Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

The “K” Factor and EU and USA Cases

Friday, June 26th, 2020

The K Factor

Ever heard of the “K” factor? Neither had I. But in yesterday’s Work Fitness and Disability Roundtable, Dr. Jennifer Christian’s long-running and valuable daily roundup of workers’ compensation medical news and musings, we were introduced.

Turns out the “K” factor could be tremendously important in helping leaders figure out how reopening the economy should proceed.

I thought Jennifer’s Roundtable post was so important I asked her if we could reprint it in the Insider. She gave permission, for which I’m grateful. So, here it is:

Hey, nothing like a fact-based “aha” to sharpen the mind and help point the way forward. A thought provoking article in New York Magazine (https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/coronavirus-meatpacking-plants-america-labor.html?utm_source=fb&utm_campaign=nym&utm_medium=s1&fbclid=IwAR0jnJXCeUx_zYVQuayha1XSMpMtjT-TSXIv7-RfIFNCDtlrz1hn558Da2w) on the reason for major differences between the COVID-19 experience in meatpacking industries in the USA and Europe brought up the “k” factor in the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ever heard of “k”?

Until yesterday, I hadn’t noticed (or paid attention to) any discussion about the implications for action of SARS-CoV-2’s  “k” factor. The “k” factor is an infecting organism’s observed dispersion behavior. Now is the time to start paying attention to the “k” factor because it points us straight to the main cause of the majority of COVID-19 cases: superspreading events in crowded indoor settings. We’ve all known that a lot of the cases have occurred due to spread on board ships, in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, nightclubs and meatpacking plants – but to be truthful, I’m not sure we’d gotten the take-home message: SARS-CoV-2 is heavily dependent on crowded indoor spaces for its spread.

So, I did a bit more Googling and found a good Science Magazine article (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/why-do-some-covid-19-patients-infect-many-others-whereas-most-don-t-spread-virus-all) that lays it all out quite clearly.  In addition to the R value (the mean number of subsequent new infections resulting from each infected individual), epidemiologists calculate how much a disease clusters. The lower k is, the more transmission is coming from a small number of people. The k value for the 1918 influenza pandemic was estimated at 1.0 – clusters weren’t too important. But during the 2003 SARS and 2012 MERS epidemics the vast majority of cases occurred in clusters, and their calculated k values were therefore low: 0.16 and 0.25 respectively.

In COVID-19, most infected people are not creating any additional cases. Adam Kurcharski from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has conducted an analysis of COVID-19 dispersion and says, “Probably about 10% of cases lead to 80% of the spread.” A pre-print of his paper (https://wellcomeopenresearch.org/articles/5-67) has a calculated k value of COVID-19 at 0.1. Previous studies have pegged it just a tad higher than SARS or MERS.

There’s no point in trying to figure out which people are shedding the most viruses – though some of us clearly do disperse more bugs than others.  We professionals need to focus most of our attention on the places and types of events that SARS-CoV-2 needs in order to spread efficiently: loud and crowded indoor spaces, where people are cheek by jowl and raising their voices or breathing deeply: talking, singing, or shouting or aerobically exerting themselves. Ventilation and air flow in these settings also plays an important role.

Almost none of the clusters have resulted from outdoor crowded events.  Chinese studies of the early spread of COVID-19 outside Hubei province identified only one cluster among a total of 318 that originated outdoors. A Japanese study found that the risk of infection indoors is almost 19 times higher than outdoors. And here in the USA people who participated in (largely outdoor) Black Lives Matter protests have not been getting sick. (I also saw some data earlier saying that the virus is almost immediately disabled by sunlight.)

As the Science Magazine article says, the low k factor is …..”an encouraging finding, scientists say, because it suggests that restricting gatherings where superspreading is likely to occur will have a major impact on transmission, and that other restrictions—on outdoor activity, for example—might be eased.” So duh, let’s make the hierarchy of risk much more explicit. We need to make it crystal clear to the public (and patients and workers and employers) that the worst thing a person can do is participate in events in loud, crowded, and  indoor settings without rapid air turnover.

HOWEVER:  Many people are stuck. They live in crowded housing or congregate housing. The places where they live and work (ships, factories, office buildings, and medical facilities) already exist. People need to work, and winter is coming when we have to be inside.

I see this call to action: Are you, personally, confident that you are collaborating with all of the professionals whose input, cooperation, and contributions will be required? Think outside your silo. All of the various types of professionals who do event planning & commercial building design & engineering, industrial hygiene, HVAC, public health, and occupational health & safety need to join up and get deeply and rapidly involved in adapting / redesigning / re-configuring / re-engineering existing places and events to reduce the potential for superspreading.

A look at European Union and U.S. case statistics: Stunning

The following chart from the Johns Hopkins Tracker Project, printed in yesterday’s Statista Daily Alert needs no introduction or even analysis. It puts the period to Dr. Christian’s words.

 

More About The Moderna Vaccine Results

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

Scientists and Wall Street analysts are now beginning to peal the onion of Moderna’s announcement about its Phase One Trial results in which it reported its vaccine candidate had produced antibodies in eight of the study’s 45 participants. Following the announcement, Moderna’s shares rose nearly 30%. A profitable day, indeed.

