Tagged Public 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.

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California Public Health

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.

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.

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.

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.

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].”

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.”

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.

Mientras los vulnerables esperan, cónyuges de polٌíticos reciben la vacuna contra covid

Los suministros de vacunas contra covid-19 son escasos, por eso un panel asesor federal recomienda primero administrarlas a los trabajadores de salud, que mantienen en funcionamiento el sistema médico del país, y a los adultos mayores en hogares, que tienen más probabilidades de morir a causa del coronavirus.

En ninguna parte de la lista de personas prioritarias están los cónyuges de los funcionarios públicos.

Sin embargo, las primeras damas de Kentucky y West Virginia; Karen Pence, la esposa del vicepresidente Mike Pence; Jill Biden, la esposa del presidente electo Joe Biden; y Doug Emhoff, el esposo de la vicepresidenta electa Kamala Harris, estuvieron entre los primeros estadounidenses en recibir las vacunas que podrían salvar vidas.

Kentucky también vacunó a seis ex gobernadores y cuatro ex primeras damas, incluidos los padres de Andy Beshear, el actual gobernador demócrata.

Las primeras vacunas a los cónyuges provocaron indignación en las redes sociales, y varios usuarios de Twitter dijeron que no deberían poder “saltar la fila” antes que los médicos, enfermeras y personas mayores.

En la mayoría de los 29 estados que respondieron a las consultas de KHN (que llamó a las 50 oficinas de gobierno estatales), los principales funcionarios electos dijeron que ellos, y sus cónyuges, serán vacunados, pero han optado por esperar su turno detrás de electores más vulnerables.

Algunos miembros del Congreso de ambos partidos dijeron lo mismo cuando rechazaron las primeras dosis ofrecidas, en nombre de mantener al gobierno en funcionamiento.

Los gobernadores que recibieron las vacunas junto con sus cónyuges, y la oficina del vicepresidente, dijeron que querían dar el ejemplo a los residentes, generar confianza, salvar las divisiones ideológicas y demostrar que la vacuna es segura y eficaz.

Pero algunos cuestionan esta razón.

“Se parece más a hacer trampa. Los políticos pueden conseguir que los hospitales los vacunen bajo esta ilusión de generar confianza. Pero es una fachada”, dijo Arthur Caplan, profesor de bioética y director fundador de la división de ética médica de la Escuela de Medicina Grossman de la Universidad de Nueva York. “La gente podría decir: ‘Típica gente rica. No se puede confiar en ellos’. Esto socava la meta original”.

Caplan agregó que, de todos modos, el público no confía demasiado en los políticos, por lo que la vacunación de celebridades, líderes religiosos o figuras deportivas probablemente ayudaría más a aumentar la confianza en la vacuna.

Elvis Presley recibió la famosa vacuna contra la polio en 1956 para ganar la confianza de los escépticos; las acciones de las esposas de los gobernadores de ese período se recuerdan menos.

El doctor José Romero, presidente del Comité Asesor de Prácticas de Inmunización de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC), dijo en un correo electrónico a KHN que si bien su grupo proporciona un esquema para distribuir dosis limitadas de vacunas, “las jurisdicciones tienen la flexibilidad de hacer lo que sea apropiado para su población”.

Los funcionarios de Kentucky y Texas señalaron que el doctor Robert Redfield, director de los CDC, alentó a los gobernadores a vacunarse públicamente.

Nadie mencionó razones médicas para que sus cónyuges se vacunaran; los hospitales generalmente no están vacunando a los cónyuges de los profesionales médicos que han recibido la vacuna.

La oficina del gobernador de West Virginia, el republicano Jim Justice, publicó fotografías de él, su esposa, Cathy Justice, y otros funcionarios recibiendo las dosis. También posteó su propia vacunación en YouTube.

La oficina de Beshear en Kentucky también publicó fotos del gobernador recibiendo la vacuna en diciembre, el mismo día que su esposa, Britainy Beshear, y otros funcionarios estatales.

“Es cierto que hay dudas sobre las vacunas”, dijo Beshear en una reunión informativa sobre el coronavirus, el día en el que los ex gobernadores de Kentucky y sus cónyuges fueron vacunados. Aludió a un programa futuro que involucra a líderes religiosos y a otras personas influyentes.

Su padre, el ex gobernador demócrata Steve Beshear, publicó fotos de su vacunación en su página de Facebook, diciendo que él y su esposa, Jane Beshear, junto con otros ex gobernadores de Kentucky de ambos partidos y sus cónyuges, intervinieron en parte para alentar a los residentes a vacunarse.

Kentucky se encuentra actualmente en la primera etapa de distribución de vacunas, dirigida a trabajadores de salud y a residentes de centros de vida asistida. Se habían distribuido menos de 15,000 de las 58,500 dosis para estas residencias cuando los ex gobernadores y sus cónyuges fueron vacunados.

Tres Watson, ex director de comunicaciones del Partido Republicano de Kentucky, que fundó una firma de consultoría política, se mostró escéptico sobre las intenciones detrás del evento. Dijo que parecía ser un esfuerzo de relaciones públicas creado para que el gobernador pudiera vacunar a sus padres.

“Entiendo la continuidad del gobierno, pero las primeras damas no tienen parte en la continuidad del gobierno”, dijo. “Tienes que ajustarte a las prioridades. Una vez que empiezas a hacer excepciones, es cuando tienes problemas”.

