Tagged Public Health

¿Viajas para el Día de Acción de Gracias? Deberás atravesar la barrera de COVID

Molly Wiese estaba perpleja. Sus padres y hermanos viven en el sur de California, y Wiese, abogada de 35 años, ha viajado cada Navidad desde que se mudó a Minnesota en 2007.

Por la pandemia, Wiese pensó que esta vez sería más prudente quedarse. Pero en junio, el padre de Wiese fue diagnosticado con cáncer en estadio 4 y la familia teme que éstas sean sus últimas fiestas.

¿Debería volar con su esposo y sus dos hijos pequeños a California, poniendo a su padre inmunodeprimido en riesgo de COVID-19? ¿O quedarse en casa y perderse la oportunidad de crear recuerdos de estas fiestas?

Sus hijos están en la guardería y el marido de Wiese trabaja en una escuela. No tienen suficiente tiempo de vacaciones para ponerse en cuarentena antes o después de un vuelo, y conducir ocho días de ida y vuelta está fuera de discusión.

Teme transmitirle el coronavirus a su padre. Pero sus padres, que viven en la ciudad de Yucaipa de Inland Empire, creen que vale la pena correr el riesgo de ver a sus nietos y tener “nuestra Navidad normal”, contó Wiese.

“Idealmente, tendríamos una vacuna”, dijo. “Pero no creo que sea una expectativa realista”. Pfizer, el aparente líder en la carrera para una vacuna contra COVID, dice que ni siquiera estará listo para solicitar la aprobación hasta fines de noviembre, como muy pronto.

El padre de Molly Wiese tiene cáncer avanzado y Wiese teme que ésta sea su última temporada de fiestas. Pero duda en viajar al sur de California para visitar a su familia, por temor de ponerlo en riesgo de contraer COVID. De izquierda a derecha: Molly Wiese, su hijo Calvin, su esposo Phil Wiese, su hijo Bennett, y sus padres, Becky y Bill Miller.

Si bien el enigma de Wiese es especialmente importante, su historia ilustra la difícil decisión a la que se enfrentan millones de estadounidenses sobre si viajar o no durante las vacaciones de invierno, y cómo hacerlo.

La mejor forma de evitar la propagación de enfermedades sería evitar los viajes o ampliar los círculos sociales. Para las celebraciones locales, la cuarentena durante dos semanas antes de un evento festivo minimizaría el riesgo, pero solo si todos los comensales se comprometieran a seguirla. Pero algunas personas tienen que trabajar fuera de casa.

Después de al menos siete meses de estar prácticamente encerrados, las vacaciones de invierno representan una tentación casi insuperable. Incluso expertos en salud pública y enfermedades infecciosas reconocen el dilema.

“Hay mucho que ganar con el contacto físico, en la misma sala y no en una pantalla de Zoom o FaceTime”, dijo el doctor Peter Chin-Hong, especialista en enfermedades infecciosas y profesor de medicina en la Universidad de California-San Francisco.

El doctor Anthony Fauci, la autoridad nacional en enfermedades infecciosas en los Institutos Nacionales de Salud, no es inmune al problema. El 13 de octubre, le dijo a “The World” que él y sus tres hijas adultas, que viven en distintos estados, todavía estaban decidiendo si estar juntos “valdría la pena”.

Al día siguiente, Fauci le dijo a “CBS Evening News” que la reunión de Acción de Gracias de su familia estaba cancelada, dados los riesgos que plantean los vuelos. “Puede que tenga que sacrificar esa reunión social, a menos que esté bastante seguro de que las personas con las que está tratando no están infectadas”, dijo.

El doctor Robert Redfield, director de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC), y la doctora Deborah Birx, coordinadora del equipo de respuesta a COVID de la administración Trump, advirtieron que las reuniones de Thanksgiving podrían propagar el virus.

En California, funcionarios de salud pública están adoptando un enfoque de “reducción de daño”: no están fomentando las reuniones de varias familias, pero han emitido pautas para hacer que las reuniones sean más seguras si se realizan al aire libre y duran menos de dos horas.

Funcionarios del condado de Los Ángeles, que ha visto un aumento en las tasas de transmisión en las últimas semanas, publicaron una guía similar, reconociendo que las personas separadas de sus seres queridos durante meses anhelan cada vez más ese contacto.

“Estamos tratando de encontrar un balance, pero creo que es apropiado que intentemos llevar a cabo algunas de las actividades que la gente está desesperada por poder hacer, con total apego a la guía”, dijo Barbara Ferrer, directora de del departamento de salud pública del condado, en una conferencia de prensa el 14 de octubre.

En todo el mundo, los feriados nacionales han impulsado la propagación de COVID-19 de manera explosiva. En China, donde comenzó la pandemia, se estima que 5 millones de personas que viajaban por el Año Nuevo chino abandonaron Wuhan, el epicentro del brote, antes de que se promulgara una prohibición de viajar.

En Irán, la pandemia se impulsó por Nowruz, una celebración de primavera de dos semanas durante la que viajan millones. En Israel, las fiestas y reuniones religiosas de Purim provocaron una transmisión generalizada a fines de marzo.

Las celebraciones de Memorial Day, el 4 de julio y el Día del Trabajo impulsaron aumentos repentinos de casos en los Estados Unidos, por eso el Día de Acción de Gracias asusta a los funcionarios de salud pública.

El año pasado, viajaron más de 55 millones de personas durante los días que rodearon ese cuarto jueves de noviembre.

Sin embargo, funcionarios de todo el país están siendo suaves cuando se trata de advertencias.

En Minnesota, donde vive Wiese y los casos están alcanzando niveles récord, funcionarios instan al público a evitar las tiendas abarrotadas y las grandes reuniones en interiores con varias familias.

Pero dicen que las cenas de Acción de Gracias al aire libre con amigos y familiares locales son menos riesgosas. Su guía no explica cómo tolerar un Día de Acción de Gracias al aire libre en Minnesota. La temperatura máxima promedio en Minneapolis el 26 de noviembre es de 33 grados.

Michael Osterholm, director del Centro de Investigación y Política de Enfermedades Infecciosas de la Universidad de Minnesota, dice “paremos un poco”.

Osterholm explicó que si no puedes ponerte en cuarentena durante 10 a 14 días antes del evento, es decir, sin contacto con personas además de los miembros de tu hogar que también están en cuarentena, no vayas a la cena de Acción de Gracias en otra casa: el estado ya ha visto demasiados ejemplos de personas vulnerables que se enferman y mueren después de asistir a bodas, funerales y cumpleaños.

“Que este sea tu año COVID”, dijo Osterholm. “Es un año muy desafiante, pero no quieres introducir este virus en entornos familiares y experimentar las consecuencias”.

Osterholm y su pareja pasarán el Día de Acción de Gracias y la Navidad sin familiares, a pesar de que sus hijos y nietos son todos locales. Debido a que todos sus nietos están en la guardería o en la escuela, no hay suficiente tiempo para que sus familias se pongan en cuarentena antes de disfrutar juntos de una comida navideña.

Sintió empatía con la difícil situación de Wiese. Si decide volar a California, dijo, debería acuartelar a su familia lo más posible durante 10 días antes, y luego no pasar más de dos días con su padre.

“Incluso si se infectara, no sería más contagiosa hasta probablemente el tercer día”, dijo. “Entonces, si ella pasa esos dos días con él, puede sentirse relativamente bien por el hecho de que no los puso en riesgo”.

Para aquellos que viajan, conducir es mucho más seguro que volar porque los conductores pueden estar aislados en un compartimento doméstico y evitar la exposición al coronavirus renunciando a los restaurantes y desinfectando las manijas del baño y la bomba de gasolina antes de tocarlos.

El doctor Iahn Gonsenhauser, director de calidad y seguridad del paciente del Centro Médico Wexner de la Universidad Estatal de Ohio, dijo que planea conducir con su familia, pasando la noche en un hotel en el camino, para pasar el Día de Acción de Gracias con la familia de su hermana en Colorado.

Él y su familia se mantienen aislados y trabajan desde casa tanto como sea posible, dejando la casa solo para compras y mandados básicos mientras evitan restaurantes y centros comerciales, dijo. Si alguien en cualquiera de las familias comenzara a mostrar síntomas de COVID, o confirmara la exposición a una persona con COVID positivo, todo el viaje se cancelaría instantáneamente.

“Es por eso que hacemos todos los planes con una reserva reembolsable”, dijo. “Si las personas no tienen forma de salirse de sus reservas, están más inclinadas a tomar un riesgo aparente”.

Chin-Hong ofreció este consejo para los viajeros de vacaciones: házte la prueba antes del vuelo para tu tranquilidad, compra boletos en un avión que deje los asientos del medio vacíos, usa máscaras N95 altamente protectoras y escudos faciales, y coloca las rejillas de ventilación individuales del avión directamente sobre cada miembro de la familia para romper las posibles partículas de virus. Y, por supuesto, lávate las manos con frecuencia.

Chin-Hong está adoptando ese enfoque en un viaje familiar planificado a la ciudad de Nueva York para visitar a su madre, que tiene más de 80 años y quiere ver a su hijo, nuera y nietos. Cada visita podría ser la última, dijo Chin-Hong.

“Para mí, la relación riesgo-beneficio apoya la idea ir a verla”.

Después de escuchar los consejos de Chin-Hong y otros expertos en enfermedades infecciosas, Wiese decidió el fin de semana pasado comprar boletos de avión para visitar a sus padres.

“Realmente nos ayudó a tomar una decisión que me estaba dando mucha ansiedad”, expresó.

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In Tamer Debate, Trump and Biden Clash (Again) on President’s Pandemic Response

In the second and final debate of the 2020 presidential race, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred over Trump’s handling of the pandemic and Biden’s plan to reform health care. In stark contrast to the first debate, there was more policy talk. There was also less interrupting.

Trump said a COVID-19 vaccine is “ready” and will be announced “within weeks,” shortly before conceding that it is “not a guarantee.”

Biden said Trump still has no comprehensive plan to deal with the pandemic, even as case counts continue to climb. “We’re about to go into a dark winter, and he has no clear plan,” Biden said.

Trump claimed Biden’s health care plan would lead to “socialized medicine,” conflating Biden’s proposal to introduce a government insurance option with more progressive proposals that would eliminate private insurance. “I support private insurance,” Biden said, promising, “Not a single person with private insurance would lose their insurance under my plan.”

You can read a full fact check for the evening, done in partnership with PolitiFact, here.

Meanwhile, we broke down the candidates’ closing coronavirus and other health-related claims so you can do your part: vote.

Here are the highlights:

Trump: “We are rounding the turn [on the pandemic]. We are rounding the corner.”
False.“Rounding the corner” suggests that significant and sustained progress is being made in the fight against the coronavirus, and that’s not the case, according to the data.

The number of COVID cases is climbing once again, after falling consistently between late July and mid-September. Cases are now at their highest point since early August, with almost 60,000 new confirmed infections a day. That’s only about 10% lower than the peak in late July.

New daily hospitalizations today are lower than in previous spikes, but in the past few weeks there has been a modest increase. The positivity rate, which measures the percentage of tests that come up positive for the virus, has also been going up again in the past few weeks. Higher positivity rates are an indicator of community spread.

The one encouraging change is that, since a peak in August, deaths have fallen fairly consistently. That’s due to a combination of factors, including improved understanding of how to treat the disease. Yet COVID deaths have settled in at about 800 a day, keeping total deaths per week in the U.S. above normal levels.

Trump: His administration has done “everything” Biden suggested to address COVID-19. “He was way behind us.”
We rated a similar claim Pants on Fire. While there are some similarities between Biden’s and Trump’s plans to combat COVID-19, experts told us any pandemic response plan should have certain core strategies. The Trump administration has released no comprehensive plan to battle the disease, except with regard to the development and distribution of vaccines. Trump’s main intervention was implementing travel restrictions, while efforts to roll out a widespread testing plan faced difficulties.

Biden released a public COVID plan; the first draft was published March 12. It included public health measures such as deploying free testing and personal protective equipment, as well as implementing economic measures such as emergency paid leave and a state and local emergency fund.

Trump: “As you know, 2.2 million people were expected to die. We closed the greatest economy in the world to fight this horrible disease that came from China.”
His claim about the estimated deaths rates Mostly False. Trump frequently refers to this number to claim that his administration’s moves saved 2 million lives. However, the number is from a mathematical model that hypothesized what would happen if, during the pandemic in the U.S., neither people nor governments changed their behaviors, a scenario that experts considered unrealistic. The U.S. has the highest death toll from COVID-19 of any country, and one of the highest death rates. Also, credit for shutting down the economy doesn’t go primarily to Trump, but rather to states and local jurisdictions. In fact, Trump encouraged states to open back up beginning in May, even when there were high rates of COVID transmission in those areas.

Trump: “We cannot lock ourselves in a basement like Joe does.”
We rated a similar claim False. It is one of Trump’s favored shots to say Biden isolated himself in his basement. In the first few months of the pandemic, Biden did run much of his campaign from his Delaware home. He built a TV studio in his basement to interact with voters virtually. But that changed.

In September alone, Biden gave remarks and held events in, among other places, Kenosha, Wisconsin; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Warren, Michigan; Tampa, Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina. We counted 14 locations.

Trump: Said of Dr. Anthony Fauci, “I think he’s a Democrat, but that’s OK.”
This is wrong. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is not affiliated with a political party. He hasn’t endorsed any parties or candidates.

Biden: “We are in a circumstance where the president still has no plan, no comprehensive plan.”
This is largely accurate. When Biden claimed during the first debate that Trump “still won’t offer a plan,” we noted the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” for vaccine development as well as its more detailed plan for vaccine distribution. But the administration has not released a comprehensive plan to address COVID-19.

Trump: “There was a spike in Florida. That is gone. There was a spike in Texas. That is gone. There was a spike in Arizona. It is gone.” 

This is inaccurate. Over the summer, Florida, Texas and Arizona experienced record surges in cases that later eased — but now they are all seeing new surges. Over the past week, The New York Times’ tracker notes, as of Friday, new infections are up 37% in Florida, 13% in Texas and 47% in Arizona, from the average two weeks earlier.

Trump: “When I closed [travel from China], he said I should not have closed. … He said this is a terrible thing, you are a xenophobe; I think he called me racist. Now he says I should have closed it earlier.”

Mostly False. Joe Biden did not directly say he thought Trump shouldn’t have restricted travel from China to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Biden did accuse Trump of “xenophobia” in an Iowa campaign speech the same day the administration announced the travel restrictions — Jan. 31 — but his campaign said that his remarks were not related and that he made similar comments before the restrictions were imposed. Biden didn’t take a definitive stance on the subject until April 3, when his campaign said he supported Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions on China.

Trump: “They have 180 million people, families under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine — you won’t even have a choice — they want to terminate 180 million plans.” 

Pants on Fire. About 180 million people have private health insurance. But there is absolutely no evidence that under Biden’s health care proposal all 180 million would be removed from their insurance plans. Biden supports creating a public option, which would be a government-run insurance program that would exist alongside and compete with other private plans on the health insurance marketplace.

Under Biden’s plan, even people with employer-sponsored coverage could choose a public plan if they wanted to. And estimates show that only a small percentage of Americans would likely leave their employer-sponsored coverage if a public option were available, and certainly not all 180 million. Experts said it is not socialized medicine.

Biden: “Not one single person with private insurance” lost their insurance “under Obamacare … unless they chose they wanted to go to something else.”

This is inaccurate. This is a variation of a claim that earned President Barack Obama our Lie of the Year in 2013. The Affordable Care Act tried to allow existing health plans to continue under a complicated process called “grandfathering,” but if the plans deviated even a little, they would lose their grandfathered status. And if that happened, insurers canceled plans that didn’t meet the new standards.

No one determined with any certainty how many people got cancellation notices, but analysts estimated that about 4 million or more had their plans canceled. Many found insurance elsewhere, and the percentage was small — out of a total insured population of about 262 million, fewer than 2% lost their plans. However, that still amounted to 4 million people who faced the difficulty of finding a new plan and the hassle of switching their coverage.

This story includes reporting by KHN reporters Victoria Knight and Emmarie Huetteman, and Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson, Amy Sherman, Miriam Valverde, Bill McCarthy, Samantha Putterman, Daniel Funke and Noah Y. Kim of PolitiFact.

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Travel on Thanksgiving? Pass the COVID

Molly Wiese was truly stumped. Her parents and siblings live in Southern California, and Wiese, a 35-year-old lawyer, has returned home every Christmas since she moved to Minnesota in 2007.

Because of the pandemic, Wiese thought it would be wiser to stay put for once. But in June, Wiese’s father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and they feared this could be his final holiday season.

Should she fly with her husband and two young sons to California, putting her immunocompromised father at risk of COVID-19? Or stay home and miss out on making treasured holiday memories with her parents and children?

Her children are in day care, and Wiese’s husband works at a school. They don’t have enough vacation time to self-quarantine before or after a flight, and driving eight days round trip isn’t practical.

She fears giving her father coronavirus. But her parents, who live in the Inland Empire city of Yucaipa, believe it’s worth the risk to see Wiese’s children and have “our normal Christmas,” she said.

“Ideally, we’d have a vaccine,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation.” Pfizer, the apparent leader in the COVID vaccine race, says it won’t even be ready to apply for vaccine approval until late November at the earliest.

Molly Wiese’s father has late-stage cancer and she fears this could be his last holiday season. She struggled with whether she and her family should fly to Southern California to visit him for Christmas because she doesn’t want to put him at risk of contracting COVID-19. From left: Molly Wiese, son Calvin, husband Phil Wiese, son Bennett, and Wiese’s parents, Becky and Bill Miller. (Molly Wiese)

While Wiese’s conundrum is especially high-stakes, her story illustrates the tough decision millions of Americans are facing about whether and how to travel for the winter holidays.

The best way to avoid spreading disease would be to avoid traveling or widening one’s social circles. For local celebrations, self-quarantining for two weeks before a holiday event would minimize risk if all those invited committed to doing the same. But some people have to work outside the home.

For everyone, after at least seven months of being mostly sequestered, the winter holidays pose an almost insurmountable temptation. Even public health and infectious disease experts recognize the dilemma.

“There’s so much to be gained by physical touch, by being in that room and not in a two-dimensional Zoom or FaceTime screen,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. “And even to embrace, with the right preparation.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s authority on infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, isn’t immune to the problem. He told PRI’s “The World” on Oct. 13 that he and his three adult daughters, each living in a different state, were still deciding whether being together would be “worth it.”

The next day, Fauci told “CBS Evening News” that his family’s Thanksgiving reunion was off, given the risks posed by air travel. “You may have to bite the bullet and sacrifice that social gathering, unless you’re pretty certain that the people that you’re dealing with are not infected,” he said.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s senior coordinator in the COVID fight, have both warned that Thanksgiving gatherings could spread the virus.

In California, public health officials are taking a “harm reduction” approach: They aren’t encouraging multi-household gatherings, but they’ve issued guidelines to make get-togethers safer if they happen outdoors and last less than two hours.

Officials in Los Angeles County, which has seen transmission rates increase in recent weeks, released similar guidance, acknowledging that people separated from their loved ones for months increasingly yearn for that contact.

“We are threading the needle here, but I think it is appropriate for us to try to do some of the activities that people are desperate to be able to do, with absolute adherence to the guidance,” Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s public health department, said at an Oct. 14 news conference.

Around the world, national holidays have fueled the spread of COVID-19 in explosive ways. In China, where the pandemic started, an estimated 5 million people traveling for Chinese New Year left Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, before a travel ban was enacted. In Iran, the pandemic was aided by Nowruz, a two-week spring celebration that prompted millions to travel. In Israel, parties and religious gatherings for Purim caused widespread transmission in late March.

Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day celebrations fueled surges in the United States, which is why Thanksgiving frightens public health officials. Last year, more than 55 million people were expected to travel during the days surrounding that fourth Thursday in November.

Nevertheless, officials across the nation are using a light touch when it comes to warnings.