On Tuesday, I wrote it was way too early to get excited based on this teeny tiny study. Since then, it’s nice to see that Evercore ISI’s Umer Raffat, an analyist Institutional Investor called a Rising Star of Wall Street Research, has added context and perspective. Early Tuesday, Raffat sent a 78-page slide deck to his clients explaining why, while possibly encouraging, Moderna’s announcement  and Monday conference call should not give anyone a serious sense of hope until a lot more work is done and a lot more is known about this particular Phase One Trial.

Getting into the science weeds, Raffat focused his analysis on antibodies and T-Cells.

First, the antibodies. Raffat thinks the most impressive thing about Moderna’s data release concerns “binding” antibodies. These are antibodies that attach to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The concern with Moderna’s announcement is that what’s really important for an effective vaccine is its ability to generate “neutralizing” antibodies that actually prevent the virus from infecting healthy cells, and Moderna provided no information about neutralizing antibodies except to say its neutralizing antibodies “were at or above convalescent serum” collected from people who recovered from COVID-19. Studies have shown that people who have recovered from COVID-19 can generate a wide range of neutralizing-antibodies in their convalescent serum. So, it is unclear just how comparable Moderna’s convalescent serum samples were to samples taken from the trial participants.

The FDA will have to determine what level of neutralizing antibodies are required for an approved vaccine. The Agency has already said that when convalescent serum is used to treat COVID-19 patients the neutralizing antibodies should be high, whatever that means.

Another issue with Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine rests with T-Cells. The level of T-Cell generation is an indicator of the degree to which the immune system is attacking COVID-19. Moderna’s announcement and subsequent call did not address this. Some researchers have shown that a high level of T-Cell generation, even without high levels of neutralizing antibodies, have been found in people who have recovered from COVID-19, leading to speculation that T-Cell generation may be very important for any successful vaccine. However, when asked about this during the conference call, Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, Tal Zaks, M.D., Ph.D., said  “You would expect that based on the fundamental scientific principles of how an mRNA vaccine works because it teaches the body’s own cells to make the protein from within the cell.”

One last point – The study participants numbered 45. Eight produced binding antibodies. Only four were sampled for neutralizing antibodies. Four.

As I wrote earlier this week, Moderna has made it to the one yard line. Ninety-nine to go.

 

 

The Continuing Saga Of COVID-19 In Long Term Care Facilities And New Research

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

We have written about the ongoing death spiral in LTCFs four times – herehere, here, and here.

We’ve done this, because for three months authorities have known that LTCF’s were lethal hot spots, the most lethal in the country, actually. And to this day the federal government has devoted nothing more than lip service to it. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Last Thursday, OSHA issued COVID-19 Guidelines, not Requirements, for nursing homes. The Guidelines recommend screening residents and staff for symptoms, keeping everyone six feet apart and creating alternatives to group activities. I challenge anyone to read the Guidelines and find the word, “must.” OSHA has become the quintessential paper tiger. Remember, it only took three months to produce these groundbreaking recommendations.

And it is now exactly one month since CMS Administrator Seema Verma, to much ballyhoo, announced new COVID-19 reporting requirements for nursing homes. Specifically, CMS was requiring:

…nursing homes to inform residents, their families and representatives of COVID-19 cases in their facilities. In addition, as part of President Trump’s Opening Up America, CMS will now require nursing homes to report cases of COVID-19 directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  This information must be reported in accordance with existing privacy regulations and statute. This measure augments longstanding requirements for reporting infectious disease to State and local health departments. Finally, CMS will also require nursing homes to fully cooperate with CDC surveillance efforts around COVID-19 spread.

So, how has that worked out? Keep in mind that, as reported by the New York Times, “While just 11 percent of the country’s cases have occurred in long-term care facilities, deaths related to Covid-19 in these facilities account for more than a third of the country’s pandemic fatalities.” As of 9 May, the Times reported the death toll in Long Term Care Facilitites (LTCF) was 28,100. Those are the ones we know of.

Unfortunately, that number is probably low, because we are still waiting for the CMS reporting requirement to produce anything. And now, it appears CMS’s plan has changed. On 14 May, one week ago, Administrator Verma said data from LTCFs would not be posted on the CDC website. Rather, it will be reported by the end of this month somewhere on Medicare’s website Nursing Home Compare.

Nursing Home Compare is exactly what the name suggests. It is a site where, by inputting a zip code, one can compare what Medicare calls Health Deficiencies in specific nursing homes within the relative geography chosen. It includes a humongously large database containing a number of datasets devoted to health deficiencies. This may be the place one would search for nursing home data regarding COVID-19. But we won’t know that until “the end of this month.” Maybe.

We shall see.

By the way, Verma’s announcement of one month ago began with this:

Today, under the leadership of President Trump, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced new regulatory requirements that will require nursing homes to inform residents, their families and representatives of COVID-19 cases in their facilities.

“Leadership.” Really?

Research on what is most effective to stop COVID-19 transmission

Two new research papers look into the effectiveness of the measures governments have either required or recommended for slowing the spread of the virus.