Los funcionarios que representan al equipo de transición de Biden-Harris y otros tres estados donde se vacunaron los gobernadores (West Virginia y Texas liderados por republicanos, y Kansas liderado por un demócrata) no respondieron a KHN. El gobernador republicano de Alabama, Kay Ivey, recibió la vacuna y está divorciado.

Políticos de otros estados han hecho lo opuesto.

En Arkansas, el gobernador republicano Asa Hutchinson se centra en garantizar que los grupos de alta prioridad, como los trabajadores de salud, y el personal y residentes de centros de vida asistida, se vacunen, dijo la vocera LaConda Watson. “Él y su esposa recibirán la vacuna cuando sea su turno”, informó.

En Missouri, Kelli Jones, directora de comunicaciones del gobernador republicano Mike Parson, dijo en un correo electrónico que él y la primera dama tienen la intención de vacunarse. Al igual que los gobernadores de Colorado, Nevada y otros lugares, ambos se han recuperado de covid-19, dijo Jones, y “esperarán hasta que su grupo de edad sea elegible” según el plan estatal. Los médicos recomiendan las vacunas incluso para personas que ya han tenido covid.

Cissy Sanders, de 52 años, directora de eventos que vive en Austin, Texas, dijo que entiende por qué los legisladores deberían vacunarse. Su propio gobernador, el republicano Greg Abbott, se vacunó por televisión en vivo para infundir confianza, dijo su secretaria de prensa, Renae Eze, quien no quiso comentar si la esposa de Abbott se había vacunado.

Pero Sanders dijo que los cónyuges de los políticos no deben vacunarse antes que los residentes de un asilo, como su propia madre de 71 años. La madre de Sanders recibió la vacuna a fines de diciembre pero dijo que todavía hay demasiados residentes de hogares esperando en todo el país.

“¿Por qué un grupo que no es de alto riesgo, es decir, estos cónyuges, va a vacunarse antes que el grupo de mayor riesgo? ¿Quién toma estas decisiones?, se preguntó. “Los cónyuges de los políticos no han estado en la zona cero del virus. Los residentes de hogares sí”.

La corresponsal de Montana, Katheryn Houghton, la corresponsal de California Healthline, Angela Hart y los corresponsales Markian Hawlyruk y JoNel Aleccia colaboraron con esta historia.

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KHN on the Air This Week

KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal discussed issues with the U.S. rollout of the covid-19 vaccines with NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and MSNBC’s “The Week With Joshua Johnson” on Jan. 3.


KHN chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner discussed covid’s impact on current politics with WAMU’s “1A” on Dec. 31.


KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber discussed covid in a 2020 news roundup on WAMU’s “1A” on Dec. 31.


KHN senior correspondent Phil Galewitz discussed deep cleaning the White House before the Bidens arrive with Newsy on Dec. 23.


KHN Midwest correspondent Cara Anthony discussed what it’s like to be a reporter during a pandemic with St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here.”


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As the Vulnerable Wait, Some Political Leaders’ Spouses Get Covid Vaccines

With supplies of covid-19 vaccines scarce, a federal advisory panel recommends first putting shots into the arms of health care workers, who keep the nation’s medical system running, and long-term care residents most likely to die from the coronavirus.

Nowhere on the list of prioritized recipients are public officials’ spouses.

Yet the first ladies of Kentucky and West Virginia; Republican Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence; Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden; and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, were among the first Americans to get the potentially lifesaving shots.

Kentucky also vaccinated six former governors and four former first ladies, including current Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s parents.

The early vaccinations of political spouses spurred outrage on social media, with several Twitter users saying they should not be able to “jump the line” ahead of doctors, nurses and older people.

In most of the 29 states that responded to KHN inquiries of all 50 governors’ offices, top elected officials said they — and their spouses — will be vaccinated but have chosen to wait their turn behind more vulnerable constituents. Some Congress members from both parties said much the same when they refused early doses offered in the name of keeping the government running. Those weren’t offered to their spouses.

Governors who got the shots along with their spouses, and the vice president’s office, said they wanted to set an example for residents, build trust, bridge ideological divides and show that the vaccine is safe and effective.

But that’s a rationale some critics don’t buy.

“It looks more like cutting in line than it does securing trust. The politicians can get the hospitals to give it to them under this illusion of building trust. But it’s a façade,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor and founding head of the medical ethics division at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “People might say: ‘Yup, typical rich people. They can’t be trusted.’ This undermines what they set out to do.”

Besides, Caplan said, the public doesn’t trust politicians all that much anyway, so inoculating celebrities, religious leaders or sports figures would likely do more to boost confidence in the vaccine. Rock ’n’ roll king Elvis Presley famously got the polio vaccine in 1956 to help win over those who were skeptical; the actions of governors’ wives from that period are less remembered.

Dr. José Romero, chairperson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, said in an email to KHN that while his group provides an outline for distributing limited vaccine doses, “jurisdictions have the flexibility to do what’s appropriate for their population.” Kentucky and Texas officials pointed out that CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield encouraged governors to publicly get the vaccine.