In Minnesota, where Wiese lives and cases are hitting record highs, officials urge the public to avoid crowded stores and large indoor gatherings with other households, but say outdoor Thanksgiving dinners with local friends and family are less risky. Their guidance doesn’t explain how to endure an outdoor Thanksgiving in Minnesota. The average high in Minneapolis on Nov. 26 is 33 degrees.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, is waving his hands to stop the game.

If you can’t self-quarantine for 10 to 14 days before the event — that is, no contact with people besides members of your household who are also quarantining — don’t go to another household’s Thanksgiving dinner, he said: The state has already seen too many examples of vulnerable people becoming sick and dying after attending weddings, funerals and birthday parties.

“Let this be your COVID year,” Osterholm said. “It’s a very challenging year, but you don’t want to introduce this virus into family settings and experience the consequences.”

Osterholm and his partner will spend Thanksgiving and Christmas without extended family, even though their children and grandchildren are all local. Because all his grandchildren are in day care or school, there isn’t enough time for their families to self-quarantine before enjoying a holiday meal together.

He was sympathetic to Wiese’s “compelling” plight. If she decides to fly to California, he said, she should sequester her family as much as possible for 10 days beforehand, then spend no more than two days with her father.

“Even if she got infected, she wouldn’t be most infectious until probably day three,” he said. “So if she spends those two days with him, she can feel relatively good about the fact that she didn’t put them at risk.”

For those who do travel, driving is much safer than flying because drivers can be isolated in a household pod and avoid exposure to the coronavirus by forgoing restaurants and by disinfecting bathroom and gas pump handles before touching them.

Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer for the Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, said he plans to drive with his family — overnighting at a hotel on the way — to spend Thanksgiving with his sister’s family in Colorado.

He and his family keep to themselves and work from home as much as possible, leaving the house only for groceries and basic errands while eschewing restaurants and malls, he said. If anyone in either family began showing COVID symptoms, or had confirmed exposure to a COVID-positive person, the whole trip would be called off instantly.

“This is why we make all plans with a refundable reservation,” he said. “If people have no way of backing out of their reservations, they’re more inclined to push through an apparent risk.”

Chin-Hong offered this advice for holiday flyers: Get tested before the flight for peace of mind, buy tickets on a plane that is leaving middle seats empty, use highly protective N95 masks and possibly face shields, and blast the individual airplane vents directly onto each family member to disrupt potential virus particles. And, of course, wash your hands frequently.

Chin-Hong is taking that approach on a planned family trip to New York City to visit his mother, who is in her 80s and wants to see her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Every visit they have could be their last, Chin-Hong said.

“To me, the risk-benefit ratio really supports me going to see her.”

After hearing the advice from Chin-Hong and other infectious disease experts, Wiese decided last weekend to buy plane tickets to visit her parents.

“It really did help us make a decision that was giving me a lot of anxiety,” she said.

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Public Health States

Workers Fired, Penalized for Reporting COVID Safety Violations

When COVID-19 began making headlines in March, Charles Collins pulled out a protective face mask from the supply at the manufacturing company in Rockaway, New Jersey, where he was the shop foreman and put it on. The dozen or so other workers at the facility followed suit. There was no way to maintain a safe distance from one another on the shop floor, where they made safety mats for machines, and a few of the men had been out sick with flu-like symptoms. Better safe than sorry.

Management was not pleased. Collins got a text message from one of his supervisors saying masks were to be used to protect workers from wood chips, metal particles and other occupational safety hazards. “We don’t provide or for that matter have enough masks to protect anybody from CORVID-19 [sic]!” If workers didn’t stop using the masks for that purpose, the supervisor texted, “we’ll have to store them away just like the candy!”

“I was shocked,” said Collins, 38. “They weren’t taking it seriously.”

Shortly after that, Collins left for a planned vacation. When he returned a week later, the company told him to quarantine at home for two weeks because he’d been traveling.

But when the quarantine ended, Collins didn’t want to go back to work. Co-workers, he said, told him that recommended safety measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing hadn’t been implemented. When he told human resources that he feared becoming infected and endangering his mother and his 8-year-old nephew who live with him, he said, he got an ultimatum: Return to work or resign.

Collins stayed home and says he was fired. He hired a lawyer and filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey under the state’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. The law prohibits employers from firing, demoting or otherwise retaliating against workers who refuse to take part in activities they believe are incompatible with public health and safety mandates.

As many employers, with the strong encouragement of the Trump administration, move to bring employees back, a growing number of workers are resisting what they feel are unsafe, unhealthy conditions. In recent months, a few states have passed laws specifically aimed at protecting workers who face COVID-related safety risks and retaliation for speaking up about them. Some states, like New Jersey, have whistleblower protection laws already. But advocates say stronger federal protections are needed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is responsible for enforcing 23 federal whistleblower statutes that protect workers from retaliation if they report workplace safety violations, among other problems.

But according to a new analysis, the agency isn’t up to the task. The National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy and research group, found that of 1,744 COVID-related retaliation complaints filed with OSHA between April and mid-August, 20% were docketed for investigation and 2% were resolved. More than half were dismissed or closed without investigation.

“Even before COVID, workers had a really bad track record of getting any justice for their concerns if they were retaliated against,” said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project and a former senior OSHA official.

The numbers are growing. Whistleblower complaints filed with OSHA increased by 30% between February and May, to 4,101, according to an August report by the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General that criticized the agency’s handling of the complaints.

Nearly 40% of the complaints — 1,618 — were related to COVID-19, the report found, filed primarily by workers who claimed they were punished for reporting workplace safety violations. Those could include, for example, not having appropriate personal protective equipment or sanitation materials, or a lack of social distancing on the job.

While complaints rose, the number of whistleblower investigators decreased from the previous year, according to the report. The average time it took to close an investigation at the end of March was roughly nine months.

Worker whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health law are “incredibly weak” compared with whistleblower statutes that protect employees who report other types of wrongdoing, Berkowitz said. If OSHA dismisses a complaint, workers have no right to appeal the decision, and once they file a complaint with OSHA they aren’t permitted to take their case to court on their own, she said.

Consumer advocates would like to see those provisions changed.

Advocates have urged OSHA to adopt mandatory COVID safety standards for workplaces, but the agency has declined to do so, maintaining that its “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or physical harm, is sufficient.

“The Administration has remained committed to providing the Whistleblower Protection program with the resources it needs to fulfill its mission,” a spokesperson for the Department of Labor wrote in an email to KHN. “In fiscal year 2020, OSHA asked for and received five new full-time employees and requested an additional ten in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2021.”

If workers don’t pursue a whistleblower complaint through OSHA, they can file a state lawsuit claiming “wrongful discharge” or use a state’s whistleblower law, as Collins did.

According to a COVID employment litigation tracker by Fisher Phillips, an employment law firm, since the beginning of the year 169 retaliation/whistleblower lawsuits have been filed across the country — the second-biggest category, behind suits related to remote work/leave, with 206 cases. An additional 27 lawsuits have been filed for wrongful discharge.

Juan Carlos Fernandez, the Morristown, New Jersey, attorney representing Charles Collins, said he’s seen a significant uptick in inquiries from workers about safety concerns in recent months. Before the pandemic began, he typically received one or two such calls per month. Now, he gets three or four a day.

Many callers say they were terminated after they asked for protective equipment on the job, Fernandez said. Others had asked for time off to care for a family member or a child whose school had closed because of COVID-19 and then were told not to come back to work.

In addition to reporting safety violations, Collins’ lawsuit claims, he was fired for asking to take time off. Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees are generally entitled to two weeks’ paid leave if they’re quarantined, and another two weeks’ paid sick leave at two-thirds pay to care for a child whose school has closed, as well as expanded family and medical leave. Collins has cared for his nephew since his sister died two years ago in a car accident. His nephew’s school closed in March because of COVID-19.

Collins said his employer, ASO Safety Solutions, paid him for only the first week of his company-ordered quarantine. Any additional time off would come out of his accrued sick and vacation time, he was told.

ASO Safety Solutions didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the law firm representing the company.

In his response to the complaint submitted to the court, the lawyer representing the company denied that ASO had retaliated against Collins for whistleblowing, asserting he had resigned. The response, by John Olsen, with Ferdinand IP Law Group, also said that the provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act do not apply to the company. The lawyers have exchanged requests for discovery, Fernandez said, which should be answered in the next several weeks.

A few states and cities have stepped in to help whistleblowers. Virginia was the first to put in place statewide workplace safety standards related to COVID-19, spurred by concerns from workers in poultry plants, said Rachel McFarland, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. The standards include specific provisions protecting workers from retaliation for raising safety concerns or refusing to work in a location they believe is unsafe.

Colorado and the cities of Philadelphia and Chicago likewise passed laws prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who raise COVID-related safety concerns, refuse to work in unsafe conditions or take time off to minimize the transmission of the virus.

But these laws are the exceptions, said Brent Newell, a senior attorney at Public Justice in Oakland, California, who has represented the interests of workers in meatpacking plants. “Many states haven’t done that and won’t do that,” he said. “For the federal government to put it on the states to protect workers is wholly and fundamentally inadequate.”

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: A Little Good News and Some Bad on COVID-19


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


For the first time in a long time, there is some good news about the coronavirus pandemic: Although cases continue to climb, fewer people seem to be dying. And there are fewer cases than expected among younger pupils in schools with in-person learning. But the bad news continues as well — including a push for “herd immunity” that could result in the deaths of millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is doubling down on efforts to allow states to require certain people with low incomes to prove they work, go to school or perform community service in order to keep their Medicaid health benefits. The administration is appealing a federal appeals court ruling to the Supreme Court and just granted Georgia the right to impose a work requirement.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Opinions seem to be slowly shifting on opening schools around the country. As fall approached, many people were hesitant to send their children back to school because they feared a resurgence of coronavirus infections, but early experiences seem to show that there has been little transmission among young kids in classrooms.
  • Even with good results in those school districts that have reopened, however, the debate about whether schools should be conducting in-person learning is quite polarized. President Donald Trump repeatedly calls for all schools to resume, while groups, such as unions representing teachers and other employees, are more likely to be calling for continued online learning.
  • California, which had a strong resurgence of the virus during the summer, is seeing signs of success in fighting back. The state has been among the most aggressive in shutting down normal activities to reduce case levels. It devised a county-specific method to determine closures, restrictions and reopenings — and it appears to be working.
  • A proposal by some researchers to move the country toward a “herd immunity” plan, in which officials would expect the virus to spread among the general population while also trying to protect the most vulnerable — such as people living in nursing homes — is gaining support among some of Trump’s advisers. Public health advocates are raising alarms because it would likely lead to hundreds of thousands more deaths. They also fear the administration’s focus on restoring normalcy would by default move in this direction.
  • Federal researchers this week announced that nearly 300,000 excess deaths have been recorded this year and much of it is attributed to COVID-19 or the lack of other health care by people who could not or did not seek treatments because they were frightened by the pandemic.
  • With the Senate poised to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, who opposes abortion, to the Supreme Court within days, the fate of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is in question. If the court overruled that decision, abortion policies would likely fall back to individual states. A recent report on the effects of such a scenario finds that a huge swath of the South and the Midwest would be left without a local facility offering abortion services.

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

Julie Rovner: Cook’s Illustrated’s “The Best Reusable Face Masks,” by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm, and The Washington Post’s “Consumer Masks Could Soon Come With Labels Saying How Well They Work,” by Yeganeh Torbati and Jessica Contrera

Margot Sanger-Katz: The Hill’s “Republicans: Supreme Court Won’t Toss ObamaCare,” by Peter Sullivan

Paige Winfield Cunningham: The Wall Street Journal’s “Some California Hospitals Refused Covid-19 Transfers for Financial Reasons, State Emails Show,” by Melanie Evans, Alexandra Berzon and Daniela Hernandez

Alice Miranda Ollstein: ProPublica’s “Inside the Fall of the CDC,” by James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg


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Análisis: el invierno llega para los bares. Cómo salvarlos. Y salvarnos.

Si realmente queremos detener la propagación del coronavirus a medida que se acerca el invierno y esperamos una vacuna, aquí una idea: el gobierno debería pagar a los bares, y a muchos restaurantes y lugares de eventos, para que cierren durante algunos meses.

Puede sonar radical, pero tiene sentido científico e incluso tiene un precedente político. Pagamos a los agricultores para que no cultiven algunos campos (en teoría, para proteger el medio ambiente), así que ¿por qué no compensar a los propietarios para que cierren sus negocios para proteger la salud pública?

En los últimos nueve meses, hemos aprendido mucho sobre este coronavirus en particular y cómo es más probable que se propague. Los establecimientos que venden alcohol y los lugares de eventos en interiores se han convertido en entornos ideales para la transmisión. Y hay una buena lógica científica para explicar eso.

Los virus no son villanos que persiguen a sus presas; son oportunistas pasivos. Algunos se propagan a través de los alimentos o cuando se dejan en superficies. Otros, como este coronavirus, pueden transmitirse a través de pequeñas gotas que pueden permanecer en el aire después que una persona infectada tose, habla o respira. El virus se disemina con mayor facilidad en interiores y, en particular, en lugares concurridos y mal ventilados.

Más importante aún, las personas pueden infectar mientras sus cuerpos están incubando este virus durante un par de días antes de que desarrollen síntomas, o incluso si nunca los desarrollan. Así que podrías ir a un bar o una boda y beber, besar y bailar hasta desmayarte. Luego te despiertas a la mañana siguiente sintiéndote fatal. Pero no es solo una resaca. Es COVID-19.

Eso explica por qué este virus se contrae en los eventos de “superpropagación”. (Más que la gripe, según los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades). Una persona que está eliminando una gran cantidad de virus todavía se siente lo suficientemente bien como para pasar el rato en un espacio estrecho (probablemente interior) donde las personas comparten ruidosamente con otras. Y no pueden usar máscaras porque están bebiendo.

No es de extrañar que las barras de los bares sean un problema.

En el lenguaje científico, el coronavirus es más un esparcidor “heterogéneo” que homogéneo, según Bjarke Frost Nielsen, investigador del Instituto Niels Bohr de la Universidad de Copenhague. Junto con su colega Kim Sneppen, Nielsen utiliza modelos matemáticos para estudiar el patrón de propagación del virus.

Es una propagación heterogénea, lo que significa que tiende a expandirse en brotes similares a explosiones, a menudo centrados en un lugar de reunión o un punto caliente, en vez de “avanzar” por todo el país.

Nielsen me dijo que hay buenas noticias en este hallazgo: “Puedes evitar ciertas reuniones y cerrar algunos lugares, y reducir la mayor parte de la propagación de la enfermedad. Y puedes seguir con el resto de manera bastante normal “.

Cuando sabíamos poco sobre el nuevo coronavirus, el gobierno respondió con un martillo. El Paycheck Protection Program trató a todas las pequeñas empresas por igual, brindándoles préstamos para cerrar siempre que pagaran a sus empleados. Ahora podemos utilizar herramientas más delicadas.

De hecho, los supermercados y las tiendas de ropa, u otras, pueden funcionar de manera segura con máscaras mandatorias, distanciamiento y desinfección. No vamos a estos lugares para charlar y todos podemos usar máscaras en su interior.

Las fábricas y las líneas de montaje pueden proteger a los trabajadores con las mismas normas. Las escuelas pueden hacer lo mismo por los estudiantes.

Incluso las salas de cine pueden funcionar de forma segura con clientes con cubrebocas, sistemas de ventilación de calidad y espacio entre espectadores o grupos de espectadores. Simplemente no podrán vender tantos asientos.

¿Pero los bares y restaurantes que dependen de comedores interiores abarrotados y salas de conciertos con pistas de baile? La mayoría son atractivos exactamente por las razones que los convierten en focos infecciosos para el coronavirus: el hacinamiento, la bebida, la fiesta con personas desconocidas.

Es por eso que algunos dueños de bares y restaurantes dicen que agradecerían un programa que los compensara por cerrar sus puertas este invierno. Peter Kurzweg, que es copropietario de tres de lo que él llama establecimientos de “bebida avanzada” en Pittsburgh que solían tener happy hours animados, dice que “los bares y restaurantes son únicos en el sentido de que, para ser realmente seguros, deben mitigar hasta el punto que ya no es una experiencia de bar o restaurante”.

Hasta ahora, él y sus socios han resistido la pandemia con asientos al aire libre en la acera y en un callejón. Han sacado provecho de los programas de préstamos del gobierno. Han invertido en carpas y calentadores y han animado a los clientes a divertirse al aire libre.

Pero a medida que el otoño se convierte en invierno en Pittsburgh, sabe que esta opción no durará. “Camino diciendo: ‘Se acerca el invierno. Se acerca el invierno “. Tenemos que hacer todo lo posible para sobrevivir”.

Algunos estados han permitido que los restaurantes abran en interiores al 25% o 50% de su capacidad; de hecho, eso está permitido ahora en Pittsburgh. Pero Kurzweg no lo ha hecho porque no cree que sea seguro.

Algunos restaurantes muy espaciosos, y aquellos en climas templados, podrían hacer que funcione. La mayoría no puede.

Los bares y otros locales que dependen de las bebidas no son servicios esenciales. Queremos que sobrevivan para que en el futuro podamos disfrutarlos. Entonces, ¿por qué no pagar a los propietarios que no pueden mantener sus negocios a flote de manera segura este año contaminado con COVID un promedio de sus ingresos mensuales normales para que cierren durante algunos meses?

De esta forma podrían seguir pagándoles a sus empleados y ayudarían a romper la cadena de transmisión del coronavirus. Tal vez podríamos ser creativos y pedirles que usen sus cocinas para ayudar a alimentar a los estadounidenses que pasan hambre.

Con los bares cerrados, aún se puede beber y socializar con grupos más pequeños de personas en casa o al aire libre, cuando el clima lo permita. Puede que no sea tan divertido, pero nada será muy divertido mientras el coronavirus esté presente.

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Analysis: Winter Is Coming for Bars. Here’s How to Save Them. And Us.

If we really want to stem the spread of the coronavirus as winter looms and we wait for a vaccine, here’s an idea: The government should pay bars, many restaurants and event venues to close for some months.

That may sound radical, but it makes scientific sense and even has a political precedent. We pay farmers not to cultivate some fields (in theory, at least, to protect the environment), so why not compensate owners to shut their indoor venues (to protect public health)?

In the past nine months, we’ve learned a lot about this particular coronavirus and how it’s most likely to spread. Drinking establishments and indoor event venues have emerged as ideal environments for transmission. And there’s good scientific logic to explain that.

Viruses are not villains who go after their prey; they’re passive opportunists. Some spread through food or when left on surfaces. Others, like this coronavirus, can be transmitted through tiny droplets that can linger in the air after an infected person coughs, talks or breathes. The virus spreads most easily indoors and particularly in crowded, poorly ventilated places.

More important, people can be infectious while their bodies are incubating this virus for a couple of days before they develop symptoms, or even if they never develop symptoms at all. So you might go to a bar or a wedding feeling top-notch, or just maybe a little off. Drink, kiss and dance till you drop. Then you wake up the next morning feeling awful. It’s not just a hangover. It’s COVID-19.

That explains why this virus is exceedingly contracted at “superspreader” events. (More so than the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) A person who is shedding a good deal of the virus still feels well enough to hang out in a tight (likely indoor) space where people mingle boisterously with others they don’t know or don’t see often. And they can’t wear masks, because they’re drinking.

No wonder bars are a problem.

In scientific parlance, the coronavirus is more of a “heterogeneous” than a homogeneous spreader, according to Bjarke Frost Nielsen, a researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. Along with his colleague Kim Sneppen, he uses mathematical modeling to study the pattern of the spread of the virus. That heterogeneous spread means that it tends to expand in burst-like outbreaks, often centered on a meeting place — a hot spot — rather than oozing slowly across a country.

There is some good news in this finding, Nielsen told me: “You can close down certain types of gatherings and a few types of places and tamp down the majority of the spread of the disease. And you can carry on with the rest as pretty normal.”

Back when we knew little about the novel coronavirus, the government responded with a hammer. The Paycheck Protection Program treated all small businesses equally, providing them with loans to shut down so long as they paid their employees. Now we can use more delicate instruments.

