Tagged States

Why Employers Find It So Hard to Test for COVID

Brandon Hudgins works the main floor at Fleet Feet, a running-shoe store chain, for more than 30 hours a week. He chats with customers, measuring their feet and dashing in and out of the storage area to locate right-sized shoes. Sometimes, clients drag their masks down while speaking. Others refuse to wear masks at all.

So he worries about COVID-19. And with good reason. Across the U.S., COVID hospitalizations and deaths are hitting record-shattering new heights. The nation saw 198,633 new cases on Friday alone.

Unlike in the early days of the pandemic, though, many stores nationwide aren’t closing. And regular COVID-19 testing of those working remains patchy at best.

“I’ve asked, what if someone on staff gets symptoms? ‘You have to stay home,’” said Hudgins, 33, who works in High Point, North Carolina. But as an hourly employee, staying home means not getting paid. “It’s stressful, especially without regular testing. Our store isn’t very big, and you’re in there all day long.”

To the store’s credit, Hudgins said the manager has instituted a locked-door policy, where employees determine which customers can enter. They sanitize the seating area between customers and administer regular employee temperature checks. Still, there’s no talk of testing employees for COVID-19. Fleet Feet did not respond to multiple requests to talk about its testing policies.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance to employers to include COVID testing, and it advised that people working in close quarters be tested periodically. However, the federal government does not require employers to offer those tests.

But the board overseeing the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, on Thursday approved emergency safety rules that are soon likely to require the state’s employers to provide COVID testing to all workers exposed to an outbreak on the job at no cost to the employees. Testing must be repeated a week later, followed by periodic testing.

California would be the first state to mandate this, though the regulation doesn’t apply to routine testing of employees. That is up to individual businesses.

Across the nation, workplaces have been the source of major coronavirus outbreaks: meat-processing plants, grocery stores, farms, schools, Amazon warehouses — largely among the so-called essential workers who bear the brunt of COVID infections and deaths.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspects workplaces based on workers’ complaints — over 40,000 of which related to COVID-19 have been filed with the agency at the state and federal levels.

Workers “have every right to be concerned,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco. “They are operating in a fog. There is little economic incentive for corporations to figure out who has COVID at what sites.”

Waiting for symptoms to emerge before testing is ill-considered, Chin-Hong noted. People can exhibit no symptoms while spreading the virus. A CDC report found that, among people with active infections, 44% reported no symptoms.

Yet testing alone cannot protect employees. While workplaces can vary dramatically, Chin-Hong emphasized the importance of enforcing safety guidelines like social distancing and wearing face masks, as well as being transparent with workers when someone gets sick.

Molly White, who works for the Missouri state government, was required to return to the office once a week starting in July. But White, who is on drugs to suppress her immune system, feared her employer’s “cavalier attitude toward COVID and casual risk taking.” Masks are encouraged for employees but are not mandatory, and there’s no testing policy or even guidance on where to get tested, she said. White filed for and received an Americans With Disabilities Act exception, which lasts through the end of the year, to avoid coming into the office.

After a cluster of 39 COVID cases emerged in September in the building where she normally works, White was relieved to at least get an email notifying her of the outbreak. A few days later, Gov. Mike Parson visited the building, and he tested positive for COVID-19 soon after.

Following pressure from labor groups, Amazon reported in a blog post last month that almost 20,000 employees had tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. To help curb future outbreaks, the online retailing giant, which also owns Whole Foods, built its own testing facilities, hired lab technicians and said it planned to conduct 50,000 daily tests across 650 sites by this month.

The National Football League tests players and other essential workers daily. An NFL spokesperson said the league conducts 40,000 to 45,000 tests a week through New Jersey-based BioReference Laboratories, though both organizations declined to share a price tag. Reports over the summer estimated the season’s testing program would cost about $75 million.

Not all companies, particularly those not in the limelight, have the interest — or the money — to regularly test workers.

“It depends on the company how much they care,” said Gary Glader, president of Horton Safety Consultants in Orland Park, Illinois. Horton works with dozens of companies in the manufacturing, construction and transportation industries to write exposure control plans to limit the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and avoid OSHA citations. “Some companies could care less about their people, never have.”

IGeneX, a diagnostic testing company in Milpitas, California, gets around 15 calls each day from companies across the country inquiring about its employer testing program. The lab works with about 100 employers — from 10-person outfits to two pro sports teams — mainly in the Bay Area. IGeneX tests its own workers every other week.

One client is Tarana Wireless, a nearby telecommunications company that needs about 30 employees in the office at a time to operate equipment. In addition to monthly COVID tests, the building also gets cleaned every two hours, and masks are mandatory.

“It’s definitely a burden,” said Amy Beck, the company’s director of human resources. “We are venture-backed and have taken pay cuts to make our money extend longer. But we do this to make everyone feel safe. We don’t have unlimited resources.”

IGeneX offers three prices, depending on how fast a company wants the results: $135 for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test with a 36- to 48-hour turnaround — down to around $100 a test for some higher-volume clients; one-day testing costs $250, and it’s $400 for a six-hour turnaround.

In some cases, IGeneX is able to bill the companies’ health insurance plan.

“Absolutely, it’s expensive,” said IGeneX spokesperson Joe Sullivan. “I don’t blame anyone for wanting to pay as little as possible. It’s not ‘one and done,’ which companies are factoring in.”

Plus, cheaper, rapid options like Abbott’s antigen test, touted by the Trump administration, have come under fire for being inaccurate.

For those going into work, Chin-Hong recommends that companies test their employees once a week with PCR tests, or twice a week with the less sensitive antigen tests.

Ideally, Chin-Hong said, public health departments would work directly with employers to administer COVID testing and quash potential outbreaks. But, as KHN has reported extensively, these local agencies are chronically underfunded and overworked. Free community testing sites can sometimes take days to weeks to return results, bogged down by extreme demand at commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp and supply chain problems.

Hudgins, who receives his health insurance through North Carolina’s state exchange, tries to get a monthly COVID test at CVS on his own time. But occasionally, his insurance — which requires certain criteria to qualify — has declined to pay for it, he said.

“Being in the service industry in a state where numbers are ridiculously high,” he said in an email, “I see volumes of people every day, and I think getting tested is the smart and considerate thing to do.”

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Public Health States

Rural Areas Send Their Sickest Patients to Cities, Straining Hospitals

Registered nurse Pascaline Muhindura has spent the past eight months treating COVID patients at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

But when she returns home to her small town of Spring Hill, Kansas, she’s often stunned by what she sees, like on a recent stop for carryout food.

“No one in the entire restaurant was wearing a mask,” Muhindura said. “And there’s no social distancing. I had to get out, because I almost had a panic attack. I was like, ‘What is going on with people? Why are we still doing this?’”

Many rural communities across the U.S. have resisted masks and calls for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but now rural counties are experiencing record-high infection and death rates.

Critically ill rural patients are often sent to city hospitals for high-level treatment and, as their numbers grow, some urban hospitals are buckling under the added strain.

Kansas City has a mask mandate, but in many smaller communities nearby, masks aren’t required — or masking orders are routinely ignored. In the past few months, rural counties in both Kansas and Missouri have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

At the same time, according to an analysis by KHN, about 3 in 4 counties in Kansas and Missouri don’t have a single intensive care unit bed, so when people from these places get critically ill, they’re sent to city hospitals.

A recent patient count at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas City showed a quarter of COVID patients had come from outside the metro area.

Two-thirds of the patients coming from rural areas need intensive care and stay in the hospital for an average of two weeks, said Dr. Marc Larsen, who leads COVID-19 treatment at St. Luke’s.

“Not only are we seeing an uptick in those patients in our hospital from the rural community, they are sicker when we get them because [doctors in smaller communities] are able to handle the less sick patients,” said Larsen. “We get the sickest of the sick.”

Dr. Rex Archer, head of Kansas City’s health department, warns that capacity at the city’s 33 hospitals is being put at risk by the influx of rural patients.

“We’ve had this huge swing that’s occurred because they’re not wearing masks, and yes, that’s putting pressure on our hospitals, which is unfair to our residents that might be denied an ICU bed,” Archer said.

study newly released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Kansas counties that mandated masks in early July saw decreases in new COVID cases, while counties without mask mandates recorded increases.

Hospital leaders have continued to plead with Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson, and with Kansas’ conservative legislature, to implement stringent, statewide mask requirements but without success.

Parson won the Missouri gubernatorial election on Nov. 3 by nearly 17 percentage points. Two days later at a COVID briefing, he accused critics of “making the mask a political issue.” He said county leaders should decide whether to close businesses or mandate masks.

“We’re going to encourage them to take some sort of action,” Parson said Thursday. “The holidays are coming and I, as governor of the state of Missouri, am not going to mandate who goes in your front door.”

In an email, Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, agreed that rural patients might be contributing to hospital crowding in cities but argued that the strain on hospitals is a statewide problem.

The reasons for the rural COVID crisis involve far more than the refusal to mandate or wear masks, according to health care experts.

Both Kansas and Missouri have seen rural hospitals close year after year, and public health spending in both states, as in many largely rural states, is far below national averages.

Rural populations also tend to be older and to suffer from higher rates of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Those conditions can make them more susceptible to severe illness when they contract COVID-19.

Rural areas have been grappling with health problems for a long time, but the coronavirus has been a sort of tipping point, and those rural health issues are now spilling over into cities, explained Shannon Monnat, a rural health researcher at Syracuse University.

“It’s not just the rural health care infrastructure that becomes overwhelmed when there aren’t enough hospital beds, it’s also the surrounding neighborhoods, the suburbs, the urban hospital infrastructure starts to become overwhelmed as well,” Monnat said.

Unlike many parts of the U.S., where COVID trend lines have risen and fallen over the course of the year, Kansas, Missouri and several other Midwestern states never significantly bent their statewide curve.

Individual cities, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, have managed to slow cases, but the continual emergence of rural hot spots across Missouri has driven a slow and steady increase in overall new case numbers — and put an unrelenting strain on the states’ hospital systems.

The months of slow but continuous growth in cases created a high baseline of cases as autumn began, which then set the stage for the sudden escalation of numbers in the recent surge.

“It’s sort of the nature of epidemics that things often look like they’re relatively under control, and then very quickly ramp up to seem that they are out of hand,” said Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Now, a recent local case spike in the Kansas City metro area is adding to the statewide surge in Missouri, with an average of 190 COVID patients per day being admitted to the metro region’s hospitals. The number of people hospitalized throughout Missouri increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks.

Some Kansas City hospitals have had to divert patients for periods of time, and some are now delaying elective procedures, according to the University of Kansas Health system’s chief medical officer, Dr. Steven Stites.

But bed space isn’t the only hospital resource that’s running out. Half of the hospitals in the Kansas City area are now reporting “critical” staffing shortages. Pascaline Muhindura, the nurse who works in Kansas City, said that hospital workers are struggling with anxiety and depression.

“The hospitals are not fine, because people taking care of patients are on the brink,” Muhindura said. “We are tired.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes KCUR, NPR and KHN.

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New Legal Push Aims to Speed Magic Mushrooms to Dying Patients

Back in March, just as anxiety over COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S., Erinn Baldeschwiler of La Conner, Washington, found herself facing her own private dread.

Just 48 and the mother of two teenagers, Baldeschwiler was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer after discovering a small lump on her chest, no bigger than a pea. Within weeks, it was the size of a golf ball, angry and red. Doctors gave her two years to live.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Frankly, I was terrified.”

But instead of retreating into her illness, Baldeschwiler is pouring energy into a new effort to help dying patients gain legal access to psilocybin — the mind-altering compound found in so-called magic mushrooms — to ease their psychic pain.

