immune cells directly, which makes it harder for patients to fight off the virus.

Doctors don’t know much about how people with cancer will respond to vaccines, because they were excluded from randomized trials, Lyman said. Only a handful of study participants were diagnosed with cancer after enrolling. Among those people, covid vaccines protected only 76%.

Although the vaccines appear safe, “prior studies with other vaccines raise concerns that immunosuppressed patients, including cancer patients, may not mount as great an immune response as healthy patients,” Lyman said. “For now, we should assume that patients with cancer may not experience the 95% efficacy.”

Some people aren’t able to be vaccinated.

While most people with allergies can receive covid vaccines safely, the CDC advises those who have had severe allergic reactions to vaccine ingredients, including polyethylene glycol, to avoid vaccination. The agency also warns people who have had dangerous allergic reactions to a first vaccine dose to skip the second.

Lyman encourages people to continue wearing masks to protect those with cancer and others who won’t be fully protected.

5. Masks protect against any strain of the coronavirus, in spite of genetic mutations.

Global health leaders are extremely concerned about new genetic variants of the coronavirus, which appear to be at least 50% more contagious than the original.

So far, studies suggest vaccines will still work against these new strains.

One thing is clear: Public health measures — such as avoiding crowds, physical distancing and masks — reduce the risk of contracting all strains of the coronavirus, as well as other respiratory diseases, Frieden said. For example, the number of flu cases worldwide has been dramatically lower since countries began asking citizens to stay home and wear masks.

“Masks will remain effective,” Malani said. “But careful and consistent use will be essential.”

The best hope for ending the pandemic isn’t to choose between masks, physical distancing and vaccines, Offit said, but to combine them. “The three approaches work best as a team,” he said.

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: On Capitol Hill, Actions Have Consequences


Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.


The reverberations from the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump continue. A broad array of business groups, including many from the health industry, are halting contributions to Republicans in the House and Senate who voted against certifying the victory of President-elect Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House who have refused to wear masks or insisted on carrying weapons are being subjected to greater enforcement, including significant fines.

Away from the Capitol, the Trump administration has granted a first-in-the-nation waiver to Tennessee to turn its Medicaid program into a block grant, which would give the state potentially less federal money but more flexibility to structure the federal-state health program for those with low incomes. And in its waning days, the administration is moving to make its last-minute policies harder for Biden to undo.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times and Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The decision by industry groups to cut their political contributions to some Republican lawmakers could reshape businesses’ relationships on Capitol Hill. But it’s still not clear if this announcement will affect the vast sums of political contributions that come through PACs and other unnamed sources, as well as individual contributions from corporate officials.
  • The slow start of the covid vaccination campaign points to the tension between the need to steer the vaccine to people at high risk of contracting the disease and the concerns about wasting the precious medicine. Because the vaccines that have been approved for emergency use have a relatively short shelf life, some doses may go to waste if they are reserved for specific populations.
  • The response to the vaccine among health care workers varies widely. In some areas, staffers are eager to get the shots, while in other places, some workers have been hesitant and the shots are going unused. And the federal government has not provided a strong public messaging campaign about the vaccines.
  • The Trump administration’s announcement last week that it would move to convert Tennessee’s Medicaid program to a block grant program is raising concerns among advocates for the poor, who fear that the flexibility the state is gaining could lead to enrollees getting less care, especially since the state will get a hefty portion of any savings it finds in running the program.
  • It may not be easy for the Biden administration to change this decision. Federal officials in recent weeks have been sending states, including Tennessee, letters to sign that could protect the Medicaid waivers they have received from the Trump administration and could serve as a legal guarantee that would require a long, difficult process to unwind.
  • Mental health care may be a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. As states look to balance their budgets after a year in which revenues were slashed, they may turn to cutting mental health care services provided through Medicaid and other programs.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Victoria Knight, who wrote the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature — about an unusually large bill for in-network care. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week that they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Young ER doctors Risk Their Lives on the Pandemic’s Front Line. But They Struggle to Find Jobs,” by Ben Guarino

Margot Sanger-Katz: The New York Times’ “Why You’re Probably Not So Great at Risk Assessment,” by AC Shilton

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks?” by Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard

Kimberly Leonard: Business Insider’s “I Was Offered a Covid Vaccine Even Though I’m Young and Healthy. Here’s How I Did It,” by Kimberly Leonard


To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

Delicate Covid Vaccines Slow Rollout — Leading to Shots Given Out of Turn or, Worse, Wasted

For Heather Suri, a registered nurse in Virginia, the race to vaccinate Americans against covid has thrown up some unprecedented obstacles.

The vaccines themselves are delicate and require a fair bit of focus over time. Consider Moderna’s instructions for preparing its doses: Select the number of shots that will be given. Thaw the vials for 2.5 hours in a refrigerator set between 36 and 46 degrees. Then rest them at room temperature for 15 minutes. Do not refreeze. Swirl gently between each withdrawal. Do not shake. Inspect each vial for particulate matter or discoloration. Store any unused vaccine in refrigeration.

And then there’s this: Once open, a vial is good for only six hours. As vaccines go, that’s not very long. Some flu vaccine keeps almost a month.

“This is very different, administering this vaccine. The process, it takes a whole lot longer than any mass vaccination event that I’ve been involved with,” said Suri, a member of the Loudoun Medical Reserve Corps who joined her first clinic Dec. 28, to vaccinate first responders.

Of the first two covid vaccines on the market, Moderna’s is considered more user-friendly. Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot must be stored in specialized freezers at 94 degrees below zero. Once out of deep freeze, it lasts just five days, compared with 30 days for Moderna’s.

One thing the shots have in common: They last a paltry six hours once the first dose is removed from a vial. That short shelf life raises the stakes for the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history by forcing clinicians to anticipate the exact number of doses they’ll need each day. If they don’t get it right, precious stores of vaccine may go to waste.

During one recent clinic over several hours, Suri estimated she gave “maybe 25” shots, many fewer than the number of flu shots she’s given during similar clinics over the years.

With covid, she said, “the vaccine itself slows things down.”

The slow rollout has frustrated people who at Thanksgiving imagined millions of vaccines in arms by Christmas. Promises that 20 million would be vaccinated by New Year’s fell well short: Just 2.8 million had the first of two required shots by the end of December, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health officials say many factors are at play, including a shortage of workers trained to administer shots, covid protocols that require physical distancing at clinics and vaccine allocation numbers from the federal government that fluctuate by the week.

And then there are the logistics of the first covid vaccines, which are complex and make hyper-vigilant practitioners wary of opening too many vials over the course of each day, for fear that anything unused will have to be tossed. Vaccine providers also report wasted or spoiled doses to public health authorities.

“If you get to the end of your clinic and every nurse has half a vial left, what are you going to do with that vaccine?” Suri said. “The clock is ticking. You don’t want to waste those doses.”

That impulse has led some health personnel to make dramatic decisions at the end of a day: calling non-front-line health workers or offering shots to whoever is at hand in, say, a grocery store, instead of scrambling to find the health workers and residents of nursing homes in the government’s first tier for injections.

“We jumped and ran and got the vaccine,” said Dr. Mark Hathaway, an OB-GYN in the District of Columbia who received the first dose of a Moderna vaccine on Dec. 26 along with his wife, a registered nurse specializing in nutrition. Both clinicians received vaccines faster than anticipated at a Unity Health Care clinic when there were extra doses because fewer front-line health care workers than expected showed up.

“Health care workers have been priority 1a, so our first attempt has always been our staff,” said Dr. Jessica Boyd, Unity Health Care’s chief medical officer. Since then, the community health center network has broadened its criteria for extra doses to include staff members or high-risk patients visiting a clinic, she said.

Health officials encourage using the doses to get as many Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible. Public health experts say the need to vaccinate people is especially urgent as a new and more contagious variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom is showing up in multiple states. Some states, including New York and California, have loosened their guidelines on who can get vaccinated after an outcry over health care providers throwing away doses that didn’t meet officials’ strict criteria.

The tiers “are simply recommendations, and they should never stand in the way of getting shots in arms instead of keeping vaccine in the freezer or wasting vaccine in the vial,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Jan. 6, referring to CDC guidelines saying health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities should be first in line, then people at least 75 years old. The Trump administration this week also said it would make more shots available by releasing second doses and urged states to broaden rules to allow anyone 65 or older and any resident with a serious medical condition to get a shot.

Pfizer-BioNTech’s ultra-cold storage requirements have made it less ideal for local public health departments and rural areas.

Both of the available vaccines arrive in multidose vials — Pfizer-BioNTech’s contains about five doses, Moderna’s 10. Neither contains preservatives and they are viable for only six months frozen. By contrast, during the H1N1 pandemic roughly a decade ago, the swine flu vaccines lasted 18 weeks to 18 months, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in a May 2010 letter to then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“We can’t get the vaccine out fast enough; we have people dying. But, at the same time, we have to get it right,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.

The added risk of losing doses due to quick expiration is another thing “causing angst,” Hannan said. “You can’t just draw it up and let it sit. It can’t just sit out like that.”

The Trump administration fell significantly short of its promise that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of December, partly the result of a disjointed and underfunded public health system that has received limited guidance from federal officials. As of Jan. 11, 25.5 million vaccine doses had been distributed nationwide but only 9 million administered, according to the CDC.

Federal officials have released sparse data about who is getting vaccinated, but state information has shown significant variation in vaccination rates depending on the facility. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 4 said New York City’s public hospital system had used only 31% of its allocated vaccines, while private health systems NewYork-Presbyterian and Northwell Health had used 99% and 62%, respectively.

“When you target a priority group, it’s inefficient. When you open it up to a larger group, it’s efficient … but you’re not going to have enough supply,” Hannan said. “You still have the challenge of getting those health care workers vaccinated and no matter any way you slice it, you still have limited supply. You can’t please everyone.”

While Pfizer’s vaccine has largely been earmarked for large institutions like hospitals and nursing homes, Moderna’s has been more widely distributed to smaller sites like public health departments and clinics run by volunteers. State and local officials have begun or will soon vaccinate other priority populations, including police officers, teachers and other K-12 school employees, and seniors overall.

Unlike the covid vaccines, many flu vaccines come in prefilled syringes — each syringe’s cap is removed only when a shot is given, which speeds the process and eases some concerns about storage. However, relying on prefilled syringes during a pandemic has its own complications, according to Michael Watson, former president of Valera, a Moderna subsidiary: They take up more fridge space. They’re more expensive. And they can’t be used for frozen products, he said.

“For all these reasons, a vial was the best and only option,” he said.

In Ohio, Eric Zgodzinski, health commissioner for Toledo-Lucas County, said two-thirds of first responders the county surveyed said they would get the vaccine. Still, he said, his department has encountered situations in which a covid vaccine dose is left over in an open vial and officials have turned to a waiting list to find someone who can arrive within minutes to get a jab.

His department also has an internal running list of potential vaccine takers, including health department staffers, people in congregate care settings or those who had scheduled vaccination appointments for later on.

“We’re not going to open up a vial for one individual and figure out nine other people right away,” said Zgodzinski, whose department planned to distribute 2,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine the week of Jan. 4.

“If I have one dose left, who can I give it to?” he added. “A shot in the arm for anybody is better than it being wasted.”

San Francisco editor Arthur Allen and senior correspondent JoNel Aleccia contributed to this report.

Vaccination Disarray Leaves Seniors Confused About When They Can Get a Shot

For weeks, doctors’ phones have been ringing off the hook with anxious older patients on the other end of the line.

“When can I get a covid-19 vaccine?” these patients want to know. “And where?”

Frustration and confusion are rampant as states and counties begin to offer vaccines to all seniors after giving them first to front-line health care workers and nursing home residents — the groups initially given priority by state and federal authorities.

My 91-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in upstate New York, was one of those callers. She said her doctor’s office told her it could be several months before she can get her first shot.

That was before New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that the state would begin offering vaccines to residents age 75 and older starting Monday. On Tuesday, the state changed vaccine policies again, this time making residents 65 and older eligible.

In this chaotic environment, with covid cases and deaths skyrocketing and distribution systems in a state of disarray, it’s difficult to get up-to-date, reliable information. Many older adults don’t know where to turn for help.

Since the holidays, I’ve heard from dozens of people frustrated by poorly informed staffers at physicians’ offices, difficult-to-navigate state and county websites, and burdensome or malfunctioning sign-up arrangements. Below are some questions they posed, with answers drawn from interviews with experts and other sources, that may prove helpful.