Food and clothing stores — indeed, most any kind of shop — can function safely with masking and attention to distancing and sanitizing. We don’t go to these places to chat, and we can all wear masks inside them. Factories and assembly lines can protect workers with masking and spacing. Schools can do the same for students.

Even movie theaters can arguably safely operate with masked patrons, quality ventilation systems and spacing between viewers or viewing groups. They just won’t be able to sell as many seats.

But bars and restaurants that depend on packed indoor dining and concert halls with dance floors? Most are attractive for exactly the reasons that make them such petri dishes for the coronavirus — the crowding, the drinking, the carousing with new, different people.

That’s why some bar and restaurant owners say they would welcome a program that compensated them to shut their doors this winter. Peter Kurzweg, who co-owns three of what he calls “drink forward” establishments in Pittsburgh that used to have bustling happy hours, says that “bars and restaurants are unique in that to be really safe, they have to mitigate to a point that it’s not a bar or restaurant experience anymore.”

He and his partners have so far weathered the pandemic with outdoor seating on the sidewalk and in an alley. They have taken advantage of government loan programs. They have invested in tents and heaters and encouraged patrons to “lean in” to having fun outside. But as fall turns to winter in Pittsburgh, he knows it won’t last. “I walk around saying, ‘Winter is coming. Winter is coming.’ We need to do everything we can to survive.”

Some states have allowed restaurants to open indoors at 25% or 50% capacity — indeed, that is permitted now in Pittsburgh. But Kurzweg has not done so, because he doesn’t feel it’s safe. Anyway, he added, “No bar or restaurant can make it at that capacity — on the best days in normal years, our profit margin is 10%.”

Some very spacious high-end restaurants, and those in temperate climates, might be able to make it work. Most can’t.

Bars and other venues that depend on drinks are not essential services. We want them to survive so that in the future we can enjoy them. So why not pay owners who cannot keep their businesses afloat safely this COVID-tainted year an average of their normal monthly income to shut down for some months? They would keep paying their employees and help break the chain of coronavirus transmission. Maybe we could get creative and ask them to use their kitchens to help feed Americans who are going hungry.

With bars closed, you could still drink and socialize with smaller groups of people at home or outdoors, when the weather allows it. That may not be quite as much fun, but nothing is much fun while the coronavirus is around.

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Public Health

Trump Says He Saved 2 Million Lives From COVID. Really?

President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed to have saved 2 million lives from COVID-19 through his actions to combat the disease.

Recently, he made the assertion during the NBC News town hall on Oct. 15 that replaced the second presidential debate.

“But we were expected to lose, if you look at the original charts from original doctors who are respected by everybody, 2,200,000 people,” Trump said. “We saved 2 million people,” he added.

He mentioned the same ballpark figure during a Sept. 15 ABC News town hall and posted a tweet about it on Oct. 13.

Others in the Trump administration have also pointed to the 2.2 million figure. Vice President Mike Pence referenced it during the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7. So did Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a Sept. 20 “Meet the Press” television interview.

Where did this number come from? And is there any truth to the idea that Trump is responsible for saving 2 million lives from COVID-19? Since Trump continues to use it to claim success, we decided to look into it.

What We Know About the ‘2 Million’

The White House and the Trump presidential campaign did not respond to our request for evidence supporting the idea that roughly 2 million lives were spared.

It appears to have first been mentioned by the president during a March 29 White House coronavirus task force press briefing, when Trump and Dr. Deborah Birx, task force coordinator, explained they were asking Americans to stay home from mid-March through the end of April, because mathematical models showed 1.6 million to 2.2 million people could die from COVID-19.

The warning stemmed from a paper authored by Neil Ferguson, an epidemiology professor at Imperial College London. He modeled how COVID-19 can spread through a population in different scenarios, including what would happen if no interventions were put in place and people continued to live their daily lives as normal.

In the paper, Ferguson wrote, “In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in [Great Britain] and 2.2 million in the US.”

Ferguson did not respond to our request to talk through the study with him. But in a July email interview with HuffPost, he said Trump’s boasting of saving 2.2 million lives isn’t true, because the pandemic isn’t over.

Andrea Bertozzi, a mathematics professor at UCLA, said it was important to remember the 2.2 million figure was derived from a modeling scenario that would almost certainly never happen — which is that neither the government nor individuals would change their behavior at all in light of COVID-19.

The study didn’t mean to say 2.2 million people were absolutely going to die, but rather to say, “Hold on, if we let this thing run its course, bad things could happen,” said Bertozzi. Indeed, the results from the study did cause government leaders in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom to implement social distancing measures.

Experts also pointed out that the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll of any country in the world — more than 220,000 people — and among the highest death rates, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

“I don’t think we can say we’ve prevented 2 million deaths, because people are still dying,” said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In some instances when using the 2 million estimate, Trump and others in his administration cited the China travel restrictions for saving lives, while other times they’ve credited locking down the economy. We’ll explore whether either statement holds water.

Did Travel Restrictions Do Anything?

Trump implemented travel restrictions for some people traveling from China beginning Feb. 2 and for Europe on March 11. But experts say and reports show the restrictions don’t appear to have had much effect because they were put in place too late and had too many holes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of coronavirus in the U.S. arrived in mid-January. So, since the travel bans were put in place after COVID-19 was already spreading in the U.S., they weren’t effective, said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the KFF. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

A May study supports that assessment. The researchers found the risk of transmission from domestic air travel exceeded that of international travel in mid-March.

Many individuals also still traveled into the U.S. after the bans, according to separate investigations by The New York Times and the Associated Press.

Based on all this, experts said there isn’t evidence to support the idea that the travel restrictions were the principal intervention to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

What About Lockdowns?

On the other hand, the public health experts we talked to said multiple global and U.S.-focused studies show that lockdowns and implementing social distancing measures helped to contain the spread of the coronavirus and thus can be said to have prevented deaths.

However, Trump can’t take full credit for these so-called lockdown measures, which ranged from closing down all but essential businesses to implementing citywide curfews and statewide stay-at-home orders. On March 16, after being presented with the possibility of the national death tally rising to 2.2. million, the White House issued federal recommendations to limit activities that could transmit the COVID-19 virus. But these were just guidelines and were recommended to be in effect only through April 30.

Most credit for putting in place robust social distancing measures belongs to state and local government and public health officials, many of whom enacted stronger policies than those recommended by the White House, our experts said.

“I don’t think you can directly credit the federal government or the Trump administration with the shutdown orders,” said Lessler. “The way our system works is that the power for public health policy lies with the state. And each state was making its own individual decision.”

Some studies also explore the potential human costs of missed opportunities. If lockdowns had been implemented one or two weeks earlier than mid-March, for instance, which is when most of the U.S. started shutting down, researchers estimated that tens of thousands of American lives could have been saved. A model also shows that if almost everyone wore a mask in the U.S., tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 could have been prevented.

Despite these scientific findings, Trump started encouraging states — even those with high transmission rates — to open back up in May, after the White House’s recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 expired. He has also questioned the efficacy of masks, said he wouldn’t issue a national mask mandate and instead left mask mandate decisions up to states and local jurisdictions.

Our Ruling

President Trump is claiming that without his efforts, there would have been 2 million deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19.

But that 2 million number is taken from a model that shows what would happen without any mitigation measures — that is, if citizens had continued their daily lives as usual, and governments did nothing. Experts said that wouldn’t have happened in real life.

And while lockdowns and social distancing have indeed been proven to prevent COVID-19 illness and deaths, credit for that doesn’t go solely to Trump. The White House issued federal recommendations asking Americans to stay home, but much stronger social distancing measures were enforced by states.

Travel restrictions implemented by Trump perhaps helped hold down transmission in the context of broader efforts, but on their own, they don’t seem to have significantly reduced the transmission rate of the coronavirus.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

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“Todo lo que quieres es que te crean”: el prejuicio inconciente en la atención de salud

A mediados de marzo, Karla Monterroso voló a su casa en Alameda, California, después de una excursión al Parque Nacional Zion de Utah. Cuatro días después, comenzó a tener una tos seca y fuerte. Sentía los pulmones pegajosos.

La fiebre durante esas semanas por momentos subía tanto (100,4, 101,2, 101,7, 102,3) que, en la peor de las noches, tenía que estar bajo una ducha de agua helada, para intentar bajarla.

“Esa noche había escrito en un diario cartas a todas las personas cercanas, lo que quería que supieran si me moría”, recordó.

Al mes, surgieron nuevos síntomas: dolores de cabeza y calambres punzantes en las piernas y el abdomen que le hicieron pensar que podía estar en riesgo de tener coágulos de sangre y accidentes cerebrovasculares, complicaciones que habían informado otros pacientes con COVID-19 en sus 30 años.

Aún así, no estaba segura de si debía ir al hospital.

“Como mujeres de color, te cuestionan mucho tus emociones y la realidad de tu estado físico. Te dicen que exageras”, dijo Monterroso, quien es latina. “Así que tenía ese extraño sentimiento de ‘no quiero usar los recursos para nada’”.

Fueron necesarios cuatro amigos para convencerla de que tenia que llamar al 911.

Lo que pasó en la sala de emergencias del Hospital Alameda confirmó sus peores temores.

Monterroso dijo que durante casi toda su visita, los proveedores de salud ignoraron sus síntomas y preocupaciones. ¿La presión arterial está baja? Esa es una lectura falsa. ¿Sus niveles cíclicos de oxígeno? La máquina está mal. ¿Los dolores punzantes en la pierna? Probablemente solo sea un quiste.

“El médico entró y dijo: ‘No creo que esté pasando mucho aquí. Creo que podemos enviarte a casa’”, recordó Monterroso.

Su experiencia, razona, son parte de por qué las personas de color se ven afectadas de manera desproporcionada por el coronavirus. No es simplemente porque es más probable que tengan trabajos de primera línea que los exponen más, y las condiciones subyacentes que empeoran COVID-19.

“Eso es parte de ello, pero la otra parte es la falta de valor que la gente le da a nuestras vidas”, escribió Monterroso en Twitter detallando su experiencia.

Investigaciones muestran cómo el prejuicio inconsciente de los médicos afecta la atención que reciben las personas. Los pacientes latinos (que pueden ser de cualquier raza) y los afroamericanos suelen ser menos propensos a recibir analgésicos o a ser referidos para atención avanzada que los pacientes blancos no hispanos con las mismas quejas o síntomas. Y es más probable que las mujeres mueran en el parto por causas prevenibles.

Ese día de mayo, en el hospital, Monterroso se sentía mareada y tenía problemas para comunicarse, por lo que estaban con ella en el teléfono para ayudarla una amiga y la prima de su amiga, que es enfermera especializada en cardiología. Las dos mujeres comenzaron a hacer preguntas: ¿Qué pasa con la frecuencia cardíaca acelerada de Karla? ¿Sus bajos niveles de oxígeno? ¿Por qué sus labios están azules?

El médico salió de la habitación. Se negó a atender a Monterroso mientras sus amigas estaban al teléfono, dijo, y cuando regresó, de lo único que quería hablar era del tono de Monterroso y el tono de sus amigos.

“La implicación era que éramos insubordinadas”, dijo Monterroso.

Monterroso le dijo al médico que no quería hablar sobre su tono. Quería hablar sobre su atención médica. Estaba preocupada por posibles coágulos de sangre en su pierna y pidió una tomografía computada.

“Bueno, ya sabes, la tomografía computarizada es radiación justo al lado del tejido mamario. ¿Quieres tener cáncer de mama?”, Monterroso recuerda que le dijo el médico. “Solo me siento cómodo ordenándote esa prueba si dices que no tienes problema en tener cáncer de seno”.

Monterroso pensó para sí misma: “Trágatelo, Karla. Necesitas estar bien”. Entonces le dijo al médico: “Estoy bien con el cáncer de mama”.

Nunca ordenó la prueba.

Monterroso pidió otro médico, un abogado del hospital. Le dijeron que no. Comenzó a preocuparse por su seguridad. Quería irse. Sus amigos estaban llamando a todos los profesionales médicos que conocían para confirmar que no estaba siendo bien atendida. Vinieron a recogerla y la llevaron a la Universidad de California-San Francisco. El equipo le hizo un electrocardiograma, una radiografía de tórax y una tomografía computada.

“Una de las enfermeras entró y dijo: ‘Me enteré de tu terrible experiencia. Solo quiero que sepas que te creo. Y no te vamos a dejar ir hasta que sepamos que estás segura”, dijo Monterroso. “Comencé a llorar. Porque eso es todo lo que quieres: que te crean. Es realmente difícil que te cuestionen de esa manera”.

Alameda Health System, que opera el Hospital Alameda, se negó a comentar sobre los detalles del caso de Monterroso, pero dijo en un comunicado que está “profundamente comprometido con la equidad en el acceso a la atención médica” y que “brinda atención culturalmente sensible para todos”. ” Después que Monterroso presentó una queja ante el hospital, la gerencia la invitó a hablar con su personal y residentes, pero se negó.

Monterroso cree que su experiencia es un ejemplo de por qué a las personas de color les va tan mal con la pandemia.

“Porque cuando vamos a buscar atención, si nos defendemos, podemos ser tratados como insubordinados”, dijo. “Y si no nos defendemos, podemos ser tratados como invisibles”.

Sesgo inconsciente en la atención médica

Los expertos dicen que esto sucede de forma rutinaria y sin importar las intenciones o la raza del médico. Por ejemplo, el médico de Monterroso no era blanco.

Investigaciones muestran que todos los médicos, todos los seres humanos, tienen prejuicios de los que no son conscientes, explicó el doctor René Salazar, decano asistente de diversidad en la Escuela de Medicina de la Universidad de Texas-Austin.

“¿Interrogo a un hombre blanco con traje que llega luciendo como un profesional cuando pide analgésicos de la misma manera que a un hombre negro?”, se preguntó Salazar, señalando uno de sus posibles sesgos.

El prejuicio inconsciente suele aparecer en entornos de alto estrés, como las salas de emergencia, donde los médicos se encuentran bajo una tremenda presión y tienen que tomar decisiones rápidas y de gran importancia. Si se agrega una pandemia mortal, en la que la ciencia cambia día a día, las cosas pueden complicarse.

“Hay tanta incertidumbre”, dijo. “Cuando existe esta incertidumbre, siempre hay un nivel de oportunidad para que el sesgo se abra paso y tenga un impacto”.

A vehicle parked in Oakland, California, during the first weeks of the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations.(April Dembosky)

Salazar solía enseñar en UCSF, donde ayudó a desarrollar una formación sobre prejuicios inconscientes para estudiantes de medicina y farmacia. Aunque docenas de escuelas de medicina están retomando la capacitación, dijo, no se realiza con tanta frecuencia en los hospitales. Incluso cuando se aborda un encuentro negativo como el de Monterroso, la intervención suele ser débil.

“¿Cómo le digo a mi médico, ‘Bueno, el paciente cree que eres racista’?”, apuntó Salazar. “Es una conversación difícil: debo tener cuidado, no quiero decir la palabra sobre la raza porque voy a presionar algunos botones complejos. Así que comienza a complicarse mucho”.

Un enfoque basado en datos

El doctor Ronald Copeland dijo que recuerda que los médicos también se resistían a estas conversaciones cuando eran estudiantes. Las sugerencias para talleres sobre sensibilidad cultural o prejuicios inconscientes recibían una reacción violenta.

“Era visto casi como un castigo. Es como, ‘Usted es un mal médico, por lo que su castigo es que tiene que ir a capacitarse’, explicó Copeland, quien es jefe de equidad, inclusión y diversidad en el sistema de salud de Kaiser Permanente. (KHN es un programa editorialmente independiente de KFF, que no está afiliado a Kaiser Permanente).

Ahora, el enfoque de Kaiser Permanente se basa en datos de encuestas a pacientes que preguntan si la persona se sintió respetada, si la comunicación fue buena y si quedó satisfecha con la experiencia.

Luego se desglosan estos datos por demografía, para ver si un médico puede obtener buenas calificaciones en respeto y empatía de los pacientes blancos no hispanos, pero no de los pacientes de raza negra.

“Si ves un patrón que evoluciona alrededor de un grupo determinado y es un patrón persistente, entonces eso te dice que hay algo que proviene de una cultura, de una etnia, de un género, algo que el grupo tiene en común, que no estás abordando, dijo Copeland. “Entonces comienza el verdadero trabajo”.

Cuando a los médicos se les presentan los datos de sus pacientes y la ciencia sobre el sesgo inconsciente, es menos probable que se resistan o nieguen, agregó. En su sistema de salud, han reformulado el objetivo de la capacitación en torno a brindar una atención de mejor calidad y obtener mejores resultados para los pacientes, por lo que los médicos quieren hacerlo.

“La gente no se inmuta”, dijo. “Están ansiosos por aprender más al respecto, especialmente sobre cómo mitigarlo”.

Todavía se siente mal

Han pasado casi seis meses desde que Monterroso se enfermó por primera vez y todavía no se siente bien.

Su frecuencia cardíaca sigue aumentando y los médicos le dijeron que podría necesitar una cirugía de vesícula para tratar los cálculos biliares que desarrolló como resultado de la deshidratación relacionada con COVID. Recientemente decidió dejar el Área de la Bahía y mudarse a Los Ángeles para poder estar más cerca de su familia durante su larga recuperación.

Rechazó la invitación del Hospital Alameda para hablar con su personal sobre su experiencias porque concluyó que no era su responsabilidad arreglar el sistema. Pero sí quiere que el sistema de salud más amplio asuma la responsabilidad del sesgo sistémico en hospitales y clínicas.

Reconoce que el Hospital Alameda es público y no tiene el tipo de recursos que tienen Kaiser Permanente y UCSF. Una auditoría reciente advirtió que el Sistema de Salud de Alameda estaba al borde de la insolvencia. Pero Monterroso es la directora ejecutiva de Code2040, una organización sin fines de lucro sobre equidad racial en el sector tecnológico e incluso para ella, dijo, se necesitó un ejército de apoyo para que la escucharan.

“El 90% de las personas que van a pasar por ese hospital no van a tener los recursos que yo tengo para enfrentarlos”, dijo. “Y si no digo lo que está sucediendo, entonces personas con muchos menos recursos van tener esta experiencia y se van a morir”.

Esta historia es parte de una asociación que incluye a KQED, NPR y KHN.

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‘All You Want Is to Be Believed’: The Impacts of Unconscious Bias in Health Care

In mid-March, Karla Monterroso flew home to Alameda, California, after a hiking trip in Utah’s Zion National Park. Four days later, she began to develop a bad, dry cough. Her lungs felt sticky.

The fevers that persisted for the next nine weeks grew so high — 100.4, 101.2, 101.7, 102.3 — that, on the worst night, she was in the shower on all fours, ice-cold water running down her back, willing her temperature to go down.

“That night I had written down in a journal, letters to everyone I’m close to, the things I wanted them to know in case I died,” she remembered.

Then, in the second month, came a new batch of symptoms: headaches and shooting pains in her legs and abdomen that made her worry she could be at risk for the blood clots and strokes that other COVID-19 patients in their 30s had reported.

Still, she wasn’t sure if she should go to the hospital.

“As women of color, you get questioned a lot about your emotions and the truth of your physical state. You get called an exaggerator a lot throughout the course of your life,” said Monterroso, who is Latina. “So there was this weird, ‘I don’t want to go and use resources for nothing’ feeling.”

It took four friends to convince her she needed to call 911.

But what happened in the emergency room at Alameda Hospital only confirmed her worst fears.

At nearly every turn during her emergency room visit, Monterroso said, providers dismissed her symptoms and concerns. Her low blood pressure? That’s a false reading. Her cycling oxygen levels? The machine’s wrong. The shooting pains in her leg? Probably just a cyst.

“The doctor came in and said, ‘I don’t think that much is happening here. I think we can send you home,’” Monterroso recalled.

Her experiences, she reasons,  are part of why people of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. It is not merely because they’re more likely to have front-line jobs that expose them to it and the underlying conditions that make COVID-19 worse.

“That is certainly part of it, but the other part is the lack of value people see in our lives,” Monterroso wrote in a Twitter thread detailing her experience.

Research shows how doctors’ unconscious bias affects the care people receive, with Latino and Black patients being less likely to receive pain medications or get referred for advanced care than white patients with the same complaints or symptoms, and more likely to die in childbirth from preventable complications.