“I have personally struggled with depression, anxiety, anger,” Baldeschwiler said. “This therapy is designed to really dive in and release these negative fears and shadows.”

Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle palliative care physician, and Kathryn Tucker, a lawyer who advocates on behalf of terminally ill patients and chairs a psychedelic practice group at Emerge Law Group, are championing a novel strategy that would make psilocybin available using state and federal “right-to-try” laws that allow terminally ill patients access to investigational drugs.

They contend that psilocybin — whether found in psychedelic mushrooms or synthetic copies — meets the criteria for use laid out by more than 40 states and the 2017 Right to Try Act approved by the Trump administration.

“Can you look at the statute and see by its terms that it applies to psilocybin?” Tucker said. “I think the answer is yes.”

Still, the pair admit they’re pushing a legal theory still untested in the courts. “This is untrodden ground,” Aggarwal said.

This month, Aggarwal, who works at the Advanced Integrative Medical Science Institute, known as AIMS, took the first step toward federal authorization of the substance in Washington state and perhaps across the nation. He submitted an application to manufacture psilocybin to the state’s Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission, which would allow him to grow psilocybin mushrooms from spores at his clinic and administer them for therapeutic use.

Commission members haven’t yet reviewed the application, but Gordon MacCracken, an agency spokesperson, said there “would be a path” for possible license and use — if the application meets the requirements of state regulators and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Currently, psilocybin use is illegal under federal law, classified as a Schedule 1 drug under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, which applies to chemicals and substances with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, such as heroin and LSD.

Recently, however, several U.S. cities and states have voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of psilocybin. This month, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin for regulated use in treating intractable mental health problems. The first patients will have access beginning in January 2023.

It’s part of a wider movement to rekindle acceptance of psilocybin, which was among psychedelic drugs vilified — and ultimately banned — after the legendary counterculture excesses of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I think a lot of those demons, those fears, have been metabolized in the 50 years since then,” Aggarwal said. “Not completely, but we’ve moved it along so that it’s safe to try again.”

He points to a growing body of evidence that finds that psilocybin can have significant and lasting effects on psychological distress. The Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, launched this year, has published dozens of peer-reviewed studies based on two decades of research. They include studies confirming that psilocybin helped patients grappling with major depressive disorder, thoughts of suicide and the emotional repercussions of a cancer diagnosis.

Psilocybin therapy appears to work by chemically altering brain function in a way that temporarily affects a person’s ego, or sense of self. In essence, it plays on the out-of-body experiences made famous in portrayals of America’s psychedelic ’60s.

By getting out of their heads — and separating from all the fear and emotion surrounding death — people experience “being” as something distinct from their physical forms. That leads to a fundamental shift in perspective, said Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care specialist and medical officer for the Institute for Human Caring at Providence St. Joseph Health.

“What psychedelics do is foster a frame shift from feeling helpless and hopeless and that life is not worth living to seeing that we are connected to other people and we are connected to a universe that has inherent connection,” he said.

“Along with that shift in perspective, there is very commonly a notable dissolution of the fear of dying, of nonexistence and of loss, and that’s just remarkable.”

The key is to offer the drugs under controlled conditions, in a quiet room supervised by a trained guide, Byock said. “It turned out they are exceedingly safe when used in a carefully screened, carefully guided situation with trained therapists,” he said. “Almost the opposite is true when used in an unprepared, unscreened population.”

Baldeschwiler is one of many cancer patients eager to undergo psilocybin therapy to help quell the psychic pain that can accompany a terminal illness. Advocates say the therapy appears to work by temporarily altering brain function in a way that affects a person’s sense of self, helping them separate from the fear and emotion surrounding death.(Dan DeLong for KHN )

Baldeschwiler is one of several AIMS cancer patients eager to undergo psilocybin therapy. Another is Michal Bloom, 64, of Seattle, who was diagnosed in 2017 with stage 3 ovarian cancer. The anxiety of living with the terminal disease is overwhelming, she said.

“It’s as if someone came up to you, put a gun to the back of your head, whispered, ‘I have a gun to your head and I’ll have a gun to your head for the rest of your life. I may pull the trigger, I may not,’” she said. “How do you live like that?”

Research shows that a single six-hour session of psilocybin therapy may be enough to quell that fear, Aggarwal said. “I’m really interested in a right-to-try approach because it’s really what we need for patients right now,” he said.

Under the state and federal laws, to be eligible for “right-to-try” status, a treatment must have completed a phase 1 clinical trial approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration, be part of active clinical trials and in ongoing development or production.

So far, psilocybin ticks all those boxes, Tucker said.

The FDA has granted “breakthrough therapy” status to psilocybin for use in U.S. clinical trials conducted by Compass Pathways, a psychedelic research group in Britain, and by the Usona Institute, a nonprofit medical research group in Wisconsin. More than three dozen trials are recruiting participants or completed, federal records show.

But access to the drug remains a hurdle. Though psychedelic mushrooms grow wild in the Pacific Northwest and underground sources of the drug are available, finding a legal supply is nearly impossible.

Tucker and Aggarwal asked Usona last summer for a supply of the synthetic psilocybin its researchers produce for clinical trials, but so far have received nothing. Penny Patterson, a Usona spokesperson, said there’s been no “definitive resolution” and that conversations are continuing.

The firm’s reluctance may reflect a larger unease with employing right-to-try laws to speed use of psilocybin, said Dr. Anthony Back, a palliative care physician at the University of Washington.

Back supports the use of psilocybin for cancer patients and has even tried the drug to better understand the experience. But he said using psilocybin outside of formal clinical trials might endanger Usona’s ability to get traditional FDA approval. Adverse events may occur that will have to be reported to the FDA, an agency already watching the research closely.

“I can see why they’re hesitant, to be honest,” Back said. “I think right-to-try is an uphill battle.”

Still, Tucker and other advocates say it’s a battle worth fighting. End of Life Washington, a group focused on helping terminally ill patients use the state’s Death With Dignity Act, recently published a policy that supports psilocybin therapy as a form of palliative care. Other treatments for anxiety and depression, such as medication and counseling, may simply not be practical or effective at that point, said Judith Gordon, a psychologist and member of the group’s board of directors.

“When people are dying, they don’t have the time or the energy to do a lot of psychotherapy,” she said.

Baldeschwiler agrees. With perhaps less than two years to live, she wants access to any tool that can ease her pain. Immunotherapy has helped with the physical symptoms, dramatically shrinking the size of the tumor on her chest. Harder to treat has been the gnawing anxiety that she won’t see her 16-year-old daughter, Shea McGinnis, and 13-year-old son, Gibson McGinnis, become adults.

“They are beautiful children, good spirits,” she said. “To know I might not be around for them sucks. It’s really hard.”

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Mental Health Pharmaceuticals States

Need a COVID-19 Nurse? That’ll Be $8,000 a Week

DENVER — In March, Claire Tripeny was watching her dream job fall apart. She’d been working as an intensive care nurse at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, and loved it, despite the mediocre pay typical for the region. But when COVID-19 hit, that calculation changed.

She remembers her employers telling her and her colleagues to “suck it up” as they struggled to care for six patients each and patched their protective gear with tape until it fully fell apart. The $800 or so a week she took home no longer felt worth it.

“I was not sleeping and having the most anxiety in my life,” said Tripeny. “I’m like, ‘I’m gonna go where my skills are needed and I can be guaranteed that I have the protection I need.’”

In April, she packed her bags for a two-month contract in then-COVID hot spot New Jersey, as part of what she called a “mass exodus” of nurses leaving the suburban Denver hospital to become traveling nurses. Her new pay? About $5,200 a week, and with a contract that required adequate protective gear.

Months later, the offerings — and the stakes — are even higher for nurses willing to move. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, nurses can make more than $6,200 a week. A recent posting for a job in Fargo, North Dakota, offered more than $8,000 a week. Some can get as much as $10,000.

Early in the pandemic, hospitals were competing for ventilators, COVID tests and personal protective equipment. Now, sites across the country are competing for nurses. The fall surge in COVID cases has turned hospital staffing into a sort of national bidding war, with hospitals willing to pay exorbitant wages to secure the nurses they need. That threatens to shift the supply of nurses toward more affluent areas, leaving rural and urban public hospitals short-staffed as the pandemic worsens, and some hospitals unable to care for critically ill patients.

“That is a huge threat,” said Angelina Salazar, CEO of the Western Healthcare Alliance, a consortium of 29 small hospitals in rural Colorado and Utah. “There’s no way rural hospitals can afford to pay that kind of salary.”

Surge Capacity

Hospitals have long relied on traveling nurses to fill gaps in staffing without committing to long-term hiring. Early in the pandemic, doctors and nurses traveled from unaffected areas to hot spots like California, Washington state and New York to help with regional surges. But now, with virtually every part of the country experiencing a surge — infecting medical professionals in the process — the competition for the finite number of available nurses is becoming more intense.

“We all thought, ‘Well, when it’s Colorado’s turn, we’ll draw on the same resources; we’ll call our surrounding states and they’ll send help,’” said Julie Lonborg, a spokesperson for the Colorado Hospital Association. “Now it’s a national outbreak. It’s not just one or two spots, as it was in the spring. It’s really significant across the country, which means everybody is looking for those resources.”

In North Dakota, Tessa Johnson said she’s getting multiple messages a day on LinkedIn from headhunters. Johnson, president of the North Dakota Nurses Association, said the pandemic appears to be hastening a brain drain of nurses there. She suspects more nurses may choose to leave or retire early after North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum told health care workers to stay on the job even if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

All four of Utah’s major health care systems have seen nurses leave for traveling nurse positions, said Jordan Sorenson, a project manager for the Utah Hospital Association.

“Nurses quit, join traveling nursing companies and go work for a different hospital down the street, making two to three times the rate,” he said. “So, it’s really a kind of a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul staffing situation.”

Hospitals not only pay the higher salaries offered to traveling nurses but also pay a commission to the traveling nurse agency, Sorenson said. Utah hospitals are trying to avoid hiring away nurses from other hospitals within the state. Hiring from a neighboring state like Colorado, though, could mean Colorado hospitals would poach from Utah.

“In the wake of the current spike in COVID hospitalizations, calling the labor market for registered nurses ‘cutthroat’ is an understatement,” said Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. “Even if the health care sector can somehow find more beds, it cannot just go out and buy more front-line caregivers.”

Litwin said he’s glad to see the labor market rewarding essential workers — disproportionately women and people of color — with higher wages. Under normal circumstances, allowing markets to determine where people will work and for what pay is ideal.

“On the other hand, we are not operating under normal circumstances,” he said. “In the midst of a severe public health crisis, I worry that the individual incentives facing hospitals on the one side and individual RNs on the other conflict sharply with the needs of society as whole.”

Some hospitals are exploring ways to overcome staffing challenges without blowing the budget. That could include changing nurse-to-patient ratios, although that would likely affect patient care. In Utah, the hospital association has talked with the state nursing board about allowing nursing students in their final year of training to be certified early.

Growth Industry

Meanwhile business is booming for companies centered on health care staffing such as Wanderly and Krucial Staffing.

“When COVID first started and New York was an epicenter, we at Wanderly kind of looked at it and said, ‘OK, this is our time to shine,’” said David Deane, senior vice president of Wanderly, a website that allows health care professionals to compare offers from various agencies. “‘This is our time to help nurses get to these destinations as fast as possible. And help recruiters get those nurses.’”

Deane said the company has doubled its staff since the pandemic started. Demand is surging — with Rocky Mountain states appearing in up to 20 times as many job postings on the site as in January. And more people are meeting that demand.