No one mentioned medical reasons for their spouses to get vaccines; hospitals are generally not vaccinating the spouses of medical professionals who have gotten the shot. (It’s unclear whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus, so it’s possible that a vaccinated person could pass the virus to their spouse or have to quarantine if an unvaccinated spouse were to get covid.)

The office of West Virginia’s governor, Republican Jim Justice, released pictures of him, his wife, Cathy Justice, and other officials receiving shots. He also showed his own vaccination on YouTube.

Beshear’s office in Kentucky also released photos of him getting the vaccine in December on the same day as his wife, Britainy Beshear, and other state officials.

“There is no question that there is vaccine hesitancy out there,” Beshear said at a coronavirus briefing on Monday, the day former Kentucky governors and their spouses were vaccinated. He alluded to a future program involving faith leaders and others. “Validators are incredibly important to building that confidence.”

His father, Democratic former Gov. Steve Beshear, posted photos of his vaccination on his Facebook page, saying that he and his wife, Jane Beshear, along with other former Kentucky governors of both parties and their spouses, stepped up partly to show residents the vaccine is safe and encourage them to get it when it’s available to them.

Kentucky is currently in the first stage of vaccine distribution, which targets health care workers and residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities. Fewer than 15,000 of the 58,500 doses received for long-term care had been given out when the former governors and their spouses were vaccinated.

Tres Watson, a former communications director for the Republican Party of Kentucky who founded a political consulting firm, was skeptical about the intentions behind the event. He said it seemed to be a public relations effort created so the governor could vaccinate his parents.

“I understand the continuity of government, but first ladies have no part in the continuity of government,” he said. “You need to stick with the priorities. Once you start making exceptions, that’s when you run into problems.”

Officials representing the Biden-Harris transition team and three other states where governors got vaccinated — Republican-led West Virginia and Texas, and Democratic-led Kansas — either didn’t respond to KHN or didn’t answer questions about spouses. Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, got the vaccine and is divorced.

Politicians in other states have taken the opposite tack.

In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is focused on ensuring high-priority groups such as health care workers, long-term care staffers and residents are vaccinated, said spokesperson LaConda Watson. “He and his wife will receive the vaccination when it’s their turn,” she said.

In Missouri, Kelli Jones, communications director for Republican Gov. Mike Parson, said in an email that he and the first lady fully intend to get the vaccine. Like governors from Colorado, Nevada and elsewhere, they’ve both recovered from covid-19, Jones said, and will “wait until their age group is eligible” under the state plan. Doctors recommend vaccinations even for people who have already had covid.

Cissy Sanders, 52, an events manager who lives in Austin, Texas, said she understands why lawmakers would need to get the vaccine. Her own governor, Republican Greg Abbott, received it on live television to instill confidence, said his press secretary, Renae Eze, who wouldn’t address whether Abbott’s wife was vaccinated.

But Sanders said politicians’ spouses should not be vaccinated before nursing home residents like her 71-year-old mom. Sanders’ mother received the vaccine in late December — after some public officials’ spouses — but she said far too many nursing home residents across America are still waiting.

“Why is a non-high-risk group — i.e., these spouses — going before the most high-risk group? Who makes these decisions? Who thinks this is a good, responsible, safe decision to make?” she said. “Political spouses have not been at ground zero for the virus. Nursing home residents have been.”

KHN Montana correspondent Katheryn Houghton, California Healthline correspondent Angela Hart and KHN senior correspondents Markian Hawryluk and JoNel Aleccia contributed to this report.

Do-It-Yourself Contact Tracing Is a ‘Last Resort’ in Communities Besieged by Covid

The contact tracers of Washtenaw County in Michigan have been deluged with work and, to cope, the overburdened health department has a new tactic: It is asking residents who test positive for covid-19 to do their own contact tracing.

Washtenaw is a county of nearly 350,000 residents who live in and around the city of Ann Arbor, about 45 minutes from Detroit. Until mid-October, a county team of 15 contact tracers was managing the workload. But by Thanksgiving, more than 1,000 residents were testing positive for the coronavirus every week, and the tracers could not keep pace.

In Washtenaw County, the process starts with people called case investigators, who receive lab reports of positive coronavirus tests. Their job is to call anyone who has tested positive, tell them they need to isolate and ask them for the names of people with whom they have had close contact. After creating a list of potentially exposed “contacts,” investigators pass it to a new team to start the actual contact tracing. As the number of positive cases builds, the number of calls tracers must make swells.

But in recent weeks, it’s not just the number of positive cases that has increased, overwhelming the capacity of case investigators — so has the number of contacts that each infected person has, said contact tracer Madeline Bacolor.

“There’s just so many more people that are gathering and that are exposed,” she said. “It used to be, we had a case, and maybe that person had seen two people, and now it’s a whole classroom full of day care students or a whole workplace.”

The work to keep people who have been exposed to the virus away from people who have not is crucial, said public health professor Angela Beck, because it breaks viral transmission chains and prevents the virus from spreading unchecked through a community.

Beck teaches at the University of Michigan and runs the campus program for tracing coronavirus exposures among students.

When you’re trying to contain an infectious disease, she said, running out of contact tracers is “not a situation that you want to be in.”

But it’s happening now in health departments in Michigan and around the U.S. where contact tracing workforces have grown, but not fast enough to keep pace with the pandemic’s spread.