In the hospital that day in May, Monterroso was feeling woozy and having trouble communicating, so she had a friend and her friend’s cousin, a cardiac nurse, on the phone to help. They started asking questions: What about Karla’s accelerated heart rate? Her low oxygen levels? Why are her lips blue?

The doctor walked out of the room. He refused to care for Monterroso while her friends were on the phone, she said, and when he came back, the only thing he wanted to talk about was Monterroso’s tone and her friends’ tone.

“The implication was that we were insubordinate,” Monterroso said.

She told the doctor she didn’t want to talk about her tone. She wanted to talk about her health care. She was worried about possible blood clots in her leg and she asked for a CT scan.

“Well, you know, the CT scan is radiation right next to your breast tissue. Do you want to get breast cancer?” Monterroso recalled the doctor saying to her. “I only feel comfortable giving you that test if you say that you’re fine getting breast cancer.”

Monterroso thought to herself, “Swallow it up, Karla. You need to be well.” And so she said to the doctor: “I’m fine getting breast cancer.”

He never ordered the test.

A vehicle parked in Oakland, California, during the first weeks of the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations.(April Dembosky)

Monterroso asked for a different doctor, for a hospital advocate. No and no, she was told. She began to worry about her safety. She wanted to get out of there. Her friends, all calling every medical professional they knew to confirm that this treatment was not right, came to pick her up and drove her to the University of California-San Francisco. The team there gave her an EKG, a chest X-ray and a CT scan.

“One of the nurses came in and she was like, ‘I heard about your ordeal. I just want you to know that I believe you. And we are not going to let you go until we know that you are safe to go,’” Monterroso said. “And I started bawling. Because that’s all you want is to be believed. You spend so much of the process not believing yourself, and then to not be believed when you go in? It’s really hard to be questioned in that way.”

Alameda Health System, which operates Alameda Hospital, declined to comment on the specifics of Monterroso’s case, but said in a statement that it is “deeply committed to equity in access to health care” and “providing culturally-sensitive care for all we serve.” After Monterroso filed a grievance with the hospital, management invited her to come talk to their staff and residents, but she declined.

She believes her experience is an example of why people of color are faring so badly in the pandemic.

“Because when we go and seek care, if we are advocating for ourselves, we can be treated as insubordinate,” she said. “And if we are not advocating for ourselves, we can be treated as invisible.”

Unconscious Bias in Health Care

Experts say this happens routinely, and regardless of a doctor’s intentions or race. Monterroso’s doctor was not white, for example.

Research shows that every doctor, every human being, has biases they’re not aware of, said Dr. René Salazar, assistant dean for diversity at the University of Texas-Austin medical school.

“Do I question a white man in a suit who’s coming in looking like he’s a professional when he asks for pain meds versus a Black man?” Salazar said, noting one of his own possible biases.

Unconscious bias most often surfaces in high-stress environments, like emergency rooms — where doctors are under tremendous pressure and have to make quick, high-stakes decisions. Add in a deadly pandemic, in which the science is changing by the day, and things can spiral.

“There’s just so much uncertainty,” he said. “When there is this uncertainty, there always is a level of opportunity for bias to make its way in and have an impact.”

Salazar used to teach at UCSF, where he helped develop unconscious-bias training for medical and pharmacy students. Although dozens of medical schools are picking up the training, he said, it’s not as commonly performed in hospitals. Even when a negative patient encounter like Monterroso’s is addressed, the intervention is usually weak.

“How do I tell my clinician, ‘Well, the patient thinks you’re racist?’” Salazar said. “It’s a hard conversation: ‘I gotta be careful, I don’t want to say the race word because I’m going to push some buttons here.’ So it just starts to become really complicated.”

A Data-Based Approach

Dr. Ronald Copeland said he remembers doctors also resisting these conversations in the early days of his training. Suggestions for workshops in cultural sensitivity or unconscious bias were met with a backlash.

“It was viewed almost from a punishment standpoint. ‘Doc, your patients of this persuasion don’t like you and you’ve got to do something about it.’ It’s like, ‘You’re a bad doctor, and so your punishment is you have to go get training,” said Copeland, who is chief of equity, inclusion and diversity at the Kaiser Permanente health system. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Now, KP’s approach is rooted in data from patient surveys that ask if a person felt respected, if the communication was good and if they were satisfied with the experience.

KP then breaks this data down by demographics, to see if a doctor may get good scores on respect and empathy from white patients, but not Black patients.

“If you see a pattern evolving around a certain group and it’s a persistent pattern, then that tells you there’s something that from a cultural, from an ethnicity, from a gender, something that group has in common, that you’re not addressing,” Copeland said. “Then the real work starts.”

When doctors are presented with the data from their patients and the science on unconscious bias, they’re less likely to resist it or deny it, Copeland said. At his health system, they’ve reframed the goal of training around delivering better quality care and getting better patient outcomes, so doctors want to do it.

“Folks don’t flinch about it,” he said. “They’re eager to learn more about it, particularly about how you mitigate it.”

Still Unwell

It’s been nearly six months since Monterroso first got sick, and she’s still not feeling well.

Her heart rate continues to spike and doctors told her she may need gallbladder surgery to address the gallstones she developed as a result of COVID-related dehydration. She decided recently to leave the Bay Area and move to Los Angeles so she could be closer to her family for the long recovery.

She declined Alameda Hospital’s invitation to speak to their staff about her experience, concluding it wasn’t her responsibility to fix the system. But she wants the broader health care system to take responsibility for the bias perpetuated in hospitals and clinics.

She acknowledges that Alameda Hospital is public, and it doesn’t have the kind of resources that KP and UCSF do. A recent audit warned that the Alameda Health System was on the brink of insolvency. But Monterroso is the CEO of Code2040, a racial equity nonprofit in the tech sector and even for her, she said, it took an army of support for her to be heard.

“Ninety percent of the people that are going to come through that hospital are not going to have what I have to fight that,” she said. “And if I don’t say what’s happening, then people with much less resources are going to come into this experience, and they’re going to die.”

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

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Despite Pandemic Threat, Gubernatorial Hopefuls Avoid COVID Nitty-Gritty

Just 15 days ahead of the election, Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney laid out his ideas on how he’d handle the COVID-19 pandemic if elected governor. Details were few, but the Democrat’s plan became one of only a handful being offered by candidates in the 11 U.S. governor’s races about how they’ll approach what’s certain to be the dominant issue of their terms, should they win.

While much of the nation’s focus is on who will be president come January, voters who are deciding the next occupant of their governor’s mansion are also effectively choosing the next leader of their state’s COVID-19 response. The virus has made governors’ power highly visible to voters. As the states’ top executives, they decide whether to issue mask mandates, close businesses and order people to stay home.

All but two races for governor feature incumbents running for reelection: Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can’t run again because of term limits and Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert decided not to run for another term. In several other competitive races for governor this year, such as those in North Carolina and Missouri, opponents clash on the role of state mandates in slowing the virus. Still, COVID-19 often fades into the backdrop of many long-standing platforms or primarily comes up as candidates talk about the need to revive the economy.

Cooney’s proposal, released Monday, suggested using the National Guard to transport patients in extreme weather and subsidizing heating bills to help those quarantining at home. But other parts vaguely described how he would “develop a robust plan” to come.

His opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, has acknowledged the health crisis but has focused primarily on the economy, saying the state has to “cure the economic pandemic” the virus caused.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, Mike Cooney’s Republican opponent, joins President Donald Trump at a rally at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Nov. 3, 2018, in Belgrade, Montana.(William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bryce Ward, a health economist with the University of Montana, said Cooney’s list was one of the first times he’s seen long-term planning for COVID-19 come up in what appears to be the nation’s tightest governor’s race. But, he added, neither Montana candidate has offered a concrete plan to deal with the dual crises that risk public health when people gather and businesses’ bottom lines when they don’t. Meanwhile, the state’s number of COVID-19 cases climbs and its economy suffers.

“Whoever wins, this is going to be the bulk of their term,” Ward said. “How are the candidates going to keep people afloat as long as they can? What are we doing in terms of planning for what we think our post-COVID world is going to look like?”

An October KFF poll found 29% of registered voters said the economy was the most important issue in choosing a president, while 18% said the coronavirus outbreak was their top issue. Republican voters were more likely to pick the economy, the survey found, and Democrats were more likely to pick the coronavirus. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

“There are voters that feel that the government needs to lead, and there are voters that feel that the government is utilizing a pandemic to become too invasive,” said Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state senator now teaching in American University’s public administration and policy department. “People are not necessarily making their decisions on ‘Did you do contact tracing? Are you going to slow the spread?’”

Among the incumbent governors seeking reelection this year, most of their campaigns’ focus on COVID-19 has been on how well they’ve responded to the crisis. Several pledge more of what they’ve been doing. “We’ll continue to follow the science and wear masks,” Delaware Democratic Gov. John Carney said in a recent debate.

Meanwhile, their challengers generally seek to cast the incumbents as mismanaging their states’ response and promising to undo what’s been done. Those who have put out actual plans to handle the pandemic are Democratic challengers to Republican governors, and their plans are similar to what Cooney released — some specific ideas and promises to fill in the gaps later.

In Missouri, Democratic challenger Nicole Galloway, who is the state auditor, made health care the center of her campaign and released a plan to respond to the virus with a statewide mask mandate and a limit on when public school classes can meet in person based on the community’s rate of infection.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson is the apparent front-runner in that state’s race. He has pledged to lead “the greatest economic comeback that we’ve ever seen in Missouri history.” The former Polk County sheriff also has focused on supporting law enforcement amid backlash against police brutality and racial injustice.

Curbing the coronavirus has taken a back seat to boosting the economy in Parson’s campaign. And, as governor, Parson has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, despite a White House recommendation to do so. In late September, the governor and his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Parson has returned to work, which includes traveling across the state.

One of the more heated races is in North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is defending his seat against a challenge by his lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Forest. Forest sued Cooper this year to challenge the governor’s authority to impose COVID-related restrictions by executive order.

Forest dropped the lawsuit in August after a judge made a preliminary ruling against his case, then said on Twitter, “I did my part. If y’all want your freedoms back you’ll have to make your voices heard in November.”

Cooper’s campaign called the lawsuit “a desperate tactic to garner attention” for Forest’s political campaign. Since then, the governor has slowly eased COVID restrictions, updating an executive order to allow a limited number of people in bars, sporting events, movie theaters and amusement parks. Cooper is leading the race in recent polls.

Back in Montana, the pandemic surfaced in the gubernatorial campaign after health officials announced on Oct. 16 that a Helena concert, which Gianforte attended, was linked to several COVID-19 cases. More than 100 health professionals blasted him in an open letter for flouting local health restrictions, going maskless and making light of safety precautions at campaign events. Cooney called on him to suspend his campaign events until tested. Gianforte’s campaign has said he’s taking proper precautions and accused Cooney of politicizing a public health issue.

Cooney has said he’ll keep Montana’s COVID-19 response on the track he is helping set as lieutenant governor, with science guiding that work. Gianforte, who built a tech startup in Bozeman, has touted his business experience as proof he can lead Montana’s comeback. Both have said more needs to be learned about this virus and have pitched themselves as the one to steer the state’s economy through the crisis.

Ward, the University of Montana health economist, said the details are missing, such as how the winner will support businesses through the winter without federal aid. Or what the new governor would cut from the state budget if the economic crisis hits its coffers.

The state has a public mask mandate and a plan for reopening the economy with no apparent thresholds or timelines. The option for stricter rules has been left to county governments as the state sees its largest COVID surge yet.

Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said the initial lack of detailed pandemic policy in the state’s race could be attributed to both candidates trying to win over swing voters with safe themes. President Donald Trump won Montana in 2016 by 20 points, but the state has also had a Democratic governor for 16 years. While polls show Gianforte leading Cooney slightly, election handicappers Real Clear Politics and the Cook Political Report still consider the race a toss-up.

Yet as Election Day nears, the question of how to address the pandemic only looms larger. Montana’s case count is rising, adding to its total of more than 23,000 cases in the state of roughly 1 million.

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¿Pueden los pacientes de COVID tener el tratamiento de Trump? Está bien preguntar

Cuando Terry Mutter se despertó con dolor de cabeza y músculos adoloridos, el levantador de pesas amateur lo atribuyó a un entrenamiento duro.

Sin embargo, ese miércoles a la noche tuvo 101 grados de fiebre y estaba claramente enfermo. “Me sentía como si me hubiera atropellado un camión”, recuerda Mutter, que vive cerca de Seattle.

Al día siguiente le diagnosticaron COVID-19. El sábado, el hombre de 58 años estaba inscrito en un ensayo clínico para el mismo cóctel de anticuerpos que el presidente Donald Trump afirmó que le había “curado” el coronavirus.

“Lo había escuchado en las noticias”, dijo Mutter, que se unió al ensayo del laboratorio Regeneron para probar si su combinación de dos anticuerpos artificiales puede neutralizar al virus mortal.

Mutter se enteró del estudio por medio de su cuñada, quien trabaja en el Centro de Investigación del Cáncer Fred Hutchinson de Seattle, uno de decenas de sitios de ensayos en todo el país. Es uno de los cientos de miles de estadounidenses, incluido el presidente, que se arriesgaron con terapias experimentales para tratar o prevenir COVID-19.

Pero con casi 8 millones de personas infectadas y más de 217,000 muertes por COVID en el país, muchos pacientes desconocen estas opciones o no pueden acceder a ellas. Otros desconfían de los tratamientos no probados.

“Honestamente, creo que nunca hubiera recibido una llamada si no hubiera conocido a alguien que me dijera sobre el ensayo”, dijo Mutter, ejecutivo jubilado de Boeing Co.

El sitio web Clinicaltrials.gov registra más de 3,600 estudios que involucran a COVID-19 o a SARS-CoV-2, el virus que causa la enfermedad. Más de 430,000 personas se han ofrecido como voluntarias a través de la Red de Prevención de COVID-19. Otras miles han recibido terapias, como el medicamento antiviral remdesivir, que tiene una autorización federal de emergencia.

Ante un diagnóstico grave de COVID, ¿cómo saben los pacientes o sus familias si pueden, o deben, buscar agresivamente estos tratamientos? Por el contrario, ¿cómo pueden decidir si rechazarlos o no si se los ofrecen?

Tales decisiones médicas nunca son fáciles, y son aún más difíciles durante una pandemia, dijo Annette Totten, profesora asociada de informática médica y epidemiología clínica en la Universidad de Salud y Ciencias de Oregon.

“El desafío es que la evidencia no es buena porque todo con COVID es nuevo”, dijo Totten, quien se especializa en la toma de decisiones médicas.

Es comprensible que a los consumidores los haya afectado la información contradictoria sobre posibles tratamientos para COVID por parte de líderes políticos, incluido Trump, y la comunidad científica.

El fármaco contra la malaria hidroxicloroquina, promocionado por el presidente, recibió una autorización de emergencia de la Administración de Drogas y Alimentos (FDA), solo para que la decisión se revocara varias semanas después por temor a que causara daño.

El plasma convalescente, que utiliza hemoderivados de personas recuperadas de COVID-19 para tratar a las que aún están enfermas, se administró a más de 100,000 pacientes en un programa de acceso ampliado y se puso a disposición de todos a través de otra autorización de emergencia, aunque los científicos no están seguros de sus beneficios.

Regeneron y la empresa farmacéutica Eli Lilly and Co. han solicitado autorización de uso de emergencia para sus terapias con anticuerpos monoclonales, incluso cuando los científicos dicen que esto podría poner en peligro la inscripción en los ensayos que probarán si funcionan, o cuán bien funcionan.

Hasta ahora, unas 2,500 personas se han inscrito en los ensayos de Regeneron, y, de ellas, unas 2,000 reciben la terapia, dijo un vocero de la compañía. Otras han recibido el tratamiento a través de los llamados programas de uso compasivo, aunque la empresa no dijo cuántas.

La semana del 12 de octubre, los Institutos Nacionales de Salud detuvieron el ensayo de anticuerpos de Lilly después que una junta de monitoreo independiente planteara preocupaciones de seguridad.

“Con toda la información dando vueltas en los medios, es difícil para los pacientes tomar buenas decisiones, y para los médicos tomar esas decisiones”, dijo el doctor Benjamin Rome, internista e investigador de políticas de salud en el programa Portal de la Escuela de Medicina de Harvard.

Aun así, las personas que enfrentan COVID no deberían tener miedo de preguntar si tienen opciones de tratamiento disponibles, agregó Rome. “Como médico, no me importa cuando los pacientes preguntan”, dijo.

Los pacientes y las familias deben comprender cuáles podrían ser las implicaciones de esos tratamientos, aconsejó Totten. Los primeros ensayos clínicos de fase 1 se centran principalmente en la seguridad, mientras que los ensayos más amplios de fase 2 y fase 3 determinan la eficacia. Cualquier tratamiento experimental plantea la posibilidad de efectos secundarios graves.

Idealmente, los proveedores de atención médica proporcionarían la información sobre tratamientos y riesgos sin previo aviso. Pero durante una pandemia, y especialmente en un entorno de mucho estrés, es posible que no lo hagan, observó Totten.

“Es importante ser insistente”, dijo. “Y Volver a preguntar. A veces tienes que estar dispuesto a ser un poco agresivo”, sugirió.

Los pacientes y las familias deben tomar nota o grabar las conversaciones para su posterior revisión. Deberían preguntar sobre la compensación económica por participar. A muchos pacientes en los ensayos de COVID-19 se les paga cantidades modestas por su tiempo y viajes.

Y deberían pensar en cómo encaja cualquier tratamiento en su sistema más amplio de valores y objetivos, dijo Angie Fagerlin, profesora y directora del departamento de ciencias de la salud de la población de la Universidad de Utah.

“¿Cuáles son los pros y los contras?”, se preguntó Fagerlin. Una consideración puede ser el beneficio para la sociedad en general, no solo para el paciente, dijo.

Para Mutter, ayudar al avance de la ciencia fue una gran razón por la que aceptó inscribirse en el ensayo de Regeneron.

“Me interesó para que la terapéutica avanzara, necesitan personas”, dijo. “En un momento en el que hay tantas cosas que no podemos controlar, ésta sería una forma de encontrar algún tipo de solución”.

Esto fue lo que impulsó a Fred Hutch, que participa en dos ensayos de Regeneron, uno para la prevención de COVID-19 y otro para el tratamiento de la enfermedad.

“Fue una visita de seis horas”, dijo. “Son dos horas para recibir la infusión. Es un goteo intravenoso muy lento”.

Mutter fue la segunda persona inscrita en el ensayo de Fred Hutch, dijo la doctora Shelly Karuna, co-investigadora principal. El estudio está probando dosis altas y bajas del cóctel de anticuerpos monoclonales frente a un placebo.

“Me sorprende el profundo altruismo de las personas a las que estamos evaluando”, dijo.

Mutter no está seguro de cómo contrajo COVID-19. Él y su familia han tenido cuidado con las máscaras y el distanciamiento social, y han criticado a otros que no.

“La ironía ahora es que fuimos nosotros los que nos enfermamos”, dijo Mutter, cuya esposa, Gina Mutter, de 54 años, también tiene COVID.

Mutter sabe que tiene una probabilidad de 1 en 3 de recibir un placebo en lugar de una de las dos dosis de tratamiento activo, pero dijo que estaba dispuesto a correr ese riesgo. Su esposa no se inscribió.

“Dije, hay algunos riesgos involucrados. Uno de nosotros puede tomar el riesgo, no los dos”, dijo.

Hasta ahora, Mutter ha luchado contra una tos y fatiga persistente. No puede decir si su infusión ha sido útil.

“Simplemente no hay forma de saber si tengo los anticuerpos o no”, dijo. “¿Los obtuve y eso me mantuvo fuera del desastre?, ¿o tuve el placebo y mi propio sistema inmunológico hizo su trabajo?”.

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Can Ordinary COVID Patients Get the Trump Treatment? It’s OK to Ask

When Terry Mutter woke up with a headache and sore muscles on a recent Wednesday, the competitive weightlifter chalked it up to a hard workout.