In 2018, according to data from a national survey, about 31,000 traveling nurses worked nationwide. Now, Deane estimated, there are at least 50,000 travel nurses. Deane, who calls travel nurses “superheroes,” suspects a lot of them are postoperative nurses who were laid off when their hospitals stopped doing elective surgeries during the first lockdowns.

Competition for nurses, especially those with ICU experience, is stiff. After all, a hospital in South Dakota isn’t competing just with facilities in other states.

“We’ve sent nurses to Aruba, the Bahamas and Curacao because they’ve needed help with COVID,” said Deane. “You’re going down there, you’re making $5,000 a week and all your expenses are paid, right? Who’s not gonna say yes?”

Krucial Staffing specializes in sending health care workers to disaster locations, using military-style logistics. It filled hotels and rented dozens of buses to get nurses to hot spots in New York and Texas. CEO Brian Cleary said that, since the pandemic started, the company has grown its administrative staff from 12 to more than 200.

“Right now we’re at our highest volume we’ve been,” said Cleary, who added that over Halloween weekend alone about 1,000 nurses joined the roster of “reservists.”

With a base rate of $95 an hour, he said, some nurses working overtime end up coming away with $10,000 a week, though there are downsides, like the fact that the gig doesn’t come with health insurance and it’s an unstable, boom-and-bust market.

Hidden Costs

Amber Hazard, who lives in Texas, started as a traveling ICU nurse before the pandemic and said eye-catching sums like that come with a hidden fee, paid in sanity.

“How your soul is affected by this is nothing you can put a price on,” she said.

At a high-paying job caring for COVID patients during New York’s first wave, she remembers walking into the break room in a hospital in the Bronx and seeing a sign on the wall about how the usual staff nurses were on strike.

“It said, you know, ‘We’re not doing this. This is not safe,’” said Hazard. “And it wasn’t safe. But somebody had to do it.”

The highlight of her stint there was placing a wedding ring back on the finger of a recovered patient. But Hazard said she secured far more body bags than rings on patients.

Tripeny, the traveling nurse who left Colorado, is now working in Kentucky with heart surgery patients. When that contract wraps up, she said, she might dive back into COVID care.

Earlier, in New Jersey, she was scarred by the times she couldn’t give people the care they needed, not to mention the times she would take a deceased patient off a ventilator, staring down the damage the virus can do as she removed tubes filled with blackened blood from the lungs.

She has to pay for mental health therapy out-of-pocket now, unlike when she was on staff at a hospital. But as a so-called traveler, she knows each gig will be over in a matter of weeks.

At the end of each week in New Jersey, she said, “I would just look at my paycheck and be like, ‘OK. This is OK. I can do this.’”

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Surging LA

March 2020 (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: Cars wait at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, a bustling intersection that was deserted in March. Some shops on Hollywood Boulevard are open to the public, but many remain shuttered. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

On a Monday afternoon in March, four days after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, some of Southern California’s most famous landmarks were deserted and few cars traveled the region’s notoriously congested freeways.

Eight months later, businesses are open, traffic is back — and COVID-19 cases in the state are surging. 

“This is simply the fastest increase California has seen since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom said in a press conference Monday, when he announced a major rollback of the state’s reopening process, saying the state’s daily case numbers had doubled in the previous 10 days.

That same day, California Healthline’s Heidi de Marco returned to the landmarks she photographed in March. This time, it took her nearly two days — Monday and Tuesday — to document them because of traffic.

The biggest change was the greater number of vehicles on the road. Foot traffic had also stepped up, but most pedestrians and shoppers were wearing masks and not gathering in large numbers.

It turns out that activities such as strolling along the beach and window-shopping are not the primary way the disease is spreading in Los Angeles County. Public health officials there blame the surge on an increase in social gatherings, such as private dinners and sports-watching parties with people from multiple households, and the virus is spreading mostly among adults ages 18 to 29. In a bid to slow the virus, county public health director Barbara Ferrer announced additional restrictions on businesses, effective Friday. Among them, outdoor dining and drinking at restaurants and breweries will be limited to 50% of capacity, and outdoor gatherings can include only 15 people from no more than three households, including the host’s household.

March 2020 (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: The TCL Chinese Theatre shops are open for business in Hollywood, but the theater itself is closed. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
March 2020: Pedro Castro used to book about 20 bus tour tickets on Hollywood Boulevard per day, he said, but ticket sales fell dramatically right after the shutdown. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: The Hollywoodland Experience shop is empty Monday afternoon. The tour guide stationed outside the store, who didn’t want to be photographed or named, said business is steady but not nearly as heavy as before the pandemic. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
March 2020 (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: The Hollywood Freeway started to get busy at about 3:30 p.m. Monday and cars were moving fast. It was bumper-to-bumper by 5:30 p.m., hitting peak gridlock later than in pre-pandemic days — but still much busier than in March. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
March 2020 (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: Some shops on Olvera Street remain closed, but most restaurants are open and offer outside seating for customers. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
March 2020: Ricardo Gaytan, a cook at Cielito Lindo on Olvera Street, said he feared that with only a few customers a day, the restaurant could close completely. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: Gaytan now wears a mask while working and stands behind a plexiglass barrier when taking orders. The restaurant has remained open during the pandemic, he said, and business is steady. He said he has had to deal with only a few customers who didn’t want to wear a mask. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
March 2020 (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: People wander through the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style in Beverly Hills, which is again open to the public. Most people wore masks as they visited the stores that were open. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

November 2020: The city of Santa Monica has closed its famous pier to cars. (Heidi de Marco/KHN) November 2020: People are allowed to walk onto the pier as long as they wear a face covering.(Heidi de Marco/KHN) November 2020: Despite the haze, a handful of people work out at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica on Tuesday afternoon. (Heidi de Marco/KHN) November 2020: Beachgoers said they didn’t feel the need to wear a mask since they were outside, and because wearing a mask makes it harder to breathe while working out.(Heidi de Marco/KHN)

March 2020 (Heidi de Marco/KHN)
November 2020: There weren’t many customers at Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood on Tuesday, but the shop is hiring. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

KHN correspondent Anna Almendrala contributed to this report.

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

KHN on the Air This Week

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber discussed COVID-19 surges in Wisconsin with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” on Nov. 13.


California Healthline correspondent Angela Hart and editor Emily Bazar discussed how the Supreme Court case about the Affordable Care Act could affect California with the CalMatters and Capital Public Radio’s “California State of Mind” podcast.


KHN chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner discussed open enrollment for ACA marketplace plans with Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Calling” on Monday.


KHN Midwest correspondent Cara Anthony discussed protections against race-based hair discrimination with KTVU Fox 2 on Tuesday.


KHN senior correspondent Liz Szabo discussed COVID vaccine candidates with Newsy on Tuesday.


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Florida’s New Hospital Industry Head Ran Medicaid in State and Fought Expansion

With its choice of a new leader, the Florida Hospital Association has signaled that seeking legislative approval to expand Medicaid to nearly 850,000 uninsured adults won’t be among its top priorities.

In October, Mary Mayhew became the association’s CEO. Mayhew, who led the state’s Medicaid agency since 2019, has been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion adopted by 38 other states. She has argued that expansion puts states in a difficult position because the federal government is unlikely to keep its financial commitment to pay its share of the costs.

Had Medicaid been expanded in Florida, hospitals there would have gained thousands of paying patients. But the institutions have done little in recent years to persuade the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis, also Republican, who oppose such a move.

Mayhew acknowledged in an interview with KHN that expanding Medicaid to cover more uninsured patients could help hospitals financially, especially at a time when facilities have seen demand for services decline as people avoid care for fear of contracting COVID-19.

With that in mind, she said, she is now open to the idea of expanding Medicaid. “We need to look at all options on the table,” she said. “Is it doable? Yes.”

Still, she was quick to point out concerns about whether Florida can afford to expand.

Under the ACA, the federal government pays 90% of the costs for newly enrolled Medicaid recipients. In the traditional Medicaid program — which covers children, people who are disabled and pregnant women — the federal government pays nearly two-thirds of Florida’s Medicaid costs.

“It will be financially challenging in our state budget as revenues have dropped,” Mayhew said, echoing comments of state officials. “That 10% cost has to come from somewhere.”

Mayhew’s hire worries advocates who have spent more than seven years lobbying lawmakers to expand Medicaid. Without strong support from the hospital industry, they fear they’re unlikely to change many votes.

“It may make it harder,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of Florida People’s Advocacy Center, a group that lobbies for policies to help low-income citizens. Marshaling hospital support is important, she said, because of the industry’s money and political clout.

In many state capitals, hospitals have led the fight for Medicaid expansion either by lobbying lawmakers or bankrolling ballot initiatives. The latest example was in Missouri, which this summer expanded Medicaid via a voter initiative. The campaign for the measure was partly funded by hospitals.

But in Florida, hospitals appear to have made a calculated decision to avoid pushing an initiative that Republican leaders have said they don’t want. Among the dozen states that have not expanded Medicaid, Florida is second only to Texas in the number of residents who could gain coverage.

Aurelio Fernandez, CEO of Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Florida, who was chair of the hospital association board when it hired Mayhew, said her opposition to Medicaid expansion never came up in the process. The association hired Mayhew because of the “phenomenal job” she did guiding hospitals amid the COVID pandemic, he said.

“There is no appetite at this juncture [for the legislature] to expand the Medicaid program with Obamacare,” said Fernandez, despite his belief that expansion would help hospitals and patients.

Mayhew, sounding more like a state official than a hospital industry spokesperson, said the ultimate decision on expansion will be up to lawmakers, who must review spending priorities. When states face a financial crunch, lawmakers look to reduce spending in education and Medicaid, which are the biggest parts of the budget, she said.

“The last thing we want to see is the state budget balanced on the backs of hospitals with deep Medicaid reimbursement cuts,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew said her previous opposition to expanding Medicaid occurred when she was responsible for balancing the state budget and managing the programs in Florida and, before that, in Maine. When she ran Maine’s program, she said she opposed expanding Medicaid to allow nondisabled adults into the program while there were disabled enrollees already on waiting lists to get care.

The Florida Hospital Association, which represents more than 200 hospitals, spent years lobbying state lawmakers to expand Medicaid. But since DeSantis was elected in 2018, the group has focused on other issues because the governor and Republican lawmakers made clear they would not expand the program.

Asked what the association’s current position is on Medicaid expansion, Mayhew noted she has been in her job less than a month and “we have not had that policy decision by the board for me to answer that.”

Miriam Harmatz, executive director of the Florida Health Justice Project, an advocacy group, said Mayhew’s hire suggests that hospitals are unlikely to get behind a fledgling effort to put the expansion question to voters in 2022.

Others advocating for Medicaid expansion agree.

“It does not look like they [Florida’s hospitals] are on board with helping us expand Medicaid at the moment,” said Louisa McQueeney, program director of Florida Voices for Health, a consumer group helping with the ballot initiative.

Related Topics

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These Front-Line Workers Could Have Retired. They Risked Their Lives Instead.

Sonia Brown’s husband died on June 10. Two weeks later, the 65-year-old registered nurse was back at work. Her husband’s medical bills and a car payment loomed over her head.

“She wanted to make sure all those things were taken care of before she retired,” her son David said.

David and his sister begged her not to go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic — explaining their concerns about her age and diabetes — but she didn’t listen.

“She was like the Little Engine That Could. She just powered through everything,” David said.

But her invincibility couldn’t withstand COVID-19, and on 29 July she died after contracting the deadly virus.

Sonia’s death is far from unusual. Despite evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that adults 65 and older are at a higher risk from COVID-19, KHN and The Guardian have found that 338 front-line workers in that age group continued to work and likely died of complications from the virus after exposure on the job. Some were in their 80s — oftentimes physicians or registered nurses who cherished decades-long relationships with their patients and didn’t see retirement as an option.