As a result, health departments are asking some residents with covid to reach out to their contacts on their own.

Trying ‘a Compromised Strategy’

Once billed as one of the fundamental tools for stemming the spread of the virus, contact tracing has fallen apart in many regions of the country. It’s a systematic breakdown that Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said hasn’t happened since the spread and stigma of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s.

In Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula, a public health district spanning five counties warned residents that its tracers were overwhelmed and that they might not receive a call at all, despite testing positive. Health workers would need to focus their efforts on residents 65 and older, teens and children attending school in person, and people living in group settings.

In Michigan’s southwestern corner, contact tracers in Van Buren and Cass counties can no longer keep up with their calls. It’s the same situation in Berrien County: “If you test positive, take action immediately by isolating and notifying close contacts,” the county health officer urged residents in a press release.

Health officials have taken similar actions in all regions of the country, including Oregon, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia.

Within many health departments, the shortage of contact tracers has been exacerbated by the communications challenge of relaying a recent change in quarantine guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — it reduced the quarantine period from 14 days to 10 for some individuals exposed to the virus.

The idea behind the change was that the risk of transmission after 10 days of quarantine was low, and shorter quarantine periods might increase people’s willingness to comply with the orders. But the shift also meant that contact tracers had to spend time learning and explaining the new procedures just when caseloads were exploding.

“It makes things more confusing,” said Bacolor, the contact tracer in Washtenaw County. “People might be hearing something different from their job or school than they are from the health department.”

Asking infected people, some of whom might be sick, to call their own friends and families — in effect, conduct their own contact-tracing operation — is far from ideal, public health experts said.

“It is a last-resort tool,” said Beck, the University of Michigan professor. “It is the best that we can do in the situation that we’re in, but it’s a compromised strategy.”

Contact tracing is more than just alerting people to a potential exposure so they can quarantine. Part of the process is to conduct carefully structured interviews with those exposed, to determine if they’ve developed symptoms of covid-19. If so, contacts of those people also need to be traced and told to quarantine, to prevent the virus from proliferating through successive chains of people in the community.

Trained contact tracers also often ask valuable questions to learn more about how the virus was transmitted from person to person so that local health officials can piece together an understanding about which settings and activities seem particularly likely to promote spread — in-person choir rehearsals and crowded bars, for example — and which are unlikely to generate outbreaks.

Contact tracing is a key part of a tried-and-true strategy known as “test, trace and isolate.” Public health professor Beck said the strategy has been used all over the world and it works — when there are enough people and enough time to do it properly.

And she said effective contact tracing can help mitigate the economic pain of a pandemic because it means that only people with known exposures to the virus must stay away from workplaces and school and refrain from other activities.

But success requires significant investment in public health infrastructure, something that Beck and other researchers said has been lacking for decades in the U.S.

This story is part of a partnership that includes NPR and KHN.

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Georgia Turns the Senate Blue


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Surprise Democratic victories in Georgia’s two runoff elections this week will give Democrats control of the Senate, which means they will be in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 2010. Although the narrow majorities in the House and Senate will likely not allow Democrats to pass major expansions to health programs, it will make it easier to do things such as pass fixes for the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, the speedy development and approval of vaccines to protect against covid-19 is being squandered by the lack of a national strategy to get those vaccines into people’s arms. Straightening out and speeding up vaccinations will be a major priority for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico and Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Georgia election results will make it easier for some of Biden’s Cabinet picks to be confirmed, including Xavier Becerra, his choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Among the ACA fixes that congressional Democrats may seek is a restoration of a small penalty for people who do not have health coverage. That could negate the case before the Supreme Court now that was brought by Republican state officials.
  • One strategic error in the covid vaccine distribution efforts was that the release of the vaccine was not coupled with a major messaging campaign to explain what the vaccine does and dispel fears about it.
  • Late last month, a federal court blocked the Trump administration from implementing a plan to tie what Medicare pays for some drugs to the prices in other countries. It’s not clear if the Biden administration will continue the legal fight to keep the program, but the president-elect has suggested he is more interested in bringing down drug prices by negotiating with manufacturers.
  • The Trump administration has sued retail giant Walmart, alleging it unlawfully dispensed opioids from its pharmacies.

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

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “One Hospital System Sued 2,500 Patients After Pandemic Hit,” by Brian M. Rosenthal

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Congress Using COVID Test That FDA Warns May Be Faulty,” by David Lim and Sarah Ferris

Mary Ellen McIntire: Bloomberg News’ “The World’s Most Loathed Industry Gave Us a Vaccine in Record Time,” by Drew Armstrong

Anna Edney: STAT News’ “How It Started: A Q&A With Helen Branswell, One Year After Covid-19 Became a Full-Time Job,” by Jason Ukman


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Listen: How Operation Warp Speed Became a Slow Walk

KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal appeared on Diane Rehm’s “On My Mind” podcast on NPR to discuss the bottlenecks that have prevented doses of precious covid-19 vaccine from making it from drugmakers’ factories into patients’ arms. It didn’t have to be this way, she explains.

San Francisco Wrestles With Drug Approach as Death and Chaos Engulf Tenderloin

SAN FRANCISCO — In early 2019, Tom Wolf posted a thank-you on Twitter to the cop who had arrested him the previous spring, when he was homeless and strung out in a doorway with 103 tiny bindles of heroin and cocaine in a plastic baggie at his feet.