The first, Strong Social Distancing Measures In The United States Reduced The COVID-19 Growth Rate, published in Health Affairs on 14 May, investigated the efficacy of four social distancing policies taken by most state and local governments: Shelter-in-place orders (SIPOs), public school closures, bans on large social gatherings, and closures of entertainment-related businesses. Specifically, the researchers were trying to estimate the relationship between social distancing policies and the exponential growth rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases using an event-study regression with multiple treatments.

There were surprising results.

First, from the Paper:

Adoption of government-imposed social distancing measures reduced the daily growth rate by 5.4 percentage points after 1–5 days, 6.8 after 6–10 days, 8.2 after 11–15 days, and 9.1 after 16–20 days. Holding the amount of voluntary social distancing constant, these results imply 10 times greater spread by April 27 without SIPOs (10 million cases) and more than 35 times greater spread without any of the four measures (35 million). Our paper illustrates the potential danger of exponential spread in the absence of interventions,…

Second, only two of the policies produced statistically significant impacts on the growth rate at the 95% confidence level: SIPOs and the closures of entertainment-related businesses.

In contrast, the researchers found no evidence that bans on large social gatherings or school closures influenced the growth rate. That is not to say there was no influence on the growth rate due to these measures, just that whatever influence was there, it was not statistically significant.

The school closure finding is important as school boards and college trustees ponder whether to reopen in the fall. Yesterday, Boston College, where I spent some of my youth, announced that the campus would be open for classes for the fall semester.

The second PaperFace Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review, “synthesized the relevant literature to inform multiple areas: 1) transmission characteristics of COVID-19, 2) filtering characteristics and efficacy of masks, 3) estimated population impacts of widespread community mask use, and 4) sociological considerations for policies concerning mask-wearing.”

The verdict of the researchers: “The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low.” In otherwords, masks work.

This paper carried the following supplemental tidbit:

While the focus of this article is on preventing the spread of COVID-19 disease through public mask wearing, many countries face concurrent epidemics of contagious respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and influenza. Tuberculosis kills 1.5 million people globally per year, and in 2018, 10 million people fell ill. Face covering has been shown to also reduce the transmission of tuberculosis. Similarly, influenza transmission in the community declined by 44% in Hong Kong after the implementation of changes in population behaviors, including social distancing and increased mask wearing, enforced in most stores, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
This could be important when one considers that an effective vaccine for tuberculosis exists: the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine. It isn’t usually given to infants in the U.S., because the disease isn’t a widespread problem here. However, when we eventually have a vaccine for COVID-19, we’re going to have to face the fact that getting it to people around the world is not going to be easy.
And, God help us, we’ll also have to deal with the anti-vax cult living among us here at home.

 

Direct Care Workers: Health Care’s Essential Underbelly

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

First, an update

Yesterday, we wrote about Long Term Care Facilities (LTCF) and the sad COVID-19 experience of Massachusetts’ nursing homes. As of this morning, 303 of the Commonwealth’s 386 nursing homes have had at least 2 cases, for a total of 10,031 cases statewide. Fifty-six percent, or 1,632, of all the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 deaths have happened to nursing home residents or staff.

Governor Charley Baker is a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim health Care, one of the Commonwealth’s leading HMO  health care plans. So, it’s a given that Baker knows health care. But, even with that background, he, like all our governors, has been living through the tortures of Tantalus as they attempt to work with the administration in all things COVID-19.

Today, the governor announced he’s sending $130 million to help nursing homes deal with the crisis. He’s also enlisting 120 nurses to respond lickety split to nursing home emergencies. Moreover, his administration will be auditing LTCFs for compliance with new care criteria including mandatory testing of staff and residents, a 28 point infectious disease checklist, and PPE requirements. This is all good, but one hopes reality is not that this particular horse has escaped the barn and is now grazing four pastures over.

And what about those caregivers?

They call it “Direct Care.” The care that Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), home health aides, and personal care attendants provide America’s elderly and disabled. You’ll find them in nursing homes, residential care homes, hospitals, and plain, ordinary, everyday homes, the kind you and I live in. And they are essential workers.

All told, there are more than 1.3 million of them in the U.S., and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the direct care industry will grow more than any other over the next decade, with a compound annual growth rate of 4.0. And they are essential workers.

They are also the least compensated workers, by far, in the health care sector. Here’s a graph from the BLS to illustrate the point:

The direct care workers are the pink dots. The isolated pink dot on the lower right refers to Certified Nurse Assistants. According to the Paraprofessional Health Institute (PHI):

The median hourly wage for home care workers in the U.S. is $10.49—a wage that, when adjusted for inflation, has remained virtually stagnant for the last 10 years. In turn, the median annual income for home care workers, most of whom work part-time or only during part of the year, is $13,800.[1]

Twenty-three percent of direct care workers live below the federal poverty line (FPL), as opposed to 7% of the rest of the population (which is abominable in its own right). Some of them might be caring for your parents or grandparents right now. Yes, they are essential workers.

Fifty-two percent of home care workers and 39 percent of nursing assistants rely on some form of public support, such as food and nutrition aid, Medicaid, or cash assistance. Moreover, because of low pay and irregular hours, it’s difficult for direct care workers to qualify or pay for employer-based or individual health coverage. Neither can they afford to stop working during COVID-19. They need the money, such as it is – and they are essential workers.