The aging workers had a variety of motivations for risking their lives during the pandemic. Some felt pressured by employers to compensate for staffing shortages as the virus swept through departments. Others felt a higher sense of duty to their profession. Now their families are left to grapple with the same question: Would their loved one still be alive if he or she had stayed home?

‘All of This Could Have Been Prevented’

Aleyamma John was what her son, Ginu, described as a “prayerful woman.” Her solace came from working and caring for others. Her 38-year nursing career started in Mumbai, India. She immigrated with her husband to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where she worked for several years and had her two children. In 2002, the family moved to New York, and she took a job at NYC Health + Hospitals in Queens.

In early March, as cases surged across New York, Ginu asked his 65-year-old mother to retire. Her lungs were already weakened by an inflammatory disease, sarcoidosis.

“We told her very clearly, ‘Mom, this isn’t something that we should take lightly, and you definitely need to stay home.’”

“I don’t feel like the hospital will allow me to do that,” she responded.

Ginu described the camaraderie his mother shared with her co-workers, a bond that grew deeper during the pandemic. Many of her fellow nurses got sick themselves, and Aleyamma felt she had to step up.

Some of her co-workers “were quarantined [and did] not come into work,” he said. “Her department took a pretty heavy hit.”

By the third week of March, she started showing symptoms of COVID-19. A few days in, she suggested it might be best for her to go to the hospital.

“I think she knew it was not going to go well,” Ginu said. “But she found it in her heart to give us strength, which I thought was just insanely brave.”

Aleyamma ended up on a ventilator, something she assured Ginu wouldn’t be necessary. Her family was observing a virtual Palm Sunday service on 5 April when they got the call that she had died.

“We prayed that she would be able to come back, but that didn’t happen,” Ginu said.

Aleyamma and her husband, Johnny, who retired a few years ago, had been waiting to begin their next adventure.

“If organizations cared about their staff, especially staff who were vulnerable, if they provided for them and protected them, all of this could have been prevented,” Ginu said.

Commitment to Their Oath

In non-pandemic times, Sheena Miles considered herself semi-retired. She worked every other weekend at Scott Regional Hospital in Morton, Mississippi, mainly because she loved nursing and her patients. When Scott County emerged as a hot spot for the virus, Sheena worked four weekends in a row.

Her son, Tom, a member of Mississippi’s House of Representatives, called her one night to remind her she did not need to go to work.

“You don’t understand,” Sheena told her son. “I have an oath to do this. I don’t have a choice.”

Over Easter weekend, she began exhibiting COVID-like symptoms. By Thursday, her husband drove her to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

“She walked in and she never came out,” Tom said.

Tom said his mom “laid her life down” for the residents of Morton.

“She knew the chances that she was taking,” he said. “She just felt it was her duty to serve and to be there for people.”

Serving the community also was at the heart of Dr. Robert “Ray” Hull’s family medicine clinic in Rogers, Arkansas. He opened the clinic in 1972 and, according to his son Keith, had no intentions of leaving until his last breath.

“He was one of the first family physicians in northwest Arkansas,” Keith said. “Several people asked him if he was going to retire. His answer was always no.”

At the ripe age of 78, Dr. Hull continued to make house calls, black bag in hand. His wife worked alongside him in the office. Keith said the whole staff took proper precautions to keep the virus at bay, so when his father tested positive for COVID-19, it came as a shock.

Keith wasn’t able to visit his father at the hospital before he died on June 7. He said the funeral was even harder. Due to COVID restrictions on crowd sizes, he had to ask patients from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri to stay home.

“There’s not a coliseum, arena or stadium that would have held his funeral,” Keith said. “Everybody knew my dad.”

‘She Was Afraid She Was Going to Get Sick’

Nancy MacDonald, at 74, got bored at home. That’s why her daughter, Bethany, said retirement never stuck for her. So in 2017, Nancy took a job as a receptionist at Orchard View Manor, a nursing home in East Providence, Rhode Island.

Although technically she worked the night shift, her co-workers could rely on her to pick up extra shifts without question.

“If somebody called her and said, ‘Oh, I’m not feeling well. I can’t come in,’ she was right there. That was just the way she was,” Bethany said.

Nursing homes across the country have struggled to contain breakouts of COVID-19, and Orchard View was no exception. By mid-April, the facility reportedly had 20 deaths. Nancy’s position was high-contact; residents and staff were in and out of the reception area all day.

At the onset of the pandemic, Orchard View had a limited supply of PPE. Bethany said they prioritized giving it to workers “on the floor,” primarily those handling patient care. Her mother’s position was on the back burner.

“When they gave her a[n N95] mask, they also gave her a brown paper bag,” she said. “When she left work, they told her to put the mask in the bag.”

Nancy’s managers reiterated that she was an essential employee, so she continued showing up. In personal conversations with her daughter, however, she was fearful about what might happen. At her age, she was considered high-risk. Nancy saw the isolation that Orchard View residents experienced when they contracted the coronavirus. She didn’t want that to be her.

“She was afraid she was going to get sick,” Bethany said. “She was afraid to die alone.”

Following her death on April 25, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into the facility. So far, Orchard View has been fined more than $15,000 for insufficient respiratory protection and recording criteria.

A spokesperson for Orchard View told KHN the facility had “extensive infection control.” The facility declined to comment further.

Bethany MacDonald believes health care systems often exclude receptionists, janitors and technical workers from conversations on protecting the front line.

“It doesn’t matter what the job is, they are on the front line. You don’t have to be a doctor to be on the front line,” she said.

Related Topics

Aging Public Health States

Family Mourns Man With Mental Illness Killed by Police, Calls for Change

Rulennis Muñoz remembers the phone ringing on Sept. 13. Her mother was calling from the car, frustrated. Rulennis could also hear her brother Ricardo shouting in the background. Her mom told her that Ricardo, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five years earlier, wouldn’t take his medication.

Within an hour, Ricardo Muñoz, 27, was dead. Muñoz, who had a knife, was killed by a police officer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The incident has striking similarities to the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia six weeks later but has received far less national attention.

According to a Washington Post tracker, as of Nov. 18, police had killed 987 people in the U.S. in the past 12 months. Like Muñoz and Wallace, almost a quarter of those people had a diagnosis of a serious mental illness.

Two Sisters, Two Different Calls for Help

Ricardo Muñoz lived with his mother in Lancaster, but earlier on that September Sunday he had been across town at his sister Rulennis Muñoz’s house. Rulennis recalled that her brother had been having what she calls “an episode” that morning. Ricardo became agitated because his phone charger was missing. When she found it for him, he insisted it wasn’t the same one.

Rulennis knew her brother was in crisis and needed psychiatric care. But she also knew from experience that there were few emergency resources available for Ricardo unless a judge deemed him a threat to himself or others.

After talking with her mom, Rulennis called a county crisis intervention line to see if Ricardo could be committed for inpatient care. It was Sunday afternoon. The crisis worker told her to call the police to see if the officers could petition a judge to force Ricardo to go to the hospital for psychiatric treatment, an involuntary commitment. Reluctant to call 911, and wanting more information, Rulennis dialed the nonemergency police number.

Meanwhile, her mother, Miguelina Peña, was back in her own neighborhood. Her other daughter, Deborah, lives a few doors down. Peña started telling Deborah what was going on. Ricardo was becoming aggressive; he had punched the inside of the car. Back on their block, he was still yelling and upset and couldn’t be calmed. Deborah called 911 to get help for Ricardo. She didn’t know her sister was trying the nonemergency line.

The 911 Call

recording and transcript of the 911 call show that the dispatcher gave Deborah three options: police, fire or ambulance. Deborah wasn’t sure, so she said “police.” Then she went on to explain that Ricardo was being aggressive, had a mental illness and needed to go to the hospital.

Meanwhile, Ricardo walked up the street to where he and his mother lived. When the dispatcher questioned Deborah further, she mentioned that Ricardo was trying “to break into” his mom’s house. She didn’t mention that Ricardo also lived in that house. She did mention that her mother “was afraid” to go back home with him.

The Muñoz family has since emphasized that Ricardo was never a threat to them. However, by the time police got the message, they believed they were responding to a domestic disturbance.

“Within minutes of … that phone call, he was dead,” Rulennis said.

Ricardo’s mom, Miguelina Peña, recalls what she saw that day. A Lancaster police officer walked toward the house. Ricardo saw the officer approach through the living room window, and he ran upstairs to his bedroom. When he came back down, he had a hunting knife in his hand.

In video from a police body camera, an unidentified officer walks toward the Muñoz residence. Ricardo steps outside, and shouts “Get the f–k back.” Ricardo comes down the stairs of the stoop and runs toward the officer. The officer starts running down the sidewalk, but after a few steps, he turns back toward Ricardo, gun in hand, and shoots him several times. Within minutes, Ricardo is dead.

After Ricardo crumples to the sidewalk, his mother’s screams can be heard, off-camera. Police made the body camera video public a few hours after Ricardo’s death, in an effort to dispel rumors about Ricardo’s death and quell rioting in the city. The county district attorney has since deemed the shooting justified, and the officer’s name was never made public.

Spotty Care, Dangerous Crises

Across the U.S., people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely than the overall population to be killed by police, according to one study from the mental health nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

Miguelina Peña said she tried for years to get help for her son.

Among the problems, the family couldn’t find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients, she said. Additionally, Peña speaks little English, and that made it difficult to help Ricardo enroll in health insurance, or for her to understand what treatments he was receiving. Ricardo got his prescriptions through a local nonprofit clinic for Latino men, Nuestra Clínica.

Instead of consistent medical care and a trusted therapeutic relationship, Ricardo got treatment that was sporadic and fueled by crisis: He often ended up in the hospital for a few days, then would be discharged back home with little or no follow-up care. This happened more times than his mother and sisters can recall.

“There was an occasion where a judge was involved, and the judge determined that he should be released home,” Peña said. “And my question is, why would the judge allow him to go home if he wasn’t doing well?”

Immediate Threats and Escalation

Laws in Pennsylvania and many other states make it difficult for a family to get psychiatric care for someone who doesn’t want it; it can be imposed on the person only if he or she poses an immediate threat, said Angela Kimball, advocacy and public policy director at the National Alliance on Mental illness. By that point, it’s often law enforcement, rather than mental health professionals, who are called in to help.

“Law enforcement comes in and exerts a threatening posture,” Kimball said. “For most people, that causes them to be subdued. But if you’re experiencing a mental illness, that only escalates the situation.”

People who have a family member with mental illness should learn what local resources are available and plan for a crisis, Kimball advised. But she acknowledged that many of the services she frequently recommends, such as crisis hotlines or special response teams for mental health, aren’t available in most parts of the country.

If 911 is the only option, calling it can be a difficult decision, Kimball said.

“Dialing 911 will accelerate a response by emergency personnel, most often police,” she said. “This option should be used for extreme crisis situations that require immediate intervention. These first responders may or may not be appropriately trained and experienced in de-escalating psychiatric emergencies.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness continues to advocate for more resources for families dealing with a mental health crisis. The group says more cities should create crisis response teams that can respond at all hours, without involving armed police officers in most situations.

There has been progress on the federal level, as well. Kimball was happy when President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan congressional bill, on Oct. 17, to implement a three-digit national suicide prevention hotline. The number — 988 — will eventually summon help when dialed anywhere in the country. But it could take a few years before the system is up and running.

Rulennis Muñoz said the family never got to see how Ricardo would have responded to someone other than a police officer.

“And instead of a cop just being there, there should have been other responders,” Rulennis said. “There should have been someone that knew how to deal with this type of situation.”

This story comes from a reporting partnership with WITF, NPR and KHN.