Keep in mind that states, counties and cities have varying policies, and this is a rapidly shifting landscape with many uncertainties. Foremost among them are questions regarding vaccine supply: how many doses will become available to states and when and how those will be allocated.

Q: How can I make an appointment to get a vaccine? — James Vanderhye, 77, Denver

Vanderhye is a throat cancer survivor who suffers from sarcoidosis of the lungs and heart — an inflammatory disease.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced on Dec. 30 that residents 70 and older could start getting covid vaccines, but Vanderhye wasn’t sure whether he needed to sign up somewhere or whether he’d be contacted by his physicians — a common source of confusion.

UCHealth, the system where Vanderhye’s doctors practice, has created a registry of patients 70 and older and is randomly selecting them for appointments, Dr. Jean Kutner, its chief medical officer told me. It’s reaching out to patients through its electronic patient portal and is planning to notify those who don’t respond by phone down the line. Then, it’s up to patients to finalize arrangements.

Nearly 200,000 people 70 and older are patients at UCHealth’s hospitals and clinics in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

TIPS: Although some health systems such as UCHealth are contacting patients, don’t assume that will happen. In most cases, it appears, you will need to take the initiative.

Check with the physician’s office, hospital or medical clinic where you usually receive care. Many institutions (though not all) are posting information about covid vaccines on their websites. Some have set up phone lines.

Some health systems are willing to vaccinate anyone who signs up, not just their patients. Kaiser Permanente, which operates in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia and Maryland, is among them, according to Dr. Craig Robbins, co-leader of its national covid vaccination program. (Within the next few weeks, it will post an online registration tool on plan websites.) Check with major hospitals or health systems in your area to see what they’re doing. (KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Most places are asking people to sign up online for appointments; some sites require multiple steps and their systems may seem hard to use. If you don’t have a computer or you aren’t comfortable using one, ask a younger family member, friend or neighbor for help. Similarly, ask for help if you aren’t fluent in English.

If you can’t figure out how to sign up online, call your local county health department, Area Agency on Aging or county department on aging and ask for assistance. Every state has a covid-19 hotline; see if the hotline can direct you to a call center that’s taking appointments. Be prepared for long waits; phone lines are jammed.

Q: My mother has stage 3 renal failure, high blood pressure and dementia. She’s unable to take care of herself or be left alone. When can I get her vaccinated with the COVID shot? — Wendy, 61, Chandler, Arizona

Wendy had checked Maricopa County’s website days before we talked on Jan. 5 and couldn’t figure out when her 84-year-old mother might get a vaccine appointment. The week before, her 90-year-old father died, alone, of renal failure complicated by pneumonia in a nursing home.

Three days after our conversation, Maricopa County announced that people 75 and older could start making appointments to be vaccinated on a “first-come, first-served” basis on Monday, Jan. 11. (The state’s appointment site is https://podvaccine.azdhs.gov/; callers should try 844-542-8201 or 211, according to information provided by the county.)

In Arizona, “it’s up to each county to come up and execute a plan for vaccine distribution,” said Dana Kennedy, state director of AARP Arizona.

Demand is high and vaccine supplies are limited, other places have found. For example, on Jan. 7, a 1,200-slot vaccine clinic in Oklahoma City for adults 65 and older filled up within four minutes, according to Molly Fleming, a public information officer at the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

“Once we get more vaccine supplies coming more frequently, we will do more clinics,” Fleming said. “The challenge we have right now is, we need the vaccine and we don’t know when it’s coming in.”

TIPS: Consult AARP’s state-by-state covid vaccine guides, focused on older adults and updated daily. (To access, go to https://www.aarp.org/coronavirus/. In the right-hand column, click on “the vaccine in your state.”) More than 20 states are listed there now, but guides for all states should be available by the end of January.

Meanwhile, check local media and your county’s and state’s health department websites regularly for fresh information about covid vaccine distribution plans.

On Monday, for example, Washington, D.C., unveiled a new vaccination registration site for residents 65 and older and health care workers. The week before, Illinois announced it would extend vaccines to residents 65 and older when it moved into the next phase of its vaccination plan, and the city of Chicago followed suit. The timetable for those transitions remains unclear.

Be prepared to be patient as problems with distribution surface. States and counties around the country are learning from problems that have arisen in places such as Florida — crashed phone lines, long lines of older adults waiting outdoors, massive confusion. It may take some time, but vaccine rollouts should become smoother as more sites come online and supplies become more readily available.

Q: When can a 72-year-old male with chronic lymphocytic leukemia expect to be vaccinated at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California? — Barry

California last week announced that counties that have made significant progress and have adequate supplies can move toward offering vaccines to residents 75 and older.

How soon this will happen isn’t clear yet; it will vary by location. But even then, Barry wouldn’t qualify immediately since he’s only 72 and it could take several months for vaccines to become available to people in his age group (65 to 74), said Robbins, who’s helping lead Kaiser Permanente’s vaccination program.

Barry is at especially high risk of doing poorly if he develops covid because of the type of cancer he has — leukemia. But, for the most part, medical conditions are not being taken into account in the initial stages of vaccine distribution around the country.

An exception is the Mayo Clinic. It’s identifying patients at highest risk of getting severe infections, being hospitalized and dying from covid at the Mayo Clinic Health System, a network of physician practices, clinics and hospitals in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. When states allow older adults outside of long-term care institutions to start getting vaccines, it will offer them first to patients at highest risk, said Dr. Abinash Virk, co-chair for Mayo Clinic’s vaccine rollout.

TIPS: Even if vaccines aren’t available right away, production is increasing, new products are in the pipeline, and new ways of distributing vaccines — notably mass distribution sites — are being planned. If you have to wait several weeks or months, don’t give up. Persistence is worth the effort, given the vaccine’s benefits.

California Counties ‘Flying the Plane as We Build It’ in a Plodding Vaccine Rollout

In these first lumbering weeks of the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, Dr. Julie Vaishampayan has had a battlefront view of a daunting logistical operation.

Vaishampayan is the health officer in Stanislaus County, an almond-growing mecca in California’s Central Valley that has recorded about 40,000 cases of covid-19 and lost 700 people to the illness. Her charge is to see that potentially lifesaving covid shots make it into the arms of 550,000 residents.

And like her dozens of counterparts across the state, she is improvising as she goes.

From week to week, Vaishampayan has no idea how many new doses of covid vaccines will be delivered until just days before they arrive, complicating advance planning for mass inoculation clinics. The inoculation clinics themselves can be a bureaucratic slog, as county staffers verify the identities and occupations of people coming in for shots to ensure strict compliance with the state’s multitiered hierarchy of eligibility. In these early days, the county also has provided vaccines to some area hospitals so they can inoculate health care workers, but the state system for tracking whether and how those doses are administered has proven clumsy.

With relatively little help from the federal government, each state has built its own vaccination rollout plan. In California, where public health is largely a county-level operation, the same departments managing testing and contact tracing for an out-of-control epidemic are leading the effort. That puts an already beleaguered workforce at the helm of yet another time-consuming undertaking. A lack of resources and limited planning by the federal and state governments have made it that much harder to get operations up and running.

“We are flying the plane as we are building it,” said Jason Hoppin, a spokesperson for Santa Cruz County. ”All of these logistical pieces are just a huge puzzle to work out.”

It’s a massive enterprise. Counties must figure out who falls where in the state’s multitiered system for eligibility, locate vaccination sites, hire vaccinators, notify workforce groups when they are eligible, schedule appointments, verify identities, then track distribution and immunizations administered.

Some of that burden has been eased by a federal program that is contracting with major pharmacies Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate people living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as a California mechanism that allows some large multicounty health care providers to order vaccines directly. As of this week, some smaller clinics and doctors’ offices also can get vaccine directly from the state.

But much of the job falls on health departments, the only entities required by law to protect the health of every Californian. And they are doing it amid pressures from the state to prevent people from skipping the line and a public eager to know why the rollout isn’t happening faster.

As of Monday, only a third of the nearly 2.5 million doses allocated to California counties and health systems had been administered, according to the most recent state data available. Gov. Gavin Newsom has acknowledged the rollout has “gone too slowly.” Health directors counter it’s the best that could be expected given the short planning timeline, limited vaccine available and other strictures.

“I would not call this rollout slow,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California. “This isn’t the same as a flu vaccine clinic where all you have to do is roll up your sleeve and someone gives you a shot.”

It has been one month since the first vaccines arrived in California, and just over five weeks since the state first outlined priority groups for vaccinations, then passed the ball to counties to devise ways to execute the plan.

Like most states, California opened its rollout with strict rules about the order of distribution. The first phase prioritized nursing home residents and hospital staffs before expanding to other broad categories of health care workers. In the weeks after the vaccines first arrived, state officials made clear that providers could be penalized if they gave vaccinations to people not in those initial priority groups.

Multiple counties said there had been little in the way of line-skipping, but stray reports in the media or complaints sent directly to community officials need to be chased down, wasting precious public health resources. The same goes for reports of vaccine doses being thrown away. One of the vaccines in circulation, once removed from ultra-cold storage, must be used within five days or discarded.

State officials have since loosened their rules, telling counties and providers to do their best to adhere to the tiers, but not to waste doses. On Jan. 7, California officials told counties they could vaccinate anyone in “phase 1a,” expanding beyond the first priority group of nursing homes and hospitals to nearly everyone in a health-related job. Once that wide-ranging category is finished, counties were supposed to move to “phase 1b,” which unfolds with its own set of tiers, starting with people 75 and older, educators, child care workers, providers of emergency services, and food and agricultural workers before expanding to all people 65 and older.

Mariposa and San Francisco both said they would be vaccinating people in the first 1b categories this week. That means residents will start seeing inequities among counties, said DeBurgh, noting that some counties had not yet received enough vaccine doses to cover health care workers while others are nearly finished. Stanislaus County, for example, had received approximately 16,000 first doses as of Jan. 9, but estimates it has between 35,000 and 40,000 health care workers phase 1a.

And the orders are changing yet again, forcing counties to pivot. On Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration would begin releasing more of its vaccine supply, holding onto fewer vials for second doses; and he encouraged states to open up vaccinations to everyone age 65 and older. In response, California officials said Wednesday that once counties are done with phase 1a, people 65 and older are in the next group eligible for vaccines.

Some local health directors expressed dismay at the prospect, saying they welcome the influx of vaccines but need to prioritize people 75 and older who represent the bulk of hospitalizations. They also noted that states already offering broader access have had their own challenges, including flooded health department phone lines, crashed websites and fragile seniors camping out overnight in hopes of securing their place in line.

While sensible in theory, California’s phased approach to the rollout has proved cumbersome when it comes to verifying that people showing up for shots fall under the umbrella groups deemed eligible. In Stanislaus, for example, 6,600 people qualify as in-home support workers. Someone from another county department has to sit with health department staffers to verify their eligibility, since the health department doesn’t have access to official data on who is a qualified member of the group.

Complicating matters, about half the county’s in-home workers are caring for a family member, and many are bringing that person with them to get vaccinated. The county is required to turn those family members away if they don’t meet the eligibility criteria, Vaishampayan said.

A range of other hiccups hampered the rollout. Across the state, uptake of vaccination slowed to a crawl from Christmas to New Year’s. Health workers, particularly those who do not work in hospitals, were on vacation and enjoying a few days off with family after a tough year, several county officials said. Many chose not to get vaccinated during that time.

Others are choosing not to get vaccinated at all. Across the state, health care workers are declining vaccinations in large numbers. The health officer for Riverside County has said 50% of hospital workers there have declined the vaccine.

And in Los Angeles and Sonoma, officials described software challenges that prevented them from quickly enrolling doctors’ offices to receive vaccines and perform injections.

Still, statewide, officials said they were confident that the pace would pick up in the coming days, as more doses arrive, data snags get sorted out and more vaccination sites come on board. Los Angeles County announced this week it would convert Dodger Stadium and a Veterans Affairs site from mass testing sites into mass vaccination clinics. Similar plans are underway at Petco Park in San Diego and the Disneyland Resort in Orange County. Officials hope Dodger Stadium alone can handle up to 12,000 people a day.

The move solves one problem, but potentially exacerbates another: The two Los Angeles sites have been testing 87,000 people a week, according to Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services director. That will put new constraints on testing, even as covid cases in the nation’s most populous county continue to rise and hospitals are beyond capacity.

In Search of a Baby, I Got Covid Instead

As a health care journalist in Los Angeles reporting on the pandemic, I knew exactly what I needed to do once I landed in the hospital with covid pneumonia: write my goodbye emails.

