NIHCM Newsletter / March 2021

Drop in Life Expectancy, Vaccine Access & Devastating Winter Storm

COVID-19 Update: The Toll, Slowing Variants & Double Masking

COVID-19 has now killed more than 500,000 Americans, reducing life expectancy by a year, with data from the first half of 2020 showing the drop falling disproportionately on Blacks and Hispanics. With three vaccines available there is renewed hope of taming the pandemic, but new variants may reduce vaccine efficacy and make it tougher for states to fully reopen.

  • The Numbers: COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to drop, however this may be because of a decrease in case reporting. More than 3 million children in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • Variants: Created under a NIHCM grant, this PBS piece reports on how we can slow the rapid increase in coronavirus variants. Vaccine manufacturers are also working on booster shots that target variants.
  • Masks: CDC experiments show how to achieve a better mask fit to slow the spread of COVID-19. The CDC also conducted an analysis that showed mask mandates reduced hospitalizations.
  • Easing Restrictions: Despite public health experts’ warnings, states are easing COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Native Americans: A recent Brookings analysis shows that American Indians and Alaskan Natives are dying at higher rates and younger ages than other groups. Fortunately, Native Americans are getting the vaccine faster than other populations due to the centralized Indian Health Service rollout.
  • LGBT: Recent data from the CDC shows disparities in severe COVID-19 risk factors across sexual orientation and the importance of including sexual orientation and gender identity data in COVID-19 surveillance.

Resources & Initiatives:

  • NIHCM has produced webinars and infographics exploring a wide range of critical issues during the pandemic, including the health care workforce and systemic racism.
  • Research produced under a NIHCM grant examines the excess all-cause mortality across race and ethnicity to better understand the impact of the pandemic.
  • BCBSMA recently announced new initiatives focused on racial equity, including grants for organizations led by people of color.
  • BCBSMN donated $5 million to the University of Minnesota to launch the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity.
  • BCBST joined a national call for disaster preparedness for future public health crises through public-private sector collaboration. BCBST is also addressing health inequality, such as through a partnership with Meharry Medical College to examine social determinants of health.
  • BCBSIL announced $1.5 million in funding for community-based organizations that promote access to care, hunger, shelter and behavioral health, and COVID-19 health education and vaccine access.
  • Anthem Blue Cross has provided more than $2 million in support for hundreds of Federally Qualified Health Centers during the pandemic and the economic fallout.

Vaccine News: Inequities, Distribution & Uptake

With multiple vaccines offered nationwide, the focus has turned to how to efficiently get vaccines into the arms of individuals. The vaccine rollout has highlighted and been hampered by inequities, including unequal access to care and the internet, especially among older people and racial and ethnic minorities.

  • Broadband & Technology Disparities: A Kaiser Health News report found that individuals that are older, live alone, or can't afford broadband or access a computer/smartphone have a harder time securing vaccine appointments - and these disadvantages are affecting Blacks, Hispanic elders & non-native English speakers disproportionately.
  • Internet Access & Appointments: The Conversation compiled research on how racial and ethnic minority communities that lack internet access have been left behind in the race to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

There has been a particular focus on racial inequities in access to vaccines, as well as the impact of vaccine hesitancy on the uptake:

  • Federal Response: In response to the racial and ethnic disparities emerging in vaccine access and uptake, the Biden administration and the CDC have awarded $17 million to several organizations working to build trust and counter fear and misinformation around vaccine safety in communities of color.
  • Tracking Uptake: Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) tracking on COVID-19 vaccinations, cases, and deaths by race/ethnicity has found a consistent pattern of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases, deaths and total population.
  • Declining Vaccine Hesitancy: Following months of documented vaccine hesitancy, KFF’s newest data shows that vaccine enthusiasm has been rising across racial and ethnic groups.
  • Vaccine Support: CVS Health announced initiatives to reach out to vulnerable populations to help them schedule vaccine appointments. They plan to hold vaccine clinics in communities and send vaccination caravans into neighborhoods to make it easier for people to get their shots.