And what about direct care workers who are immigrants? Researchers from Harvard Medical School studied this in their June 2019 paper, “Care for America’s Elderly and Disabled People Relies on Immigrant Labor.” 

They wrote:

Using nationally representative data, we found that in 2017 immigrants accounted for 18.2 percent of health care workers and 23.5 percent of formal and nonformal long-term care sector workers. More than one-quarter (27.5 percent) of direct care workers and 30.3 percent of nursing home housekeeping and maintenance workers were immigrants. Although legal noncitizen immigrants accounted for 5.2 percent of the US population, they made up 9.0 percent of direct care workers. Naturalized citizens, 6.8 percent of the US population, accounted for 13.9 percent of direct care workers. In light of the current and projected shortage of health care and direct care workers, our finding that immigrants fill a disproportionate share of such jobs suggests that policies curtailing immigration will likely compromise the availability of care for elderly and disabled Americans. (emphasis added)

Nearly 15% percent (14.9%) of the foreign born workforce are college graduates, compared with 8.4% of the native born direct care workforce.

Many foreign born direct care workers are in the country with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a status provided to nationals of certain countries, ten of them, experiencing problems that make it difficult or unsafe for their nationals to be deported there. In 2018, The Trump administration attempted to terminate the Temporary Protected Status for workers from a number of the designated countries, but courts have enjoined that for now. Nonetheless, that can’t be doing the workers’ mental health much good at the moment. And they are essential workers.

Nobody’s attacking direct care workers during COVID-19. They wouldn’t dare. After all, they are essential workers. But, if we ever get out of this healthcare fiasco, I don’t think it’s a wild stretch of the imagination to think if Donald Trump continues his  fervent anti-immigration polemic direct care workers will be marginalized even more than they already are.

They deserve better. They are essential.

 

Still More Covid 19 Quick Takes

Monday, April 27th, 2020

The age problem

“You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoelaces and wonder what else you could do while you’re down there.” ― George Burns

Question: When will elderly people, say over the age of 70, dare to venture out of their present tightly-wrapped cocoons and back into general society?

Answer: I will go out on a very fat limb and suggest not anytime soon.

Today marks the 118th day since 31 December 2019, the day the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the first case of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China. It’s the 47th day since 11 March 2020, the day the WHO officially declared the newly named COVID 19 a pandemic. And it’s the 53rd day since 5 March 2020, the day the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) convened its annual conference in Boston.

John Ruser, WCRI’s President and CEO opened the conference by advising everyone to avoid shaking hands; elbow bumps were the order of the day, but social distancing was non-existent, about two feet was typical.

I mention the WCRI’s just-before-the-deluge conference because of one chart shown during it. This chart:

WCRI’s injury database shows about 40% of injured workers over the age of 60 have two or more comorbidities, which increase inexorably with age. Sort of like the way those of us who still have it have been watching the steady growth of the stuff on top of our heads over the last five or six weeks. My hair hasn’t been this long since 1980.

I thought of that chart this morning as I was beginning my new daily routine: studying various COVID 19 dashboards (more about that below). I was struck by two charts from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that put the problem the elderly now face into stark relief. Here they are:

Massachusetts is not unique; COVID 19 does not respect state boundaries. One realizes this as one attempts to quantify the disease’s impact in the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes housing 1.4 million elderly and disabled people. A difficult task, as USA Today discovered when its journalists tried to investigated the issue (article dated 13 April):

At least 2,300 long-term care facilities in 37 states have reported positive cases of COVID-19, according to data USA TODAY obtained from state agencies. More than 3,000 residents have died.

The numbers eclipse those previously disclosed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which in late March estimated that 400 facilities had reported cases of the virus. But the new totals still represent an incomplete accounting due to the ongoing lack of widespread testing for the virus and inconsistent record-keeping from state to state. On the federal level, neither the CDC nor the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is tracking the number of U.S. nursing homes with COVID-19 cases, or the number of total cases and fatalities in those facilities.

In Massachusetts, 56% of COVID 19 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities. One would think this cries out for federal data tracking conducted in a consistent manner across the nation. One would think.

About those dashboards

Where are you getting your information on the daily spread of COVID 19? Where do you think most Americans are getting theirs? Could the answer be Twitter? Or Facebook? How about the daily White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings (Randy Rainbow beautifully summed up last Thursday’s, which was highly controversial and chock full of more than ordinary mediocrity)?

If you’re thinking of the CDC’s dashboard, you’ll find the data in a few places, not all in one, easy to navigate spot. For example, go here; or here; or here. You get the point. A lot of information, but you really have to dig.

There are national dashboards, which are organized well and highly informative. Two that I recommend are the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University and the New York Times’s Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count. Updated frequently, at least daily, each is excellent. The Johns Hopkins dashboard is global in scope; the Time’s focuses on the U.S.

The Massachusetts dashboard is the best state-maintained dashboard I’ve found. Disclosure: I live in Massachusetts. However, the dashboard is truly exceptional. Take a look. Scroll through it. I think you’ll agree this should be a model for all others.