I’d seen coverage of some final covid messages during this terrible year. They were usually directed to spouses, but my No. 1 concern was how to explain my own death to my 3-year-old, Marigold, whom we call “Goldie.” How much of me would she remember, and how would she make peace with what happened to me, when I could barely believe it myself?

After the emergency room doctor confirmed pneumonia in both of my lungs on Dec. 17, I was whisked upstairs to the hospital’s covid unit, where I got a blood thinner injection, infusions of steroids and remdesivir, and continued on the supplemental oxygen they had started in the ER.

Immediately after the treatments, my mind was clearer and more focused than it had been in the nine days since my husband, daughter and I had all received positive covid results (and when my raging fevers began). As I lay in my hospital bed, my roommate’s TV blaring, I started thinking about my daughter’s understanding of death. A lapsed evangelical married to a Jewish man, I had adopted his family’s perspective on the afterlife — that discussing it wasn’t very important — but had also inadvertently abdicated the death discussion to Hollywood.

Goldie’s afterlife education began with the movie “Coco,” about the Mexican Day of the Dead, in which families put pictures of their ancestors on a home altar, or ofrenda. Then came “Over the Moon,” in 2020, about a little girl in China who loses her mom to illness and struggles to accept a new stepmother, all while her mom’s spirit visits her in the form of a crane.

That prompted her first question about my death.

“Are you going to die like Fei Fei’s mom did?” Goldie asked me in November, before I got sick. I told her at the time that no one knows when they’re going to die, but that I would love her with all of my heart for as long as I lived.

After that, Goldie would sometimes randomly declare, “I don’t think you’re going to die,” or she would ask if we could all die together, at the same time — to which I’d say, “Sure!”

My covid symptoms started Dec. 7, and we got our positive results back the next morning. Thankfully, my husband and daughter had almost no symptoms except stuffy noses and a day of low fever. But I started off with a fever that would burn me up to 104 degrees, over and over again. Tylenol and Advil could bring it down only to 100 or 101. I would cry as the painful fevers reached their peak and wondered if God had been preparing Goldie all along this year for my eventual death.

My breathing problems began eight days later. The scariest moment during that time was when I was in the middle of a shower (much needed after days of sweaty fevers) and realized I was gasping for air. I punched the shower curtains out of my way and ran to my bed, where I could lie on my stomach and get my oxygen levels up again. As I lay there, hyperventilating, soaking wet, with shampoo still in my hair, the pulse oximeter monitor registered 67, before inching back up to 92. I began thinking of what I wanted to say to Goldie in my final letter to her, but I was too weak to type it out.

This sped-up video shows Anna proning on a bean bag and pillows in order to keep her oxygen saturation levels in the 90s. Anna lived like this for two days before being hospitalized. (Simon Ganz)

How to explain hubris, or was it foolhardiness, to a toddler? That in our loving quest to give her a “forever friend,” a sibling to grow up with and play with and fight with and commiserate with, my husband and I had been like two moths circling a flame, ramping up our fertility treatments even as the pandemic picked up speed in Los Angeles?

But here was my thinking: I’m 35, I want a second child, we’re very infertile, and we don’t have time to waste. This was my secret driving force in 2020, even as my colleagues reported on how elective medical procedures were siphoning resources and PPE from the covid effort, and how patients were avoiding medical appointments of all kinds to avoid accidental exposure to the coronavirus.

I also thought that I should be using this pandemic year “productively.” And what could be more productive than reproduction? I wanted to use my time wisely by growing another human being while we were all stuck indoors and blessed with jobs we could perform from home.

In March, I had a procedure to remove some uterine polyps to prepare for an embryo transfer. Back then, covid cases weren’t being regularly reported.

Anna and Goldie on Mother’s Day. At that point in the year, Anna was undergoing fertility treatments to prepare for a future embryo transfer. (Simon Ganz)

Two more uterine procedures led to a successful embryo transfer, but a miscarriage put me in the ER on Oct. 8. By then, Los Angeles County had seen 278,665 cases and 6,726 deaths — horrifying numbers that I monitored and reported on as a health journalist, but data points I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, use to alter the decision-making in my own life.

With four miscarriages now under my belt and no more viable embryos left to use, my husband, Simon, and I decided we’d give in vitro fertilization one final try. I started my injections for an egg retrieval in late November, and by the time the procedure rolled around on Dec. 3, L.A. was well into its scary, almost vertical holiday season ascent, posting 7,854 new cases that day — up fivefold from a month earlier.

A close friend was supposed to start her IVF injections at the same time, but she decided to postpone at the last minute because covid cases were so high in our area. By that point, we were so driven in our pursuing of pregnancy that I was startled to hear her say that, as the thought had never even crossed my mind.

I have no way of knowing for sure if I was exposed to the virus sometime during this last fertility treatment. The surgical center is located on a large medical campus that also hosts a covid-19 testing drive-thru in the garage where we parked. We waited, masks on, for almost an hour outside the building, which we thought was a safer choice than the fertility clinic waiting room, but that actually put us in proximity to a lot of sick people waiting for rides home.

I also had to remove my mask just before the actual egg retrieval, because I was under anesthesia and the doctors needed quick access to my mouth in case I needed a breathing tube.

Five days after the egg retrieval, we found out we were covid-positive. I called the clinic right away to warn them; the fertility doctor told me a few days later that none of her staffers had gotten sick. And also that none of the eggs they retrieved from me had developed properly. We had no embryos to use.

Of course, as anyone who has done fertility treatments knows, all the dangers and risks we undertook would have been “worth it” if it had worked. Because it didn’t work for us, I felt defeated and foolish.

In sum, we wanted to give Goldie a sibling, but attempting to do so may have been what threatened her mother’s life. This thought haunts me and will stay with me forever, even though I’ll never know how exactly the virus entered our home.

Our nanny, who also experienced covid symptoms and tested positive three days before us, could have picked it up at the supermarket. We could have gotten it from her or while walking around our neighborhood or playing in the park. But the act of choosing, over and over again, to engage in fertility treatments as the pandemic raged on, fills me with doubt and remorse.

This was all too much to put in my goodbye letter to Goldie. Instead, this is some of what I wrote:

Around Halloween, you and I were eating breakfast together and I asked you how your life was going, and if there were any improvements I could make for you. You said, with absolute seriousness, “I’m afraid of ghosts.”

Now that I’m a ghost, I hope there’s less reason to be afraid.

Please put my picture on the ofrenda once a year. I’ll always be in your heart and in your memories. I will try to visit you too. But not in a spooky way, just a gentle way.

I will always love you. Thank you so much for being born to us. You made everything better.

After finishing my goodbye letter, I went to sleep. In the morning, I woke up, got a second infusion of steroids and remdesivir, and then was released home with oxygen tanks and an oxygen concentrator. I stayed in bed, on oxygen, for another week before my lungs were strong enough for me to stand and walk on my own. We had a wonderful Christmas morning together opening presents during a Zoom call with my family. Other than fatigue, I am now almost back to normal.

After the holidays, I sat down with Goldie for breakfast as we usually do. Feeling morose about how the year had turned out, I asked, dreading her response, if she would like to have a baby brother or sister one day.

Anna and Goldie on Aug. 27, 2020, about one month before the embryo transfer that ended in miscarriage. (Simon Ganz)
Simon Ganz, Goldie and Anna pose for a picture on New Year’s Eve. By then, Anna had been off oxygen for three days and was quickly regaining strength. (Simon Ganz)

She put her hand on my neck and pressed her forehead into mine, a face-to-face embrace that we call a “pumpkin hug.”

“No, Mom,” she said. “I want it to be just you and me, forever.”

I took a deep breath, and then sighed with relief.

Hospitals’ Rocky Rollout of Covid Vaccine Sparks Questions of Fairness

Last week, after finishing inoculations of some front-line hospital staff, Jupiter Medical Center was left with 40 doses of precious covid vaccine. So, officials offered shots to the South Florida hospital’s board of directors and their spouses over age 65.

But that decision sparked outrage among workers left unvaccinated, including those at one of the hospital’s urgent care clinics, or who believe the hospital was currying favor with wealthy insiders before getting all its staffers protected, according to a hospital employee who spoke on the condition of not being named.

The move also prompted dozens of calls from donors looking to get vaccinated.

The hospital received 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine two days before Christmas, fewer than half of what it requested from the state to cover its workforce. Officials prioritized delivering the vaccine to front-line medical workers who requested it, performing inoculations on Christmas Eve or the holiday weekends.

Patti Patrick, a hospital vice president, said the hospital acted appropriately in its offerings of the vaccine, which has a short shelf life once vials are opened. Neither she nor other administrators who don’t work directly with patients were included in this first round of shots.

“This was a simple way to move 40 doses very quickly” before it spoiled, she said.

She added that all front-line staff from the health system, including the clinics, were given the opportunity to get the shots.

Jupiter is not the only hospital in the nation facing questions about its handling of the vaccines. The initial rollout — aimed at health care workers and nursing home residents — has been uneven at best because of a lack of a federal strategy on how it should work, with states, hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies often making decisions on their own about who gets vaccinated and when.

In some hospitals, administrators and other personnel who have no contact with patients or face no risk at work from the virus are getting shots, while patients — and even front-line staff — who are at heightened risk for covid complications are being passed by. Some administrators who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic have been vaccinated, especially at hospitals that decided to allocate doses by age group rather than exposure risk.

Although states and federal health groups laid out broad guidelines on how to prioritize who gets the vaccine, in practice what’s mattered most was who controlled the vaccine and where the vaccine distribution was handled.

Stanford Health Care in California was forced to rework its priority list after protests from front-line doctors in training who said they had been unfairly overlooked while the vaccine was given to faculty who don’t regularly see patients. (Age was the important factor in the university’s algorithm.)

Members of Congress have called for an investigation following media reports that MorseLife Health System, a nonprofit that operates a nursing home and assisted living facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, vaccinated donors and members of a country club who donated thousands of dollars to the health company.

At least three other South Florida hospital systems — Jackson Health, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Baptist Health — have offered vaccines to donors in advance of the general public, while administering the shots to front-line employees, The Miami Herald reported.

Like Jupiter Medical, the hospitals insist that those offered shots were 65 and older, as prioritized by state officials.

Staffing Problems at Hospitals

An advisory board to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated hospitals and nursing homes to get covid vaccines first because their workers and residents were considered at highest risk, and most states have followed that recommendation. But in many cases, the health institutions have found demand from staffers, some of whom are leery of the voluntary shot, is less than anticipated.

In addition, the arrival of promised shipments has been unpredictable. While the federal government approved the first covid vaccine on Dec. 14, some hospitals did not receive allotments until after Christmas.

That was the case at Hendry Regional Medical Center in Clewiston, Florida, which got 300 doses from the state. The hospital vaccinated 30 of its 285 employees between Dec. 28 and Jan. 5, said R.D. Williams, its chief executive officer. Some employees preferred to wait until after New Year’s weekend out of concern about side effects, he said.

The vaccine has been reported to commonly cause pain at the injection site and sometimes produce fever, lethargy or headache. The reactions generally last no more than a few days.

“I’m happy with how it’s going so far,” Williams said. “I know many of our employees want to be vaccinated, but I don’t see it as a panacea that they have to have it today,” he said, noting that staffers already have masks and gloves to protect themselves from the virus.

The hospital is also trying to coordinate vaccination schedules so 10 people at a time get the shot to ensure none of the medication is wasted after the multidose vials are thawed. Once vaccine is thawed, it must be used within hours to retain its effectiveness.

As of Jan. 6, Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., had vaccinated slightly more than 900 health workers since its first doses arrived Dec. 14. It has received 3,000 doses.

Success has been limited by reluctance among workers to get a vaccine and a lack of personnel trained to administer it, CEO Anita Jenkins said.

“We still have a hospital to run and have patients in the hospital with heart attacks and other conditions, and we don’t have additional staff to run the vaccine clinics,” she said.

While some hospitals offer the vaccine only to front-line workers who interact with patients, Howard makes it available to everyone, including public relations staff, cafeteria workers and administrators. Jenkins defended the move because, she said, it’s the best way to protect the entire hospital.

She noted such employees as information technology personnel who don’t see patients may be around doctors and nurses who do. “Working in a hospital, almost everyone runs into patients just walking down the hallway,” she said.

At Eisenhower Health, a nonprofit hospital based in Rancho Mirage, California, 2,300 of the 5,000 employees have been vaccinated.

“Our greatest challenge has been managing the current patient surge and staffing demands in our acute and critical care areas while also trying to ensure we have adequate staffing resources to operate the vaccine clinics,” said spokesperson Lee Rice.