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People Proving to Be Weakest Link for Apps Tracking COVID Exposure

The app builders had planned for pranksters, ensuring that only people with verified COVID-19 cases could trigger an alert. They’d planned for heavy criticism about privacy, in many cases making the features as bare-bones as possible. But, as more states roll out smartphone contact-tracing technology, other challenges are emerging. Namely, human nature.

The problem starts with downloads. Stefano Tessaro calls it the “chicken-and-egg” issue: The system works only if a lot of people buy into it, but people will buy into it only if they know it works.

“Accuracy of the system ends up increasing trust, but it is trust that increases adoptions, which in turn increases accuracy,” Tessaro, a computer scientist at the University of Washington who was involved in creating that state’s forthcoming contact-tracing app, said in a lecture last month.

In other parts of the world, people are taking that necessary leap of faith. Ireland and Switzerland, touting some of the highest uptake rates, report more than 20% of their populations use a contact-tracing app.

Americans seem not so hot on the idea. As with much of the U.S. response to the pandemic, this country hasn’t had a national strategy. So it’s up to states. And only about a dozen, including the recent addition of Colorado, have launched the smartphone feature, which sends users a notification if they’ve crossed paths with another app user who later tests positive for COVID-19.

Within those few states, enthusiasm appears dim. In Wyoming, Alabama and North Dakota, some of the few states with usage data beyond initial downloads, under 3% of the population is using the app.

The service, built by Google and Apple and adapted by individual countries, states or territories, either appears as a downloadable app or as a setting, depending on the state and the device. It uses Bluetooth to identify other phones using the app within about 6 feet for more than 15 minutes. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, they’re given a verification code to input so that each contact can be notified they were potentially exposed. The person’s identity is shielded, as are those of the people notified.

“The more people who add their phone to the fight against COVID, the more protection we all get. Everyone should do it,” Sarah Tuneberg, who leads Colorado’s test and containment effort, told reporters on Oct. 29. “The sky’s the limit. Or the population is the limit, really.”

But the population could prove to be quite a limit. Data from early-adopter governments suggests even those who download the app and use it might not follow directions at the most critical juncture.

According to the Virginia Health Department, from August to November, about 613 app users tested positive and received a code to alert their contacts that they may have exposed them to the virus. About 60% of them actually activated it.

In North Dakota, where the outbreak is so big that human contact tracers can’t keep up, the data is even more dire. In October, about 90 people tested positive and received the codes required to alert their contacts. Only about 30% did so.

Researchers in Dublin tracking app usage in 33 regions around the world have encountered echoes of the same issue. In October, they wrote that in parts of Europe fewer people were alerting their contacts than expected, given the scale of the outbreaks and the number of active app users. Italy and Poland ranked lowest. There, they estimated, just 10% of the app users they’d expect were submitting the codes necessary to warn others.

“I’m not sure that anybody working in this field had foreseen that that could be a problem,” said Lucie Abeler-Dörner, part of a team at the Big Data Institute at Oxford studying COVID-19 interventions, including digital contact tracing. “Everybody just assumed that if you sign up for a voluntary app … why would you then not push that button?”

So far, people in the field only have guesses. Abeler-Dörner wonders how much of it has to do with people going into panic mode when they find out they’re positive.

Tessaro, the University of Washington computer scientist, asks if the health officials who provide the code need more training on how to provide clear instructions to users.

Elissa Redmiles, a faculty member at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems who is studying what drives people to install contact-tracing apps, worries that people may have difficulty inputting their test results.

But Tim Brookins, a Microsoft engineer who developed North Dakota’s contact-tracing app as a volunteer, has a bleaker outlook.

“There’s a general belief that some people want to load the app so that they can be notified if someone else was positive, in a self-serving way,” he said. “But if they’re positive, they don’t want to take the time.”

Abeler-Dörner called the voluntary notification a design flaw and said the alerts should instead be automatically triggered.

Even with the limitations of the apps, the technology can help identify new COVID cases. In Switzerland, researchers looked at data from two studies of contact-tracing app users. They wrote in a not-yet-peer-reviewed paper that while only 13% of people with confirmed cases in Switzerland used the app to alert their contacts from July to September, that prompted about 1,700 people who had potentially been exposed to call a dedicated hotline for help. And of those, at least 41 people discovered they were, indeed, positive for COVID-19.

In the U.S., another non-peer-reviewed modeling study from Google and Oxford University looking at three Washington state counties found that even if only 15% of the population uses a contact-tracing app, it could lead to a drop in COVID-19 infections and deaths. Abeler-Dörner, a study co-author, said the findings could be applicable elsewhere, in broad strokes.

“It will avert infections,” she said. “If it’s 200 or 1,000 and it prevents 10 deaths, it’s probably worth it.”

That may be true even at low adoption rates if the app users are clustered in certain communities, as opposed to being scattered evenly across the state. But prioritizing privacy has required health departments to forgo the very data that would let them know if users are near one another. While an app in the United Kingdom asks users for the first few digits of their postal code, very few U.S. states can tell if users are in the same community.

Some exceptions include North Dakota, Wyoming and Arizona, which allow app users to select an affiliation with a college or university. At the University of Arizona, enough people are using the app that about 27% of people contacted by campus contact tracers said they’d already been notified of a possible exposure. Brookins of Microsoft, who created Care19 Alert, the app used in Wyoming and North Dakota, said that offering an affiliation option also allows people who’ve been exposed to get campus-specific instructions on where to get tested and what to do next.

“In theory, we can add businesses,” he said. “It’s so polarizing, no businesses have wanted to sign up, honestly.”

The privacy-focused design also means researchers don’t have what they need to prove the apps’ usefulness and therefore encourage higher adoption.

“Here there is actually some irony because the fact that we are designing this solution with privacy in mind somehow prevents us from accurately assessing whether the system works as it should,” Tessaro said.

In states including Colorado, Virginia and Nevada, the embedded privacy protections mean no one knows who has enabled the contact-tracing technology. Are they people who barely interact with anyone, or are they essential workers, interacting regularly with many people that human contact tracers would never be able to reach? Are they crossing paths and trading signals with other app users or, if they test positive, will their warning fall silently like a tree in an empty forest? Will they choose to notify people at all?

Colorado’s health department said it’s issuing thousands of COVID codes a day. As of Wednesday, 3,400 people have used the codes to notify their contacts, it said. An automated system issues codes for positive COVID-19 tests even if the infected people don’t have the app, making it impossible to know how many users are acting on the codes.

“I have hope that the vast majority of Coloradans will take this opportunity to give this gift of exposure notification to other people,” said Tuneberg. “I believe Coloradans will do it.”

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Public Health States

States’ Face-Covering Mandates Leave Gaps in Protection

BOULDER, Colo. — Brady Bowman, a 19-year-old student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and two friends strolled down 11th Street, all sporting matching neck gaiters branded with the Thomas’ English Muffins logo. He had received an entire box of the promotional gaiters.

He thinks they are just more comfortable to wear than a face mask. “Especially a day like today, where it’s cold out,” he said, with the top of his gaiter pulled down below his chin.

More stylish? Perhaps. More comfortable? Maybe. But as effective? Not necessarily.

With states such as Colorado requiring face coverings indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19, gaiters and bandannas have become popular accessories, particularly among college students and other young adults. Less restrictive than masks, they can easily be pulled up or down as needed — and don’t convey that just-out-of-the-hospital vibe.

But tests show those hipper face coverings are not as effective as surgical or cloth face masks. Bandannas, like plastic face shields, allow the virus to escape out the bottom in aerosolized particles that can hang in the air for hours. And gaiters are often made of such thin material that they don’t trap as much virus as cloth masks.

Snow-covered barriers set up along the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, carry a message of safety. (Markian Hawryluk/KHN)

Signs throughout Boulder, Colorado, encourage passersby to wear face coverings to control the spread of the coronavirus. But public health officials have given little guidance about what types of coverings might be most effective.(Markian Hawryluk/KHN)

As new COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths surge upward heading into winter, many public health experts wonder whether it’s time to move beyond the anything-goes approach toward more standardization and higher-quality masks. President-elect Joe Biden reportedly is mulling a national face-covering mandate of some sort, which could not only increase mask-wearing but better define for Americans what sort of face covering would be most protective.

“Unlike seat belts, condoms or other prevention strategies, we have not yet standardized what we are recommending for the public,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California-San Francisco. “And that has been profoundly confusing for the American public, to have all these masks on the market.”

Patchwork of Regulations

Masks have been shown to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the coronavirus. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that masks not only help prevent people from infecting others but help protect the wearers from infection as well.

According to a recent analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, implementing universal mask-wearing in late September would have saved nearly 130,000 American lives by the end of February.

Even so, many Americans still aren’t wearing masks. And in some states, they haven’t been required to do so.

At least 37 states and the District of Columbia have mandated face coverings but show wide variation in defining what qualifies. States such as Maryland and Rhode Island include bandannas or neck gaiters in their definitions, while South Carolina and Michigan do not, according to a KHN review of the orders. Some spell out the circumstances in which coverings must be worn or establish enforcement policies.

But according to Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor, many states are not holding residents to those rules. Some state or local officials are choosing not to enforce them.

“We have a patchwork of inconsistent rules and laws around the country,” Gostin said. “And when we are dealing with a nationwide pandemic, a patchwork just won’t get the job done.”

Cloth mask manufacturing was nearly nonexistent in the U.S. before the pandemic, so public health officials opted early in the year to stress the importance of wearing any face covering rather than trying to focus on one standard. As a result, Americans are wearing a hodgepodge of coverings, from home-sewn to commercial versions, with various levels of protection.

And what is worn matters. Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, an infectious disease specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said face coverings generally fall into three categories of effectiveness. N95 masks (not those with valves), surgical masks and well-made cloth masks (constructed of tightly woven material, folded over two or three times, and properly covering the mouth and nose) are in the highly effective category.

Bandannas, neck gaiters and face shields lie at the other end of the spectrum, and most everything else falls in the middle.

“Bandannas are typically a thinner material, so if they’re not doubled or tripled up, that can allow respiratory droplets, in particular, to move through the masks,” he said. “But the fact that they’re open along the bottom of the mouth and neck, if they’re not tucked into a shirt or something like that, also allows for a lot of that exhalation droplet to escape around the mask and become airborne.”

A plastic face shield can block larger droplets but won’t stop aerosolized particles from flowing beyond its edges.

The evidence around neck gaiters has been mixed, in part because so many materials and designs are used. But recent testing suggests even the thin material commonly used to make gaiters is nearly as effective as a cloth mask if doubled over.

“With few exceptions, the best mask is the mask that somebody is going to use regularly and consistently,” Gonsenhauser said. “It may be that the best technical mask is not going to be the mask that everybody’s going to be willing to wear all the time.”

Researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have found most of the commercially produced cloth masks block 40% to 60% of droplets, approaching the effectiveness of surgical masks.

“You can’t possibly test everything, but certainly one take-home message is that anything is better than nothing,” said William Lindsley, a NIOSH biomedical engineer. “We haven’t tested anything that has not worked.”

Call for Standardization

But Gandhi believes it’s time to raise the standards for masks, ramp up the production of disposable surgical masks and encourage, if not order, Americans to wear them. Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration reportedly considered sending masks to every American but ultimately decided against it.

Taiwan, on the other hand, invested in manufacturing and distributing surgical masks, and it has one of the lowest COVID death counts in the world: fewer than 10 deaths in a country of 24 million people.

“It makes more sense to standardize masks, to mass-produce surgical masks, which are not very expensive,” Gandhi said. “We’re spending a lot more on everything else.”