“You saved my life,” wrote Wolf, who had finally gotten clean after that bust and 90 days in jail, ending six months of sleeping on scraps of cardboard on the sidewalk.

Today, he joins a growing chorus of people, including the mayor, calling for the city to crack down on an increasingly deadly drug trade. But there is little agreement on how that should be done. Those who demand more arrests and stiffer penalties for dealers face powerful opposition in a city with little appetite for locking people up for drugs, especially as the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements push to drastically limit the power of law enforcement to deal with social problems.

Drug overdoses killed 621 people in the first 11 months of 2020, up from 441 in all of 2019 and 259 in 2018. San Francisco is on track to lose an average of nearly two people a day to drugs in 2020, compared with the 178 who had died by Dec. 20 of the coronavirus.

As in other parts of the country, most of the overdoses have been linked to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that laid waste to the eastern United States starting in 2013 but didn’t arrive in the Bay Area until about five years later. Just as the city’s drug scene was awash with the lethal new product — which is 50 times stronger than heroin and sells on the street for around $20 for a baggie weighing less than half a gram — the coronavirus pandemic hit, absorbing the attention and resources of health officials and isolating drug users, making them more likely to overdose.

The pandemic is contributing to rising overdose deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported last month that a record 81,000 Americans died of an overdose in the 12 months ending in May.

“This is moving very quickly in a horrific direction, and the solutions aren’t matching it,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, where nearly 40% of the deaths have occurred. Haney, who has hammered City Hall for what he sees as its indifference to a life-or-death crisis, is calling for a more coordinated response.

“It should be a harm reduction response, it should be a treatment response — and yes, there needs to be a law enforcement aspect of it too,” he said.

Tensions within the city’s leadership came to a head in September, when Mayor London Breed supported an effort by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to clean up the Tenderloin by legally blocking 28 known drug dealers from entering the neighborhood.

But District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive elected in 2019 on a platform of police accountability and racial justice, sided with activists opposing the move. He called it a “recycled, punishment-focused” approach that would accomplish nothing.

People have died on the Tenderloin’s needle-strewn sidewalks and alone in hotel rooms where they were housed by the city to protect them from covid-19. Older Black men living alone in residential hotels are dying at particularly high rates; Blacks make up around 5% of the city’s population but account for a quarter of the 2020 overdoses. Last February, a man was found hunched over, ice-cold, in the front pew at St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church.

The only reason drug deaths aren’t in the thousands, say health officials, is the outreach that has become the mainstay of the city’s drug policy. From January to October, 2,975 deaths were prevented by naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that’s usually sprayed up the nose, according to the DOPE Project, a city-funded program that trains outreach workers, drug users, the users’ family members and others.

Outreach groups in the Tenderloin distribute meals, substance abuse services and naloxone — a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. (Rachel Scheier)

“If we didn’t have Narcan,” said program manager Kristen Marshall, referring to the common naloxone brand name, “there would be no room at our morgue.”

The city is also hoping that this year state lawmakers will approve safe consumption sites, where people can do drugs in a supervised setting. Other initiatives, like a 24-hour meth sobering center and an overhaul of the city’s behavioral health system, have been put on hold because of pandemic-strained resources.

Efforts like the DOPE Project, the country’s largest distributor of naloxone, reflect a seismic shift over the past few years in the way cities confront drug abuse. As more people have come to see addiction as a disease rather than a crime, there is little appetite for locking up low-level dealers, let alone drug users — policies left over from the “war on drugs” that began in 1971 under President Richard Nixon and disproportionately punished Black Americans.

In practice, San Francisco police don’t arrest people for taking drugs, certainly not in the Tenderloin. On a sunny afternoon in early December, a red-haired young woman in a beret crouched on a Hyde Street sidewalk with her eyes closed, clutching a piece of foil and a straw. A few blocks away, a man sat on the curb injecting a needle into a thigh covered with scabs and scars, while two uniformed police officers sat in a squad car across the street.

Last spring, after the pandemic prompted a citywide shutdown, police stopped arresting dealers to avoid contacts that might spread the coronavirus. Within weeks, the sidewalks of the Tenderloin were lined with transients in tents. The streets became such a narcotics free-for-all that many of the working-class and immigrant families living there felt afraid to leave their homes, according to a federal lawsuit filed by business owners and residents. It accuses City Hall of treating less wealthy ZIP codes as “containment zones” for the city’s ills.

The suit was settled a few weeks later after officials moved most of the tents to designated “safe sleeping sites.” But for many, the deterioration of the Tenderloin, juxtaposed with the gleaming headquarters of companies like Twitter and Uber just blocks away, symbolizes San Francisco’s starkest contradictions.

Mayor Breed, who lost her younger sister to a drug overdose in 2006, has called for a crackdown on drug dealing.

The Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin was one such effort, announced in 2019. It aims to “reclaim a neighborhood that is being smothered by lawlessness,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said at a recent virtual news conference held to announce a major operation in which the feds arrested seven people and seized 10 pounds of fentanyl.

Law enforcement agencies have blamed the continued availability of cheap, potent drugs on lax prosecutions. Boudin, however, said his office files charges in 80% of felony drug cases, but most involve low-level dealers whom cartels can easily replace in a matter of hours.