Where one gets information about COVID 19 matters, because of all the disinformation and outright lies being thrown up against the wall every day. Some of it will always stick, and this is too serious for that. The more we know about this disease, the more we ought to realize how much we really don’t know. Ignorance is not bliss. Benjamin Franklin said, “It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

 

CoVid 19 Quick Takes

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

 

Quote of the day: “To put it bluntly, the U.S. economy went from full speed to full stop — and millions of workers were not wearing seat belts.” – Josh Lipsky, director of global business and economics policy at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank.

 

Keeping up with all things CoVid 19 is like swimming through Semolina. It takes a lot of fortitude and stamina. But here goes, anyway.

The states versus the nation

Examining the national response to CoVid 19….no, wait, we don’t have a national response. We have close to 60 responses, one for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the other US territories. If you don’t think they’re all on their own, just ask Andrew Cuomo. He said yesterday that none of the governors were currently screaming for states rights. They all want help, they all want national leadership, and they want it yesterday, maybe last week. Look at Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida. For weeks, under withering criticism and through the debacle of Spring Break on the beaches, he refused to issue a Stay At Home order. Said the state didn’t need it. His excuse? The White House hadn’t told him to do it. But yesterday it did, so he did. Well, actually, the White House “recommended” it. DeSantis made a point of saying he “cleared it with the President.”

Contrast DeSantis’s actions with those of Mario Cuomo, Jay Inslee, Gavin Newsom, JB Pritzker, Gretchen Whitmer, Janet Mills, Charley Baker, and Mike DeWine. They’ve all been on their own, but they’ve been decisively responsible, and their constituents will one day thank them.

Every governor is reacting, and reacting is the right word, differently. It’s like watching an Athenian Trireme in the Mediterranean with all 170 oarsmen rowing at different speeds.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Stay At Home orders. Here’s a New York Times map showing state Stay At Home orders from 30 March, four days ago:

And here’s the same map as of yesterday, four days later:

The nation’s Governors are all having to act like European Prime Ministers, many of whom have issued travel restrictions and sealed borders. A week ago, Rhode Island’s Governor Gina Raimondo began letting New Yorkers into her state only if they would self-quarantine for 14 days, and she had the National Guard at the border to enforce the order.

All Governors would like their constituents to view them as Horatius At The Bridge, but Covid 19 is likely not the particular bridge they would have in mind. They need national leadership, not national cheerleading. Absent that, they’ve been forced to step into the void, some, like DeSantis, very reluctantly.

Trouble coming for the southeast

Vann R, Newkirk, II, has a terrific piece in this week’s The Atlantic looking at the public health difficulties facing young people, made even more severe by CoVid 19, in America’s southeastern states. Newkirk says:

So far, about one in 10 deaths in the United States from COVID-19 has occurred in the four-state arc of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, according to data assembled by the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer collaboration incubated at The Atlantic….The coronavirus is advancing quickly across the American South. And in the American South, significant numbers of younger people are battling health conditions that make coronavirus outbreaks more perilous.

Some context is needed. A new study by the World Health Organization (WHO), endorsed and published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine ranks America at or near the worst in just about every mortality rate category you can think of when compared with the other 16 wealthiest countries. U.S. Health in International Perspectives: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health paints a grim picture that should concern us all.

Now, look at the health of people in the deep south, particularly young people, who, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, have more comorbidities than young people anywhere else in the country. Those comorbidities put them at much greater risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract CoVid 19.

According to Newkirk:

If you define Oklahoma as part of the South, southern states fill out the entirety of the top 10 states in percentage of population diagnosed with hypertension by a doctor. Southerners are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases than other Americans—even as Americans are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases than citizens of other countries with comparable wealth.

Imagine you have a big barrel full of apples. Inside that barrel is a smaller barrel with apples your farm stand might label “seconds.” Inside that “seconds” barrel is a third and smaller barrel with apples your farm stand wouldn’t ever sell. The third barrel is health in the deep south.

The USNS Comfort

Remember this photo?

That’s the USNS Comfort, the 1,000 bed ship Donald Trump, to great fanfare, sent to New York to help with the serious hospital bed shortage, getting worse every day.

I’m guessing not too many people knew that the Comfort’s orders prohibit treating CoVid 19 patients. As President Trump said when he sent her on her way, “By treating non-infected people remotely on the ship, it will help to halt very strongly the transmission of the virus.” Note the words, “non-infected.”

So far, the Comfort has taken in three of New York’s patients. It’s kind of a Catch 22 thing. The ship can only take patients not infected with CoVid 19, but without sufficient testing, the ship’s clinicians won’t know if anyone actually has the disease, or not. Result: three patients. “If I’m blunt about it, it’s a joke,” said Michael Dowling, the head of Northwell Health, New York’s largest hospital system.

And finally – Getting back to the deep south

The American Association of Medical Colleges is out with its 2019 State Physician Data Workforce Report,

This annual report examines the supply of physicians in the United States. It documents the number of physicians per 100,000 inhabitants of every state. I’m proud, (I think) to report my home state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, takes the Gold Medal with 449.5 doctors per 100,000 people. On the other end of the scale, coming in at Number 50, is Mississippi with 191.3. I would love to know what goes on in Mississippi. It seems to be at or near the bottom of anything you can name.