She said surgical masks might even reduce the severity of COVID-19. Gandhi and several colleagues recently wrote in a medical journal article that evidence suggests the less virus a person is exposed to, the less sick they become.

That’s been backed up in tests with lab animals exposed to the coronavirus and with humans exposed to other, less dangerous respiratory viruses.

Other evidence also supports that theory. While the CDC estimates about 40% of COVID cases are asymptomatic, outbreaks in food processing plants where workers were handed surgical or N95 masks as they entered showed a much higher proportion of infected workers never developed symptoms. That could explain why many Asian countries, where mask-wearing has been a cultural norm for decades, have been able to reopen their economies without seeing death rates as high as in the United States.

“Tokyo is a good example. It’s wide open, the people are walking around shoulder to shoulder, people are going to offices, people are going to school,” Gandhi said. “But they’re all masked and they have very low rates of severe illness.”

If she’s right, a national mandate calling for surgical masks could both reduce transmission and prevent serious disease.

“We can’t wait,” Gandhi said. “We’ve had enough deaths from this infection. Our case fatality rates in a country of this degree of development are just tragic.”

It remains to be seen whether Americans will be more willing to wear dowdier, less comfortable but more effective masks to protect themselves and others. When Bowman, the Boulder college student, was asked if he was worried that his gaiter might not block as much of the virus as a face mask, he seemed unconcerned.

“As long as the other person is wearing a mask,” he said.

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Public Health States

Push Is On in US to Figure Out South Asians’ High Heart Risks

For years, Sharad Acharya’s frequent hikes in the mountains outside Denver would leave him short of breath. But a real wake-up call came three years ago when he suddenly struggled to breathe while walking through an airport.

An electrocardiogram revealed that Acharya, a Nepali American from Broomfield, Colorado, had an irregular heartbeat on top of the high blood pressure he already knew about. He had to immediately undergo triple bypass surgery and get seven stents.

Acharya, now 54, thought of his late father and his many uncles who have had heart problems.

“It’s part of my genetics, for sure,” he said.

South Asian Americans — people with roots in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives — have a disproportionately higher risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular ailments. Worldwide, South Asians account for 60% of all heart disease cases, even though — at 2 billion people — they make up only a quarter of the planet’s population.

In the United States, there’s increasing attention on these risks for Americans of South Asian descent, a growing population of about 5.4 million. Health care professionals attribute the problem to a mix of genetic, cultural and lifestyle influences — but researchers are advocating for more resources to fully understand it.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is sponsoring legislation that would direct $5 million over the next five years toward research into heart disease among South Asian Americans and raising awareness of the issue. The bill passed the U.S. House in September and is up for consideration in the Senate.

The issue could gain more attention after Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) becomes the nation’s first vice president with South Asian lineage. Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, moved from India to the U.S. in 1958 to attend graduate school. Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, died in 2009 of colon cancer.

A 2018 study for the American Heart Association found South Asian Americans are more likely to die of coronary heart disease than other Asian Americans and non-Hispanic white Americans. The study pointed to their high incidences of diabetes and prediabetes as risk factors, as well as high waist-to-hip ratios. People of South Asian descent have a higher tendency to gain visceral fat in the abdomen, which is associated with insulin resistance. They also were found to be less physically active than other ethnic groups in the U.S.

One of the nation’s largest undertakings to understand these risks is the Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America study, which began in 2006. The MASALA researchers, from institutions such as Northwestern University and the University of California-San Francisco, have examined more than 1,100 South Asian American men and women ages 40-79 to better understand the prevalence and outcomes of cardiovascular disease. They stress that high blood pressure and diabetes are common in the community, even for people at normal weights.

That’s why, said Dr. Alka Kanaya, MASALA’s principal investigator and a professor at UCSF, South Asians cannot rely on traditional body mass index metrics, because BMI numbers considered normal could provide false reassurance to those who might still be at risk.

Kanaya recommends cardiac CT scans, which she said help identify high-risk patients, those who need to make more aggressive lifestyle changes and those who may need preventive medication.

Another risk factor, this one cultural, is diet. Some South Asian Americans are vegetarians, though it’s often a grain-heavy diet reliant on rice and flatbread. The AHA study found risks in such diets, which are high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fat.

“We have to understand the cultural nuances [with] an Indian vegetarian diet,” said Dr. Ronesh Sinha, author of “The South Asian Health Solution” and an internal medicine physician. “That means something totally different than … a Westerner who’s going to be consuming a lot of plant-based protein and tofu, eating lots of salads and things that typical South Asians don’t.”

But getting South Asians to change their eating habits can be challenging, because their culture expresses hospitality and love through food, according to Arnab Mukherjea, an associate professor of health sciences at California State University-East Bay. “One of the things South Asians tend to take a lot of pride in is transmitting cultural values and norms knowledge to the next generation,” Mukherjea said.

Acharya’s health is still an issue. He said he had to get four more stents this year, and the surgeries have put pressure on his family. But he’s breathing well, watching what he eats — and once more exploring his beloved mountains.(Eli Imadali for KHN)

The intergenerational transmission goes both ways, according to MASALA researchers. Adult, second-generation South Asian Americans might be the key to helping those in the first generation who are resistant to change adopt healthier habits, according to Kanaya.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, El Camino Hospital’s South Asian Heart Center is one of the nation’s leading centers for educating the community. Its three locations are not far from Silicon Valley tech giants, which employ many South Asian Americans.

The center’s medical director, Dr. César Molina, said the center treats many relatively young patients of South Asian descent without typical risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

“It was like the typical 44-year-old engineer with a spouse and two kids showing up with a heart attack,” he said.

The South Asian Health Center helps patients make lifestyle changes through meditation, exercise, diet and sleep. The nearby Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Prevention and Awareness for South Asians program and the Stanford South Asian Translational Heart Initiative provide medical support for the community. Even patients in the later stages of heart disease can be helped by lifestyle changes, Sinha said.

Dr. Kevin Shah, a University of Utah cardiologist who co-authored the AHA study, said people with diabetes, hypertension and obesity are also at higher risk of COVID-19 complications so should now especially work to improve their cardiovascular health and fitness.

In Colorado, Acharya’s health is still an issue. He said he had to get four more stents this year, and the surgeries have put pressure on his family. But he’s breathing well, watching what he eats — and once more exploring his beloved mountains.

“Nowadays, I feel very, very good,” he said. “I’m hiking a lot.”

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California States

As Broad Shutdowns Return, Weary Californians Ask ‘Is This the Best We Can Do?’

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — For Tom Davis, being told by the state this week that he must close his Pacific Edge Climbing Gym for the third time in six months is beyond frustrating. The first time the rock-climbing gym and fitness center shut down, co-owners Davis and Diane Russell took out a government loan to pay employees. The second time, they were forced to lay everyone off — themselves included. Now, as they face another surge of COVID cases across California, he fears he may lose the business for good.

California’s ping-ponging approach to managing the virus — twice reopening large portions of the service-sector economy only to shut them again — doesn’t seem just or reasonable, Davis said. As of Tuesday evening, he was planning to defy the order, keeping the gym open but with additional restrictions on capacity.

“The government is essentially saying, ‘We’re just picking you to personally go bankrupt and all the people who work with you,’” said Davis. “Nobody can afford to live in Santa Cruz on unemployment.”

It’s a grim time in the pandemic. California has surpassed 1 million cases of COVID-19 and 94% of Californians — more than 37.7 million people — live in a county considered to have “widespread” infection. Santa Cruz is one of 41 California counties now under the most restrictive orders in the state’s four-tiered COVID blueprint for determining which businesses can stay open amid the pandemic, and under what proscriptions.

(Blueprint for a Safer Economy/COVID19.ca.gov)

Until Monday, Santa Cruz was in the red tier — the second-most restrictive — meaning Pacific Edge could be open at 10% capacity. Now, its owners are being told to close entirely.

For business owners and workers, a backward slide on the blueprint represents yet another financial setback in a bleak year, leaving some residents angry, exasperated and wondering if this is really the best the state can do.

It’s a question reverberating nationwide as every state experiences a deadly rise in COVID cases and a growing number of hospitals say they are simply out of beds. Among states, California is performing relatively well, ranking 39th in cases per capita and 32nd in deaths, according to a New York Times tracker.

But even here, the virus is too pervasive in its spread — and the public health infrastructure too enfeebled — to make the reopening of businesses and schools an easy proposition. Some experts say that during a pandemic, when the virus is everywhere, the push and pull California businesses are enduring may be what success looks like in much of the U.S. for months to come.

“The yo-yo nature of this is a feature of the pandemic,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. “And in fact, when I look at really successful countries like South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand, they all have a yo-yo feeling to them.”

Experts say a crucial factor in being able to reopen safely is getting cases low enough that time-tested public health tools like quarantines and contact tracing can work. Most U.S. hot spots, including broad swaths of California, have never achieved those low levels.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, like many other governors, is trying to thread the needle, to keep cases to a minimum while also allowing many businesses to remain open. It’s a sensitive equation, said Dr. Aimee Sisson, public health officer for Yolo County.

“It’s really hard to dial in the balances of getting our economy going again, which is important for public health, and maintaining our health, which is important for the economy.”

And while California is doing better than many other states, said Cameron Kaiser, the health officer for Riverside County, it’s certainly not cause for celebration. “At this point we’re clearly doing better, but our trends are not good either. When you’re talking about the relative impact of different tragedies, I’m not sure you’d call that a success.”

Even as it frustrates some residents, California’s tiered reopening system has won praise nationally. The system draws on three COVID metrics to guide restrictions: new cases per population; the share of people tested for the coronavirus who are positive; and, in larger counties, an equity measure to ensure cases are low across the county, including in high-risk communities. Under revised guidelines released this week, county tier assignments can change from week to week — and more than once a week if data indicates a county is losing ground.

“We think it’s a best practice nationally and globally,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is not about closure — this is about adjusting what is open when.”

Still, the state blueprint isn’t perfect, health officers say. In its early stages, there were inconsistencies around which businesses could stay open. For example, nail salons were treated differently from hair salons, though the exposure conditions are fairly similar. The state has taken feedback, said Sisson, and tried to make improvements.

And perhaps the biggest weakness is how little data exists to determine which businesses present the greatest risks for exposure and transmission, said Sisson and other health officers. While restaurants and bars are broadly considered high-risk because people remove their masks while eating and drinking, not much is known about viral spread at places like gyms and movie theaters, where it’s possible to reduce occupancy and wear masks.

That’s part of what frustrates Davis in Santa Cruz. Pacific Edge has reduced occupancy to just 30 people in the sprawling old factory building and instituted a range of protective measures. “Compare that to Costco. I honestly believe we are just as safe if not safer than other businesses,” Davis said.

Measuring California’s success in navigating the pandemic depends on what your goal is, said Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz who has been advising local government and businesses, including Pacific Edge, on reopening. The state has prioritized both keeping businesses open and keeping cases down, which means neither can be done perfectly.

Still, he’s not sure the whiplash of openings and closings is the best the state can do. He worries the tiered system may inadvertently send the wrong signals: Again and again, public health officials have watched in dismay as residents whose counties move into less-restrictive tiers revert to socializing in large groups and shedding basic safety protocols like masks and social distancing — followed by a dangerous upsurge in infections and hospitalizations.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, has acknowledged as much, stressing that cases are linked to both social gatherings and businesses. Ultimately, he said on Monday, the state is taking a “dual approach” that includes changes to business practices, and asking individuals to be disciplined in wearing masks outside the home, regularly sanitizing hands, staying 6 feet apart, and socializing outdoors and in small gatherings.

Meanwhile, the holiday season looms. The most recent spike in cases directly correlates to Halloween, several health officers said, just as previous spikes were linked to Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. With Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s on the horizon, officials wonder whether they might have to recommend a farther-reaching stay-at-home order to keep cases under control.

