NIHCM Newsletter / December 2021
Omicron & the Holidays
Preparing for Winter: Omicron & the Holidays
The recent arrival of Omicron to the United States has raised concerns about vaccine effectiveness and the future of the pandemic as we head into the new year. The emergence of variants and persistent vaccine inequality highlights the global nature of the pandemic. As more Americans are getting their booster shots, efforts are underway to get initial doses of vaccines to poor countries.
- Variant: Omicron was first detected in the U.S. on December 1st and scientists are racing to understand the variant. Preliminary data suggests Omicron spreads more rapidly than other variants and is milder, although some scientists think it’s too early to know.
- Holidays: There are concerns that we are facing a ‘fifth wave’ of COVID with the arrival of Omicron and as we head into the holiday season. Learn more about ways to mitigate the risk of the virus as we gather for the holidays.
COVID-19 Prevention and Treatment
The arrival of Omicron underscores the importance of COVID-19 prevention efforts, such as boosters and expanding access to testing. There are questions on whether current tests can detect Omicron and Thermo Fishers reports that its test can indicate the presence of the variant. Learn more about prevention and treatment against COVID-19:
- Children: As more children get vaccinated against COVID-19, households with immunocompromised individuals are able to feel a sense of relief. A longer-term study found that Pfizer’s vaccine was 100% effective in kids ages 12-15. However, some states are falling behind in vaccinating kids and introducing incentives such as scholarships to improve vaccination rates.
- Boosters: All vaccinated Americans are eligible for a COVID-19 booster and the majority should get one, which could eventually become the standard for being fully vaccinated. However, some experts are calling for prioritizing reaching unvaccinated populations over universal booster shots.
- Antiviral Treatment: New COVID antiviral pills, that can be taken at home, offer hope of treatment. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize a drug made by Merck that can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 30% if taken within five days of the onset of symptoms.
Resources & Initiatives:
- Tune into NIHCM grantee, the Center for Health Journalism’s webinar on December 16th to learn what we know so far about Omicron.
- See this resource from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey on five things to know about the COVID-19 booster shot.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) COVID-19 Public Education Campaign has resources for increasing COVID-19 vaccine uptake and reinforcing prevention measures, including on vaccinations for children.
The NIHCM Foundation Health Care Journalism and Research Awards’ entry system is now open. Learn more and apply here.
The Flu Returns
As people return to in-person activities, this year’s flu season could cause more harm than Americans are prepared for. The flu is in the first weeks of its annual surge and there is a need to address both the dangers of the flu and COVID-19 this winter. In addition to getting their COVID-19 boosters, it is also important for Americans to get vaccinated against the flu this year.
- See BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's resource on 7 facts about the flu shot.
- Learn more about how to stay healthy during flu season in this resource from Anthem.
- Learn about what to do to avoid the “twindemic” from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, such as healthy habits to protect you from the flu and COVID.
The Dire State of Maternal Health in the US
Maternal health is most often defined as the health of a woman throughout pregnancy, childbirth, and the postnatal period (six weeks post-birth). Some assessments consider death within one year of pregnancy. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, doubling in the last 30 years alone. Inequities in maternal health have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, prompting a push for legislation and funding to address such disparities.
- Impact of COVID-19: Pregnant women are at an increased risk for severe COVID-19 related illness, but COVID-19 is also associated with higher neonatal complications. The likelihood for women to develop complications such as gestational high blood pressure and poor fetal growth during pregnancy has increased during the pandemic.
- Disparities: Women of color, especially Black, Native American and Alaska Native American women, are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. Recent studies found societal factors, including racism and redlining, to have an impact on the rates of maternal death and complications.
- Action: In an effort to reduce maternal health disparities, the American Medical Association adopted a new policy to promote equity in care and access. In addition, Congress recently passed legislation focused on improving maternal health, especially among racial and ethnic minority groups, and other vulnerable populations through a $15 million maternal care program within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Resources & Initiatives:
- Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina committed $2 million in support of evidence-based strategies to improve maternal and infant mortality rates, racial disparities.
- The Alliance for Health Policy recently hosted a webinar on policy options to advance mental health care during pregnancy.
- In collaboration with AtlantiCare, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey launched an innovative ride program connecting residents to care.
Black tech company founders have found ways to support health equity by developing platforms to match people with culturally competent care providers and the transportation needed to see them.
Health Care Access: Rural Health, Telehealth, and Technology
Since the start of the pandemic, primary care visits and out-patient procedures have declined. The usage of technology and telehealth has risen sharply to replace these in-person visits. For some communities, such as those in underserved areas, virtual care has allowed for more equitable access. As many states debate the future of coverage, it is unclear what the model of care will be or its impact on access.
- Rural: HHS recently began distributing $7.5 billion to rural health care providers in relief funds. Yet, independent rural pharmacies and providers wonder how long they can remain viable.
- The Future of Telehealth: Telehealth visits were 154% higher in March of 2020 than a year earlier with many in rural and underserved areas relying on the expansion as a result of the pandemic. As states grapple with extending or rolling back telehealth services, a recent study found that many patients hope for a hybrid model going forward.
- Tech Equity: The need to address racial health disparities has prompted many patients to seek out culturally competent care. Black tech company founders have found ways to support health equity by developing platforms to match people with culturally competent care providers and the transportation needed to see them.
- Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina recently announced the rollout of a comprehensive virtual care platform in collaboration with Teladoc Health.
- Premera Blue Cross is supporting Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences' (PNWU) rural family medicine educational pathway and training through a $5.5 million grant.
- Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey launched an app focused on improving patients' access to care and lowering their costs.
- Arkansas Blue Cross added an additional $250,000 to its initial $817,000 grant to the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership.
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