A Non-System of Inequitable Distribution

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said hospitals should not be inoculating board members ahead of hospital workers unless those people have a crucial role in running the hospital.

“That seems, to me, jostling to the head of the line and trying to reward those who may be potential donors,” he said. But he acknowledged that the hospitals’ vaccination systems are not always rational or equitable.

Covid vaccines need to get out as quickly as possible, he added, but hospitals can give them only to people they are connected with.

Caplan noted he was vaccinated at an NYU outpatient site last week, even though his primary care doctor hadn’t yet gotten the vaccine because his clinic had not received any doses.

Feeling Left Out: Private Practice Doctors, Patients Wonder When It’s Their Turn for Vaccine

Dr. Andrew Carroll — a family doctor in Chandler, Arizona — wants to help his patients get immunized against covid, so he paid more than $4,000 to buy an ultra-low-temperature freezer from eBay needed to store the Pfizer vaccine.

But he’s not sure he’ll get a chance to use it, given health officials have so far not said when private doctor’s offices will get vaccine.

“I’m really angry,” said Carroll.

Not only are doctors having trouble getting vaccine for patients, but many of the community-based physicians and medical staff that aren’t employed by hospitals or health systems also report mixed results in getting inoculated. Some have had their shots, yet others are still waiting, even though health workers providing direct care to patients are in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top-priority group.

Many of these doctors say they don’t know when — or if — they will get doses for their patients, which will soon become a bigger issue as states attempt to vaccinate more people.

“The reason that’s important is patients trust their doctors when it comes to the vaccine,” said Carroll, who has complained on social media that his county hasn’t yet released plans on how primary care doctors will be brought into the loop.

Collectively, physicians in the county could vaccinate thousands of patients a day, he said, and might draw some who would otherwise be hesitant if they had to go to a large hospital, a fairground or another central site.

His concern comes as, nationally, the rollout of the vaccine is off to a slower start than expected, lagging far behind the initial goal of giving 20 million doses before the new year.

But Dr. Jen Brull, a family practice doctor in Plainville, Kansas, said her rural area has made good progress on the first phase of vaccinations, crediting close working relationships formed well before the pandemic.

This fall, before any doses became available, the local hospital, the health department and physician offices coordinated a sign-up list for medical workers who wanted the vaccine. So, when their county, with a population of 5,000, got its first 70 doses, they were ready to go. Another 80 doses came a week later.

“We’ll be able to vaccinate almost all the health care-associated folks who wanted it in the county” Brull said recently

Gaps in the Rollout

But that’s not the case everywhere.

Dr. Jason Goldman, a family doctor in Coral Gables, Florida, said he was able to get vaccinated at a local hospital that received the bulk of vaccines in his county and oversaw distribution.

In the weeks since, however, he said several of his front-line staff members still “don’t have access to the vaccine.”

Additionally, “a tremendous number” of patients are calling his office because Florida has relaxed distribution guidelines to include anyone over age 65, Goldman said, asking when they can get the vaccine. He’s applied to officials about distributing the vaccines through his practice but has heard nothing back.

Patients “are frustrated that they do not have clear answers and that I am not being given clear answers to provide them,” he said. “We have no choice but to direct them to the health department and some of the hospital systems.”

Another troubling point for Goldman, who served as a liaison between the American Academy of Family Physicians and the expert panel drawing up the CDC distribution guidelines, is the tremendous variation in how those recommendations are being implemented in the states.

The CDC recommends several phases, with front-line health care workers and nursing home residents and staff in the initial group. Then, in the second part of that phase, come people over 75 and non-health care front-line workers, which could include first responders, teachers and other designated essential workers.

States have the flexibility to design their own rollout schedule and priority groups. Florida, for example, is offering doses to anyone 65 and up. In some counties, older folks were told vaccines were available on a first-come, first-served basis, a move that has resulted in long lines.

“To say right now, 65-plus, when you haven’t even appropriately vaccinated all the health care workers, is negating the phasing,” said Goldman. “There needs to be a national standard. We have those guidelines. We need to come up with some oversight.”

On Thursday, the American Hospital Association echoed that concern in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Hospitals — along with health departments and large pharmacy chains — are doing the bulk of the vaccinations.

Calling for additional coordination by federal officials, the letter outlined what it would take to reach the goal of vaccinating 75% of Americans by the end of May: 1.8 million vaccinations every day. Noting there are 64 different rollout plans from states, cities and other jurisdictions, the letter asked whether HHS has “assessed whether these plans, taken as a whole, are capable of achieving this level of vaccination?”

Making It Work

Lack of direct national support or strategy means each county is essentially on its own, with success or failure affected by available resources and the experience of local officials. Most state and local health departments are underfunded and are under intense pressure because of the surging pandemic.

Still, the success of vaccination efforts depends on planning, preparation and clear communication.

In Lorain County, Ohio, population 310,000, local officials started practicing in October, said Mark Adams, deputy health commissioner. They set up mass vaccination clinics for influenza to study what would be needed for a covid vaccination effort. How many staff? What would the traffic flow be like? Could patients be kept 6 feet apart?

“That gave us an idea of what is good, what is bad and what needs to change,” said Adams, who has had previous experience coordinating mass vaccination efforts at a county level.

So, when the county got its first shipment of 500 doses Dec. 21, Adams had his plan ready. He called the fire chiefs to invite all emergency medical technicians and affiliated personnel to an ad hoc vaccination center set up at a large entertainment venue staffed by his health department. Upon arrival, people were greeted at the door and directed to spaced-apart “lanes” where they would get their shots, then to a monitoring area where they could wait for 15 minutes to make sure they didn’t have a reaction.

Right after Christmas, another 400 doses arrived — and the makeshift clinic opened again. This time, doses went to community-based physicians, dentists and other hands-on medical practitioners, 600 of whom had previously signed up. (Hospital workers and nursing home staff and residents are getting their vaccinations through their own institutions.)

As they move into the next phase — recipients include residents over 80, people with developmental disorders and school staff — the challenges will grow, he said. The county plans a multipronged approach to notify people when it’s their turn, including use of a website, the local media, churches, other organizations and word-of-mouth.

Adams shares the concerns of medical providers nationwide: He gets only two days’ notice of how many doses he’s going to receive and, at the current pace of 400 or 500 doses a week, it’s going to take a while before most residents in the county have a chance to get a shot, including the estimated 33,000 people 65 and older.

With 10 nurses, his clinic can inject about 1,200 people a day. But many other health professionals have volunteered to administer the shots if he gets more doses.

“If I were to run three clinics, five days a week, I could do 15,000 vaccinations a week,” Adams said. “With all the volunteers, I could do almost six clinics, or 30,000 a week.”

Still, for those in the last public group, those age 18 and up without underlying medical conditions, “it could be summer,” Adams said.

Are You Old Enough to Get Vaccinated? In Tennessee, They’re Using the Honor System

In December, all states began vaccinating only health care workers and residents and staffers of nursing homes in the “phase 1A” priority group. But, since the new year began, some states have also started giving shots to — or booking appointments for — other categories of seniors and essential workers.

As states widen eligibility requirements for who can get a covid-19 vaccine, health officials are often taking people’s word that they qualify, thereby prioritizing efficiency over strict adherence to distribution plans.

“We are doing everything possible to vaccinate only those ‘in phase,’ but we won’t turn away someone who has scheduled their vaccine appointment and tells us that they are in phase if they do not have proof or ID,” said Bill Christian, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Among the states pivoting to vaccinating all seniors, timelines and strategies vary. Tennessee started offering shots to people 75 and older on Jan. 1. So, Frank Bargatze of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, snagged an appointment online for his father — and then went ahead and put his own name in, though he’s only 63.

“He’s 88,” Bargatze said, pointing to his father in the passenger seat after they both received their initial shots at a drive-thru vaccination site in Murfreesboro, a large city outside Nashville. “I jumped on his bandwagon,” he added with a laugh. “I’m going to blame it on him.”

Bargatze does work a few days a week with people in recovery from addiction, he added, so in a way, he might qualify as a health care worker.

Some departments are trying more than others, but overwhelmed public health departments don’t have time to do much vetting.

Dr. Lorraine MacDonald is the medical examiner in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where she’s been staffing the vaccination site. If people seeking the vaccine make it through the sign-up process online, MacDonald said, and show up for their appointment, health officials are not going to ask any more questions — as long as they’re on the list from the online sign-up.

“That’s a difficult one,” MacDonald acknowledged, when asked about people just under the age cutoff joining with older family members and putting themselves down for a dose, too. “It’s pretty much the honor system.”

People getting vaccinated in several Tennessee counties told a reporter they did not have to show ID or proof of qualifying employment when they arrived at a vaccination site. Tennessee’s health departments are generally erring on the side of simply giving the shot, even if the person is not a local resident or is not in the country legally.

The loose enforcement of the distribution phases extends to other parts of the country, including Los Angeles. In response, New York’s governor is considering making line-skipping a punishable offense.

Still, many people who don’t qualify on paper believe they might need the vaccine as much as those who do qualify in the initial phases.

Gayle Boyd of Murfreesboro is 74, meaning she didn’t quite make the cutoff in Tennessee, which is 75. But she’s also in remission from lung cancer, and so eager to get the vaccine and start getting back to a more normal life, that she joined her slightly older husband at the Murfreesboro vaccination site this week.

“Nobody’s really challenged me on it,” she said, noting she made sure to tell vaccination staffers about her medical issues. “Everybody’s been exceptionally nice.”

Technically, in the state’s current vaccine plan, having a respiratory risk factor like lung cancer doesn’t leapfrog anyone who doesn’t otherwise qualify. But in some neighboring states such as Georgia, where the minimum age limit is 65, Boyd would qualify.

Even for those who sympathize with such situations, anecdotes about line-skipping enrage many trying to wait their turn.

“We try to be responsible,” said 57-year-old Gina Kay Reid of Eagleville, Tennessee.

Reid was also at the Murfreesboro vaccination site, sitting in the back seat as she accompanied her older husband and her mother. She said she didn’t think about trying to join them in getting their first doses of vaccine. “If you take one and don’t necessarily need it, you’re knocking out somebody else that is in that higher-risk group.”

But there is a way for younger, healthier people to get the vaccine sooner than later — and not take a dose away from anyone more deserving.

A growing number of jurisdictions are realizing they have leftover doses at the end of every day. And the shots can’t be stored overnight once they’re thawed. So some pharmacists, such as some in Washington, D.C., are offering them to anyone nearby.

Jackson, Tennesse, has established a “rapid response” list for anyone willing to make it down to the health department within 30 minutes. Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, said her own aunt and uncle received a call at 8 p.m. and rushed to the county vaccination site to get their doses.

Piercey called it a “best practice” that she hopes other jurisdictions will adopt, offering a way for people eager for the vaccine to get it, while also helping states avoid wasting precious doses.

This story is part of a partnership that include WPLN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

An Urban Hospital on the Brink Vs. the Officials Sworn to Save It

Illinois and Chicago officials are trying to figure out how to stop a private company from closing a money-losing urban hospital in a poor, underserved Chicago neighborhood.

Trinity Health, a national Catholic tax-exempt chain, wants to close Mercy Hospital and Medical Center on Chicago’s Near South Side by May 31. Last month, in an unusual move, the Illinois Health Facilities & Services Review Board unanimously denied Trinity permission to close the 412-bed facility, which predominantly serves Black and other minority patients on Medicaid.

The board members said they feared the closure would limit access to care for nearly 60,000 South Side residents, forcing them to travel nearly 7 miles to the closest facility with an emergency room, intensive care unit and birthing center. It also would cost the community about 2,000 hospital jobs.

Urban hospitals in low-income areas of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities and suburbs face similar financial squeezes. Inner-city facilities like Mercy struggle to survive on lean payment rates from Medicaid and to compete with financially robust hospitals that mostly serve well-paying, privately insured patients.

So far, no one has come up with a politically and financially viable solution for strengthening safety-net health providers in low-income urban communities. “The sad fact is market location is everything,” said Lawton Robert Burns, a professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania, who studied the controversial closure of Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia in 2019. “No offense to poor people, but there are economic factors that hospitals can’t control.”

But it is far from clear that a government board can stop a hospital from going out of business. “It’s really difficult in a capitalist country to tell a private company you have to continue to lose money,” said Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a member of the health facilities board and former Trinity Health board member who teaches health policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Trinity, which operates 92 hospitals in 22 states, seems determined to push forward with its plans to close the hospital. It has deep pockets, with $31.9 billion in total assets. It reported revenue of $18.8 billion last year, and a profit of 2.3% in the most recent quarter. Trinity executives told the health facilities board in December that Mercy loses nearly $39 million a year and that they could not find any buyers for the hospital — Chicago’s oldest, chartered in 1852. They also reminded the board that state lawmakers rejected Mercy’s 2019 $1 billion proposal to merge with three other South Side hospitals and build a new hospital facility and several new clinics with $520 million in state aid.

