‘Last responders’ brace for surge in COVID deaths across US

Cindy Loose January 4, 2021

Funeral director Kevin Spitzer has been overwhelmed with covid-related deaths in the small city of Aberdeen, South Dakota. He and his two colleagues at the Spitzer-Miller Funeral Home have been working 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep up with the demand in the community of 26,000. The funerals are sparsely attended, which would have been unthinkable before the pandemic. “We had a funeral for a younger man one recent Saturday, and not 20 people came, because most everyone was just afraid,” he said. As covid-19 has spread from big cities to rural communities, it has stressed not only hospitals, but also what some euphemistically call “last responders.” The crush has overwhelmed morgues, funeral homes and religious leaders, required ingenuity and even changed the rituals of honoring the dead.

When false information goes viral, COVID-19 patient groups fight back

For decades, people struggling with illnesses of all kinds have sought help in online support groups. This year, such groups have been in high demand for COVID-19 patients, who often must recover in isolation. But the fear and uncertainty regarding the coronavirus have made online groups targets for the spread of false information. And to help fellow patients, some of these groups are making it a mission to stamp out misinformation. Shortly after Matthew Long-Middleton got sick on March 12, he joined a COVID-19 support group run by an organization called Body Politic on the messaging platform Slack.

As faith in vaccines falters, Biden is under pressure to name new FDA chief stat

President-elect Joe Biden made COVID-19 a linchpin of his campaign, criticizing President Donald Trump’s leadership on everything from masks and packed campaign rallies to vaccines. That was the easy part. Biden now has the urgent job of filling top health care positions in his administration to help restore public trust in science-driven institutions Trump repeatedly undermined, and oversee the rollout of several coronavirus vaccines to a skeptical public who fear they were rushed for political expediency. At the top of that list is a new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, an agency where Biden faces immense pressure to move faster than any other modern president as the pandemic rages and COVID deaths are expected to surge through the winter. That agency and its beleaguered personnel will be relied on to give the green light to vaccines and therapeutics to fight the COVID pandemic.

The mysterious White House testing scheme that did not protect Trump

President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis is raising fresh questions about the White House’s strategy for testing and containing the virus for a president whose cavalier attitude about the coronavirus has persisted since it landed on American shores. The president has said others are tested before getting close to him, appearing to hold it as an iron shield of safety. He has largely eschewed mask-wearing and social distancing in meetings, travel and public events, while holding rallies for thousands of often maskless supporters. 

The Trump administration has increasingly pinned its coronavirus testing strategy for the nation on antigen tests, which do not need a traditional lab for processing and quickly return results to patients. But the results are less accurate than those of the slower PCR tests. 

Testing “isn’t a ‘get out of jail free card,’” said Dr. Alan Wells, medical director of clinical labs at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and creator of its test for the novel coronavirus. In general, antigen tests can miss up to half the cases that are detected by polymerase chain reaction tests, depending on the population of patients tested, he said.

COVID + influenza: This is a good year to get a flu shot, experts advise

Flu season will look different this year, as the country grapples with a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 172,000 people. Many Americans are reluctant to visit a doctor’s office and public health officials worry people will shy away from being immunized. Although sometimes incorrectly regarded as just another bad cold, flu also kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S. each year, with the very young, the elderly and those with underlying conditions the most vulnerable. When coupled with the effects of COVID-19, public health experts say it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot. If enough of the U.S. population gets vaccinated — more than the 45% who did last flu season — it could help head off a nightmare scenario in the coming winter of hospitals stuffed with both COVID-19 patients and those suffering from severe effects of influenza.

The COVID-19 downturn triggers jump in Medicaid enrollment

Reversing a three-year decline, the number of people covered by Medicaid nationwide rose markedly this spring as the impact of the recession caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 began to take hold. Yet, the growth in participation in the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people was less than many analysts predicted. One possible factor tempering enrollment: People with concerns about catching the coronavirus avoided seeking care and figured they didn’t need the coverage. Program sign-ups are widely expected to accelerate through the summer, reflecting the higher number of unemployed. As people lose their jobs, many often are left without workplace coverage or the money to buy insurance on their own.

The color of COVID: Will vaccine trials reflect America’s diversity?

When U.S. scientists launch the first large-scale clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines this summer, Antonio Cisneros wants to make sure people like him are included. Cisneros, who is 34 and Hispanic, is part of the first wave of an expected 1.5 million volunteers willing to get the shots to help determine whether leading vaccine candidates can thwart the virus that sparked a deadly pandemic. “If I am asked to participate, I will,” said Cisneros, a Los Angeles cinematographer who has signed up for two large vaccine trial registries. “It seems part of our duty.”

It will take more than duty, however, to ensure that clinical trials to establish vaccine safety and effectiveness actually include representative numbers of African Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities, as well as older people and those with underlying medical conditions, such as kidney disease. Black and Latino people have been three times as likely as white people to become infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die, according to federal data obtained via a lawsuit by The New York Times.

The hidden deaths of the COVID pandemic

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Sara Wittner had seemingly gotten her life back under control. After a December relapse in her battle with drug addiction, the 32-year-old completed a 30-day detox program and started taking a monthly injection to block her cravings for opioids. She was engaged to be married, working for a local health association and counseling others about drug addiction. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Medicaid providers at the end of the line for federal COVID funding

Casa de Salud, a nonprofit clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, provides primary medical care, opioid addiction services and non-Western therapies, including acupuncture and reiki, to a largely low-income population. And, like so many other health care providers that serve as a safety net, its revenue — and its future — are threatened by the COVID-19 epidemic. “I’ve been working for the past six weeks to figure out how to keep the doors open,” said the clinic’s executive director, Dr. Anjali Taneja. “We’ve seen probably an 80 percent drop in patient care, which has completely impacted our bottom line.”

In March, Congress authorized $100 billion for health care providers, both to compensate them for the extra costs associated with caring for patients with COVID-19 and for the revenue that’s not coming in from regular care. They have been required to stop providing most nonemergency services, and many patients are afraid to visit health care facilities.

Anti-vaccine activists latch onto coronavirus to bolster their movement

While most of the world hungers for a vaccine to put an end to the death and economic destruction wrought by COVID-19, some anti-vaccine groups are joining with anti-lockdown protesters to challenge restrictions aimed at protecting public health. Vaccine critics suffered serious setbacks in the past year, as states strengthened immunization laws in response to measles outbreaks sparked by vaccine refusers. California tightened its vaccine requirements last fall despite protests during which anti-vaccine activists threw blood on state senators, assaulted the vaccine bill’s sponsor and shut down the legislature. Now, many of these same vaccine critics are joining a fight against stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which had killed more than 47,000 Americans as of Thursday afternoon. “This is just a fresh coat of paint for the anti-vaccine movement in America, and an exploitative means for them to try to remain relevant,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.