He pointed to a 2019 federal sting that culminated in the arrest of 32 dealers — mostly Hondurans who were later deported — after a two-year undercover operation involving 15 agencies.

“You go walk through the Tenderloin today and tell me if it made a difference,” said Boudin.

Hyde Street between Golden Gate and Turk is one of the Tenderloin’s most notorious blocks. Drugs are routinely sold and consumed in broad daylight, sometimes yards away from police officers. (Rachel Scheier)

His position reflects a growing “progressive prosecutor” movement that questions whether decades-old policies that focus on putting people behind bars are effective or just. In May, the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police energized a nationwide police reform campaign. Cities around the country, including San Francisco, have promised to redirect millions of dollars from law enforcement to social programs.

“If our city leadership says in one breath that they want to defund the police and are for racial and economic justice and in the next talk about arresting drug dealers, they’re hypocrites and they’re wrong,” said Marshall, the leader of the DOPE Project.

But Wolf, 50, believes a concerted crackdown on dealers would send a message to the drug networks that San Francisco is no longer an open-air illegal drug market.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans who’ve succumbed to opiate misuse, he began with a prescription for the painkiller oxycodone, in his case following foot surgery in 2015. When the pills ran out, he made his way from his tidy home in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, to the Tenderloin, where dealers in hoodies and backpacks loiter three or four deep on some blocks.

When he could no longer afford pills, Wolf switched to heroin, which he learned how to inject on YouTube. He soon lost his job as a caseworker for the city and his wife threw him out, so he became homeless, holding large quantities of drugs for Central American dealers, who sometimes showed him photos of the lavish houses they were having built for their families back home.

Looking back, he wishes it hadn’t taken six arrests and three months behind bars before someone finally pushed him toward treatment.

“In San Francisco, it seems like we’ve moved away from trying to urge people into treatment and instead are just trying to keep people alive,” he said. “And that’s not really working out that great.”

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

In Los Angeles and Beyond, Oxygen Is the Latest Covid Bottleneck

As Los Angeles hospitals give record numbers of covid patients oxygen, the systems and equipment needed to deliver the life-sustaining gas are faltering.

It’s gotten so bad that Los Angeles County officials are warning paramedics to conserve it. Some hospitals are having to delay releasing patients as they don’t have enough oxygen equipment to send home with them.

“Everybody is worried about what’s going to happen in the next week or so,” said Cathy Chidester, director of the L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Oxygen, which makes up 21% of the Earth’s air, isn’t running short. But covid damages the lungs, and the crush of patients in hot spots such as Los Angeles, the Navajo Nation, El Paso, Texas, and in New York last spring have needed high concentrations of it. That has stressed the infrastructure for delivering the gas to hospitals and their patients.

The strain in those areas is caused by multiple weak links in the pandemic supply chain. In some hospitals that pipe oxygen to patients’ rooms, the massive volume of cold liquid oxygen is freezing the equipment needed to deliver it, which can block the system.

“You can completely — literally, completely — shut down the entire hospital supply if that happens,” said Rich Branson, a respiratory therapist with the University of Cincinnati and editor-in-chief of the journal Respiratory Care.

There is also pressure on the availability of both the portable cylinders that hold oxygen and the concentrators that pull oxygen from the air. And in some cases, vendors that supply the oxygen have struggled to get enough of the gas to hospitals. Even nasal cannulas, the tubing used to deliver oxygen, are now running low.

“It’s been nuts, absolutely nuts,” said Esteban Trejo, general manager of Syoxsa, an industrial and medical gas distributor based in El Paso. He provides oxygen to several temporary hospitals set up specifically to treat people with covid.

In November, he said, he was answering calls in the middle of the night from contractors worried about oxygen supplies. At one point, when the company’s usual supplier fell through, they were hauling oxygen from Houston, which is a more than 10-hour drive each way.

Branson has been sounding the alarm about logistical limitations on critical care since the SARS pandemic nearly 20 years ago, when he and others surveyed experts about the specific equipment and infrastructure needed during a future pandemic. Oxygen was near the top of the list.

Oxygen as Cold as Neptune

Last spring, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut faced a challenge similar to what is now unfolding in Los Angeles, said Robert Karcher, a vice president of contract services for Acurity, a group purchasing organization that worked with many hospitals during that surge.

To take up less space, oxygen is often stored as a liquid around minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, about as cold as the surface of Neptune. But as covid patients filling ICUs were given oxygen through ventilators or nasal tubes, some hospitals began to see ice form over the equipment that converts liquid oxygen into a gas.

When a hospital draws more and more liquid oxygen from those tanks, the super-cold liquid can seep further into the vaporizing coils where liquid oxygen turns to gas.

Branson said some ice is normal, but a lot of ice can cause valves on the device to freeze in place. And the ice can restrict airflow in the pipes sending the oxygen into patients’ rooms, Karcher said. To combat this, hospitals could switch to a backup vaporizer if they had one, hose down iced vaporizers or move patients to cylinder-delivered oxygen. But that puts additional strain on the hospitals’ cylinder oxygen supply, as well as the medical gas supplier, Karcher said.

Hospitals in New York began to panic in the spring because the icing of the vaporizer was much greater than they had seen before, he added. It got so bad, he said, that some hospitals worried they’d have to close their ICUs.