By that evening, though, he had a fever of 101 degrees and was clearly ill. “I felt like I had been hit by a truck,” recalled Mutter, who lives near Seattle.

The next day he was diagnosed with COVID-19. By Saturday, the 58-year-old was enrolled in a clinical trial for the same antibody cocktail that President Donald Trump claimed was responsible for his coronavirus “cure.”

“I had heard a little bit about it because of the news,” said Mutter, who joined the study by drugmaker Regeneron to test whether its combination of two man-made antibodies can neutralize the deadly virus. “I think they probably treated him with everything they had.”

Mutter learned about the study from his sister-in-law, who works at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of dozens of trial sites nationwide. He is among hundreds of thousands of Americans — including the president — who’ve taken a chance on experimental therapies to treat or prevent COVID-19.

But with nearly 8 million people in the U.S. infected with the coronavirus and more than 217,000 deaths attributed to COVID, many patients are unaware of such options or unable to access them. Others remain wary of unproven treatments that can range from drugs to vaccines.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether I would have gotten a call if I hadn’t known somebody who said, ‘Hey, here’s this study,’” said Mutter, a retired executive with Boeing Co.

The website clinicaltrials.gov, which tracks such research, reports more than 3,600 studies involving COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. More than 430,000 people have volunteered for such studies through the COVID-19 Prevention Network. Thousands of others have received therapies, like the antiviral drug remdesivir, under federal emergency authorizations.

Faced with a dire COVID diagnosis, how do patients or their families know whether they can — or should — aggressively seek out such treatments? Conversely, how can they decide whether to refuse them if they’re offered?

Such medical decisions are never easy — and they’re even harder during a pandemic, said Annette Totten, an associate professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology at Oregon Health & Science University.

“The challenge is the evidence is not good because everything with COVID is new,” said Totten, who specializes in medical decision-making. “I think it’s hard to cut through all the noise.”

Consumers have been understandably whipsawed by conflicting information about potential COVID treatments from political leaders, including Trump, and the scientific community. The antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, touted by the president, received emergency authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration, only to have the decision revoked several weeks later out of concern it could cause harm.

Convalescent plasma, which uses blood products from people recovered from COVID-19 to treat those who are still ill, was given to more than 100,000 patients in an expanded-access program and made widely available through another emergency authorization — even though scientists remain uncertain of its benefits.

Regeneron and the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Co. have both requested emergency use authorization for their monoclonal antibody therapies, even as scientists say such approval could jeopardize enrollment in the randomized controlled trials that will prove whether or how well they work. So far, about 2,500 people have enrolled in the Regeneron trials, with about 2,000 of them receiving the therapy, a company spokesperson said. Others have received the treatment through so-called compassionate use programs, though the company wouldn’t say how many.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health paused the Lilly antibody trial after an independent monitoring board raised safety concerns.

“With all of the information swirling around in the media, it’s hard for patients to make good decisions — and for doctors to make those decisions,” said Dr. Benjamin Rome, a general internist and health policy researcher at Harvard Medical School’s Portal program. “You shouldn’t expect that what you’ve heard about on the news is the right treatment for you.”

Even so, people facing COVID shouldn’t be afraid to question whether treatment options are available to them, Rome said. “As a doctor, I never mind when patients ask,” he said.

Patients and families should understand what the implications of those treatments might be, Totten advised. Early phase 1 clinical trials focus largely on safety, while larger phase 2 and phase 3 trials determine efficacy. Any experimental treatment raises the possibility of serious side effects.

Ideally, health care providers would provide such information about treatments and risks unprompted. But during a pandemic, especially in a high-stress environment, they might not, Totten noted.

“It’s important to be sort of insistent,” she said. “If you ask a question, you have to ask it again. Sometimes you have to be willing to be a little pushy,” she said.

Patients and families should take notes or record conversations for later review. They should ask about financial compensation for participation. Many patients in COVID-19 trials are paid modest amounts for their time and travel.

And they should think about how any treatment fits into their larger system of values and goals, said Angie Fagerlin, a professor and the chair of the population health sciences department at the University of Utah.

“What are the pros and what are the cons?” Fagerlin said. “Where would your decision regret be: Not doing something and getting sicker? Or doing something and having a really negative reaction?”

One consideration may be the benefit to the wider society, not just yourself, she said. For Mutter, helping advance science was a big reason he agreed to enroll in the Regeneron trial.

“The main thing that made me interested in it was in order for therapeutics to move forward, they need people,” he said. “At a time when there’s so much we can’t control, this would be a way to come up with some kind of a solution.”

That decision led him to Fred Hutch, which is collaborating on two Regeneron trials, one for prevention of COVID-19 and one for treatment of the disease.

“It was a six-hour visit,” he said. “It’s two hours to get the infusion. It’s a very slow IV drip.”

Mutter was the second person enrolled in the treatment trial at Fred Hutch, said Dr. Shelly Karuna, a co-principal investigator. The study is testing high and low doses of the monoclonal antibody cocktail against a placebo.

“I am struck by the profound altruism of the people we are screening,” she said.

Mutter isn’t sure how he contracted COVID-19. He and his family have been careful about masks and social distancing — and critical of others who weren’t.

“The irony now is that we’re the ones who got sick,” said Mutter, whose wife, Gina Mutter, 54, is also ill.

Mutter knows he has a 1-in-3 chance that he got a placebo rather than one of two active treatment dosages, but he said he was willing to take that chance. His wife didn’t enroll in the trial.

“I said, there’s some risks involved. We’re taking one for the team here. I don’t think we both need to do that,” he said.

So far, Mutter has struggled with a persistent cough and lingering fatigue. He can’t tell if his infusion has been helpful, never mind whether it’s a cure.

“Just no way of telling if I got the antibodies or not,” he said. “Did I get them and that kept me out of disaster, or did I get the placebo and my own immune system did its job?”

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Public Health

‘No Mercy’ Chapter 4: So, 2 Nuns Step Off a Train in Kansas … A Hospital’s Origin Story


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


Ever since Mercy Hospital went “corporate,” things just haven’t been the same — that’s what lots of locals in Fort Scott, Kansas, said when the Mercy health system shuttered the only hospital in town.

It’s been years since Catholic nuns led Mercy Hospital Fort Scott, but town historian Fred Campbell is wistful for his boyhood in the 1940s when sisters in habits walked the hallways.

“Well, I had never, ever been in a hospital. And here came these ladies in flowing robes and white bands around their faces. And I was scared to death. But it wasn’t long ’til I found that, first thing I know, they had some iced Coca-Cola. I still remember them putting their hand on my head to see if I had a fever.”

For more than 100 years, Mercy Hospital — and the nuns who started it all — cared for local people. But in recent years, Fort Scott’s economy and the hospital’s finances faltered. Campbell hoped both could survive.

“Mercy Corporation, can you stay with us longer?” he wondered.

In Chapter 4 of Season One: No Mercy, podcast host Sarah Jane Tribble carries that question to Sister Mary Roch Rocklage, the powerhouse who consolidated all the Mercy hospitals in the Midwest.

Click here to read the episode transcript.

Fred Campbell(Sarah Jane tribble/KHN)


“Where It Hurts” is a podcast collaboration between KHN and St. Louis Public Radio. Season One extends the storytelling from Sarah Jane Tribble’s award-winning series, “No Mercy.”

Subscribe to Where It Hurts on iTunes, Stitcher, Google, Spotify or Pocket Casts.

And to hear all KHN podcasts, click here.

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Multimedia Public Health States

Health Care Groups Dive Into Property Tax Ballot Fight, Eyeing Public Health Money

SACRAMENTO — A November ballot initiative to raise property taxes on big-business owners in California is drawing unconventional political support from health care power players and public health leaders.

They see Proposition 15 as a potential savior for chronically underfunded local health departments struggling to respond to the worst public health crisis in more than a century. The initiative would change California’s property tax system to tax some commercial properties higher than residential properties, which backers say could generate billions to help local governments pay for critical public health infrastructure and staffing.

Without such additional state or federal funding, local governments could be forced to make deeper budget cuts in health and other departments next year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain city and county finances.

“When you’re talking about health care, you’re talking about money,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a Sacramento-based consumer advocacy group. “This is the major revenue measure on the ballot this year, and it’s an opportunity to fund public health at the place where the main responsibility for public health lies — at the county level.”

At least that’s how health care advocates are casting the tax hike. But there’s no guarantee that if the measure passes counties would use new revenue to address COVID-19 or other health care needs. And some rural counties fear they would lose money if the ballot measure passes, which could undercut public health efforts.

Support within the health care and local government worlds is not unanimous. The powerful California Hospital Association opposes the measure because it would result in higher taxes on private and investor-owned hospitals, said spokesperson Jan Emerson-Shea. Nonprofit hospitals, including those run by Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health, are exempt from paying property taxes despite their regular high revenue. They would remain exempt under the initiative. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

“This new tax will mean millions of dollars will be taken away from patient care, in perpetuity,” Emerson-Shea said.

Proposition 15 would amend California’s landmark 1978 property tax initiative, Proposition 13, which capped commercial and residential property tax rates at 1% of assessed value at the time of purchase, and limited annual increases thereafter to 2%. The drop in property taxes as a result of the initiative decimated a major revenue source for public schools and social welfare programs, leaving many underfunded.

Voters are now being asked to allow higher taxes for business owners with commercial holdings valued at more than $3 million. If passed, the measure could generate up to $11.5 billion a year, according to the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office. It would not apply to residential properties.

Forty percent of annual revenue would be distributed to K-12 schools and community colleges, with 60% sent to cities and counties. Nothing in the measure would require new local revenue to be spent on health care, but supporters say it’s their best hope after losing $134 million in state public health money this year as one-time funding for specific programs expired. At the same time, slammed by a projected $54 billion deficit, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers declined this year to increase funding for local health departments to combat COVID-19 and rebuild public health infrastructure.

Sponsors of Proposition 15, including the California Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union California, argue it’s an overdue change that would tax wealthier enterprises in exchange for funding vital school and health care programs. They point out that the initiative, supported by Newsom and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, would require schools and local governments to disclose all new revenue they receive and how money is spent.

If passed, money from the measure would begin flowing to schools and counties in 2022 at the earliest.

Opponents of the measure, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Republican Party and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, say hiking taxes on commercial property owners would harm struggling businesses hit hard by COVID-related closures.

“This is being pushed as a panacea cure-all, but at the end of the day, there is no accountability for where these funds go,” said Michael Bustamante, a spokesperson for the “No on Prop 15” campaign. “There are, without question, an infinite number of needs, but there is no specificity with what it can or can’t be spent on.”

Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, which represents the state’s 61 local health officers and has not taken a position on the initiative, said ongoing, unrestricted revenue could actually benefit counties by allowing them to spearhead public health programs that address local needs.

At present, counties are limited in what they can do with their public health dollars, she said. Most additional funding in recent years has largely been earmarked for specific programs or diseases, such as hepatitis C and HIV, and counties are not allowed to spend it on their COVID-19 response or other public health activities.

“Maybe your community’s highest priority is not something easily funded by one of these grants. Many rural areas in our state don’t have access to clean drinking water, for example,” DeBurgh said. “And our greatest demand — more public health workers — can’t be funded with grants or one-time money.”

Health care leaders also argue the initiative could help support community clinics and public hospitals that provide care for uninsured people, who have also suffered financially during the pandemic.

“What we’re really trying to avoid is having to balance the budget on the backs of people who need services,” said Jodi Hicks, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “Our public health system has clear inequities that we need to address, and additional funding can help fill in the gaps at the county level.”

Hicks said Planned Parenthood, which provides sex education in California public schools, is supporting the initiative not only to improve public health, but also because she worries programs like sex education will be on the chopping block as the state experiences unprecedented job and economic losses.

“Those types of programs are the first to get cut when there’s not enough funding,” she said.

Small, rural counties could also lose funding, county assessors said.

While the initiative would likely raise taxes on large commercial property owners who have seen their land and property appreciate in value over the years, it would eliminate property taxes for other business assets, such as machinery and equipment, for the first $500,000 in value.

Counties that haven’t seen land values climb as high as those in coastal regions like the Bay Area may not collect more property taxes while also losing revenue from the tax cut on other business assets.

Chuck Leonhardt, the elected assessor for rural Plumas County, projects that his county could be one of the losers.

“This would take $90 million in assessed value from our tax roll at the beginning, and then I’d have to reassess 2,000 commercial properties,” he said. “Many of us rural counties don’t feel we’ll benefit from doing these reappraisals and my expectation is we could lose some money.”

Even among supporters in public health, some fear that any potential windfall for counties would be allocated based on the whims of local politics.

“Even though I support it, I am skeptical that this money will go to the public health programs and basic infrastructure we so desperately need because public health has no constituency,” said Bruce Pomer, a public health expert and chief lobbyist for the California Association of Public Health Laboratory Directors.

He pointed to Sacramento County, where the sheriff’s department received a larger share of the $181 million in federal COVID-19 relief money than the county public health department.

“I’m worried we’ll see the same thing we saw with Sacramento County,” Pomer said.

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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California Elections Public Health

Most Home Health Aides ‘Can’t Afford Not to Work’ — Even When Lacking PPE

In March, Sue Williams-Ward took a new job, with a $1-an-hour raise.

The employer, a home health care agency called Together We Can, was paying a premium — $13 an hour — after it started losing aides when COVID-19 safety concerns mounted.

Williams-Ward, a 68-year-old Indianapolis native, was a devoted caregiver who bathed, dressed and fed clients as if they were family. She was known to entertain clients with some of her own 26 grandchildren, even inviting her clients along on charitable deliveries of Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams.

Without her, the city’s most vulnerable would have been “lost, alone or mistreated,” said her husband, Royal Davis.

Despite her husband’s fears for her health, Williams-Ward reported to work on March 16 at an apartment with three elderly women. One was blind, one was wheelchair-bound, and the third had a severe mental illness. None had been diagnosed with COVID-19 but, Williams-Ward confided in Davis, at least one had symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath, now associated with the virus.

Even after a colleague on the night shift developed pneumonia, Williams-Ward tended to her patients — without protective equipment, which she told her husband she’d repeatedly requested from the agency. Together We Can did not respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment about the PPE available to its workers.

Still, Davis said, “Sue did all the little, unseen, everyday things that allowed them to maintain their liberty, dignity and freedom.”

He said that within three days Williams-Ward was coughing, too. After six weeks in a hospital and weeks on a ventilator, she died of COVID-19. Hers is one of more than 1,200 health worker COVID deaths that KHN and The Guardian are investigating, including those of dozens of home health aides.

During the pandemic, home health aides have buttressed the U.S. health care system by keeping the most vulnerable patients — seniors, the disabled, the infirm — out of hospitals. Yet even as they’ve put themselves at risk, this workforce of 2.3 million — of whom 9 in 10 are women, nearly two-thirds are minorities and almost one-third are foreign-born — has largely been overlooked.

Home health providers scavenged for their own face masks and other protective equipment, blended disinfectant and fabricated sanitizing wipes amid widespread shortages. They’ve often done it all on poverty wages, without overtime pay, hazard pay, sick leave and health insurance. And they’ve gotten sick and died — leaving little to their survivors.

Speaking out about their work conditions during the pandemic has triggered retaliation by employers, according to representatives of the Service Employees International Union in Massachusetts, California and Virginia. “It’s been shocking, egregious and unethical,” said David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512.

The pandemic has laid bare deeply ingrained inequities among health workers, as Broder puts it: “This is exactly what structural racism looks like today in our health care system.”

Every worker who spoke with KHN for this article said they felt intimidated by the prospect of voicing their concerns. All have seen colleagues fired for doing so. They agreed to talk candidly about their work environments on the condition their full names not be used.

***

Tina, a home health provider, said she has faced these challenges in Springfield, Massachusetts, one of the nation’s poorest cities.

Like many of her colleagues — 82%, according to a survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance — Tina has lacked protective equipment throughout the pandemic. Her employer is a family-owned company that gave her one surgical mask and two pairs of latex gloves a week to clean body fluids, change wound dressings and administer medications to incontinent or bedridden clients.

When Tina received the company’s do-it-yourself blueprints — to make masks from hole-punched sheets of paper towel reinforced with tongue depressors and gloves from garbage bags looped with rubber bands — she balked. “It felt like I was in a Third World country,” she said.

The home health agencies that Tina and others in this article work for declined to comment on work conditions during the pandemic.

In other workplaces — hospitals, mines, factories — employers are responsible for the conditions in which their employees operate. Understanding the plight of home health providers begins with American labor law.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which forms the basis of protections in the American workplace, was passed in an era dually marked by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal changes and marred by the barriers of the Jim Crow era. The act excluded domestic care workers — including maids, butlers and home health providers — from protections such as overtime pay, sick leave, hazard pay and insurance. Likewise, standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration three decades later carved out “domestic household employment activities in private residences.”

“A deliberate decision was made to discriminate against colored people — mostly women — to unburden distinguished elderly white folks from the responsibility of employment,” said Ruqaiijah Yearby, a law professor at St. Louis University.

In 2015, several of these exceptions were eliminated, and protections for home health providers became “very well regulated on paper,” said Nina Kohn, a professor specializing in civil rights law at Syracuse University. “But the reality is, noncompliance is a norm and the penalties for noncompliance are toothless.”

Burkett McInturff, a civil rights lawyer working on behalf of home health workers, said, “The law itself is very clear. The problem lies in the ability to hold these companies accountable.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has “abdicated its responsibility for protecting workers” in the pandemic, said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the National Employment Law Project. Berkowitz is also a former OSHA chief. In her view, political and financial decisions in recent years have hollowed out the agency: It now has the fewest inspectors and conducts the fewest inspections per year in its history.

Furthermore, some home health care agencies have classified home health providers as contractors, akin to gig workers such as Uber drivers. This loophole protects them from the responsibilities of employers, said Seema Mohapatra, an Indiana University associate professor of law. Furthermore, she said, “these workers are rarely in a position to question, or advocate or lobby for themselves.”

Should workers contract COVID-19, they are unlikely to receive remuneration or damages.

Demonstrating causality — that a person caught the coronavirus on the job — for workers’ compensation has been extremely difficult, Berkowitz said. As with other health care jobs, employers have been quick to point out that workers might have caught the virus at the gas station, grocery store or home.

Many home health providers care for multiple patients, who also bear the consequences of their work conditions. “If you think about perfect vectors for transmission, unprotected individuals going from house to house have to rank at the top of list,” Kohn said. “Even if someone didn’t care at all about these workers, we need to fix this to keep Grandma and Grandpa safe.”

Nonetheless, caregivers like Samira, in Richmond, Virginia, have little choice but to work. Samira — who makes $8.25 an hour with one client and $9.44 an hour with another, and owes tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills from previous work injuries — has no other option but to risk getting sick.

“I can’t afford not to work. And my clients, they don’t have anybody but me,” she said. “So I just pray every day I don’t get it.”

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Musicians Improvise Masks for Wind Instruments to Keep the Band Together

Trombonist Jerrell Charleston loves the give-and-take of jazz, the creativity of riffing off other musicians. But as he looked toward his sophomore year at Indiana University, he feared that steps to avoid sharing the coronavirus would also keep students from sharing songs.

“Me and a lot of other cats were seriously considering taking a year off and practicing at home,” lamented the 19-year-old jazz studies major from Gary, Indiana.

His worries evaporated when he arrived on campus and discovered that music professor Tom Walsh had invented a special mask with a hole and a protective flap to allow musicians to play while masked.

Students also got masks for the ends of their wind instruments, known as bell covers, allowing them to jam in person, albeit 6 feet apart.

“It’s amazing to play together,” Charleston said. “Music has always been my safe space. It’s what’s in your soul, and you’re sharing that with other people.”

Of course, the very act of making music powered by human breath involves blowing air — and possibly virus particles — across a room. One infamous choral practice in Washington state earlier this year led to confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 in more than half of the 61 attendees. Two died.

So musicians around the country are taking it upon themselves to reduce the risk of COVID-19 without silencing the music. With pantyhose, air filters, magnets, bolts of fabric and a fusion of creativity, those who play wind instruments or sing are improvising masks to keep the band together.