Here are how all the southern states rank:

State                                MDs/100K                       Rank

Mississippi                       191.3                                50

Oklahoma                        206.7                                48

Arkansas                          207.6                                47

Alabama                           217.1                                43

Texas                                224.8                                41

Georgia                            228.7                                39

South Carolina                 229.5                                38

Kentucky                          230.9                                36

Tennessee                        253.1                                29

North Carolina                255.0                                28

Louisiana                          260.3                                27

Florida                              265.2                                23

Given that New York, which is begging for retired clinicians and clinicians from other states to come and help with its CoVid 19 fight, and given that New York, with 375.1 doctors per 100,000 people, ranks Number 3 on the list, just behind Massachusetts and Maryland, how do you think a state like poor Mississippi is going to fair when the full weight of this virus lands on it with a loud thud?

I hope all of you hermits have a safe weekend!

 

 

It Really Is The Prices, Stupid!

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

Trying to understand American health care these days is a little like trying to do the breast stroke through molasses. A lot of effort for not much progress.

The scope of the issue is vast. In 2017, US health care spending grew 4.6%, exactly double the growth rate of inflation, to $3.5 trillion. In 2018, it grew another 4.4% to $3.65 trillion. That’s 18% of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To put this in perspective, consider this: $3.65 trillion is more than the entire GDP economies of Italy and Spain – combined! It is $1 trillion more than the entire GDP of France and  equals that of Germany’s $3.6 trillion GDP.

Each of the health care players say they want to do something about this, just as long as you don’t touch their particular slice of the pie. And, because the health care lobby dwarfs every other one, we’re reduced to nibbling around the edges.

In 2003, Uwe Reinhardt, Gerard Anderson, Peter Hussie and Varduhi Petrosyan published their seminal work, It’s The Prices Stupid: Why The United States Is So Different From Other CountriesThey examined health care data from 30 OECD countries for the year 2000. Here is the basic conclusion from their Abstract:

U.S. public spending as a percentage of GDP (5.8 percent) is virtually identical to public spending in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Japan (5.9 percent each) and not much smaller than in Canada (6.5 percent). The paper also compares pharmaceutical spending, health system capacity, and use of medical services. The data show that the United States spends more on health care than any other country. However, on most measures of health services use, the United States is below the OECD median. These facts suggest that the difference in spending is caused mostly by higher prices for health care goods and services (my emphasis) in the United States.

In 2017, Reinhardt died, after which his co-authors decided to re-examine their original conclusions and publish their findings as a tribute to him. Their new paper, It’s Still The Prices, Stupid, which they published in January, 2019, concluded that their original conclusions were “still valid.”

The conclusion that prices are the primary reason why the US spends more on health care than any other country remains valid, despite health policy reforms and health systems restructuring that have occurred in the US and other industrialized countries since the 2003 article’s publication. On key measures of health care resources per capita (hospital beds, physicians, and nurses), the US still provides significantly fewer resources compared to the OECD median country. Since the US is not consuming greater resources than other countries, the most logical factor is the higher prices paid in the US. Because the differential between what the public and private sectors pay for medical services has grown significantly in the past fifteen years, US policy makers should focus on prices in the private sector.

Another way to look at this is to compare the growth of health care utilization with the growth of prices. This produces some highly informative, surprising and, sometimes confounding, data. For example, from 2012 through 2016, US hospital in-patient prices rose 24.3%, yet in-patient utilization decreased 12.9%. I guess all that hospital consolidation has really lowered hospital prices, hasn’t it? During that period, and due primarily to the opioid epidemic, prescription drug utilization was the only medical service whose utilization rose, and it was up only 1.9%, despite the prices of prescription drugs rising 24.9%.

Question: Who has the most skin in this game?

Answer: Employers and the 156,199,800 people who work for them.

That answer is why I believe Warren Buffet, Jamie Diamond and Jeff Bezos, three major employers, have formed their joint health plan, Haven, and hired Atul Gawande to run it.  They have given Dr. Gawande time and a lot of money not just to slow the spending growth in their respective companies, but to reverse it. Buffet has spoken loudly about how health care costs place America at a competitive disadvantage. He has been vocal in his criticism of Republicans’ devotion to reducing corporate taxes, which, at 1.9% of GDP, are now the lowest among advanced nations and pale to near insignificance when compared to the health care costs borne by employers. He has said, “Medical costs are the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.” Further, they are a major cause for little or no real wage growth.

More proof for his point: According to the US Census Bureau, employer sponsored insurance plans (ESIs) cover 56% of the US population. In 2018, the year we hit $3.65 trillion, the average annual premium for a family in an ESI was $19,616, of which employees paid an average of 29%, or $5,688. Employees in family plans also had an average deductible of $2,788, plus co-pays. So, even without the co-pays, employees are paying more than $8,000 for an ESI family plan. In 2019, we will blow through $20,000 for the cost of an ESI family plan. This is patently unsustainable and leads to two inescapable conclusions: First, Washington has not fixed this, and, given past experience, it is doubtful it ever will, regardless of efforts by progressives. Second, employers are the only people with the leverage and urgent incentive to do anything constructive. They need to stop worrying about corporate taxes, get on the Buffet, Bezos and Diamond bus, and throw all the muscle they have at the American health care fiasco.