“They thought they were in imminent danger of their tank piping shutting down,” he said. “We came pretty close in a couple of our hospitals. It was a rough few weeks.”

The strain on Los Angeles health care infrastructure could be worse given the now-common treatment of putting patients on oxygen using high-flow nasal cannulas. That requires more of the gas pumped at a higher rate than with ventilators.

“I don’t know of any system that is really set to triple patient volumes — or 10 times the oxygen delivery,” Chidester said of the L.A. County hospitals. “They’re having a hard time keeping up.”

The Oxygen Shortage Doom Loop

In and around Los Angeles, the Army Corps of Engineers has so far surveyed 11 hospitals for freezing oxygen pipe issues. The hospitals are a mix of older facilities and smaller suburban hospitals seeing such high demand amid skyrocketing cases in the area, said Mike Petersen, a Corps spokesperson.

One of the worst examples he saw included pipes that looked like a home freezer that had not been defrosted in some time.

The problem gets worse for hospitals that have had to convert regular hospital rooms to intensive care units. ICU pipes are bigger than those leading to other parts of a hospital. When rooms get repurposed as pop-up ICUs, the pipes can simply be too narrow to deliver the oxygen that covid patients need. And so, Chidester said, the hospitals switch to large cylinders of oxygen. But vendors are having a hard time refilling those quickly enough.

Even smaller cylinders and oxygen concentrators are in short supply amid the surge, she said. Those patients who could be sent home with an oxygen cylinder are left stuck in a hospital waiting for one, taking up a much-needed bed.

‘Extreme Rurality’

In early December, doctors serving the Navajo Nation said they needed more of everything: the oxygen itself and the equipment to get oxygen to patients both in the hospital and recovering at home.

“We’ve never reached capacity before — until now,” said Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in mid-December. Its hospitals serve a patient population in the southwestern U.S. that’s spread across an area bigger than West Virginia.

The buildings are aging, and they aren’t built to house a large number of critical patients, said Christensen. As the number of patients on high-flow oxygen climbed, several facilities started to notice their oxygen flow weaken. They thought something was broken, but when engineers took a look, Christensen said, it became clear the system was just not able to provide the amount of high-flow oxygen patients needed.

She said a hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, put in new filters to maximize oxygen flow. After delays from snowy weather, a hospital serving the northern part of the Navajo Nation managed to hook up a second oxygen tank to boost capacity.

But medical facilities in the area are always a little on edge.

“Honestly, we worry about supply a lot out here because — and I call it extreme rurality — you just can’t get something tomorrow,” said Christensen. “It’s not like being in an urban area where you can say, ‘Oh, I need this right now.’”

Because of the small size of certain hospitals and the difficulty of getting to some of them, Christensen said, Navajo facilities aren’t attractive to big vendors, so they rely on local vendors, which may prove more vulnerable to supply chain hiccups.

Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, has at times had to keep patients in the hospital and transfer incoming patients to other facilities because it couldn’t get the oxygen cylinders needed to send recovering patients home.

Tina James-Tafoya, covid incident commander at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital Board, which runs the center, said at-home oxygen is out of the question for some patients. Oxygen concentrators require electricity, which some patients don’t have. And for patients who live in hogans, homes often heated with a wood stove, the use of oxygen cylinders is a hazard.

“It’s really interesting and eye-opening for me to see that something that seems so simple like oxygen has so many different things tied to it that will hinder it getting to the patient,” she said.

Black Women Find Healing (But Sometimes Racism, Too) in the Outdoors

It would be the last hike of the season, Jessica Newton had excitedly posted on her social media platforms. With mild weather forecast and Colorado’s breathtaking fall foliage as a backdrop, she was convinced an excursion at Beaver Ranch Park would be the quintessential way to close out months of warm-weather hikes with her “sister friends.”


This story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free.

Still, when that Sunday morning in 2018 arrived, she was shocked when her usual crew of about 15 had mushroomed into about 70 Black women. There’s a first time for everything, she thought as they broke into smaller groups and headed toward the nature trail. What a sight they were, she recalled, as the women — in sneakers and hiking boots, a virtual sea of colorful headwraps, flowy braids and dreadlocks, poufy twists and long, flowy locks — trekked peacefully across the craggy terrain in the crisp mountain air.

It. Was. Perfect. Exactly what Newton had envisioned when in 2017 she founded Black Girls Hike to connect with other Black women who share her affinity for outdoor activities. She also wanted to recruit others who had yet to experience the serenity of nature, a pastime she fell for as a child attending an affluent, predominately white private school.

But their peaceful exploration of nature and casual chatter — about everything from food and family to hair care and child care — was abruptly interrupted, she said, by the ugly face of racism.

“We had the sheriff called on us, park rangers called on us,” recalled Newton, now 37, who owns a construction industry project development firm in Denver.

“This lady who was horseback riding was upset that we were hiking on her trail. She said that we’d spooked her horse,” she said of a woman in a group of white horseback riders they encountered. “It just didn’t make any sense. I felt like, it’s a horse and you have an entire mountain that you can trot through, run through, gallop through or whatever. She was just upset that we were in her space.”