Trinity declined to make anyone available for an interview for this article.

Trinity has said it will try again to get approval to shut Mercy at the facilities review board’s Jan. 26 meeting. It has offered to replace the hospital with a $13 million clinic offering just diagnostic and urgent care — but no primary care physician services. Critics of that proposal say the clinic, while helpful, would not be an adequate replacement for the hospital because it would not provide access to the full range of needed services.

“We can’t have these mega-hospital companies that are getting a property tax exemption for providing charity care closing a safety-net hospital in the middle of a pandemic,” said former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who spearheaded a 2013 deal to save Roseland Hospital, another embattled facility on Chicago’s South Side. “I’d tell the Trinity executives, ‘You’re not doing this to Chicago. We’ll work with you to put together a bigger deal.’”

The obvious long-term solution is richer Medicaid funding for safety-net hospitals, effective partnerships between public and private providers and firm commitments by financially strong hospital companies, including academic medical centers, to expand services in low-income communities. For instance, some say state and local officials should prod Trinity to use the resources of its Loyola University Medical Center in west suburban Chicago to bolster Mercy.

Hospitals are required to get a certificate of need for closure from the facilities review board, according to a new state law. But state officials’ actions are limited when seeking to enforce a decision to keep a facility open.

The state could levy a fine of up to $10,000 for not complying with the board’s decision, plus an additional $10,000 a month while the hospital continues to operate. But that’s a trivial amount for a big company like Trinity.

The state also could halt Medicaid and other public payments to Mercy. But that would be counterproductive, hastening the hospital’s demise since nearly half of Mercy’s inpatient revenue and 35% of its outpatient revenue comes from Medicaid, according to state data.

A final source of leverage is in Trinity’s ownership of three other hospitals in the Chicago area: Loyola, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and MacNeal Hospital. The state could threaten Trinity’s property-tax exemption as a charitable organization. That’s an approach favored by Quinn, who cited a previous legal challenge to the tax-exempt status of the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Illinois.

No matter what the state does, Trinity can find ways to shut down Mercy. It could argue that even as Mercy is meeting the state requirement to continue to treat patients, it must close critical services like the emergency department or the birthing center because it lacks funding or staff to maintain adequate quality of care, said Juan Morado Jr., a Chicago health care lawyer who formerly served as general counsel for the facilities review board. The new law permits closing only one hospital department every six months.

While the state presses to keep the hospital open, Mercy also could suffer from attrition. When there’s talk of closing a hospital, physicians, nurses and other staffers may start leaving for other jobs. Whether Trinity seeks to refill positions is critical.

“There are things the owner can do to trickle the hospital down to nothing,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who opposes shuttering Mercy. “There is a drip, drip, drip of negativity, and at some point people vote with their feet.”

The Chicago area has been through a similar battle recently. Pipeline Health, a private-equity investment firm, bought Westlake Hospital in suburban Melrose Park and two other local hospitals from hospital chain Tenet Healthcare in 2019. Pipeline quickly announced it was closing Westlake, a 230-bed hospital — even though it had promised the state it would keep it open for at least two years.

That controversial move prompted the Illinois legislature to give the facilities review board new authority to deny permission for future hospital closures, which the board lacked for Westlake.

Yet, the Westlake saga may point to a better solution for Mercy. In early 2020, the state and federal governments renovated the Westlake facility so it could be used as an overflow site for covid-19 patients. It wasn’t needed, but the updates led to strong interest from companies in purchasing and reopening the hospital, particularly for behavioral health inpatient services.

State Rep. Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who co-sponsored the 2019 bill to let the facilities review board say no to hospital closures, said a deal to buy and reopen Westlake likely will be announced within the next few weeks.

Any deal to save Mercy likely will require more money from Trinity, more commitment from other providers to offer a full range of hospital and medical services in the area, and significant increases in state and federal funding.

“Every hospital CEO has to worry about the bottom line of their business,” Ansell said. “But big organizations like Trinity need to come up with a better solution than the wholesale shutdown of an anchor institution that will leave communities bereft.”

California Budget Reflects ‘Pandemic-Induced Reality,’ Governor Says

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The coronavirus pandemic doomed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious plans last year to combat homelessness, expand behavioral health services and create a state agency to control soaring health care costs.

But even as the pandemic continues to rage, California’s Democratic governor said Friday he plans to push forward with those goals in the coming year, due to a rosier budget forecast buoyed by higher tax revenue from wealthy Californians who have fared relatively well during the crisis.

Newsom’s $227.2 billion budget blueprint also prioritizes billions to safely reopen K-12 schools shuttered by the pandemic, $600 payments for nearly 4 million low-income Californians — in addition to federal stimulus payments — and coronavirus relief grants and tax credits for hard-hit small businesses.

However, his 2021-22 fiscal year spending plan does not include additional public health money for local health departments steering California’s pandemic response, which have been chronically underfunded. He vowed to support cities and counties by boosting state testing and contact tracing capacity, speeding vaccination efforts and funding state-run surge hospitals that take overflow patients.

Newsom said Friday his budget reflects a “pandemic-induced reality” with investments aimed at spurring California’s economic recovery by helping businesses and people living in poverty. Wealth and income disparities, he added, “must be addressed.”

But Democrats in control of the state legislature, county leaders and social justice groups say that will be difficult to achieve because Newsom’s spending plan does not sufficiently fund health and social safety-net programs.

And without additional public health money, local leaders worry California will not be able to adequately control the spread of the virus.

“County public health is drowning,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties. “We are triaging right now between testing, contact tracing and vaccination, and it’s impacting the response to the pandemic.”

Newsom’s budget proposal is the first step in a months-long negotiation process with the Democratic-controlled legislature, which has until June 15 to adopt the state budget that takes effect July 1. Lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated with the governor’s response to the pandemic, including his unilateral spending decisions in response to the emergency. Newsom is also facing a burgeoning recall effort, backed by heavyweight Republicans such as former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is considering challenging Newsom in the 2022 California gubernatorial election.

Newsom said he expects to make some tough calls on spending even though the state anticipates a $15 billion budget surplus for the coming fiscal year, largely because a state fiscal analysis projected deficits in subsequent years.

“While we are enjoying the fruits of a lot of one-time energy and surplus, it’s not permanent and we have to be mindful of over-committing,” Newsom said, explaining why he didn’t include funding to expand Medicaid to more unauthorized immigrants.

Some lawmakers say they will nonetheless press Newsom to use higher-than-expected revenues — and perhaps seek new taxes — to expand health coverage to more Californians.

The following health care proposals factor heavily into Newsom’s 2021-22 budget proposal.

Covid Relief

Newsom committed $4.4 billion in his budget to vaccine distribution, increased testing, contact tracing and other short-term pandemic expenses. Because that spending is related to the public health emergency, the state expects at least 75% to be reimbursed by the federal government and insurance payments.

He also proposed $52 million to fund costs at state-run surge hospitals, including support staff. And he is asking lawmakers to sign off on a covid relief package that would provide funding before the start of the fiscal year in July. It would include $2 billion to help school districts reopen classrooms to in-person instruction beginning in February by paying for protective equipment, ventilation systems and adequate testing. It would also commit billions to economic recovery, such as stimulus payments for individuals, and grants and tax credits for struggling small businesses.

Newsom also wants to increase the budget for the Department of Industrial Relations by $23 million to fund up to 113 additional workplace inspectors at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to police health order violations at businesses and enforce workplace safety laws.

Transforming Medi-Cal

Spending for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents, is expected to grow in the coming year because of the economic impact of the pandemic — as is its enrollment. The program has roughly 13 million enrollees, or about one-third of the state population.

In the coming year, Newsom will also press forward with a major overhaul of Medi-Cal, through a project called CalAIM, to provide new benefits emphasizing mental health care and substance use treatment, and pay for some nontraditional costs such as housing assistance. The hope is the program would divert homeless and other vulnerable people away from expensive emergency room care and keep them out of jail.

State Medi-Cal officials estimate the program would cost $1.1 billion for the first year. The state is working with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to obtain approval for the program.

Newsom also wants to expand Medi-Cal benefits to cover over-the-counter cold medicine and blood glucose monitors for people with diabetes. His budget includes $95 million for a major expansion of telehealth services that would permanently provide higher payments for virtual doctor visits.

Controlling Health Care Costs

Newsom is proposing a new state agency, the Office of Health Care Affordability, which he said would help control health care costs. He budgeted $63 million over the next three years for the office, which would set health care cost targets for the health care industry — along with financial penalties for failing to meet future targets.

Powerful health industry groups said they are still assessing whether they will support the proposal. But some expressed concern last year when Newsom floated the idea. Doctors and hospitals routinely fight proposals in Sacramento that might limit their revenue.

Newsom acknowledged Friday the task would be “tough.”

Battling Homelessness and Food Insecurity

Newsom is proposing a one-time infusion of $1.75 billion to battle homelessness.

Of that, Newsom said, $750 million would help counties purchase hotels and transform them into permanent housing for chronically homeless people. Another $750 million would allow counties to purchase facilities to treat people with mental illness or substance use disorders. And $250 million would help counties purchase and renovate homes for low-income older people.

Newsom’s budget also includes $30 million to help overwhelmed food banks and emergency food assistance programs.

Lawmakers said they plan to negotiate for even more funding for homelessness and safety-net programs.

“We absolutely need to significantly increase our investment to address homelessness because the need is so intense,” said Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “And I don’t think there’s a single legislator who isn’t incredibly concerned about the food insecurity we’re seeing: lines around the block for food banks in what should be the wealthiest state in the country.”

Expanding Health Coverage

Newsom did not include money in his proposed budget to expand Medi-Cal to unauthorized immigrants age 65 and older. He had previously promised to fund the proposal, estimated to cost $350 million per year once fully implemented, but he said Friday the state cannot afford to commit to ongoing costs with a projected budget deficit starting in fiscal year 2022-23. California already offers full Medicaid benefits for income-eligible unauthorized immigrants up to age 26.

Some lawmakers and health care advocates countered that providing health insurance for undocumented immigrants would save lives and reduce costs, especially during the pandemic, and vowed to continue to fight for the expansion.

“To say we are disappointed is describing it very lightly,” said Orville Thomas, a lobbyist with the California Immigrant Policy Center. “These are Californians dying and getting sick at disproportionate rates during covid.”

Health Workers Unions See Surge in Interest Amid Covid

The nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, declared on March 6 — by filing the official paperwork — that they were ready to vote on the prospect of joining a national union. At the time, they were motivated by the desire for more nurses and support staff, and to have a voice in hospital decisions.

A week later, as the covid-19 pandemic bore down on the state, the effort was put on hold, and everyone scrambled to respond to the coronavirus. But the nurses’ long-standing concerns only became heightened during the crisis, and new issues they’d never considered suddenly became urgent problems.

Staffers struggled to find masks and other protective equipment, said nurses interviewed for this story. The hospital discouraged them from wearing masks one day and required masks 10 days later. The staff wasn’t consistently tested for covid and often not even notified when exposed to covid-positive patients. According to the nurses and a review of safety complaints made to federal regulators, the concerns persisted for months. And some nurses said the situation fueled doubts about whether hospital executives were prioritizing staff and patients, or the bottom line.

By the time the nurses held their election in September — six months after they had filed paperwork to do so — 70% voted to unionize. In a historically anti-union state with right-to-work laws and the second-least unionized workforce in the country, that margin of victory is a significant feat, said academic experts who study labor movements.

That it occurred during the pandemic is no coincidence.

For months now, front-line health workers across the country have faced a perpetual lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and inconsistent safety measures. Studies show they’re more likely to be infected by the coronavirus than the general population, and hundreds have died, according to reporting by KHN and The Guardian.

Many workers say employers and government systems that are meant to protect them have failed.

Research shows that health facilities with unions have better patient outcomes and are more likely to have inspections that can find and correct workplace hazards. One study found New York nursing homes with unionized workers had lower covid mortality rates, as well as better access to PPE and stronger infection control measures, than nonunion facilities.

Recognizing that, some workers — like the nurses at Mission Hospital — are forming new unions or thinking about organizing for the first time. Others, who already belong to a union, are taking more active leadership roles, voting to strike, launching public information campaigns and filing lawsuits against employers.