“I’m very worried about Thanksgiving,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, health officer for Contra Costa County. “The tradition of so many families is to get together with their extended families, and that means gatherings with groups of people, and that’s where the virus wants to spread.”

In addition, Farnitano said, given the realities of commerce and travel, what happens in other states affects California. “Having other states with the same restrictions would help California,” he said.

What’s really needed, several public health officials said, is a coordinated national message and strategy.

“I’m hoping we’re gonna have the new president come in and take the reins very firmly,” said Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health at UC-San Diego. “He has the right people around him advising him. But, by then, winter will be half over and we’re going to be facing 400,000 deaths. Digging ourselves out of that mess is going to take awhile.”

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

Anger After North Dakota Governor Asks COVID-Positive Health Staff to Stay on Job

Nurse Leslie McKamey has gotten used to the 16-hour shifts, to skipping lunch, to the nightly ritual of throwing all her clothes in the laundry and showering as soon as she walks through the door to avoid potentially infecting her children. She’s even grown accustomed to triaging COVID patients, who often arrive at the emergency room so short of breath they struggle to describe their symptoms.

But despite the trauma and exhaustion of the past eight months, she was shocked when North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said last week that health care workers who test positive for the coronavirus but do not display symptoms could still report to work. The order, in line with CDC guidance for mitigating staff shortages, would allow asymptomatic health workers who test positive to work only in COVID units, and treat patients who already have the virus.

But many feel the idea endangers the workers and their colleagues. It comes as North Dakota faces one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 and grapples with health care staff shortages.

“We’re worried about somebody dying, frankly, because we couldn’t get to them in time,” said McKamey, an emergency room registered nurse in Bismarck.

According to data from the COVID Tracking Project, more than 9,400 North Dakotans tested positive for COVID-19 last week alone. About 1 in 12 North Dakota residents have been infected with the virus; nearly 1 in 1,000 have died. In early November, the North Dakota Department of Health reported that there were only 12 open ICU beds in the state.

McKamey said Burgum’s order goes against everything she’s been taught as a nurse.

“If hospital administrators start forcing COVID-positive staff to go to work, it’s going to be very scary. We’re trained to do no harm, and asking COVID-positive, asymptomatic nurses to return to work is putting patients at risk. It’s putting fellow staff members at risk.”

Nine months into the pandemic, it’s clear health care workers already face increased risks. Lost on the Frontline, a joint effort by The Guardian and KHN, is investigating the deaths of 1,375 health care workers who appear to have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Nearly a third of those health care workers were nurses.

McKamey described long shifts in an emergency room that has begun taking on patients overnight because other wards of the hospital did not have the capacity to admit them. Nurses pick up extra shifts to cover for colleagues who have gotten sick and take on multiple critical patients at once.

It is a scene playing out in hospitals across the country, as the coronavirus spreads unabated. As of Monday, more than 11 million people in the United States had been infected with the virus, with health officials reporting 180,000 new infections in a single day. And the country is bracing for another milestone: It will soon surpass a quarter-million deaths from COVID-19.

Health care workers are overwhelmed and exhausted. According to a recent survey from the National Nurses United, more than 70% of hospital nurses said they were afraid of contracting COVID-19 and 80% feared they might infect a family member. More than half said they struggled to sleep and 62 reported feeling stressed and anxious. Nearly 80% said they were forced to reuse single-use PPE, like N95 respirators.

Inaction at the state and federal levels have left many health care workers feeling abandoned. When Gov. Burgum issued the order that infected but asymptomatic nurses could report to work in COVID units, North Dakota had not implemented any kind of statewide mask mandate, despite expert guidance that such a measure could significantly reduce transmission of the virus.

Tessa Johnson is a registered nurse at a Bismarck nursing home and president of the North Dakota Nurses Association, which issued a statement last week denouncing Burgum’s order that infected nurses continue to work.

She said the state could have done much more to ensure patients don’t become infected in the first place. “We’ve asked and asked and asked for a mask mandate, and that hasn’t happened,” she said Thursday.

On Friday night, Burgum did an about-face and issued a mask mandate, ordering individuals to cover their faces when inside businesses, indoor public settings and outdoor public settings where physical distancing may be impossible.

“Our doctors and nurses heroically working on the front lines need our help, and they need it now,” he said in a press statement.

Still, Johnson said there’s a disconnect between what health care workers are experiencing inside North Dakota’s health facilities, and how the general population perceives the virus. And that even before Burgum’s comments, some of her colleagues felt they had to choose between taking all precautions and limited time off. “One of my closest friends, also a health care worker, said to me the other day, ‘There’s no way I will ever get tested unless I’m very sick, because I don’t want to use my paid leave.’”

McKamey, the ER nurse, said she hasn’t had time to process the stress of the past several months. She’s focused on staying healthy, gearing up for what she anticipates will be a difficult winter and keeping her patients alive. “We are willing to break our backs and work as hard as we physically can,” McKamey said. “But then to ask us to come in as a potential infectious source is just stunning.”

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Public Health States

Public Health Programs See Surge in Students Amid Pandemic

As the novel coronavirus emerged in the news in January, Sarah Keeley was working as a medical scribe and considering what to do with her biology degree.

By February, as the disease crept across the U.S., Keeley said she found her calling: a career in public health. “This is something that’s going to be necessary,” Keeley remembered thinking. “This is something I can do. This is something I’m interested in.”

In August, Keeley began studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to become an epidemiologist.

Public health programs in the United States have seen a surge in enrollment as the coronavirus has swept through the country, killing more than 246,000 people. As state and local public health departments struggle with unprecedented challenges — slashed budgets, surging demand, staff departures and even threats to workers’ safety — a new generation is entering the field.

Among the more than 100 schools and public health programs that use the common application — a single admissions application form that students can send to multiple schools — there was a 20% increase in applications to master’s in public health programs for the current academic year, to nearly 40,000, according to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.

Some programs are seeing even bigger jumps. Applications to Brown University’s small master’s in public health program rose 75%, according to Annie Gjelsvik, a professor and director of the program.

Demand was so high as the pandemic hit full force in the spring that Brown extended its application deadline by over a month. Seventy students ultimately matriculated this fall, up from 41 last year.

“People interested in public health are interested in solving complex problems,” Gjelsvik said. “The COVID pandemic is a complex issue that’s in the forefront every day.”

It’s too early to say whether the jump in interest in public health programs is specific to that field or reflects a broader surge of interest in graduate programs in general, according to those who track graduate school admissions. Factors such as pandemic-related deferrals and disruptions in international student admissions make it difficult to compare programs across the board.

Magnolia E. Hernández, an assistant dean at Florida International University’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, said new student enrollments in its master’s in public health program grew 63% from last year. The school has especially seen an uptick in interest among Black students, from 21% of newly admitted students last fall to 26.8% this year.

Kelsie Campbell is one of them. She’s part Jamaican and part British. When she heard in both the British and American media that Black and ethnic minorities were being disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, she wanted to focus on why.

“Why is the Black community being impacted disproportionately by the pandemic? Why is that happening?” Campbell asked. “I want to be able to come to you and say ‘This is happening. These are the numbers and this is what we’re going to do.’”

Florida International University student Kelsie Campbell, a biochemistry major, says she plans to explore why Black and ethnic minorities are being disproportionately hurt by the pandemic when she begins her master’s in public health program at Stempel College in the spring. “There’s power in having people from your community in high places, somebody to fight for you, somebody to be your voice,” she says.(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The biochemistry major at Florida International said she plans to explore that when she begins her MPH program at Stempel College in the spring. She said she hopes to eventually put her public health degree to work helping her own community.

“There’s power in having people from your community in high places, somebody to fight for you, somebody to be your voice,” she said.

Public health students are already working on the front lines of the nation’s pandemic response in many locations. Students at Brown’s public health program, for example, are crunching infection data and tracing the spread of the disease for the Rhode Island Department of Health.

Some students who had planned to work in public health shifted their focus as they watched the devastation of COVID-19 in their communities. In college, Emilie Saksvig, 23, double-majored in civil engineering and public health. She was supposed to start working this year as a Peace Corps volunteer to help with water infrastructure in Kenya. She had dreamed of working overseas on global public health.

The pandemic forced her to cancel those plans, and she decided instead to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Emory University.

“The pandemic has made it so that it is apparent that the United States needs a lot of help, too,” she said. “It changed the direction of where I wanted to go.”

These students are entering a field that faced serious challenges even before the pandemic exposed the strains on the underfunded patchwork of state and local public health departments. An analysis by AP and KHN found that since 2010, per capita spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16%, and for local health departments by 18%. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession.

And the workforce is aging: Forty-two percent of governmental public health workers are over 50, according to the de Beaumont Foundation, and the field has high turnover. Before the pandemic, nearly half of public health workers said they planned to retire or leave their organizations for other reasons in the next five years. Poor pay topped the list of reasons. Some public health workers are paid so little that they qualify for public aid.

Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health, said government public health jobs need to be a “destination job” for top graduates of public health schools.

“If we aren’t going after the best and the brightest, it means that the best and the brightest aren’t protecting our nation from those threats that can, clearly, not only devastate from a human perspective, but from an economic perspective,” Castrucci said.

The pandemic put that already-stressed public health workforce in the middle of what became a pitched political battle over how to contain the disease. As public health officials recommended closing businesses and requiring people to wear masks, many, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top virus expert, faced threats and political reprisals, AP and KHN found. Many were pushed out of their jobs. An ongoing count by AP/KHN has found that more than 100 public health leaders in dozens of states have retired, quit or been fired since April.

Those threats have had the effect of crystallizing for students the importance of their work, said Patricia Pittman, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“Our students have been both indignant and also energized by what it means to become a public health professional,” Pittman said. “Indignant because many of the local and the national leaders who are trying to make recommendations around public health practices were being mistreated. And proud because they know that they are going to be part of that front-line public health workforce that has not always gotten the respect that it deserves.”

Saksvig compared public health workers to law enforcement in the way they both have responsibility for enforcing rules that can alter people’s lives.

“I feel like before the coronavirus, a lot of people didn’t really pay attention to public health,” she said. “Especially now when something like a pandemic is happening, public health people are just on the forefront of everything.”

KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber and KHN senior correspondent Anna Maria Barry-Jester contributed to this report.

This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and KHN.

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Public Health States

Patients Struggle to Find Prescription Opioids After NY Tax Drives Out Suppliers

NEW YORK — Mike Angevine lives in constant pain. For a decade the 37-year-old has relied on opioids to manage his chronic pancreatitis, a disease with no known cure.

But in January, Angevine’s pharmacy on Long Island ran out of oxymorphone and he couldn’t find it at other drugstores. He fell into withdrawal and had to be hospitalized.

“You just keep thinking: Am I going to get sick? Am I going to get sick?” Angevine said in a phone interview. “Am I going to be able to live off the pills I have? Am I going to be able to get them on time?”

His pharmacy did not tell him the reason for the shortage. But Angevine isn’t the only pain patient in New York to lose access to vital medicine since July 2019, when the state implemented an excise tax on many opioids.

The tax was touted as a way to punish major drugmakers for their role in the opioid epidemic and generate funding for treatment programs. But to avoid paying, scores of manufacturers and wholesalers stopped selling opioids in New York. Instead of the anticipated $100 million, the tax brought in less than $30 million in revenue, two lawmakers said in interviews. None of it was earmarked for substance abuse programs, they said.

The state’s Department of Health, which has twice this year delayed an expected report on the impact of the tax, did not respond to questions for this story.