Eventually, two Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies, with guns on their hips, approached, asking, “What’s going on here?” They had been contacted by rangers who’d received complaints about a large group of Black women being followed by camera drones in the park; the drones belonged to a national television news crew shooting a feature on the group. (The segment aired weeks later, but footage of the confrontation wasn’t included.)

“‘Move that mob!’” attendee Portia Prescott recalled one of the horseback riders barking.

“Why is it that a group of Black women hiking on a trail on a Sunday afternoon in Colorado is considered a ‘mob?’” Prescott asked.

A man soon arrived who identified himself as the husband of one of the white women on horseback and the manager of the park, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office incident report, and began arguing with the television producers in what one deputy described in the report as a “hostile” manner.

The leader of the horseback tour told the deputies that noise from the large group and the drones startled the horses and that when she complained to the news crew, they told her to deal with it herself, the report said. The news crew told deputies that the group members felt insulted by the horseback riders use of the term “mob.” The woman leading the horseback riders, identified in the incident report as Marie Elliott, said that she did not remember calling the group a mob, but she told the officers she “would have said the same thing if the group had been a large group of Girl Scouts.”

In the end, Newton and her fellow hikers were warned for failing to secure a permit for the group. Newton said she regrets putting members in a distressing — and potentially life-threatening — situation by unknowingly breaking a park rule. However, she suspects that a similarly sized hiking group of white women would not have been confronted so aggressively.

“You should be excited that we are bringing more people to use your parks,” added Newton. “Instead, we got slammed with [threats of] violations and ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Please, get your people and get out of here.’ It’s just crazy.”

Mike Taplin, spokesperson for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that no citations were issued. The deputies “positively engaged with everyone, with the goal of preserving the peace,” he said.

Newton said the “frustrating” incident has reminded her why her group, which she has revamped and renamed Vibe Tribe Adventures, is so needed in the white-dominated outdoor enthusiasts’ arena.

With the tagline “Find your tribe,” the group aims to create a sisterhood for Black women “on the trails, on waterways and in our local communities across the globe.” Last summer, she secured nonprofit status and expanded Vibe Tribe’s focus, adding snowshoeing, fly-fishing, zip lining and kayaking to its roster. Today, the Denver-based group has 11 chapters across the U.S. (even Guam) and Canada, with about 2,100 members.

Research suggests her work is needed. The most recent National Park Service survey found that 6% of visitors are Black, compared with 77% white. Newton said that must change — especially given the opportunities parks provide and the health challenges that disproportionately plague Black women. Research shows they experience higher rates of chronic preventable health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. A 2020 study found that racial discrimination also may increase stress, lead to health problems and reduce cognitive functioning in Black women. Newton said it underscores the need for stress-relieving activities.

“It’s been studied at several colleges that if you are outdoors for at least five minutes, it literally brings your stress level down significantly,” said Newton. “Being around nature, it’s like grounding yourself. That is vital.”

Newton said participation in the group generally tapers off in winter. She is hopeful, though, that cabin fever from the pandemic will inspire more Black women to try winter activities.

Atlanta member Stormy Bradley, 49, said the group has added value to her life. “I am a happier and healthier person because I get to do what I love,” said the sixth grade teacher. “The most surprising thing is the sisterhood we experience on and off the trails.”

Patricia Cameron, a Black woman living in Colorado Springs, drew headlines this summer when she hiked 486 miles — from Denver to Durango — and blogged about her experience to draw attention to diversity in the outdoors. She founded the Colorado nonprofit Blackpackers in 2019.

“One thing I caught people saying a lot of is ‘Well, nature is free’ and ‘Nature isn’t racist’ — and there’s two things wrong with that,” said Cameron, a 37-year-old single mother of a preteen.

“Nature and outside can be free, yes, but what about transportation? How do you get to certain outdoor environments? Do you have the gear to enjoy the outdoors, especially in Colorado, where we’re very gear-conscious and very label-conscious?” she asked. “Nature isn’t going to call me the N-word, but the people outside might.”

Cameron applauds Newton’s efforts and those of other groups nationwide, like Nature Gurlz, Outdoor Afro, Diversify Outdoors, Black Outdoors, Soul Trak Outdoors, Melanin Base Camp and Black Girls Run, that have a similar mission. Cameron said it also was encouraging that the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, pledged in the wake of the racial unrest sparked by George Floyd’s death to help address a “long history of systemic racism and injustice” in the outdoors.

Efforts to draw more Black people, especially women, outdoors, Cameron said, must include addressing barriers, like cost. For example, Blackpackers provides a “gear locker” to help members use pricey outdoor gear free or at discounted rates. She has also partnered with businesses and organizations that subsidize and sponsor outdoor excursions. During the pandemic, Vibe Tribe has waived all membership fees through this month.

Cameron said she dreams of a day when Black people are free from the pressures of carrying the nation’s racial baggage when participating in outdoor activities.

Vibe Tribe member and longtime outdoor enthusiast Jan Garduno, 52, of Aurora, Colorado, agreed that fear and safety are pressing concerns. For example, leading up to the presidential election she changed out of her “Let My People Vote” T-shirt before heading out on a solo walk for fear of how other hikers might react.

Groups like Vibe Tribe, she said, provide camaraderie and an increased sense of safety. And another plus? The health benefits can also be transformative.

“I’ve been able to lose about 40 pounds and I’ve kept it off,” explained Garduno.

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.

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