“The urgency and desperation we’ve heard from workers is at a pitch I haven’t experienced before in 20 years of this work,” said Cass Gualvez, organizing director for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West in California. “We’ve talked to workers who said, ‘I was dead set against a union five years ago, but covid has changed that.’”

In response to union actions, many hospitals across the country have said worker safety is already their top priority, and unions are taking advantage of a difficult situation to divide staff and management, rather than working together.

Labor experts say it’s too soon to know if the outrage over working conditions will translate into an increase in union membership, but early indications suggest a small uptick. Of the approximately 1,500 petitions for union representation posted on the National Labor Relations Board website in 2020, 16% appear related to the health care field, up from 14% the previous year.

In Colorado, SEIU Local 105 health care organizing director Stephanie Felix-Sowy said her team is fielding dozens of calls a month from nonunion workers interested in joining. Not only are nurses and respiratory therapists reaching out, but dietary workers and cleaning staff are as well, including several from rural parts of the state where union representation has traditionally been low.

“The pandemic didn’t create most of the root problems they’re concerned about,” she said. “But it amplified them and the need to address them.”

A nurse for 30 years, Amy Waters had always been aware of a mostly unspoken but widespread sentiment that talking about unions could endanger her job. But after HCA Healthcare took over Mission Health in 2019, she saw nurses and support staff members being cut and she worried about the effect on patient care. Joining National Nurses United could help, she thought. During the pandemic, her fears only worsened. At times, nurses cared for seven patients at once, despite research indicating four is a reasonable number.

Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists went on a two-day strike in November asking for more N95 masks. MultiCare found another vendor for N95s and said it would provide them by mid-December. (Marisa Powell)

In a statement, Mission Health said it has adequate staffing and is aggressively recruiting nurses. “We have the beds, staffing, PPE supplies and equipment we need at this time and we are well-equipped to handle any potential surge,” spokesperson Nancy Lindell wrote. The hospital has required universal masking since March and requires staff members who test positive to stay home, she added.

Although the nurses didn’t vote to unionize until September, Waters said, they began acting collectively from the early days of the pandemic. They drafted a petition and sent a letter to administrators together. When the hospital agreed to provide advanced training on how to use PPE to protect against covid transmission, it was a small but significant victory, Waters said.

“Seeing that change brought a fair number of nurses who had still been undecided about the union to feel like, ‘Yeah, if we work together, we can make change,’” she said.

Old Concerns Heightened, New Issues Arise

Even as union membership in most industries has declined in recent years, health workers unions have remained relatively stable. Experts say it’s partly because of the focus on patient care issues, like safe staffing ratios, which resonate widely and have only grown during the pandemic.

At St. Mary Medical Center outside Philadelphia, short staffing led nurses to strike in November. Donna Halpern, a nurse on the cardiovascular and critical care unit, said staffing had been a point of negotiation with the hospital since the nurses joined the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals in 2019. But with another surge of covid cases approaching, the nurses decided not to wait any longer to take action, she said.

A month later, officials with Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which owns the hospital, announced a tentative labor agreement with the union. The contract “gives nurses a voice in discussions on staffing while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions,” the hospital said in a statement.

In Colorado, where state inspection reports show understaffing led to a patient death at a suburban Denver hospital, SEIU Local 105 has launched a media campaign about unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company, HealthOne. The union doesn’t represent HealthOne employees, but union leaders said they felt compelled to act after repeatedly hearing concerns.

In a statement, HealthOne said staffing levels are appropriate across its hospitals and it is continuing to recruit and hire staff members.

Covid is also raising entirely new issues for workers to organize around. At the forefront is the lack of PPE, which was noted in one-third of the health worker deaths catalogued by KHN and The Guardian.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center in New York picketed on Dec. 1 with signs demanding PPE and spoke about having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times.

The hospital told KHN it follows federal guidelines for reprocessing masks, but intensive care nurse Jennifer Bejo said it feels unsafe.

At MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics in Washington state, staff members were provided only surgical masks and face shields for months, even when performing covid tests and seeing covid patients, said Dr. Brian Fox, who works at the clinics and is a member of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. The company agreed to provide N95 masks after staffers went on a two-day strike in November.

MultiCare said it found another vendor for N95s in early December and is in the process of distributing them.

PPE has also become a rallying point for nonunion workers. At a November event handing out PPE in El Paso, Texas, more than 60 workers showed up in the first hour, said SEIU Texas President Elsa Caballero. Many were not union members, she said, but by the end of the day, dozens had signed membership cards to join.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center picketed on Dec.1, asking for more personal protective equipment. They say they’re having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times. (Hans Pennink)
Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists went on a two-day strike in November asking for more N95 masks. MultiCare found another vendor for N95s and said it would provide them by mid-December. (Marisa Powell)

Small Successes, Gradual Movement

Organized labor is not a panacea, union officials admit. Their members have faced PPE shortages and high infection rates throughout the pandemic, too. But collective action can help workers push for and achieve change, they said.

National Nurses United and the National Union of Healthcare Workers said they’ve each seen an influx in calls from nonmembers, but whether that results in more union elections is yet to be seen.

David Zonderman, an expert in labor history at North Carolina State University, said safety concerns like factory fires and mine collapses have often galvanized collective action in the past, as workers felt their lives were endangered. But labor laws can make it difficult to organize, he said, and many efforts to unionize are unsuccessful.

Health care employers, in particular, are known to launch aggressive and well-funded anti-union campaigns, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies expert at Rutgers university. Still, workers might be more motivated by what they witnessed during the pandemic, she said.

“An experience like treating patients in this pandemic will change a health care worker forever,” Givan said, “and will have an impact on their willingness to speak out, to go on strike and to unionize if needed.”

Only a Smokescreen? Big Tobacco Stands Down as Colorado and Oregon Hike Cigarette Taxes

Big Tobacco did something unusual in Marlboro Country last fall: It stood aside while Colorado voters approved the state’s first tobacco tax hike in 16 years.

The industry, led by Altria Group, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, has spent exorbitantly in the past to kill similar state ballot initiatives. In 2018, Altria’s lobbying arm spent more than $17 million to help defeat Montana’s tobacco tax ballot initiative. That same year, it spent around $6 million to help defeat South Dakota’s similar measure.

And four years ago, Altria was the leading funder in a successful $16 million campaign to quash Colorado’s previous proposed tobacco tax increase.

In November, by contrast, Altria didn’t spend a penny in opposition and Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved the tax with two-thirds support. Likewise, in Oregon, Big Tobacco stayed on the sidelines while a tax hike passed there.

The tax measures are major wins for anti-smoking advocates after a string of defeats but, in an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, Colorado’s tax might not have been possible without Altria’s help. And, advocates said, the way those measures passed could provide a blueprint for states to follow in future elections.

In Colorado, Altria, the parent company of Marlboro cigarette maker Philip Morris, insisted that a minimum price be included in the proposal, according to The Colorado Sun, citing emails between political consultants and Gov. Jared Polis’ office. So while supporters see an increased tobacco tax as more revenue for the state, a disincentive for kids to smoke and a win for public health, the measure could also allow America’s premium tobacco companies to gain market share.

The Colorado measure will increase the total state-levied tax from 84 cents to eventually $2.64 per pack by 2027. The tax rate on vaping products, not currently taxed, will be 30% of the manufacturer’s list price in 2021, gradually increasing to 62% by 2027. The proposition also set the minimum price per pack of cigarettes at $7 as of Jan. 1 and that floor rises to $7.50 in 2024. The change could effectively help premium cigarette companies corner the market, since discount cigarettes would rise to at least $7.

Discount cigarette companies Liggett Group, Vector Tobacco and Xcaliber International — which funded opposition to the tax initiative, Proposition EE — tried to sue the state over the minimum tax provision, alleging “Philip Morris will reap huge benefits from the new legislation” and the changes will “destroy their ability to compete in Colorado.” In December, a federal judge rejected the company’s request for a preliminary injunction. A spokesperson for Liggett said the company plans to appeal.

“When it came to entities like Altria and other stakeholders that we engaged in the legislative process, I think that they saw the writing on the wall,” said Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado and one of the key organizers behind Proposition EE. “And it helped us get through the legislative process, not just with Democratic votes, but Republican votes to refer the measure to the ballot.”

Altria officials said in a statement that their tobacco companies oppose excise tax increases, but they did not say whether they had worked with Colorado lawmakers.

“Altria did not advocate for or against Proposition EE, and after evaluating the content and intent of this measure, Colorado voters decided to vote in favor of it, some aspects of which were focused on tobacco harm reduction and may help transition adult smokers to a non-combustible future,” the statement said.

Polis’ office did not respond to a request for comment. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office said it would not comment on matters under active litigation. State Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno and Rep. Julie McCluskie, both state sponsors for the legislation, declined to comment for the same reason. Fellow Democrats Rep. Yadira Caraveo and Sen. Rhonda Fields, also state sponsors for the legislation, did not respond to requests for comment.

Colorado campaign finance records show Altria and Altria’s lobbying arm in 2020 contributed to funds that support both Democratic and Republican candidates in the state — a pattern playing out nationally.

Williams said Altria’s absence of public opposition wasn’t the only factor in the initiative’s success. The tax revenue will initially fund revenue lost during the covid-19 pandemic, then fund tobacco use prevention and eventually preschool education.

The American Lung Association, which supported the Colorado measure, said it believes tobacco taxes are among the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, especially among youths, who are more sensitive to changes in price. The organization cites studies that found every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4% for adults and 7% for teens.

“Without tobacco industry opposition, it’s very popular among the public,” Thomas Carr, the association’s director of national policy, said of the tax increase. “We’ve long seen it in polling on the subject.”

There was no major industry opposition to the Oregon increase, either. Its tobacco tax increase — Measure 108 — also got a resounding two-thirds of support. But Oregon didn’t negotiate with Altria lobbyists or set a minimum price provision, according to Elisabeth Shepard, campaign manager for Yes for a Healthy Future.

“I don’t know what the [Colorado] deal was,” Shepard said. “All I know is that before it even made it to the ballot, Altria indicated that they were not going to oppose the measure and stuck with their word.”

While Shepard worried until Election Day whether Big Tobacco would swoop in with opposition in Oregon, it didn’t. She believes her campaign worked because the effort had early resources and money, the tax was targeted to fund the Oregon Health Plan (the state’s Medicaid), and her campaign’s coalition had 300 endorsers, including those in health and business communities.

“We had the left, we had the right, we had the far-right, we had the far-left,” Shepard said.

Her campaign paid its advisory committee members, including representatives from affected communities such as Indigenous Oregonian tribes. At least 30% of American Indian and Alaska Native adults in the state smoke cigarettes. Oregon’s measure increases tobacco taxes $2 per pack, from $1.33 to $3.33, as well as creates a new tax for e-cigarettes. The revenues will help fund an estimated $300 million for the state’s health plan.

Altria did not respond to a request for comment about Oregon tobacco taxes, but the company has previously said it opposed Oregon’s measure.

Shepard believes her campaign model could work in other states. Other anti-smoking advocates took note of the 2020 election.

“We certainly support establishing minimum prices for all tobacco products in conjunction with tobacco tax increases, as we know increasing the price of tobacco products is one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use,” said Cathy Callaway, director of state and local campaigns for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

It could just come down to a state’s voters and its politics, according to Mark Mickelson, a former Republican in South Dakota’s legislature. Mickelson was behind creating his state’s failed 2018 tobacco tax ballot initiative.

“We just got beat,” Mickelson said. The opposition “got ahead of us on the message. They had a lot more money and had just played on doubts that the [tax revenue] money would go to tech ed.”

The average state cigarette tax is $1.88 per pack, but it varies across the country — as high as $4.35 in New York but only 44 cents in North Dakota, where a 2016 ballot initiative to increase that to $2.20 was defeated.

Tax increases can translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for states, said Richard Auxier, senior policy associate at the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

“It’s a little easier to pass a tax on someone else, which is often how this is seen — passing this tax on smokers, rather than passing it on all working people, [compared to] if you were to increase income tax or … a sales tax.”

But not all voters get a say.

In Kentucky, which isn’t a referendum state, Republican state Rep. Jerry Miller said there’s not a lot of sympathy for tobacco companies anymore.

“The agriculture community, which used to be on the same page with cigarette companies, are now always in opposition because the cigarette companies are always trying to tweak their formula to use cheaper tobacco,” he said.

Miller’s recent vaping tax bill failed in the state legislature, but he’s working on a new one.