 

Robots In The Manufacturing Sector – We’re Lagging Behind

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

In 2013, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne published what became a highly read, highly cited and highly criticized study suggesting that machines could replace 47% of America’s jobs over the following 25 years. This landed like a stink bomb on the robotic revolution.

The study, which examined more than 700 US occupations, found that jobs in transportation, logistics, and administrative and office work were at “high risk” for automation. “We identified several key bottlenecks currently preventing occupations being automated,” said Dr. Osborne when the study was released. “As big data helps to overcome these obstacles, a great number of jobs will be put at risk.”

Following the study, academics and pundits jumped into the middle of the debate to argue its conclusions. In 2015, Forrester Research’s J. P. Gownder authored The Future Of Jobs, 2025: Working Side By Side With Robots and updated it two years later in 2017. Gownder concludes that, yes, AI will replace many jobs, but it will also create many jobs. He suggests a net job loss of perhaps 9.1 million, or about 7% of the workforce. Seven percent isn’t 47%, but 9.1 million jobs are a lot of jobs. And a lot of people who could be swept away by the rise of the robots.

So, clearly, the robots are coming. And, just as clearly, there is now, and will continue to be, human collateral damage. We should do everything in our power to help the millions of people the robots will displace. It would be outrageously stupid, and immoral as well, not to do that.

But if you believe development and adoption of robots is essential to keep the country competitive and prosperous, then you should be concerned, because other countries are outpacing us. By long shot.

A new report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) finds the US ranks 7th in the world in the rate of robot adoption in the manufacturing sector.

When controlling for worker pay, the situation is even more bleak. In that case, we’re 17th in the world.

The report relies on International Federation of Robots data for industrial robot adoption rates but adjusted the rankings to control for differences in manufacturing worker pay. The decision to use robots usually weighs the cost savings that can be achieved when a robot can perform a task instead of a human worker, and those cost savings are positively related to the worker compensation levels. Higher wages lead to faster payback, making more robots a more economical investment.

On a compensation-adjusted basis, the report found that southeast Asian nations significantly outperform the rest of the world in robot adoption, with South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, China, and Taiwan the top five nations, in that order. Moreover, China’s rate of robot adoption is so high, fueled by massive government subsidies, that if China and South Korea’s respective growth rates continue, by 2026 China will lead the world with the highest number of industrial robots as a share of industrial workers, when controlling for compensation levels.

Robert Atkinson, ITIF’s President, has some sensible suggestions for how we can catch up. Policy makers should listen to him.

Low Wage Workers Pay More For Health Care Than High Wage Workers

Monday, January 21st, 2019

Anyone who can rub two brain cells together knows America spends more, much more, on health care than any other developed nation, as this chart from the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development  (OECD) shows.

Also well established is the sad fact that in terms of health care outcomes our brethren in the OECD – Canada, England, Germany and France, for example – fare better than we.

Now, recent data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show lower wage workers pay more for health insurance than higher wage workers in employer provided plans.

What this means is: The employee portion of the monthly premium for family coverage paid by the lowest 10% of earners is $612, while the monthly premium for the highest 10% is $488. The lowest 10% of earners pay 25% more than the highest 10%. Similar results for single coverage.  Look at the light blue and light green bars in each of the strata in the chart. The more you make, the less you pay.

This is wacky. And terribly unfair. But wait, there’s more.

For every year in the 21st century, this has been getting worse.

From 2000 through 2018, health insurance costs for a single person in an employer-provided health plan rose 179%; family coverage rose 204%. During this same period, the Consumer Price Index was up 49%, while earnings for hourly employees grew by 48%. So, essentially, workers’ pay matched inflation, meaning real wages, wages adjusted for inflation, did not move as health care costs continued their rocket ride to the moon.

I keep thinking this cannot continue. I keep thinking Herb Stein was right: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. And I keep being proven wrong. The fact is, up until the mid-1980s, our health care system was like a typical family home with its two bedrooms, a bath and a half and a nice little two-car garage. Today, it seems like the 1,000-room, maze-like Windsor castle where you need a map and a guide to find your way around. Vested interests litter the landscape, and any change gores somebody’s ox.

How can we possibly stop this runaway train? Many placed hope in the Affordable Care Act, but look what’s happened to that. The new generation of Democrats yearns for “Medicare For All,” but has yet to figure out how to pay for it. Others suggest “Medicaid For All,” but Medicaid is a state-based system, and every state has its own version. I’d love to see a single payer system, but, looking at the lunacy behind our current government shutdown, can you envision that cresting over the horizon, given all the work and bi-partisanship it would take? When I look at the health care horizon, I see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming over the rise.

Certainly, there are pockets of innovation and excellence around the nation, but we have no national, systemic approach to fix to the problem of extraordinary high costs, and it’s hard to imagine this congress, or any congress, doing anything about that. At more than $8 billion dollars, the health care industry spends more on lobbying than any other industry, and that’s not about to change, once again proving Mark Twain right: We have the best government money can buy.