Resources & Initiatives on Vaccines:

  • The CDC developed a Vaccine Finder tool to help individuals secure vaccine appointments.
  • NPR created a tool showing how to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine in your state.
  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation is set to award multiple grants, totaling up to $1.7 million, to help Tennessee communities promote and support COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • Vaccinate the Natural State, a new initiative to educate Arkansans about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine, was launched through a collaboration between Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care and other organizations.
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts announced an initiative with the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations, including a $1 million contribution to fund free rides to and from COVID-19 vaccination sites across the state.

Mental Health, Burnout & Suicide Prevention

Nearly a full year into the pandemic, more data and evidence are emerging that highlight the profound impact that COVID-19 and associated economic and social challenges are having on the mental health and well-being of Americans.

  • Stress: The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 report outlines how the pandemic has increased national stress levels and proposes strategies to help in the recovery.
  • Sleep: A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found about 40% of people are experiencing sleep problems during the pandemic - double what doctors say they encountered before the pandemic.
  • Suicide: New data from the CDC shows a decline in suicide rates from 2018 to 2019. While this decline - the first decline in over a decade - is promising, concerns remain that suicides may increase during the pandemic as people are exposed to more suicide risk factors.

Resources & Initiatives:

  • Independence Blue Cross is partnering with Quartet Health to launch a whole person health initiative in Southeastern Pennsylvania to address behavioral health conditions, including such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder.
  • The Suicide Prevention Resource Center is offering the free online course Locating and Understanding Data for Suicide Prevention.
  • A NIHCM webinar brought together experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the pandemic poses for mental health and workplace well-being.
  • NIHCM hosted a webinar to share research on the impact of loneliness on health and the science of well-being.

COVID-19’s Impact on People Living with Disabilities

Roughly one in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the CDC. For these individuals, existing challenges accessing care have only been heightened during the pandemic.

  • Higher Risk: Studies have shown that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than those without such disabilities.
  • Past Pandemics: The American Psychological Association compiled research on how past pandemics show that disabled people find it harder to access critical medical supplies and how people with disabilities are at risk for mental health problems during COVID-19.
  • COVID Websites: A Kaiser Health News investigation found that many federal, state and local COVID-19 vaccination registration websites are violating disability rights laws, impacting the ability of blind people to access the vaccine.
  • Appointments: A Baltimore Sun investigation found that while Marylanders with disabilities were prioritized for COVID vaccines, many still faced hurdles accessing appointments.


  • The American Association on Health and Disability compiled fact-based resources on COVID-19 and people with disabilities.
  • A dashboard, created by Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center and the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities, catalogs how each state is prioritizing the disability community in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
  • The Bipartisan Policy Center released a report on improving opportunities for working People With disabilities.
  • A recent Health Affairs article looks at physicians’ perceptions of people with disabilities and how that impacts their care.

The Winter Storm: Power Failures, COVID-19, and Disaster Preparedness

The winter storm that swept through parts of the country in February impacted millions of Americans through extensive power outages, a water crisis, and disrupted COVID-19 prevention and care. Nearly 80 people died due to the storm but the full death toll may not be known for months. As the nation recovers, experts highlight preparedness options and what needs to be done to prevent another power system breakdown.

  • Water Crisis: Due to disrupted water systems, over 13 million Texans were without drinkable water. Hospitals across the South had to confront water shortages in the winter storm’s aftermath and some were forced to transfer patients. Residents of Jackson, Mississippi have been without water for now more than two weeks.
  • Power Failure: Millions of Americans were without heat during freezing temperatures, bringing scrutiny to Texas’ power grid and lack of preparation.
  • Housing: The storm disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic Texans, who tend to live in neighborhoods with older homes. The most vulnerable to the frigid weather was the homeless.
  • COVID-19 Response: The government projected delay COVID-19 vaccine shipments vaccinations across the country due to weather. Fortunately, vaccine deliveries are back on track and picking up.


  • The CDC has resources on preparing for natural disasters and severe weather during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This article provides information on how Texans can apply for federal assistance to aid recovery from the storm’s devastation.
  • Texas’ unstable power grid needs to be protected against extreme weather and may need to be interconnected with the rest of the country’s electricity.

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