Solomon Keim rehearses in protective gear that doesn’t mask the sound.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

Brayden Wisley practices safe sax-playing. Other tips for musicians: Play in a big space with good ventilation, and break after 30 minutes to allow the air to clear.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

Brendan Sullivan plays trombone while both he and the instrument are masked. It has been recommended that most instrumentalists face the same direction while playing and stay 6 feet apart — with a distance of 9 feet in front and back of trombonists.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

A consortium of performing arts groups has commissioned research exploring ways for musicians to play safely. The group’s preliminary report from July recommends instrumentalists wear masks with small slits, use bell covers, face the same direction while playing and stay 6 feet apart for most instruments — with a distance of 9 feet in front and back of trombonists. Other research has shown cotton bell covers on brass instruments reduced airborne particles by an average of 79% compared with playing without one.

Jelena Srebric, a University of Maryland engineering researcher involved in the consortium’s study, said it’s also best to play in a big space with good ventilation, and musicians should break after 30 minutes to allow the air to clear. These rudimentary solutions, she said, promise at least some protection against the virus.

“Nothing is 100%. Being alive is a dangerous business,” Srebric said. This “gives some way to engage with music, which is fantastic in this day and age of despair.”

Dr. Adam Schwalje, a National Institutes of Health research fellow at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, is a bassoonist who has written about the COVID risk of wind instruments. He said a combination of bell covers, social distancing and limited time playing together could be helpful, but the effectiveness of bell covers or masks for musicians to wear while playing is “completely unproven” at this point. Schwalje’s paper said it’s not possible to quantify the risk of playing wind instruments, which involves deep breathing, sometimes forceful exhalation and possible aerosolizing of the mucus in the mouth and nose.

Still, early results of research at the universities of Maryland and Colorado are helping to inspire improvisational mask-making and other safety measures, said Mark Spede, national president of the College Band Directors National Association who is helping lead the commissioned research.

At Middle Tennessee State University, for example, tuba teacher Chris Combest said his students tie pillowcases over the bells of their instruments, and some wear masks that can be unbuttoned to play. At the University of Iowa, wind players in small ensembles must use bell covers and masks, but they can pull them down when playing as long as they pull them up during rests. Heather Ainsworth-Dobbins said her students at Southern Virginia University use surgical masks with slits cut in them and bell covers made of pantyhose and MERV-13 air filters, similar to what is used on a furnace.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music professor Tom Walsh distributes custom masks he designed that allow students to play their instruments safely as a group.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

Skyler Floe tries out his horn’s bell cover to much fanfare at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

Kyle Cantrell’s sound carries while reducing the risk of virus transmission.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

At Indiana, Walsh sought out whatever research he could find as he designed his tight-fitting cotton musical mask, reinforced with a layer of polypropylene and with adjustable ties in the back. A flap hangs over the hole, outfitted with two magnets that allow it to close over the instrument. The professor’s mom, Julie Walsh — who made his clothes when he was a kid — has sewn more than 80 of the musical masks for free. The opera program’s costume shop makes bell covers with a layer of fabric over a layer of stiff woven material known as interfacing fabric.

Bailey Cates, a freshman trumpet player, said the quality of the sound is about the same with these masks and they make her feel safer.

Flutes present unique challenges, partly because flutists blow air across the mouthpiece. Alice Dade, an associate professor of flute at the University of Missouri, said she and her students clip on device called “wind guards” usually used outdoors, then sometimes fit surgical masks over them.

Alice Dade, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, recommends using clip-on devices for flutes called “wind guards,” which shield the lip plate of the flute from wind when playing outdoors. The ventilated design helps limit condensation and interference with the player’s air stream. Amid the pandemic, some flutists now use them with surgical masks on top to curb the spread of the coronavirus.(Alice Dade)

Indiana flute student Nathan Rakes uses a specially designed cloth mask with a slit and slips a silk sock on the instrument’s end. Rakes, a sophomore, said the fabric doesn’t affect the sound unless he’s playing a low B note, which he rarely plays.

Walsh is a stickler for finding big practice spaces, not playing together for more than half an hour and taking 20-minute breaks. All jazz ensemble musicians, for example, also must stay at least 10 feet apart.

“I carry a tape measure everywhere I go,” he said. “I feel responsible for our students.”

Some K-12 schools are trying similar strategies, said James Weaver, director of performing arts and sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

His son Cooper, a seventh grade sax player at Plainfield Community Middle School in Indiana, uses a surgical mask with a slit. It sometimes jerks to the side with the vibrations of playing, but Cooper said it “feels good as long as you have it in the right place.” Cooper also helped his dad make a bell cover with fabric and MERV-13 material.

While many groups use homemade bell covers, McCormick’s Group in Wheeling, Illinois, has transformed its 25-year-old business of making bell covers to display school colors and insignias into one that is making musicians safer with two-ply covers made of polyester/spandex fabric. CEO Alan Yefsky said his company started reinforcing the covers with the second layer this summer. Sales of the $20 covers have soared.

“It’s keeping people employed. We’re helping keep people safe,” Yefsky said. “All of a sudden, we got calls from nationally known symphony organizations.”

Other professional musicians take a different tack. Film and television soundtracks are often recorded in separate sessions; woodwinds and brass players in individual plexiglass cubicles and masked, with distanced string players recording elsewhere.

The U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C., practices in small, socially distanced groups, but string instrumentalists are the only ones wearing masks while playing.

For both professionals and students, the pandemic has virtually eliminated live audiences in favor of virtual performances. Many musicians say they miss traditional concerts but are not focusing on what they’ve lost.

“Creating that sense of community — an island to come together and play — is super important,” said Cates, the Indiana trumpet player. “Playing music feels like a mental release for a lot of us. When I’m playing, my mind is off of the pandemic.”

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music professor Tom Walsh works with students during rehearsal in Bloomington, Indiana. The professor’s mom, Julie Walsh — who made his clothes when he was a kid — has sewn more than 80 of the musical masks for free.(Chris Bergin for KHN)

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Public Health

No, the WHO Didn’t Change Its Lockdown Stance or ‘Admit’ Trump Was Right

On Monday, President Donald Trump claimed that the World Health Organization (WHO) “admitted” he was correct that using lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19 was more damaging than the illness.

In a post on Twitter, Trump wrote: “The World Health Organization just admitted that I was right. Lockdowns are killing countries all over the world. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself. Open up your states, Democrat governors. Open up New York. A long battle, but they finally did the right thing!”

He reiterated his statement later that night during a campaign rally, saying, “But the World Health Organization, did you see what happened? They just came out a little while ago, and they admitted that Donald Trump was right. The lockdowns are doing tremendous damage to these Democrat-run states, where they’re locked out, sealed up. Suicide rates, drug rates, alcoholism, deaths by so many different forms. You can’t do that.”

Together, the tweet and these comments got considerable attention on social media.

But did the WHO change its stance on lockdowns or concede anything to Trump, as he said it did? Briefly, no.

Since May, Trump has been vocal about asking states to reopen businesses, schools, religious services and other social activities. He also took credit for locking down the U.S. in the early stages of the pandemic, however. And his administration largely delegated lockdown decisions to governors and local governments.

Yet those lockdowns — marked by stay-at-home orders and other restrictions — have been less stringent than those implemented in other countries, said Brooke Nichols, an assistant professor of global health at Boston University.

The “definition has differed country by country and state by state. I would argue that the U.S. has never had an actual enforced lockdown like there have been in some Asian countries and in Italy last spring,” Nichols wrote in an email.

We reached out to the Trump campaign and the White House to ask for more information about Trump’s assertion but didn’t receive a response.

A Clip Doesn’t Tell the Full Story

Although the Trump team didn’t get back to us, we noticed that the Trump War Room Twitter account responded to Trump’s tweet with a link to a video, appearing to back up the president’s claim.

The video is a clip from an Oct. 8 interview with Dr. David Nabarro, a special envoy on COVID-19 for the WHO, by Scottish journalist Andrew Neil. The segment was televised by the British news outlet Spectator TV.

In response to a question about the economic consequences of lockdowns, Nabarro said: “We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources; protect your health workers who are exhausted. But by and large, we’d rather not do it.” Nabarro then went on to describe potential economic consequences, including effects on the tourism industry and farmers or the worsening of world poverty.

We checked with Nabarro to find out if the clip accurately reflected the points he raised during a nearly 20-minute interview. He responded, by email: “My comments were taken totally out of context. The WHO position is consistent.”

That context Nabarro mentioned covered a range of topics, such as the estimate that about 90% of the world’s population is still vulnerable to COVID-19, that lockdowns are only an effective pandemic response in extreme circumstances and what Nabarro means when he talks about finding the “middle path.”

“We’re saying we really do have to learn how to coexist with this virus in a way that doesn’t require constant closing down of economies, but at the same time in a way that is not associated with high levels of suffering and death,” Nabarro said in the interview.

To achieve that via the middle-path approach, robust defenses against the virus must be put in place, said Nabarro, including having well-organized public health services, such as testing, contact tracing and isolation. It also involves communities adhering to public health guidelines such as wearing masks, physical distancing and practicing good hygiene.

So, it’s really not accurate for the president to imply that the WHO has or has not supported lockdowns, said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. It’s not as simple as an either-or choice.

“No one is saying that lockdowns should never be used, just that they shouldn’t be used as a primary or only method,” Gostin wrote in an email.

And Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at KFF, said both the WHO and public health experts have acknowledged there are economic consequences to lockdowns. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

“Strict lockdowns are best used sparingly and in a time-limited fashion because they can cause negative health and economic consequences,” said Michaud. “That is why Nabarro said lockdowns are not recommended as the ‘primary’ control measure. Critics like to frame lockdowns as being recommended as the only measure, when in reality that is not the case.”

Has the WHO Flipped on Its Stance on Lockdowns?

And what about Trump’s assertion that the WHO had changed its position and admitted he was right?

A member of the WHO media office told us in a statement, “Our position on lockdowns and other severe movement restrictions has been consistent since the beginning. We recognize that they are costly to societies, economies and individuals, but may need to be used if COVID-19 transmission is out of control.”

“WHO has never advocated for national lockdowns as a primary means for controlling the virus. Dr. Nabarro was repeating our advice to governments to ‘do it all,’” the spokesperson said.

To test this premise, we looked at statements by WHO leaders over the course of the pandemic. In the multiple media briefings we reviewed from February onward, the WHO appeared consistent in its messaging about what lockdowns should be deployed for: to give governments time to respond to a high number of COVID-19 cases and get a reprieve for health care workers. Although WHO leaders in February supported the shutting down of the city of Wuhan, China, the presumed source of the COVID-19 outbreak, they have also acknowledged that lockdowns can have serious economic effects, and that robust testing, contact tracing and physical distancing are usually preferable to completely locking down.

There is also no evidence the WHO “admitted” Trump was right about lockdowns.

Our Ruling

Trump tweeted on Monday and then said later that night at a campaign rally that the WHO admitted he was right about lockdowns.

We found no evidence the WHO made this admission. And, based on a review of WHO communications, we found its messaging on the topic has been consistent since the pandemic’s early days.

Trump also appears to have relied on a brief video clip of a wide-ranging interview with WHO special envoy Dr. David Nabarro that didn’t give an accurate portrayal of how Nabarro characterized the use of this intervention.

We rate this statement False.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Democrats May Lose on SCOTUS, But Hope to Win on ACA


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


Republicans appear to be on track to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before Election Day, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court regardless of what happens Nov. 3. Democrats, meanwhile, lacking the votes to block the nomination, used the high-profile hearings to batter Republicans for trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, a number of scientific journals that typically eschew politics, including the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, threw their support to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, citing what they call the Trump administration’s bungling of the coronavirus pandemic.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call, Shefali Luthra of The 19th and Sarah Karlin-Smith of Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The lack of progress on a bipartisan coronavirus relief package is making both Democrats and Republicans nervous as they approach Election Day without something to help voters.
  • During hearings on the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, Democrats were consistently on message, seeking to focus public attention before the election on the threat that Republicans pose to the Affordable Care Act as the law goes before the court next month. Four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will vote on the nomination, are up for reelection. Also on the committee is Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate.
  • The public health optics of the hearing were jarring for some viewers. Although the committee chairman said the room was set up to meet federal health guidelines, Republican senators often did not wear masks, including Sens. Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Mike Lee (Utah), who both were diagnosed with COVID-19 after attending a White House celebration for Barrett.
  • The lack of masks could add to confusion about public health messages. And voters sometimes find it insulting that politicians play down risks that the public is called upon to assume.
  • Barrett’s testimony did not change many perceptions of her. Although she was extremely careful not to reveal her personal views on issues that could come before the court, including the ACA and abortion, both Democrats and Republicans highlighted her strong conservative credentials.
  • Scientific American and the New England Journal of Medicine have published stinging critiques of the current administration’s policies on science and medicine. Although it’s not clear what impact the editorials will have, they are a sign of the further politicization of public health.

This week, Rovner also interviews Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Jha talked about the challenges public health professionals have faced in trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Julie Rovner: The Atlantic’s “How to Tell If Socializing Indoors Is Safe,” by Olga Khazan

Shefali Luthra: The New York Times’ “A $52,112 Air Ambulance Ride: Coronavirus Patients Battle Surprise Bills,” by Sarah Kliff

Mary Ellen McIntire: KHN’s “Making Money Off Marks, COVID-Spawned Chain Store Aims to Become Obsolete,” by Markian Hawryluk

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Politico’s “Health Officials Scrambling to Produce Trump’s ‘Last-Minute’ Drug Cards by Election Day,” by Dan Diamond

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

Bill of the Month update: KHN’s “Moved by Plight of Young Heart Patient, Stranger Pays His Hospital Bill,” by Laura Ungar

Scientific journal endorsements: The New England Journal of Medicine’s “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum

Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden,” by The Editors


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COVID en LA: prevención en los trabajos ha salvado vidas de latinos, dicen oficiales

Funcionarios del condado de Los Angeles atribuyen la dramática disminución de casos y muertes por COVID-19 entre afroamericanos y latinos, en los últimos dos meses, a la agresiva aplicación de las normas de salud en los lugares de trabajo y a la apertura de líneas para denunciar si no se cumplen.

Ahora, los funcionarios buscan consolidar esos logros creando comités de empleados capacitados para detectar transgresiones en la prevención de COVID-19, y corregirlas o reportarlas, sin temor al despido o al castigo.

Cal/OSHA, la autoridad estatal de seguridad y salud en el trabajo, está abrumada con quejas y denuncias sobre el incumplimiento de las normas anti-COVID; y los supervisores de salud del condado —había 346 hasta el 9 de octubre— no pueden vigilar los más de 240,000 negocios de Los Angeles, según activistas.

Los comités ayudarían a evitar que Los Angeles retroceda en su esfuerzo por mitigar los casos y las disparidades raciales en el otoño, ya que es probable que más empresas vuelvan a la actividad, señaló Tia Koonse, investigadora del UCLA Labor Center y coautora de la evaluación sobre la propuesta para formar comités de empleados.

Se espera que la Junta de Supervisores del condado de Los Angeles apruebe una ordenanza este mes para que los negocios permitan que los empleados formen los comités, lo cual solucionaría los problemas de incumplimiento e informaría al departamento de salud cuando sea necesario.

Los críticos, incluyendo muchos líderes empresariales, dicen que la medida creará más burocracia en el peor momento posible para la economía. Pero grupos laborales y algunas empresas aseguran que es crucial para combatir la pandemia.

A trabajadores de diferentes partes del país se los despidió o castigó por quejarse de violaciones de seguridad relacionadas con COVID, y las leyes que los protegen no son consistentes.

“Los trabajadores tienen derecho a estar en un espacio seguro y no deben sufrir represalias” por señalar prácticas deficientes, dijo Barbara Ferrer, directora del Departamento de Salud Pública del condado de Los Angeles. Los trabajadores con bajos salarios han estado “en enorme desventaja” al tener que trabajar fuera de casa en contacto con otras personas, a menudo sin  protección suficiente, añadió Ferrer.

Durante el aumento de los casos de COVID que siguieron a las reuniones familiares del fin de semana de Memorial Day y a la apertura de negocios, los latinos (que pueden ser ser cualquier raza) en Los Angeles tenían una tasa de mortalidad cuatro veces mayor que la de los blancos no hispanos, mientras que las personas de raza negra tenían el doble de probabilidades que los blancos no hispanos de morir por la enfermedad.

Dos meses después, las tasas de mortalidad entre personas de raza negra y latinos habían disminuido a casi la mitad y se estaban acercando a la tasa de los blancos no hispanos, según los datos ajustados por edad del departamento de salud del condado.

Mientras que a finales de julio el número de latinos que daban positivo por COVID era cuatro veces mayor que el de blancos no hispanos, a mediados de septiembre los índices de casos de latinos eran sólo un 64% más altos. La tasa de positividad entre las personas de raza negra era un 60% más alta que la de los blancos a finales de julio, pero la disparidad había disminuido a mediados de septiembre.

Los expertos no saben si una política concreta es la responsable de esta disminución de muertes. Además, las tasas estatales y de los condados han disminuido para toda la población en las últimas semanas. Pero Ferrer atribuyó el progreso a que su departamento se centra en el cumplimiento de las directrices de salud en el lugar de trabajo, que incluyen reglas sobre el distanciamiento físico, proveer cubrebocas para los trabajadores y también exigir a los clientes que las usen.

“Para los que no cumplan con las directrices, en este momento podemos emitir citaciones, o hay casos en los que simplemente cerramos el lugar porque la transgresión es mayor”, explicó.

Las agudas disparidades raciales, que caracterizaron a la pandemia desde el principio, están ahora bajo mayor escrutinio ya que California se ha convertido en el primer estado que ha hecho de la “equidad en salud” un factor a la hora de permitir una reapertura ampliada.

Es posible que los condados grandes no avancen hacia la reapertura total hasta que sus vecindarios más desfavorecidos, y no sólo el condado en su conjunto, cumplan o estén por debajo de los niveles de enfermedad previstos. Los criterios obligan a los gobiernos locales a invertir más en pruebas, rastreo de contactos y educación en los barrios pobres con altos niveles de la enfermedad.

El enfoque de Ferrer en el lugar de trabajo se cristalizó durante una intervención en Los Angeles Apparel, una fábrica de ropa que se había puesto a fabricar máscaras faciales durante la pandemia. A pesar del inventario de máscaras, un brote en la fábrica resultó en al menos 300 casos, y cuatro muertes.

El departamento de salud intervino después de una denuncia de los centros de salud comunitarios que se vieron desbordados por los trabajadores enfermos de Los Angeles Apparel. El departamento cerró la fábrica el 27 de junio. Esa acción resaltó la necesidad de unir al gobierno y a los sindicatos para luchar contra la pandemia, indicó Jim Mangia, CEO de St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, una cadena de centros de salud comunitarios en el sur de L.A.

“En el St. John’s, casi todos nuestros pacientes son trabajadores pobres”, explicó Mangia. “Se contagiaban en el trabajo y lo llevaban a sus familias, y creo que intervenir en el lugar de trabajo es lo que realmente marcó la diferencia”.

Al principio de la pandemia, Ferrer también había establecido una línea de denuncia anónima para los empleados que quisieran reportar incuplimientos en el lugar de trabajo. Recibe unas 2,000 llamadas a la semana, según Ferrer. Hasta el 10 de octubre, el sitio web del departamento nombra 132 lugares de trabajo que han tenido tres o más casos confirmados de COVID-19, con un total de 2,191 positivos. Otra tabla, con fecha 7 de octubre, enumera 124 citaciones, la mayoría a gimnasios y lugares de culto, por no cumplir con una directriz de un oficial de salud.

“Afortunadamente, no somos como Cal/OSHA, en el sentido de que no nos lleva meses completar una investigación”, comentó Ferrer. “Somos capaces de movernos más rápidamente siguiendo las órdenes del oficial de salud para asegurarnos de que estamos protegiendo a los trabajadores”.