“We don’t have that tradition or the mechanism that somebody collects 10,000 signatures and they get a referendum on a ballot,” he said. “That’s why things like this have to go through the legislature — and so it really just depends on the state [government].”

Aunque controlen el Senado, demócratas necesitarán apoyo republicano en temas clave de salud

Ante la pandemia, los demócratas han abogado por ayudas más generosas, más presión sobre las farmacéuticas para que bajen los precios y más atención al racismo sistémico en la atención de salud.

El 20 de enero, con el control del Senado y la Cámara de Representantes, tendrán el poder de elegir qué propuestas de salud se votarán en el Congreso.

Las victorias del reverendo Raphael Warnock y Jon Ossoff en Georgia dieron a los demócratas dos escaños más en el Senado y la ventaja en un Senado dividido 50-50. Cuando la vicepresidenta electa, Kamala Harris, jure el cargo, su voto servirá como desempate, convirtiéndose así en el voto 51 de los demócratas.

Pero este estrecho margen de votos no eliminará el “filibusteo” (discursos obstruccionistas y dilatorios), lo que significa que los demócratas no tendrán suficientes votos para aprobar muchos de sus planes sin los republicanos.

Eso pondrá en peligro muchas propuestas demócratas de salud, como la de ofrecer a los estadounidenses una opción de seguro público patrocinada por el gobierno, y complicará los esfuerzos para aprobar más ayudas para la pandemia.

Queda por ver si los legisladores serán más proclives al compromiso después que una turba pro-Trump invadiera el Capitolio, el 6 de enero, atacando a la policía y dañando propiedad federal. Hubo cinco muertos.

Los estrechos márgenes de los demócratas en el Senado y en la Cámara de Representantes — donde pueden permitirse perder cuatro votos y aun así aprobar una legislación— también darán más influencia a algunos legisladores que, al no estar de acuerdo con los líderes de sus partidos, tendrán un incentivo para impulsar sus propias agendas a cambio de sus votos.

Habrá poco espacio para los desacuerdos intrapartidarios; y los demócratas dejaron claro, durante las primarias presidenciales, que no están todos de acuerdo sobre cómo lograr sus objetivos de salud pública.

En menos de dos semanas, los demócratas dirigirán los comités encargados de establecer la legislación sobre salud y de examinar a los nominados de Biden en esta área.

El control del Comité de Salud, Educación, Trabajo y Pensiones del Senado pasará a la senadora Patty Murray, demócrata de Washington, quien negoció el acuerdo de 2013 con el entonces presidente de la Cámara de Representantes, Paul Ryan, que puso fin a un largo cierre del gobierno, entre otros acuerdos bipartidistas.

En 2019, Murray y el presidente republicano del comité, el senador Lamar Alexander, de Tennessee, introdujeron un amplio paquete legislativo para reducir los costos de salud. Entre sus propuestas se encontraba una iniciativa para bajar los precios de los medicamentos recetados, mediante la eliminación de las lagunas legales que permiten a los fabricantes de medicamentos de marca bloquear a la competencia.

Durante una entrevista, antes de que los demócratas se aseguren el Senado, Murray dijo que el trabajo de su comité se centrará en los problemas que impiden a los estadounidenses recibir un tratamiento médico equitativo y asequible.

La prioridad, dijo, serán las disparidades raciales, evidenciadas por los desproporcionados índices de mortalidad entre las madres de raza negras, y entre las comunidades de color, que sufren los peores impactos de la pandemia de covid-19.

“No todos los que acuden al médico reciben la misma atención, sienten el mismo nivel de comodidad y muchas veces no se les cree”, dijo Murray.

Murray aseguró que presionará a los senadores para que consideren el impacto en las comunidades de color de cada pieza legislativa. “Esa será la cuestión en cada paso que demos”, añadió.

El miércoles 6, pidió a los republicanos que se incorporen a la lucha contra la pandemia “con políticas que ayuden directamente a los que más sufren y que nos ayuden a salir de esta crisis con más fortaleza y justicia”.

“Con una administración Biden-Harris y una mayoría demócrata en el Senado, los desafíos que enfrentamos no serán menores, pero finalmente tenemos la oportunidad de enfrentarlos y comenzar a tomar medidas”, declaró Murray. “Estoy deseando ponerme manos a la obra”.

El Comité de Finanzas del Senado, que supervisa Medicare, Medicaid y las políticas fiscales relacionadas con la salud, estará encabezado por el senador Ron Wyden, demócrata de Oregon.

Si bien el comité HELP también celebrará una audiencia de confirmación para Xavier Becerra, el candidato de Biden a la Secretaría del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos; es el Comité de Finanzas el que votará para avanzar su confirmación.

En diciembre, los republicanos del Senado amenazaron con retrasar la nominación de Becerra antes de que Biden lo anunciara oficialmente. Los republicanos le reprochan a Becerra su falta de experiencia en el campo de la salud, cuestionan su apoyo a un sistema de salud de un solo pagador y se oponen a su defensa del derecho al aborto.

Como fiscal general de California, Becerra se enfrentó a las demandas presentadas por los funcionarios estatales republicanos contra la Ley de Cuidado de Salud A Bajo Precio (ACA).

Pero se espera que la escasa ventaja de los demócratas en el Senado sea suficiente para rechazar las objeciones de los republicanos a la nominación.

El mes pasado, Wyden alabó el compromiso de Becerra para responder a la pandemia, proteger la cobertura de los cuidados de salud y abordar las disparidades raciales; y dijo que esperaba con interés la audiencia de Becerra “para que pueda ponerse a trabajar y empezar a ayudar a la gente durante esta crisis sin precedentes”.

Además, después de meses de denunciar los fracasos de la administración Trump en el manejo de la pandemia, los demócratas controlarán qué proyectos de ley de ayuda se votarán.

El paquete del mes pasado no incluyó sus demandas de más fondos para los gobiernos estatales y locales, y los republicanos de la Cámara de Representantes bloquearon una iniciativa demócrata que pretendía aumentar los cheques de estímulo de $600 a $2,000.

Los demócratas se han unido en sus demandas de más ayuda, aunque a veces han estado en desacuerdo sobre cómo llevarla a cabo.

En el otoño, con las elecciones cerca y sin ningún acuerdo a la vista, los demócratas moderados, que buscaban ganar su propia elección, presionaron a la presidenta de la Cámara de Representantes, Nancy Pelosi, para que abandonara las negociaciones por un paquete de ayuda de $2,2 billones, que los republicanos calificaron como un fracaso, y aprobara una ayuda más modesta pero desesperadamente necesaria.

“Tanto el liderazgo demócrata, como el republicano, ha metido la pata. Todos son responsables”, declaró a Politico el representante Max Rose, demócrata de Nueva York. “Hagan algo ¡Hagan algo!” Rose perdió la reelección.

Voces más progresistas, como la de la representante Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demócrata de Nueva York, y el senador Bernie Sanders, independiente de Vermont, han presionado a favor de una ayuda más generosa, con mayores cheques de estímulo.

Más allá de la pandemia, el liderazgo demócrata ha mencionado el precio de los medicamentos como otra área de acción. Pero una de sus propuestas más populares, que autorizaría al gobierno federal a negociar los precios de los medicamentos para quienes están en Medicare, es poco probable que atraiga los votos republicanos que necesitaría.

Cuando los demócratas de la Cámara de Representantes aprobaron una de estas propuestas en 2019, los senadores republicanos aseguraron que ellos nunca la aprobarían.

Los miembros del ala más progresista de los demócratas, por su parte, argumentaron que la propuesta no era suficientemente agresiva.

Sin embargo, después de años de esfuerzos republicanos por socavar ACA, parece probable que la estabilización de la ley pueda cobrar fuerza en un Congreso controlado por los demócratas.

La Cámara de Representantes aprobó, el verano pasado, una legislación destinada a aumentar la cobertura y la asequibilidad, incluyendo la limitación de los costos de los seguros a no más del 8,5% de los ingresos y la ampliación de los subsidios.

Legisladores como Murray y Wyden se han apresurado a señalar que las consecuencias devastadoras de la pandemia, la pérdida de puestos de trabajo y la pérdida de cobertura del seguro, por nombrar sólo dos, han puesto de relieve la necesidad de fortalecer el sistema de salud.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

USE OUR CONTENT

This story can be republished for free (details).

‘An Arm And a Leg’: How a Former Health Care Executive Became a Health Care Whistleblower


Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen.


Former health care executive Wendell Potter spent part of 2020 publishing high-profile apologies for the work he used to do — the lies he said he told the American people for his old employers. These days, he said, he’s also trying to debunk myths he once sold.

“What I used to do for a living was mislead people into thinking that we had the best health care system in the world,” Potter said.

In this episode, Potter talks about his transformation from health care executive to health care whistleblower. His is also a story about the long, messy process of change — whether that’s changing your own life or trying to change a bigger system.

Here’s a transcript of the episode.


“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

Even With Senate Control, Democrats Will Need Buy-In From GOP on Key Health Priorities

Democrats have argued for more generous pandemic relief, more pressure on drugmakers to lower prices and more attention to systemic racism in health care. On Jan. 20, with control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, they’ll have the power to choose which health care proposals get a vote in Congress.

The victories of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia last week gave Democrats two more Senate seats and the upper hand in the Senate’s now 50-50 split. After Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office, she will serve as the tiebreaker as needed — in effect, Democrats’ 51st vote.

But that vote count is too small to eliminate the filibuster, meaning Democrats will not have enough votes to pass many of their plans without Republicans. That will likely doom many Democratic health care proposals, like offering Americans a government-sponsored public insurance option, and complicate efforts to pass further pandemic relief.

It remains to be seen how willing lawmakers are to compromise with one another in the aftermath of a pro-Trump mob’s breach of the Capitol on Wednesday. Thursday, Democrats demanded the president’s removal for inciting rioters who disrupted the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, assaulted Capitol Police officers and damaged federal property. One demonstrator and a police officer were killed, and three demonstrators died of medical emergencies.

Democrats’ slim margins in the Senate and the House — where they can afford to lose only four votes and still pass legislation — will also give individual lawmakers more leverage, handing those who disagree with party leaders an incentive to push their own priorities in exchange for their votes. There will be little room for intraparty disagreements, and Democrats made it clear during the presidential primaries that they disagree about how to achieve their health care goals.

In less than two weeks, Democrats will lead the committees charged with marking up health care legislation and vetting Biden’s health nominees.

The change will hand control of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who brokered the 2013 agreement with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that ended a long government shutdown, among other bipartisan deals.

In 2019, Murray and the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, introduced a wide-ranging package to lower health costs for consumers. Among its proposals was an initiative to lower prescription drug prices by eliminating loopholes that allow brand-name drugmakers to block competition.

In an interview before Democrats secured the Senate, Murray said her committee work will be focused on the problems that prevent all Americans from receiving equitable, affordable treatment in health care. Racial disparities, evidenced by disproportionate mortality rates among Black mothers and among communities of color suffering the worst impacts of the pandemic, will be a priority, she said.

“Not everybody goes into the doctor and gets the same advice, feels the same comfort level and is believed,” Murray said.

Murray said she will press for senators to consider how any piece of legislation will affect communities of color. “It will be the question I ask about every step we take,” she said.

On Wednesday, she called out Republicans for standing in the way of fighting the pandemic “with policies that would directly help those struggling the most and would help us build back from this crisis stronger and fairer.”

“With a Biden-Harris Administration and a Senate Democratic majority, the challenges we face won’t get any less tough — but we’ve finally got the opportunity to face them head on and start taking action,” Murray said in a statement. “I can’t wait to start getting things done.”

The Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare, Medicaid and health-related tax policies, will be run by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). While the HELP committee will also hold a confirmation hearing for Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, it is the Finance Committee that will vote to advance his confirmation.

Senate Republicans signaled they would delay considering Becerra’s nomination before Biden officially announced his name last month. Calling him unqualified due to his lack of a health care background, they questioned his support for a single-payer health care system and opposed his efforts to preserve abortion rights. As California’s attorney general, Becerra led efforts to fight lawsuits brought by Republican state officials against the Affordable Care Act.

But Democrats’ slim edge in the Senate is expected to be enough to drown out Republicans’ objections to the nomination. Last month, praising Becerra’s commitment to responding to the pandemic, protecting health care coverage and addressing racial disparities, Wyden said he looked forward to Becerra’s hearing “so he can get on the job and start helping people during this unprecedented crisis.”

Also, after months of decrying the Trump administration’s failures managing the pandemic, Democrats will control which relief bills get a vote.

Last month’s package did not include their demands for more funding for state and local governments, and House Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to increase stimulus checks to $2,000, from $600.