The tax follows strong efforts by federal and New York officials to tamp down the use of prescription opioids, which had already cut back some supply. Now, with some medications scarce or no longer available, pain patients have been left reeling. And the law appears to have missed its target: Instead of taking a toll on manufacturers, the greater burden appears to have fallen on pharmacies that can no longer afford or access the painkillers.

Among them is Epic Pharma. Independent Pharmacy Cooperative, a wholesaler, confirmed it no longer sells medications subject to the tax, but still sells those that are exempt, which are treatments for opioid addiction methadone and buprenorphine and also morphine. AvKARE and Lupin Pharmaceuticals said they do not ship opioids to New York anymore. Amneal Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures Angevine’s oxymorphone, declined to comment, as did Mallinckrodt.

Since the tax went into effect, Cardinal Health, which provides health services and products, published an extensive 10-page list of opioids it does not expect to carry. Cardinal Health declined to comment.

The New York tax is slowly gaining attention in other states. Delaware passed a similar tax last year. Minnesota is assessing a special licensing fee between $55,000 and $250,000 on opioid manufacturers. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proposed such a tax this year but was turned down by the legislature.

The company that makes the first point of sale within New York pays the tax. That isn’t always the drugmaker. It can mean wholesalers selling to pharmacies here are assessed, explained Steve Moore, president of the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York.

Independent Pharmacy Cooperative said about half its revenue from opioid sales in New York would have gone to taxes.

Mark Kinney, the company’s senior vice president of government relations, said the law is putting companies in a very difficult position.

When wholesalers like IPC left the opioid market, competitive prices went with them.

Without these smaller wholesalers, it’s hard for pharmacies to go back to other wholesalers “and say, ‘Hey, your prices aren’t in line with the rest of the market,’” Moore said.

Indeed, nine independent pharmacies told KHN that when they can get opioids they are more expensive now. They have little choice but to eat the cost, drop certain prescriptions or pass the expense along.

“We can trickle that cost down to the patient,” said a pharmacist at New London Pharmacy in Manhattan, “but from a moral and ethics point of view, as a health care provider, it just doesn’t seem right to do that. It’s not the right thing to ask your patient to pay more.”

In addition, Medicare drug plans and Medicaid often limit reimbursements, meaning pharmacies can’t charge them more than the programs allow.

Stone’s Pharmacy in Lake Luzerne was losing money “hand over fist,” owner Leigh McConchie said. His distributor was adding the tax directly to his pharmacy’s cost for the drugs. That helped drive down his profit margins from opioid sales between 60% and 70%. Stone’s stopped carrying drugs like fentanyl patches and oxycodone, and though that distributor now pays the tax itself, the pharmacy is still feeling the effects.

“When you lose their fentanyl, you generally lose all their other prescriptions,” he said, noting that few customers go to multiple pharmacies when they can get everything at one.

If pharmacies have few opioid customers, those price hikes have less impact on their business. But being able to manage the costs is not the only problem, explained Zarina Jalal, a manager at Lincoln Pharmacy in Albany. Jalal can no longer get generic oxycodone from her supplier Kinray, though she can still access brand-name OxyContin. New York’s Medicaid Mandatory Generic Drug Program requires insurers to provide advance authorization for the use of brand-name prescriptions, delaying the approval process. Sometimes patients wait several days to get their prescription, Jalal explained.

“When I see them suffer, it hurts more than it hurts my wallet,” she said.

One of Jalal’s customers, Janis Murphy, needs oxycodone to walk without pain. Now she is forced to buy a brand-name drug and pays up to three times what she did for generic oxycodone before the tax went into effect. She said her bill since the start of this year for oxycodone alone is $850. Lincoln Pharmacy works with Murphy on a payment plan, without which she would not be able to afford the medication at all. But the bill keeps growing.

“I’m almost in tears because I cannot get this bill down,” she said in a phone interview.

Several pharmacists raised concerns that patients who lose access to prescription opioids may turn to street drugs. High prescription prices can drive patients to highly addictive and inexpensive heroin. McConchie of Stone’s Pharmacy said he now dispenses twice as many heroin treatment drugs as he did a year ago. Former opioid customers now come in for prescriptions for substance use disorder.

Trade groups and some physicians and state legislators opposed the tax before it went into effect, voicing concerns about a slew of potential consequences, including supply problems for pharmacists and higher consumer prices.

New London Pharmacy said one of its regular distributors stopped shipping Percocet, a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen. Instead, the pharmacy orders from a more expensive company. The pharmacist estimated that a bottle of Percocet for which it used to pay $43 now costs up to $92.

“Even if we absorb the tax, we’re not getting a break from reimbursements either,” a pharmacist who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained, adding that insurance reimbursements have not increased in proportion to rising drug costs. “We’re losing.”

Latchmin Raghunauth Mondol, owner of Viva Pharmacy & Wellness in Queens, has also seen that problem. The pharmacy used to be able to purchase 100 15-milligram tablets of oxycodone for $15, but that’s now $70, she said, and the pharmacy is reimbursed only about $21 by insurers.

Other opioids are just not available.

Mondol said she has been unable to obtain certain doses of two of the most commonly prescribed opioids, oxycodone and oxymorphone — the drug Angevine was on.

After Angevine lost access to oxymorphone, his doctor put him on morphine, but it does not give him the same relief. He’s been in so much pain that he stopped going to physical therapy appointments.

“It’s a marathon from hell,” he said.

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Homeless Shelters Grapple With COVID Safety as Cold Creeps In

CHICAGO — Ben Barnes has slept in abandoned buildings, hallways and alleys. For the past year or so, he’s been staying at the city’s largest homeless shelter, Pacific Garden Mission, in the shadows of the famous skyline.

“I’ve always considered myself homeless because I don’t have a home,” he said on a recent crisp, fall day in the shelter’s sun-splashed courtyard. But he’s fortunate, said Barnes, 44. He’s never had to sleep outside when it was below zero or snowy. He always found a friend’s place, building or shelter to crash in. He knows others aren’t so lucky.

As winter approaches, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people in this city of nearly 3 million are living on the streets: some in encampments, others hopping from corner to corner. And the numbers could grow without more federal aid and protections amid economic pressures from the pandemic.

Ben Barnes has been living at the Pacific Garden Mission shelter on Chicago’s Near West Side since late last year. Barnes, pictured on Oct. 21, says he considers himself fortunate he’s never had to sleep on the streets when it’s really cold or snowy.(Giles Bruce for KHN)

This year, the coronavirus has forced homeless shelters to limit the number of beds they can offer. Pacific Garden Mission, for instance, is operating at roughly half its normal capacity of 740. And COVID-19 cases are rising as temperatures drop.

“What happens if we’re in the midst of a pandemic and a polar vortex happens?” said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “We’re trying to keep the contagion from spreading and keep people from dealing with hypothermia. Is there the infrastructure in place that can handle that type of dual crisis?”

Cold-weather cities across the nation are seeking creative ways to cautiously shelter homeless people this winter. Exposure to the elements kills individuals staying outside every year, so indoor refuges can be lifesaving. But fewer options exist nowadays, as coronavirus concerns limit access to libraries, public recreation facilities and restaurants. And in official shelters, safety precautions — spacing out beds and chairs, emphasizing masks and hand-washing, testing — are critical.

“The homeless check off most boxes in terms of being the most susceptible and most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most likely to spread and most likely to die from it,” said Neli Vazquez Rowland, founder of A Safe Haven Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit that has been operating a “medical respite” isolation facility for homeless individuals with the coronavirus.

Demand for shelter could grow. Stimulus checks helped stave off some of the pandemic’s initial economic pain, but Congress has stalled on additional relief packages. And though the Trump administration has ordered a moratorium on evictions for tenants who meet certain conditions through the end of the year, a group of landlords is suing to stop the ban. Some states have their own prohibitions on evictions, but only Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas do in the Midwest.

At the Guest House of Milwaukee, a publicly funded homeless shelter in Wisconsin, the pandemic complicates an already challenging situation.

“We’re like many communities. We never really have completely enough space for everybody who is in need of shelter,” said Cindy Krahenbuhl, its executive director. “The fact that we’ve had to reduce capacity, and all shelters have, has created even more of a burden on the system.”

She said outreach teams plan to connect individuals living outside with an open bed — whether at a shelter, a hotel or an emergency facility for homeless people at risk for COVID — and get them started with case management.

“The reality is we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to have space for folks because it’s a matter of life and death. You cannot be outside unsheltered in this environment too long,” said Rob Swiers, executive director of the New Life Center in Fargo, North Dakota, where the average high in January is 18 degrees.

His shelter, Fargo’s largest, plans to use an insulated, heated warehouse to provide roomy sanctuary for clients.

In Minnesota’s Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, an estimated 311 people are living on the streets, compared with “dozens” at this time in 2019, according to Max Holdhusen, the county’s interim manager of housing stability. The area just had a record snowfall for so early in the year.

The county has been using hotel rooms to make up for the reduction in shelter beds, and recently agreed to lease an old hospital to shelter an additional 100 homeless people.

Evangelist Phil Lacy gives a tour of Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission on Oct. 21. The homeless shelter, the city’s largest, has had to limit its capacity because of the pandemic.(Giles Bruce for KHN)

The city of Chicago has set up emergency shelters in two unused public school buildings to replace beds lost to social distancing. As it does every winter, the city will also operate warming centers across Chicago, although this year with precautions such as spacing and masking.

In September, the city directed more than $35 million in funding — mostly from the federal CARES Act for coronavirus relief — to an “expedited housing” program aiming to get more than 2,500 people housed in the next few years. The initiative plans to financially incentivize landlords to take risks on renters they might normally avoid, such as those with criminal histories or poor credit. The nonprofit in charge, All Chicago, is also hosting “accelerated moving events,” in which its staffers descend on a shelter, encampment or drop-in center and work to house everyone in that facility.

“In the ideal world, we would have permanent housing for them,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president of community health equity at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “That is the only way we can protect people’s health. That’s the fundamental health issue. It’s a fundamental racial justice issue. It’s a fundamental social justice issue.”

Even though Black people make up only a third of Chicago’s population, they account for roughly three-fourths of those who are homeless, according to the city’s count.

Dr. Thomas Huggett, a family physician with Lawndale Christian Health Center on the city’s largely impoverished West Side, also called safely sheltering and housing people this winter a racial equity issue.

“We know that people who are African American have a higher prevalence of hypertension, of diabetes, of obesity, of smoking, of lung issues,” he said. “So they are hit harder with those predisposing conditions that make it more likely that if you get coronavirus, you’re going to have a serious case of it.”

Then add the cold. Dr. Stockton Mayer, an infectious disease specialist from the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, said hypothermia doesn’t increase the chances of contracting the virus but could aggravate symptoms.

As of Sept. 30, according to All Chicago, 778 people were unsheltered in the city. However, that number includes only people who are enrolled in homelessness services, and other estimates are even higher.

Constance Foster resides at the Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter in Chicago. Foster, pictured on Oct. 21, says she worries that the economic impact of COVID-19 could put more people on the streets this winter. “This is going to be a very rough Christmas,” she says.(Giles Bruce for KHN)

Some homeless people who plan to live outside this winter said they worry about staying warm, dry and healthy in the age of COVID-19. Efren Parderes, 48, has been on the streets of Chicago since he lost his restaurant job and rented room early in the pandemic. But he doesn’t want to go to a shelter. He’s concerned about catching the coronavirus and bedbugs, and doesn’t want to have to obey curfews.

He recently asked other unsheltered people what they do to keep warm during the winter. Their advice: Locate a spot that blocks the wind or snow, bundle up with many layers of clothing, sleep in a sleeping bag and use hand warmers.

“This is going to be the first time I’ll be out when it’s really cold,” he said after spending a largely sleepless night in the chilly October rain.

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