I believe the work done in those “pockets of excellence” will gradually lead to improved health for Americans who can afford to pay for it. It’s the “can afford to pay for it” part that sickens me.

What Price Life?

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Part One

“Insulin is my gift to mankind” – Frederick Banting

A Quick Quiz

Question 1: Name a chronic disease requiring medication, which, if not taken every day, guarantees death within two weeks.
Answer: Type 1 Diabetes.

Question 2: Name the medication.
Answer: Insulin.

Question 3: What is the monthly cost of insulin for a Type 1 diabetic?
Answer: As we shall see, that depends.

Question 4: If Type 1 diabetics cannot afford the cost of insulin, without which they will surely die, what should they do?
Answer: This is happening at this moment, and people are dying.  In these two blog posts we’ll examine why and what can be done about it. But we need to first posit some truths about diabetes, and then describe how, in 1922, Canadian doctor Frederick Banting made the ground-breaking discovery that allowed Type 1 diabetics, for the first time in history, to live.

Ten Fast Facts

  1. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that allows the body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates in the food we eat for energy or to store glucose for future use. Insulin helps keeps blood sugar levels from getting too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). Type 1 diabetics, T1Ds, can no longer produce insulin. They have none of it. Although older adults can also contract Type 1 diabetes, it usually strikes children and young adults. Without insulin, whether old or young, they die.
  2. There are about 1.3 million T1Ds in the U.S. They comprise one half of one percent of the population. Currently, there is no cure for any of them. Without insulin, they will die.
  3. There are about 29 million Type 2 diabetics. T2Ds still make some insulin. In most, lifestyle changes will improve their health, sometimes to the point where they will no longer require insulin or any other medical prescriptions. Some will become insulin-dependent, and without it, they face life-changing complications.
  4. Diabetic Retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness.
  5. Diabetes is the leading cause of non-traumatic amputation.
  6. Diabetes is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke.
  7. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure.
  8. Complications from diabetes sometimes cause workplace injuries and often exacerbate the severity and length of recovery.
  9. In 2017, the nation’s total direct medical costs due to diabetes were $237 billion. Average medical expenses for diabetics were 2.3 times higher than for non-diabetics. The extent to which diabetes added to workers’ compensation medical costs is unknown.
  10. Based on information found on death certificates, diabetes was the 7th leading cause of death in the United States in 2015, with 79,535 death certificates listing it as the underlying cause of death, and 252,806 listing diabetes as an underlying or contributing cause of death. However, diabetes is underreported as a cause of death; studies have found that only about 35% to 40% of people with diabetes who died had diabetes listed anywhere on the death certificate and only 10% to 15% had it listed as the underlying cause of death. An example of best practice would be, “Death caused by infection contracted from hemodialysis due to kidney failure, a complication of the patient’s diabetes.”

Banting and Insulin

Image result for photo of frederick banting

Frederick Banting is perhaps Canada’s greatest hero. Born in 1891, he graduated medical school with a surgical degree in 1915 and found himself in a French trench by the end of 1917. In December of that year, he was wounded during the Battle of Cambrai, the first great tank battle in history. He remained on the battlefield for 16 hours tending to other wounded soldiers until he had to be ordered to the rear to have his own wounds treated. For this action he won the British Military Cross, akin to America’s Silver Star. After returning to Canada, he continued his studies and, in 1920, secured a part time teaching post at Western Ontario University. While there, he began studying insulin Why? Serendipity. Someone had asked him to give a talk on the workings of the pancreas.

Banting became interested – and then obsessed – with trying to come up with a way to get insulin to people who couldn’t make any of their own. In November 1921, he hit on the idea of extracting insulin from fetal pancreases of cows and pigs. He discussed the approach with J. R. R. MacLeod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto. MacLeod thought Banting’s idea was doomed to failure, but he allowed him to use his lab facilities while he was on a golfing holiday in Scotland. He also loaned him two assistants, Dr. Charles Best and biochemist James Collip. Collip devised a method to purify the insulin Banting and Best obtained from the fetal pancreases.

To MacLeod’s surprise, Banting’s procedure worked, and in 1922 Banting and Best successfully treated the daughter of US Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.

In 1923, one year later, Banting, at the age of 32, won the Nobel Prize, which, to his disgust, he had to share with MacLeod. To this day, Frederick Banting is the youngest person ever to win the Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

His discovery could have made Banting mind-numbingly rich, but he would have none of that. Along with Best and Collip, Banting patented his method and then the three of them sold the patent to the University of Toronto for the princely sum of $3.00. When asked why he didn’t cash in on his discovery, Banting said, “Insulin is my gift to mankind.” With Banting’s blessing, the University licensed insulin’s manufacturing to drug companies, royalty free. If drug companies didn’t have to pay royalties, Banting thought they would keep the price of insulin low.

And they did. For decades.

But patents expire, and capitalism being what it is, people get greedy, and greed is why we have no generic, low-cost insulin today and why, over the past 20 years, insulin prices have risen anywhere from 800% to 1,157%, depending on the variety and brand. It’s why, lacking health insurance, some Type 1 diabetics have recently been driven to ration their precious insulin. Some of them have died.

More about all that in Part Two.