Los comités de salud pública son la siguiente fase del plan de Ferrer para mantener a los trabajadores seguros. El plan surgió de la respuesta de Overhill Farms, una factoría de alimentos congelados en Vernon, California, después de un brote de más de 20 casos y una muerte. La fábrica y su agencia de trabajo temporal fueron penalizadas con más de $200,000 en multas propuestas por Cal/OSHA en septiembre, pero antes de que llegaran las multas, la dirección de la fábrica reaccionó celebrando reuniones con los trabajadores para mejorar la seguridad.

“Encontraron que los trabajadores les ayudaron a bajar la tasa de infección y ayudaron a resolver los problemas”, dijo Roxana Tynan, directora ejecutiva de la Alianza de Los Angeles para una Nueva Economía, una organización de defensa de los trabajadores.

Si bien no es exactamente un caso que ensalce la generosidad corporativa, el cambio en Overhill Farms agregó credibilidad a los beneficios de los comités de trabajadores, señaló Koonse de UCLA.

Ninguna empresa tendría que gastar más del 0,44% de su nómina en los comités de salud, según Koonse.

Aún así, la idea ha sido recibida con división de opiniones por parte de las empresas. En una declaración del 24 de agosto, la CEO Tracy Hernández de la Federación de Negocios del Condado de Los Angeles escribió que la propuesta agregaría “programas onerosos y enrevesados que dificultarán, aún más, la capacidad de un empleador para cumplir con las demandas, recuperarse y servir adecuadamente a sus empleados y clientes”.

Pero Jim Amen, presidente de la cadena de supermercados Super A Foods, dijo que los negocios deberían dar la bienvenida a los comités, como una forma de mantener abiertas las líneas de comunicación. Tales prácticas han mantenido los índices de infección bajos en las tiendas, incluso sin un mandato, expresó Amen.

“En lo que respecta a Super A, nuestros empleados están muy involucrados en todo lo que hacemos”, añadió Amen.

Las organizaciones laborales ven a los comités como una forma crucial para que los trabajadores planteen sus preocupaciones sin temor a represalias.

“En industrias de bajos salarios, como la de la confección, el hecho de que los trabajadores se unan hace que los despidan”, dijo Marissa Nuncio, directora del Centro de Trabajadores de la Confección, una organización sin fines de lucro que sirve principalmente a inmigrantes de México y América Central.

Aunque las disparidades se están reduciendo en el condado de Los Angeles, algunas empresas siguen siendo inseguras y los posibles denunciantes no confían en que sus informes a la línea de denuncias del condado se lleven a cabo, añadió Nuncio.

“Seguimos recibiendo llamadas de miembros de nuestra organización que están enfermos, tienen COVID y están hospitalizados”, señaló Nuncio. “Y el lugar más obvio para que se hayan infectado es en su lugar de trabajo, porque no se están tomando precauciones”.

La reportera de datos Hannah Recht colaboró con esta historia.

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Insomnio, pérdida de cabello y rechinar de dientes: cómo superar el estrés pandémico

A fines de marzo, poco después que el estado de Nueva York cerrara negocios no esenciales y pidiera a la gente que se quedara en casa, Ashley Laderer comenzó a despertarse cada mañana con un terrible dolor de cabeza.

“Sentía que mi cabeza iba a estallar”, recordó la escritora de 27 años, residente de Long Island.

Laderer trató de pasar menos tiempo en la computadora y tomar analgésicos de venta libre, pero el dolor de cabeza aumentaba al ritmo de su preocupación por COVID-19.

Después de un mes y medio de dolor, Laderer hizo una cita con un neurólogo, quien ordenó una resonancia magnética. Pero el médico no encontró una causa física.

“Todos los días vivía con el temor de contraerlo e iba a infectar a toda mi familia”, dijo.

Entonces, me preguntó: ¿Estás bajo mucho estrés?

A lo largo de la pandemia, personas que nunca tuvieron el coronavirus reportan una serie de síntomas aparentemente no relacionados: dolores de cabeza insoportables, pérdida de cabello, malestar estomacal durante semanas, brotes repentinos de herpes zóster y de trastornos autoinmunes.

Los síntomas dispares, a menudo en personas sanas, han desconcertado a médicos y pacientes por igual, lo que a veces ha resultado en una serie de visitas a especialistas, sin encontrar respuestas. Pero resulta que hay un hilo conductor entre muchas de estas condiciones, uno que tarda meses en gestarse: el estrés crónico.

Después de un mes y medio de dolor, Ashley Laderer hizo una cita con un neurólogo, quien ordenó una resonancia magnética. Pero el médico no encontró una causa física.(Alissa Castleton)

Aunque las personas a menudo subestiman la influencia de la mente en el cuerpo, un gran número de investigaciones muestra que los altos niveles de estrés durante un tiempo prolongado pueden alterar drásticamente la función física y afectar a casi todos los sistemas del cuerpo.

Ahora, a unos ocho meses del comienzo de la pandemia, junto con un ciclo electoral divisivo y disturbios raciales, esos efectos se están manifestando en una variedad de síntomas.

“El componente de salud mental de COVID está impactando como un tsunami”, dijo la doctora Jennifer Love, psiquiatra de California y coautora de un libro de pronta publicación sobre cómo curar el estrés crónico.

A nivel nacional, encuestas han revelado tasas crecientes de depresión, ansiedad y pensamientos suicidas durante la pandemia. Pero muchos expertos dijeron que es demasiado pronto para medir los síntomas físicos relacionados, ya que generalmente aparecen meses después que comienza el estrés.

Aún así, algunas investigaciones preliminares, como un pequeño estudio chino y una encuesta en línea de más de 500 personas en Turquía, señalan un repunte.

En los Estados Unidos, un análisis de FAIR Health, una base de datos sin fines de lucro que brinda información sobre costos a la industria de la salud y a los consumidores, mostró aumentos leves a moderados en el porcentaje de reclamos médicos relacionados con afecciones desencadenadas o exacerbadas por el estrés, como la esclerosis múltiple y el herpes zóster.

La porción de reclamos por lupus, una enfermedad autoinmune, mostró uno de los mayores incrementos -12% este año- en comparación con el mismo período del año pasado (enero a agosto).

Express Scripts, una administradora de beneficios farmacéuticos, informó que las recetas de medicamentos para el insomnio aumentaron un 15% al ​​comienzo de la pandemia.

Pero quizás el indicador más fuerte proviene de los médicos que informan sobre un número creciente de pacientes con síntomas físicos para los que no pueden determinar una causa.

El doctor Shilpi Khetarpal, dermatólogo de la Clínica Cleveland, solía ver a unos cinco pacientes a la semana con pérdida de cabello relacionada con el estrés. Desde mediados de junio, ese número ha aumentado a 20 o 25. La mayoría de las mujeres, de entre 20 y 80 años, informan que pierden el cabello de a puñados, dijo Khetarpal.

En Houston, al menos una docena de pacientes le han dicho al doctor Rashmi Kudesia, especialista en fertilidad, que tienen ciclos menstruales irregulares, cambios en la secreción vaginal y sensibilidad en los senos, a pesar de presentar niveles hormonales normales.

El estrés también es el culpable al que apuntan los dentistas por el rápido aumento de pacientes con bruxismo y fracturas dentales.

“A nosotros, como humanos, nos gusta la idea de que tenemos todo bajo control y que el estrés no es un gran problema”, dijo Love. “Pero simplemente no es cierto”.

Cómo el estrés mental se vuelve físico

El estrés provoca cambios físicos en el cuerpo que pueden afectar a casi todos los sistemas del organismo.

Aunque los síntomas del estrés crónico a menudo se descartan como si estuvieran solo en la cabeza, el dolor es muy real, dijo Kate Harkness, profesora de Psicología y Psiquiatría en la Universidad Queens, en Ontario.

Cuando el cuerpo se siente inseguro, ya sea por una amenaza física de ataque o un miedo psicológico de perder un trabajo o contraer una enfermedad, el cerebro envía señales a las glándulas suprarrenales para que bombeen las hormonas del estrés.

La adrenalina y el cortisol inundan el cuerpo, activando la respuesta de lucha o escape. También interrumpen las funciones corporales que no son necesarias para la supervivencia inmediata, como la digestión y la reproducción.

Cuando pasa el peligro, las hormonas vuelven a niveles normales. Pero durante etapas de estrés constante, como una pandemia, el organismo sigue bombeando hormonas del estrés hasta que se cansa. Esto conduce a un aumento de la inflamación en todo el cuerpo y el cerebro, y a un sistema inmunológico deficiente.

Estudios relacionan el estrés crónico con enfermedades cardíacas, tensión muscular, problemas gastrointestinales e incluso encogimiento físico del hipocampo, un área del cerebro asociada con la memoria y el aprendizaje. A medida que el sistema inmunológico actúa, algunas personas pueden incluso desarrollar nuevas reacciones alérgicas, dijo Harkness.

La buena noticia es que muchos de estos síntomas son reversibles. Pero es importante reconocerlos temprano, especialmente cuando se trata del cerebro, dijo Barbara Sahakian, profesora de Neuropsicología Clínica en la Universidad de Cambridge.

“El cerebro es elástico, por lo que podemos modificarlo hasta cierto punto”, dijo Sahakian. “Pero no sabemos si hay un abismo más allá del cual no se pueda revertir un cambio”.

El impacto del día a día

De alguna manera, la conciencia sobre la salud mental ha aumentado durante la pandemia. Los programas de televisión están repletos de anuncios de aplicaciones para terapia y meditación, como Talkspace y Calm, y las empresas están anunciando días libres de salud mental para su personal.

Para Alex Kostka, el estrés relacionado con la pandemia le ha provocado cambios de humor, pesadillas y dolor de mandíbula.

Para Alex Kostka, el estrés relacionado con la pandemia le ha provocado cambios de humor, pesadillas y dolor de mandíbula.(Jordan Battiste)

Había estado trabajando en una cafetería de Whole Foods en la ciudad de Nueva York durante un mes antes que golpeara la pandemia, y de repente se convirtió en un trabajador esencial.

A medida que aumentaban las muertes en la ciudad, Kostka continuó viajando en metro al trabajo, interactuando con compañeros en la tienda y trabajando más horas por un aumento salarial de solo $2 por hora. (Meses después, recibiría un bono de $ 500). El joven de 28 años comenzó a sentirse sintiéndose inseguro e indefenso.

“Era difícil no quebrarme en el metro”, dijo Kostka.

Pronto comenzó a despertarse en medio de la noche con dolor por apretar la mandíbula con fuerza. A menudo, sus dientes rechinaban tan fuerte que despertaba a su novia.

Kostka probó Talkspace, pero descubrió que enviar mensajes de texto sobre sus problemas era algo impersonal. A fines del verano, decidió empezar a utilizar las siete sesiones de asesoramiento gratuitas que le ofrecía su empleador. Eso ha ayudado, dijo. Pero a medida que se agotan las sesiones, le preocupa que los síntomas vuelvan a aparecer si no puede encontrar un nuevo terapeuta cubierto por su seguro.

“Eventualmente, podré dejar esto atrás, pero tomará tiempo”, dijo Kostka.

Cómo mitigar el estrés crónico

Cuando se trata de estrés crónico, consultar a un médico por dolor de estómago, dolores de cabeza o erupciones cutáneas puede abordar esos síntomas físicos. Pero la causa principal es mental, dicen expertos.

Eso significa que la solución a menudo implicará técnicas de manejo del estrés. Y hay muchas cosas que podemos hacer para sentirnos mejor:

Ejercicio. Incluso la actividad física de intensidad baja a moderada puede ayudar a contrarrestar la inflamación en el cuerpo inducida por el estrés. También puede aumentar las conexiones neuronales en el cerebro.

Meditación y atención plena. La investigación muestra puede conducir a cambios positivos, estructurales y funcionales en el cerebro.

Conexiones sociales. Hablar con familiares y amigos, incluso virtualmente, o mirar fijo a los ojos de una mascota puede liberar una hormona que ayuda a contrarrestar la inflamación.

Aprender algo nuevo. Ya sea que se trate de una clase formal o de un pasatiempo informal, el aprendizaje apoya la elasticidad cerebral, la capacidad de cambiar y adaptarse como resultado de la experiencia, lo que puede proteger contra la depresión y otras enfermedades mentales.

“No debemos pensar en esta situación estresante como algo negativo para el cerebro”, dijo Harkness. “Debido a que el estrés cambia el cerebro, eso significa que las cosas positivas también pueden cambiarlo. Y hay muchas cosas que podemos hacer para sentirnos mejor frente a la adversidad “.

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Mental Health Noticias En Español Public Health

Sleepless Nights, Hair Loss and Cracked Teeth: Pandemic Stress Takes Its Toll

In late March, shortly after New York state closed nonessential businesses and asked people to stay home, Ashley Laderer began waking each morning with a throbbing headache.

“The pressure was so intense it felt like my head was going to explode,” recalled the 27-year-old freelance writer from Long Island.

She tried spending less time on the computer and taking over-the-counter pain medication, but the pounding kept breaking through — a constant drumbeat to accompany her equally incessant worries about COVID-19.

After a month and a half with a pounding headache, Ashley Laderer decided to visit a neurologist, who ordered an MRI. But the doctor found no physical cause. The scan was clear.(Alissa Castleton)

“Every day I lived in fear that I was going to get it and I was going to infect my whole family,” she said.

After a month and a half, Laderer decided to visit a neurologist, who ordered an MRI. But the doctor found no physical cause. The scan was clear.

Then he asked: Are you under a lot of stress?

Throughout the pandemic, people who never had the coronavirus have been reporting a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms: excruciating headaches, episodes of hair loss, upset stomach for weeks on end, sudden outbreaks of shingles and flare-ups of autoimmune disorders. The disparate symptoms, often in otherwise healthy individuals, have puzzled doctors and patients alike, sometimes resulting in a series of visits to specialists with few answers. But it turns out there’s a common thread among many of these conditions, one that has been months in the making: chronic stress.

Although people often underestimate the influence of the mind on the body, a growing catalog of research shows that high levels of stress over an extended time can drastically alter physical function and affect nearly every organ system.

Now, at least eight months into the pandemic, alongside a divisive election cycle and racial unrest, those effects are showing up in a variety of symptoms.

“The mental health component of COVID is starting to come like a tsunami,” said Dr. Jennifer Love, a California-based psychiatrist and co-author of an upcoming book on how to heal from chronic stress.

Nationwide, surveys have found increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. But many medical experts said it’s too soon to measure the related physical symptoms, since they generally appear months after the stress begins.

Still, some early research, such as a small Chinese study and an online survey of more than 500 people in Turkey, points to an uptick.

In the U.S., data from FAIR Health, a nonprofit database that provides cost information to the health industry and consumers, showed slight to moderate increases in the percentage of medical claims related to conditions triggered or exacerbated by stress, like multiple sclerosis and shingles. The portion of claims for the autoimmune disease lupus, for example, showed one of the biggest increases — 12% this year — compared with the same period last year (January to August).

Express Scripts, a major pharmacy benefit manager, reported that prescriptions for anti-insomnia medications increased 15% early in the pandemic.

Perhaps the strongest indicator comes from doctors reporting a growing number of patients with physical symptoms for which they can’t determine a cause.

Dr. Shilpi Khetarpal, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, used to see about five patients a week with stress-related hair loss. Since mid-June, that number has jumped to 20 or 25. Mostly women, ages 20 to 80, are reporting hair coming out in fistfuls, Khetarpal said.

In Houston, at least a dozen patients have told fertility specialist Dr. Rashmi Kudesia they’re having irregular menstrual cycles, changes in cervical discharge and breast tenderness, despite normal hormone levels.

Stress is also the culprit dentists are pointing to for the rapid increase in patients with teeth grinding, teeth fractures and TMJ.

“We, as humans, like to have the idea that we are in control of our minds and that stress isn’t a big deal,” Love said. “But it’s simply not true.”

How Mental Stress Becomes Physical

Stress causes physical changes in the body that can affect nearly every organ system.

Although symptoms of chronic stress are often dismissed as being in one’s head, the pain is very real, said Kate Harkness, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Queen’s University in Ontario.

When the body feels unsafe — whether it’s a physical threat of attack or a psychological fear of losing a job or catching a disease — the brain signals adrenal glands to pump stress hormones. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, activating the fight-or-flight response. They also disrupt bodily functions that aren’t necessary for immediate survival, like digestion and reproduction.

When the danger is over, the hormones return to normal levels. But during times of chronic stress, like a pandemic, the body keeps pumping out stress hormones until it tires itself out. This leads to increased inflammation throughout the body and brain, and a poorly functioning immune system.

Studies link chronic stress to heart disease, muscle tension, gastrointestinal issues and even physical shrinking of the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and learning. As the immune system acts up, some people can even develop new allergic reactions, Harkness said.

The good news is that many of these symptoms are reversible. But it’s important to recognize them early, especially when it comes to the brain, said Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge.

“The brain is plastic, so we can to some extent modify it,” Sahakian said. “But we don’t know if there’s a cliff beyond which you can’t reverse a change. So the sooner you catch something, the better.”

The Day-to-Day Impact

In some ways, mental health awareness has increased during the pandemic. TV shows are flush with ads for therapy and meditation apps, like Talkspace and Calm, and companies are announcing mental health days off for staff.

For Alex Kostka, pandemic-related stress has brought on mood swings, nightmares and jaw pain.(Jordan Battiste)

But those spurts of attention fail to reveal the full impact of poor mental health on people’s daily lives.

For Alex Kostka, pandemic-related stress has brought on mood swings, nightmares and jaw pain.

He’d been working at a Whole Foods coffee bar in New York City for only about a month before the pandemic hit, suddenly anointing him an essential worker. As deaths in the city soared, Kostka continued riding the subway to work, interacting with co-workers in the store and working longer hours for just a $2-per-hour wage increase. (Months later, he’d get a $500 bonus.) It left the 28-year-old feeling constantly unsafe and helpless.

“It was hard not to break down on the subway the minute I got on it,” Kostka said.

Soon he began waking in the middle of the night with pain from clenching his jaw so tightly. Often his teeth grinding and chomping were loud enough to wake his girlfriend.

Kostka tried Talkspace, but found texting about his troubles felt impersonal. By the end of the summer, he decided to start using the seven free counseling sessions offered by his employer. That’s helped, he said. But as the sessions run out, he worries the symptoms might return if he’s unable to find a new therapist covered by his insurance.

“Eventually, I will be able to leave this behind me, but it will take time,” Kostka said. “I’m still very much a work in progress.”

How to Mitigate Chronic Stress

When it comes to chronic stress, seeing a doctor for stomach pain, headaches or skin rashes may address those physical symptoms. But the root cause is mental, medical experts say.

That means the solution will often involve stress-management techniques. And there’s plenty we can do to feel better:

Exercise. Even low- to moderate-intensity physical activity can help counteract stress-induced inflammation in the body. It can also increase neuronal connections in the brain.

Meditation and mindfulness. Research shows this can lead to positive, structural and functional changes in the brain.

Fostering social connections. Talking to family and friends, even virtually, or staring into a pet’s eyes can release a hormone that may counteract inflammation.

Learning something new. Whether it’s a formal class or taking up a casual hobby, learning supports brain plasticity, the ability to change and adapt as a result of experience, which can be protective against depression and other mental illness.

“We shouldn’t think of this stressful situation as a negative sentence for the brain,” said Harkness, the psychology professor in Ontario. “Because stress changes the brain, that means positive stuff can change the brain, too. And there is plenty we can do to help ourselves feel better in the face of adversity.”

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Mental Health Public Health

COVID Crackdowns at Work Have Saved Black and Latino Lives, LA Officials Say

Los Angeles County officials attribute a dramatic decline in COVID-19 death and case rates among Blacks and Latinos over the past two months to aggressive workplace health enforcement and the opening of tip lines to report violations.

Now, officials intend to cement those gains by creating workplace councils among employees trained to look for COVID-19 prevention violations and correct or report them — without fear of being fired or punished.

Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety and health authority, is overwhelmed with complaints and tips about COVID-19 violations, and the county’s health investigators — there were officially 346 of them as of last Friday — can’t possibly keep tabs on all of Los Angeles’ more than 240,000 businesses, labor advocates say.