Democrats have been united in their calls for more assistance, though they have disagreed at times about how to push for it.

In the fall, with the election approaching and no deal in sight, moderate Democrats in tough races pushed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to abandon negotiations for a $2.2 trillion relief package that Republicans called a nonstarter in favor of passing more modest but desperately needed relief.

“Every member of the leadership team, Democrats and Republicans, have messed up. Everyone is accountable,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) told Politico. “Get something done. Get something done!” He lost his bid for reelection.

More progressive voices like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been a force for more generous aid, particularly larger stimulus checks.

Beyond the pandemic, top Democrats have mentioned drug pricing as another area ripe for action. But one of their most popular proposals, which would authorize the federal government to negotiate drug prices for those on Medicare, is unlikely to attract the Republican votes it would need. When House Democrats passed one such proposal in 2019, Senate Republicans vowed it would never pass.

Members of Democrats’ more progressive wing, for their part, argued the proposal may not go far enough.

After years of Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, though, it looks likely that efforts to stabilize the law could gain more traction under a Democratic-controlled Congress. The House passed legislation last summer aimed at increasing coverage and affordability, including by capping insurance costs at no more than 8.5% of income and expanding subsidies.

Lawmakers like Murray and Wyden have been quick to point out that the pandemic’s devastating consequences — lost jobs and lost insurance coverage, to name just a couple — have only underscored the need to strengthen the health care system.

Is Your Covid Vaccine Venue Prepared to Handle Rare, Life-Threatening Reactions?

As the rollout of covid-19 vaccines picks up across the U.S., moving from hospital distribution to pharmacies, pop-up sites and drive-thru clinics, health experts say it’s vital that these expanded venues be prepared to handle rare but potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.

“You want to be able to treat anaphylaxis,” said Dr. Mitchell Grayson, an allergist-immunologist with Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “I hope they’re in a place where an ambulance can arrive within five to 10 minutes.”

Of the more than 6 million people in the U.S. who have received shots of the two new covid vaccines, at least 29 have suffered anaphylaxis, a severe and dangerous reaction that can constrict airways and send the body into shock, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such incidents have been rare — about 5.5 cases for every million doses of vaccine administered in the U.S. between mid-December and early January — and the patients recovered. For most people, the risk of getting the coronavirus is far higher than the risk of a vaccine reaction and is not a reason to avoid the shots, Grayson said.

Still, the rate of anaphylaxis so far is about five times higher for the covid vaccines than for flu shots, and some of those stricken had no history of allergic reactions. In this early phase of the vaccine rollout, all the patients were treated in hospitals and health centers that could offer immediate access to full-service emergency care.

As states look to scale up distribution, the shots will be administered by a varied assortment of professionals at venues including drugstores, dental offices and temporary sites attended by National Guard troops, among others. Health officials say every site involved in the wider community rollout must be able to recognize problems and have the training and equipment to respond swiftly if something goes wrong.

“We are really pushing to make sure that anybody administering vaccines needs not just to have the EpiPen available but, frankly, to know how to use it,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a call with reporters. She was referring to a common epinephrine injector that many people with severe allergies carry with them. Those health care workers must also know the warning signs of the need for advanced care, she added.

Anaphylaxis typically occurs within minutes and can cause hives, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or fainting, and life-threatening problems such as low blood pressure and constricted airways. Initial treatment is an injection of epinephrine, or adrenalin, to reduce the body’s allergic response. However, severely affected patients can require intensive treatments including oxygen, IV antihistamines and steroids such as cortisone to save their lives. Community sites are unlikely to have these treatments on hand and would need quick access to emergency responders.

Anybody administering vaccines needs not just to have the EpiPen available, but, frankly, to know how to use it.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, CDC

Scientists are still investigating what’s triggering the severe reactions to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines. They suspect the culprit may be polyethylene glycol, or PEG, a component present in both vaccines that has been associated with allergic reactions.

Even as they call for education and support for providers, experts are urging the more than 50 million Americans with allergies — whether to foods, insect venom, medications or other vaccines — to be proactive about finding a venue that’s properly prepared. Before scheduling a vaccine, contact the site and ask pointed questions about its emergency precautions, said Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, quality and safety officer for allergy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Ask the question: Do they have an anaphylaxis kit? Can they take vital signs?” she said. People who routinely carry EpiPens should remember to bring them when they are vaccinated, she added.

A CDC website details a list of equipment and medications that sites should have on hand and urges that all patients be observed for 15 minutes after vaccination or 30 minutes if they’re at higher risk for reactions. The list recommends — but does not require — that sites stock the more intensive treatments, such as IV fluids. People who experience severe reactions shouldn’t get the recommended second dose of the vaccine, the agency said.

“Appropriate medical treatment for severe allergic reactions must be immediately available in the event that an acute anaphylactic reaction occurs following administration of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine,” the site says.

Still, that’s a tall order, given the scope of the vaccination effort. The federal government is sending vaccines to more than 40,000 pharmacy locations involving 19 chains, including CVS, Walgreens, Costco and Rite Aid. At the same time, dozens of pop-up inoculation sites are ramping up in New York City, and drive-thru clinics have been set up in Ohio, Florida and other states.

Drive-thru sites, in particular, worry allergists like Blumenthal, who said it’s crucial to recognize symptoms of anaphylaxis quickly. “If you’re in a car, are you going to have your windows open? Where are the medicines? Are you in a parking lot?” she said. “It just sounds logistically more challenging.”

Ask the question: Do they have an anaphylaxis kit? Can they take vital signs?

Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, Massachusetts General Hospital

In Columbus, more than 2,400 people had been vaccinated by Jan. 6 at a drive-thru clinic set up at the Ohio Expo Center. No allergic reactions have been reported, according to Kelli Newman, a spokesperson for Columbus Public Health. But if they occur, she said, health officials are prepared.

“We have a partnership with our EMS and they are observing those being vaccinated for 15 minutes to make sure there are no adverse reactions,” Newman said in an email. “They have two EMS trucks available with emergency equipment and epinephrine, if needed.”

Similarly, representatives for CVS Health and Walgreens said they have the staff and supplies to handle “rare but severe” reactions.

“We have emergency management protocols in place that are required for all vaccine providers, which, following a clinical assessment, may include administering epinephrine, calling 911 and administering CPR, if needed,” Rebekah Pajak, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said in an email.

If the vaccine sites have appropriately trained staffers, plus adequate supplies and equipment, the vast majority of people should opt for the shot, especially as the pandemic continues to surge, said Dr. David Lang, immediate past president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and chairman of the department of immunology at the Cleveland Clinic.

“The overwhelming likelihood is that you won’t have anaphylaxis and the overwhelming benefit far exceeds the risk for harm,” Lang said.

‘Peer Respites’ Provide an Alternative to Psychiatric Wards During Pandemic

Mia McDermott is no stranger to isolation. Abandoned as an infant in China, she lived in an orphanage until a family in California adopted her as a toddler. She spent her adolescence in boarding schools and early adult years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, where she underwent treatment for bipolar disorder, anxiety and anorexia.

The pandemic left McDermott feeling especially lonely. She restricted social interactions because her fatty liver disease put her at greater risk of complications should she contract covid-19. The 26-year-old Santa Cruz resident stopped regularly eating and taking her psychiatric medications, and contemplated suicide.

When McDermott’s thoughts grew increasingly dark in June, she checked into Second Story, a mental health program based in a home not far from her own, where she finds nonclinical support in a peaceful environment from people who have faced similar challenges.

Second Story is what is known as a “peer respite,” a welcoming place where people can stay when they’re experiencing or nearing a mental health crisis. Betting that a low-key wellness approach, coupled with empathy from people who have “been there,” can help people in distress recover, this unorthodox strategy has gained popularity in recent years as the nation grapples with a severe shortage of psychiatric beds that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Peer respites allow guests to avoid psychiatric hospitalization and emergency department visits. They now operate in at least 14 states. California has five, in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County.

“When things are really tough and you need extra support but you don’t need hospitalization, where’s that middle ground?” asked Keris Myrick, founder of Hacienda of Hope, a peer respite in Long Beach, California.

People with serious mental illness are more likely to experience emotional distress in the pandemic than the general population, said Dr. Benjamin Druss, a psychiatrist and professor at Emory University’s public health school, elaborating that they tend to have smaller social networks and more medical problems.

That was the case with McDermott. “I don’t have a full-on relationship with my family. My friends are my family,” she said. She yearned to “give them a hug, see their smile or stand close and take a selfie.”

The next best thing was Second Story, located in a pewter-gray split-level, five-bedroom house in Aptos, a quaint beach community near McDermott’s Santa Cruz home.

Peer respites offer people in distress short-term (usually up to two weeks), round-the-clock emotional support from peers — people who have experienced mental health conditions and are trained and often certified by states to support others with similar issues — and activities like arts, meditation and support groups.

“You can’t tell who’s the guest and who’s the staff. We don’t wear uniforms or badges,” said Angelica Garcia-Guerrero, associate director of Hacienda of Hope’s parent organization.

Peer respites are free for guests but rarely covered by insurance. States and counties typically pick up the tab. Hacienda of Hope’s $900,000 annual operating costs are covered by Los Angeles County through the Mental Health Services Act, a policy that directs proceeds from a statewide tax on people who earn more than $1 million annually to behavioral health programs.

In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would establish a statewide certification process for mental health peer providers by July 2022.

For now, however, peer respite staff members in California are not licensed or certified. Peer respites typically don’t offer clinical care or dispense psychiatric drugs, though guests can bring theirs. Peers share personal stories with guests but avoid labeling them with diagnoses. Guests must come — and can leave — voluntarily. Some respites have few restrictions on who can stay; others don’t allow guests who express suicidal thoughts or are homeless.

Peer respite is one of several types of programs that divert people facing behavioral health crises from the hospital, but the only one without clinical involvement, said Travis Atkinson, a consultant at TBD Solutions, a behavioral health care company. The first peer respites arose around 2000, said Laysha Ostrow, CEO of Live & Learn, which conducts behavioral health research.

The approach seems to be expanding. Live & Learn counts 33 peer respites today in the U.S., up from 19 six years ago. All are overseen and staffed by people with histories of psychiatric disorders. About a dozen other programs employ a mix of peers and laypeople who don’t have psychiatric diagnoses, or aren’t peer-led, Atkinson said.

Though she had stayed at Second Story several times over the past five years, McDermott hesitated to return during the pandemic. However, she felt reassured after learning that guests were required to wear a mask in common areas and get a covid test before their stay. To ensure physical distancing, the respite reduced capacity from six to five guests at a time.

During her two-week stay, McDermott played with the respite’s two cats and piano — activities she found therapeutic. But most helpful was talking to peers in a way she couldn’t with her mental health providers, she said. In the past, McDermott said, she had been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital after she expressed suicidal thoughts. When she shared similar sentiments with Second Story peers, they offered to talk, or call the hospital if she wanted.

“They were willing to listen,” she said. “But they’re not forceful about helping.”

By the end of the visit, McDermott said that she felt understood and her loneliness and suicidal feelings had waned. She started eating and taking her medications more consistently, she said.

The small number of studies on respites have found that guests had fewer hospitalizations and accounted for lower Medicaid spending for nearly a year after a respite stay than people with similar conditions who did not stay in a respite. Respite visitors spent less time in the hospital and emergency room the longer they stayed in the respite.

Financial struggles and opposition from neighbors have hindered the growth of respites, however. Live & Learn said that although five peer respites have been created since 2018, at least two others closed because of budget cuts.

Neighbors have challenged nearby respite placements in a few instances. Santa Cruz-area media outlets reported in 2019 that Second Story neighbors had voiced safety concerns with the respite. Neighbor Tony Crane told California Healthline that guests have used drugs and consumed alcohol in the neighborhood, and he worried that peers are not licensed or certified to support people in crisis. He felt it was too risky to let his children ride their bikes near the respite when they were younger.

In a written response, Monica Martinez, whose organization runs Second Story, said neighbors often target community mental health programs because of concerns that “come from misconceptions and stigma surrounding those seeking mental health support.”

Many respites are struggling with increased demand and decreased availability during the pandemic. Sherry Jenkins Tucker, executive director of Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, said its four respites have had to reduce capacity to enable physical distancing, despite increased demand for services. Other respites have temporarily suspended stays because of the pandemic.

McDermott said her mental health had improved since staying at Second Story in June, but she still struggles with isolation amid the pandemic. “Holidays are hard for me,” said McDermott, who returned to Second Story in November. “I really wanted to be able to have Thanksgiving with people.”