NIHCM Newsletter / January 2022
Omicron Overwhelms Hospitals
Omicron Overwhelms Hospitals
COVID-19 cases have risen to new records in recent weeks, spurred by Omicron, which now makes up 95% of new cases in the U.S. The easy transmissibility of Omicron has led to a breakdown in public services, government, and businesses. Fortunately, vaccinated people infected by Omicron are more likely to have mild symptoms and this wave of the pandemic has a lower hospitalization rate compared to previous variants.
- Omicron Surge: Recent projections from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub indicate that the current Omicron surge in the U.S. may last weeks, rather than months. Most models project the peak in both cases and hospitalizations before the end of January.
- Hospitals Overrun: Due to the latest COVID-19 surge and nationwide staffing shortages, U.S. hospitals are overwhelmed as many other patients seek non-virus-related care. Learn how full I.C.U.s are near you with this New York Times tracker.
- Health Care Workers: The health care workforce was short-staffed before the pandemic and about one-in-five health care workers have quit their job since. The rise in Omicron has affected every part of the health care system and has created another source of infection for health care workers. In recent weeks, several states have mobilized the National Guard to assist with patient care.
- Shortened Quarantine: In response to the workforce shortages facing hospitals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortened the isolation time for health care workers with COVID-19 to five days. Learn more about the CDC’s recommendations on quarantine and isolation.
COVID-19 Prevention and Treatment
The majority of COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals are unvaccinated or have not received a booster dose of the vaccine. These hospitalizations show how vaccines work and highlight the importance of continued vaccination efforts. President Biden has emphasized that vaccines, boosters, and therapeutic drugs have lessened the danger of COVID-19 for vaccinated people.
- Vaccine Recommendations: A new recommendation from the CDC says that people who were initially immunized with the Pfizer vaccine should now receive their booster dose after five months, down from six. Some people with weakened immune systems will soon be eligible for a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and an Omicron specific vaccine could be ready by March.
- Vaccine Mandates: The Supreme Court is weighing the Biden administration’s requirement that workers get vaccinated or be tested regularly for COVID-19. Many states and cities have created their own vaccine rules and employers are left confused about what to do next during the legal battles and the current rise in cases.
- At-Home Testing Shortage: There is a shortage of COVID-19 at-home test kits and kit prices are rising as are reports of price gouging. The White House announced a policy to make at-home tests freely available to Americans. Learn more about at-home tests and their accuracy here.
- Antiviral Pills: Doctors express concern that the limited supply of antiviral drugs is unlikely to ameliorate the strain hospitals are experiencing. The U.S. doubled its order for Pfizer’s COVID pill so there’s enough for 20 million people.
Resources & Initiatives:
- Learn what masks are best for the current omicron surge and why health experts recommend an N95 mask over cloth masks.
- A $540,000 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation towards mobile vaccination clinics makes it easy to get the shot.
- To help protect the community and the overwhelmed hospitals, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts urges everyone to get the flu vaccine.
- NIHCM grantee, The Journalist’s Resource, highlights a recent study on how the cold and winter weather increases COVID-19 transmission.
- See Blue Cross Blue Shield Association’s statement on the Biden administration’s over-the-counter COVID-19 testing guidance.
NIHCM is hosting a webinar on January 26th on the impact of climate change on health, environmental injustice, and possible solutions to these issues.
The weather patterns of 2021 - deadly heat, megadroughts, historic wildfires, and extreme flooding - highlighted the catastrophic impact of climate change on life and health. Some scientists believe that because of the “extreme extremes” already experienced, climate change is outpacing their predictions and 2022 may be even worse than 2021. Communities recovering from these weather disasters are also facing spikes in COVID cases.
- Extreme Weather: The Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently stated that extreme weather events may be the “new normal” in the age of climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the U.S. can expect more unusual and severe weather events.
- Fires: Colorado experienced its most destructive wildfire on record in 2021, claiming almost 1,000 homes and burning more than 6,000 acres. The state’s multi-year drought and powerful winds created conditions for embers to burn hotter and travel farther.
- Impact on Mental Health: A recent study found that the round-the-clock nature of natural disaster-related media coverage can harm children’s mental health. This finding adds to mounting evidence that the combination of environmental pollution and stress experienced as a result of climate change not only impacts physical health but mental health as well.
Resources & Initiatives:
- Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation provided emergency assistance to tornado victims in affected areas through donations to the American Red Cross relief efforts, the distribution of disaster response kits, and expedited access to care for members in affected areas.
- Florida Blue recently announced that by making its facilities 100% solar-powered, it expects to reduce their overall carbon footprint by at least 50%.
- The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation granted over $3 million in hurricane relief funds to nonprofits across the state following Hurricane Ida.
- NIHCM recently released an infographic on climate change, detailing its impacts on health.
- Find out more about environmental health and policy with NIHCM grantee, Alliance for Health Policy's, recent webinar.
- Learn how to stay calm and focused in the face of climate change from Maria Ojala, a psychologist studying climate anxiety.
Children’s Health & COVID-19
With COVID cases on the rise nationwide, driven primarily by the Omicron variant, more children than ever are testing positive. In the last week of 2021, roughly 325,340 children tested positive, up from 198,551 cases the week prior. Additionally, a record level of children under five are being hospitalized; as of January 1st, more than four in 100,000 children aged four and under were admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 infections, a rate more than triple this time last year.
- Schools: The rise in pediatric cases has led many schools to take aggressive measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, from remote learning to daily at-home testing. Facing staffing shortages, some states are advising teachers that have tested positive but are asymptomatic that they may return to work after five days instead of ten.
- Vaccines: 12- to 15- year olds are now authorized to receive the Pfizer booster shot and are advised to do so five months after their second shot. Vaccine trials for 2- to 5- year olds did not yield the expected immune responses, leading Pfizer to add a third shot for all children aged 6 months to 5 years to its ongoing clinical trial.
- Mental Health: In Colorado, between 25 and 40 children were going to emergency departments per day for acute behavioral health crises and suicidal ideation, an increase from pre-pandemic levels. In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory report on protecting youth mental health during the pandemic.
- Adverse Childhood Experiences: The pandemic has brought additional attention to the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the importance of trauma-informed practices. In October, California passed the ACEs Equity Act, significantly expanding the coverage for ACE screening.
Resources & Initiatives:
- Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas awarded nearly $1.8 million in Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® grants to community-based organizations focused on mitigating the impacts of the social determinants of health associated with COVID-19.
- Dr. Anna Baldino, board-certified pediatrician and medical director with Independence Blue Cross discussed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children over the age of 5 years old.
- Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan partnered with the Children’s Trust Fund to sponsor the 2022 Pam Posthumus Signature Auction, a fundraiser focused on raising money for community child abuse prevention programs.
- Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey released a guide to discussing the suicide epidemic with teens.
- Learn more about the pandemic’s impact on children, including COVID-19 vaccinations and mental health, with NIHCM’s recent infographic.
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