The councils could help keep Los Angeles from backsliding on its progress in mitigating cases and racial disparities in the fall as more businesses are likely to reopen, said Tia Koonse, a researcher with the UCLA Labor Center and co-author of an assessment of the workplace council proposal. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is expected to approve an ordinance this month requiring businesses to permit employees to form the councils, which would troubleshoot compliance issues and report to the health department when necessary.

Critics, including many business leaders, say the measure will create more red tape at the worst possible time for the economy. But labor groups and some businesses say it is crucial to fighting the pandemic. Workers around the country have been sacked or reprimanded for complaining about COVID-related safety violations, and laws protecting them are spotty.

“Workers have a right to be in a safe space and shouldn’t face any retaliation” for noting poor practices, said Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Public Health Department. Low-wage workers have been “tremendously disadvantaged” by having to work outside the home in contact with other people, often without sufficient protection, she said.

During the upsurge of COVID cases that followed Memorial Day weekend family gatherings and business openings, Latinos in Los Angeles were dying at a rate more than four times higher than that of whites, while Blacks were twice as likely as whites to die of the disease. Two months later, death rates among Blacks and Latinos had fallen by more than half and were approaching the rate for whites, according to age-adjusted data from the county health department.

While four times as many Latinos as whites were reported COVID-positive in late July, the Latino case rates were only 64% higher by mid-September. The positivity rate among Blacks was 60% higher than that of whites in late July, but the disparity had waned by mid-September.

Experts can’t be certain that any one policy is responsible for the decline in deaths among Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles — and state and county rates have declined for the entire population in recent weeks. But Ferrer attributed the progress to her department’s focus on workplace enforcement of health orders, which include rules about physical distancing, providing face coverings for workers and requiring face coverings for customers.

“If you’re in violation, at this point we can either issue citations, or there are cases where we just close the place down because the violations are egregious,” she said.

The sharp racial disparities that characterized the pandemic from the beginning are under even more scrutiny now that California has become the first state to make “health equity” a factor in its decisions to allow expanded reopening.

Large counties may not advance toward full reopening until their most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and not just the county as a whole, meet or are lower than the targeted levels of disease. The criteria prod local governments to invest more in testing, contact tracing and education in poor neighborhoods with high levels of the disease.

Ferrer’s focus on workplaces crystallized during a crackdown on Los Angeles Apparel, a clothing factory that had pivoted to face mask manufacturing during the pandemic. Despite the ready inventory of masks, an outbreak at the factory resulted in at least 300 cases — and four deaths.

The health department, acting on a tip from community health centers flooded with sick Los Angeles Apparel workers, shut down the factory on June 27. That action highlighted the need to bring the government and labor unions together to fight the pandemic, said Jim Mangia, CEO of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, a chain of community health centers in South L.A.

“At St. John’s, almost all of our patients are the working poor,” Mangia said. “They were getting infected at work and bringing it home to their families, and I think intervening at the workplace is what really made all the difference.”

Early in the pandemic, Ferrer had also set up an anonymous complaint line for employees who want to report workplace violations. It gets about 2,000 calls a week, she said. As of Oct. 10, the department’s website lists 132 workplaces that have had three or more confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a total of 2,191 positives. Another table dated Oct. 7 lists 124 citations — mostly to gyms and places of worship — for failing to comply with a health officer order.

“Fortunately, we’re not like Cal/OSHA, in the sense that it doesn’t take us months to complete an investigation,” Ferrer said. “We’re able to move more swiftly under the health officer orders to actually make sure that we’re protecting workers.”

Public health councils are the next phase in Ferrer’s plan to keep workers safe. The plan stemmed from the response of Overhill Farms, a frozen-food factory in Vernon, California, after an outbreak of more than 20 cases and one death. The factory and its temporary job agency were hit with more than $200,000 in proposed penalties from Cal/OSHA in September, but before the fines landed, the factory leadership was already responding by beginning to hold meetings with workers to improve safety there.

“They found that the workers helped them bring down infection rates and helped solve problems,” said Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a worker advocacy organization.

While it’s not exactly a feel-good story about corporate beneficence, the turnaround at Overhill Farms added credence to the benefits of workplace councils, said Koonse of UCLA.

No company would have to spend more than 0.44% of its payroll cost on the health councils, she estimated.

Still, the idea has gotten a mixed reception from businesses. In an Aug. 24 statement, CEO Tracy Hernandez of the L.A. County Business Federation wrote that the proposal would add “burdensome and convoluted programs that will further hinder an employer’s ability to meet demands, get back on their feet, and adequately serve their employees and customers.”

But Jim Amen, president of the eight-store Super A Foods grocery chain, said businesses should welcome the councils as a way to keep lines of communication open. Such practices have kept infection rates low at his stores, even without a mandate, Amen said.

“All I know is, for Super A, our employees are heavily involved in everything we do,” Amen said.

Labor groups see the councils as a crucial way for workers to raise concerns without fear of retaliation.

“In low-wage industries like the garment industry, workers coming together gets them fired,” said Marissa Nuncio, director of the Garment Worker Center, a nonprofit that mainly serves immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

While disparities are narrowing in L.A. County, some shops are still unsafe and potential whistleblowers aren’t confident their reports to the county’s tip line are being acted on, she said.

“We continue to get calls from our members who are sick, have COVID and are hospitalized,” Nuncio said. “And the most obvious location for them to have been infected is in their workplace, because so many precautions are not being taken.”

KHN data reporter Hannah Recht contributed to this article.

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Aunque preferiría cerrar, la cadena de tiendas COVID-19 Essentials se expande

Lone Tree, Colorado.- Darcy Velásquez, de 42 años, y su madre, Roberta Truax, caminaban recientemente por el centro comercial Park Meadows, 15 millas al sur del centro de Denver, buscando regalos de Navidad para los dos hijos de Velásquez, cuando vieron una tienda con un exhibición de máscaras faciales adornadas con diamantes de fantasía.

Brillantes ideales para una nena de 9 años.

La tienda se llama COVID-19 Essentials. Y bien puede ser la primera cadena minorista del país dedicada exclusivamente a una enfermedad infecciosa.

Con el cierre de muchas tiendas en los Estados Unidos durante la pandemia de coronavirus, especialmente dentro de los centros comerciales, los propietarios de esta cadena han sacado provecho del espacio vacío, así como de la creciente aceptación de que usar máscaras es una realidad que puede durar hasta 2021, o más.

Las máscaras faciales han evolucionado de ser un producto utilitario, cualquier cosa podía servir para taparte la boca, a una forma de expresar la personalidad, las inclinaciones políticas o el fanatismo deportivo.

Y los propietarios de COVID-19 Essentials están apostando a que los estadounidenses están dispuestos a poner dinero en sus bocas. Los precios van desde $19,99 por una simple máscara para niños hasta $130 por una cubierta facial con un filtro N95 y un ventilador a batería.

La cadena COVID-19 Essentials reconoce que la máscara ya es algo más que un inconveniente temporal. Será la norma hasta 2021, y tal vez más allá. (Markian Hawryluk/KHN)

Casi todas las tiendas en el centro comercial Park Meadows ahora venden máscaras. Pero COVID-19 Essentials también ofrece otros accesorios para la pandemia, en un espacio exclusivo:  su logo es una imagen estilizada de una partícula de coronavirus.

Ubicado junto a la tienda de remeras UNTUCKit y frente a una sala de exhibición de Tesla, no tiene el reconocimiento de marca ni el historial de un J.C. Penney. Pero la longevidad no parece haber ayudado a que la cadena de ropa o muchas otras escaparan de la crisis por la pandemia. Según los analistas de S&P Global Market Intelligence, las quiebras minoristas de enero a mediados de agosto alcanzaron su punto más alto en 10 años.

No es que los propietarios de COVID-19 Essentials quieran que sus productos tengan demanda para siempre.

“Estoy ansioso por cerrar el negocio eventualmente”, dijo Nadav Benimetzky, un minorista de Miami que fundó COVID-19 Essentials, que ahora tiene ocho tiendas en todo el país.

Nathan Chen, propietario de la tienda Lone Tree con Benimetzky, tenía un negocio diferente en el aeropuerto de Denver, pero a medida que disminuyeron los vuelos, una alternativa  centrada en COVID se perfiló como una empresa mucho mejor.

Las máscaras han pasado de ser un producto utilitario a algo personalizado, que identifica al que la usa con un partido político o un equipo de fútbol americano.(Markian Hawryluk/KHN)

Benimetzky abrió la primera tienda COVID-19 Essentials en el Aventura Mall en los suburbios de Miami después de ver la demanda de máscaras N95 al principio de la pandemia. “Son feas e incómodas, y todo el mundo las odia”, dijo. “Si vas a usar una máscara, también puede estar a la moda y ser bonita”.

Eso podría significar una máscara de lentejuelas o satén para ocasiones más formales, o la sonrisa de una calavera para asuntos casuales. Algunos cubrebocas tienen cremalleras para facilitar la alimentación, o un orificio para una pajita, con cierre de velcro.

La cadena tiene tiendas en la ciudad de Nueva York, Nueva Jersey, Philadelphia y Las Vegas, y está buscando abrir otras en California, donde los incendios forestales han aumentado la demanda de máscaras.

Inicialmente, los propietarios realmente no estaban seguros de que la idea funcionara. Abrieron la primera tienda justo cuando los centros comerciales volvían a abrir después de las cuarentenas.

“Realmente no comprendimos qué tan grande sería”, dijo Benimetzky. “No lo analizamos con la idea de abrir muchas tiendas. Pero hemos estado ocupados desde el momento en que abrimos “.

Un empleado de COVID-19 Essentials decora una máscara con la palabra USA en piedras preciosas de fantasía.(Markian Hawryluk/KHN)

Nancy Caeti, de 76 años, se detuvo en la tienda Lone Tree para comprar máscaras para sus nietos. Compró una transparente para su nieta, cuyo instructor de lenguaje de señas necesita ver sus labios moverse. Le compró a su hija, profesora de música y fanática de los Denver Broncos, una máscara con el logo del equipo de fútbol americano.

“Sobreviví a la epidemia de polio”, contó Caeti. Recordó cómo su madre los puso en fila a ella y a sus hermanos para recibir la vacuna contra la polio, y dijo que ella sería la primera en la fila para recibir la vacuna para COVID.

Ese quizás sea el único “básico” que la tienda no vende. Pero tiene dispositivos similares a llaves para abrir puertas y presionar botones de ascensores sin tocarlos. Algunos tienen un abridor de botellas incorporado. Hay dispositivos de luz ultravioleta para desinfectar teléfonos y un desinfectante de manos exclusivo que los empleados rocían a los clientes como si fuera una muestra de perfume.

Pero las máscaras son el mayor atractivo porque la tienda las puede personalizar.

Al entrar, los clientes pueden verificar su temperatura con un escáner de frente digital con instrucciones audibles: “Acérquese. Acércate. Temperatura normal. Temperatura normal”.

La tienda también ha agregado un fregadero cerca de la entrada para que los clientes puedan lavarse las manos antes de tocar los productos.

Algunos pasan por la tienda desconcertados, deteniéndose para tomar fotos y publicarlas en las redes sociales. Una pareja mayor (blanca no hispana) con máscaras idénticas observó una máscara en el negocio con el lema “Black Lives Matter” y se alejó.

El negocio no toma partido politico: hay tres diseños de máscaras del presidente Donald Trump, y dos para el candidato presidencial demócrata Joe Biden.

COVID-19 Essentials vende dispositivos parecidos a llaves que sirven para abrir puertas y tocar el botón de los elevadores “a distancia”. (Markian Hawryluk/KHN)

Daniel Gurule, de 31 años, pasó por el centro comercial a la hora del almuerzo para comprar un Apple Watch, pero se aventuró a entrar en la tienda por una nueva máscara. Dijo que normalmente usaba una máscara con ventilación, pero que no todos los lugares las permiten. (Protegen a los usuarios, pero no a las personas que los rodean). Compró una por $24,99 con el logo del equipo de baloncesto Denver Nuggets.

“Nos quita un poco de nuestra personalidad cuando todo el mundo camina con máscaras desechables”, dijo Chen. “Parece un hospital, como si todo el mundo estuviera enfermo”.

La mayoría de las máscaras están cosidas específicamente para la cadena, incluidas muchas hechas a mano. Uno de sus proveedores es una familia de inmigrantes vietnamitas que cosen máscaras en su casa de Los Ángeles, dijo Benimetzky.

Chen dijo que era difícil tener máscaras en stock y que todos los días hay un nuevo diseño que es éxito de ventas.

Dorothy Lovett, de 80 años, se detuvo frente a la tienda, apoyada en un bastón con un diseño de estampado animal. “Tuve que retroceder y decir, ‘¿Qué diablos es esto?’”, dijo. “Nunca antes había visto una tienda de máscaras”.

Examinó la vitrina, notando que necesitaba encontrar una mejor opción que la versión de tela que estaba usando.

“No puedo respirar con ésta”, dijo Lovett, antes de decidirse por su favorita. “Me gusta la máscara Black Lives Matter”.

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Noticias En Español Public Health States

As Californians Get Older and Less Mobile, Fires Get Hotter and Faster

PETALUMA, Calif. — Late on the night of Sept. 27, a bumper-to-bumper caravan of fleeing cars, horse trailers, RVs and overstuffed pickup trucks snaked east on Highway 12, the flames of the Glass Fire glowing orange in their rearview mirrors.

With her cat, Bodhi, in his carrier in the back seat, 80-year-old Diana Dimas, who doesn’t see well at night, kept her eyes glued to the rear lights of her neighbor’s Toyota. She and Magdalena Mulay had met a few years before at a bingo night in their sprawling retirement community on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. Both Libras, each with two marriages behind her, the two women soon became the sort of friends who finish each other’s sentences.

Now, for the second time in three years, they heard the alarms and fled together as fire consumed the golden hills of Northern California’s wine country.

“I thought, where on earth are we going to go?” recalled Dimas. She remembered that when the catastrophic Tubbs Fire hit back in 2017, people had sought refuge outside well-lit supermarkets, which had water and bathrooms. Which is how Dimas and Mulay and dozens of other seniors ended up spending the night of the most recent evacuation in the parking lot of the Sonoma Safeway.

At midnight, Mulay was trying to get comfortable enough to catch a few winks in her driver’s seat when her phone began to chirp. A friend was calling to wish her a happy 74th birthday.

The stories of that Sunday night — as a 20-acre fire started that morning merged with two other fires to become an 11,000-acre conflagration forcing tens of thousands from their homes in two counties — spotlight the challenges of evacuating elderly and infirm residents from the deadly wildfires that have become an annual occurrence in California. This year, the coronavirus, which is especially dangerous to the elderly, has further complicated the problem.

While the 2020 fire season will go down as the state’s biggest on record, rescuers have so far managed to avoid horrors on the scale of three years ago, when the firestorm that raced through California’s wine country killed 45 people. Almost all were over 65 — found in wheelchairs, trapped in their garages, isolated and hard of hearing, or simply too stubborn to leave. The same grim pattern emerged from the Camp Fire, which leveled the Northern California town of Paradise in 2018.

Assisted care homes in particular came under scrutiny after the 2017 fire, when ill-equipped and untrained workers at two Santa Rosa facilities abandoned two dozen frail, elderly residents as the flames closed in, according to state investigators. They concluded the seniors would have died in the flames had emergency workers and relatives not arrived at the last minute to rescue them.

“The problem is we don’t value elders as a society,” said Debbie Toth, CEO of Choice in Aging, an advocacy group. “If children needed to be evacuated, we’d have a freaking Romper Room stood up overnight to entertain them so they wouldn’t be damaged by the experience.”

The destructive effects of climate change in California have dovetailed with a rapidly graying population — which in a decade is projected to include 8.6 million senior citizens. That has fueled a growing demand for senior housing, from assisted care homes to swanky “active adult” facilities complete with golf courses and pools.

Proximity to nature is a major selling point of Oakmont Village, Dimas and Mulay’s upscale community of nearly 5,000 over-55s, which has everything from bridge games to cannabis clubs. But the woodlands and vineyards surrounding this suburban sprawl have put thousands of elderly citizens in hazardous wildfire zones.

“With seniors, there’s mobility issues, hearing issues — even the sense of smell is often gone in the later years,” said Marrianne McBride, who heads Sonoma County’s Council on Aging. Getting out fast in an emergency is especially challenging for those who no longer drive. In Sunday’s evacuation, some residents who followed official advice to call ride services had to wait hours, until 3 or 4 a.m., for the overtaxed vans.

Dimas and Mulay managed to scramble into their cars and get on the road shortly after 10 p.m., when a mandatory evacuation order went out for the thousands of seniors in Oakmont Village. But it was after midnight when residents of two Santa Rosa assisted care homes in the evacuation zone were shuffled onto city buses in their bathrobes, some with the aid of walkers. Off-duty drivers braved thick smoke and falling embers to ferry some of them to safety, only to spend hours being sent from one shelter to another as evacuation sites filled up fast because of social distancing rules designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Other precautions, including masks and temperature checks, were followed. But health officials nonetheless voiced concerns that vulnerable people in their 80s and 90s — especially residents of skilled nursing homes, the source of most of Sonoma County’s coronavirus deaths so far — had been moved among multiple locations, upping their chance for exposure.

In the following days, shelters were fielding frantic calls from out-of-town relatives searching for their loved ones. “We were getting phone calls from Michigan, other places across the country, saying, ‘I’m trying to find my mother!’” said Allison Keaney, CEO of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which sheltered several hundred horses, chickens, goats and llamas as well as displaced people.

Bart Pettijohn rests on his cot with his dog, Clumsy, in an evacuation center at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building on Sept. 30. Volunteer health care workers and a veterinarian were among those who checked up on dozens of seniors and pets forced out of their homes during the biggest wildfire season in California history. (Rachel Scheier for KHN)

By Wednesday afternoon, a few dozen evacuees remained at the shelters, mostly seniors without relatives or friends nearby to take them in, like Dimas and Mulay. The two women had left the Safeway lot and were sleeping on folding cots in a gym at the Veterans Memorial Building in Petaluma, an old poultry industry town dotted with upscale subdivisions.

This was their first time out and around other people since March, when the two friends had been planning a big night out to see Il Volo, an Italian pop group. Seven months later, the new outfits they bought for the concert still hang unworn in their closets.

“All we do since the shutdown is stay home and talk on the phone,” said Mulay, who spoke to a reporter while sitting next to her friend on a folding chair outside the shelter. “Now, with all these crowds — it’s terrifying.”

Dimas likened the pandemic followed by the fires to “a ball rolling downhill, getting bigger and bigger. And then there we were, with the flashing lights all around us and the cops shouting, ‘Go this way!’ ‘Keep moving!’”

Listos California — an outreach program, for seniors and other vulnerable people, run out of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services — allotted $50 million to engage dozens of nonprofits and community groups around the state to help warn and locate people during disasters. (Listos means “Ready” in Spanish.)

In Sonoma and Napa counties, where the Glass Fire had destroyed at least 630 structures by late last week, the bolstered threat of wildfires in recent years has promoted new alert systems — including a weather radio that has strobe lights for the deaf or can shake the bed to awaken you.

But while counties are legally responsible for alerting people and providing shelter for them once they’re out, no public agency is responsible for overseeing the evacuation. Practices differ widely from county to county, said Listos co-director Karen Baker.

If Sonoma County has learned anything from the disasters of the past few years, it’s not to depend too much on any system in an emergency. “You’ve got to have a neighborhood network,” McBride said. “As community members, we have to rely on each other when these things happen.”

Early last week, word filtered through the shelters that the fire had consumed a triplex and two single-family homes in the Oakmont neighborhood, but firefighters had battled the blaze through the night with hoses, shovels and chainsaws and miraculously managed to save the rest of the community.

A week later, to their relief, Oakmont’s senior residents were allowed to return home. By then, Mulay had developed severe back pain. Dimas missed her TV.

Back in her apartment with Bodhi, Dimas noted with horror that the blaze had come close enough to her building to incinerate several juniper bushes and scorch a redwood just 2 feet away.

“The whole thing feels surreal, like ‘Oh, my God, did that really happen, or did I dream it?’” she said.

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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