Federal government to start providing free coronavirus tests once again

Just as a summer covid wave shows signs of receding, the Biden administration announced Wednesday that it is reviving a program to mail free rapid coronavirus tests to Americans.

Starting Sept. 25, people can request four free tests per household through covidtests.gov. Officials say the tests are able to detect the latest variants and are intended to be used through the end of the year.

The return of the free testing program comes after Americans navigated the latest uptick in covid cases with free testing no longer widely available. The largest insurance companies stopped reimbursing the costs of retail at-home testing once the requirement to do so ended with the public health emergency in May. The Biden administration stopped mailing free tests in June.

The Department of Health and Human Services also announced Wednesday that it was awarding $600 million to a dozen coronavirus test manufacturers. Agency officials said the funding would improve domestic manufacturing capacity and provide the federal government with 200 million over-the-counter tests to use in the future.

Red the full article from the Washington Post.

Department of Health launches new Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard, retires COVID-19 Data Dashboard

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) created a new Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard that allows people to track COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) disease activity by region across the state.  

The new, comprehensive dashboard replaces DOH’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard, which retired Sept. 18. COVID-19 data and reports can now be found on the new dashboard site.  

“We hope the new Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard will inform communities and help guide their personal decision making on prevention measures such as masks and social distancing,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, MPH, Chief Science Officer at DOH. “Getting up to date on vaccinations and staying home when you’re sick can also help protect you and those around you against the worst impacts of COVID-19, flu, and RSV. We all need to do our part to reduce the chance that our healthcare system could be overwhelmed by respiratory illnesses in the coming months.”  

One major change in the new dashboard is the inclusion of data from previous years, providing the public with clearer comparisons between current disease activity and that of years past. The Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard will be updated weekly through April 2024. Subsequent update frequency depends on the degree of ongoing activity for COVID-19.  

It May Be Time to Break Out the Masks Against Covid, Some Experts Say

If you’re at high risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, it’s time to dust off those N95 masks and place them snugly over your nose and mouth to protect yourself from a recent uptick of the virus, according to a growing number of experts.

That advice should go all the way up to 80-year-old President Joe Biden, said Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a cardiologist.

“Octogenarians comprise the highest-risk group for complications following Covid infection,” Reiner said.

“At least until the numbers start to drop again, it would be appropriate for President Biden to take some precautions and wear a mask in crowds.”

Other high-risk groups include people with diabetes, cancer, chronic liver, kidney or lung disease, organ or stem cell transplants, HIV or other immunocompromising conditions, a history of heart disease or stroke, dementia or mental health issues.

“If you’re a caregiver for somebody who is at increased risk of complication following infection, then I think you should also consider putting a mask on in public places,” said Reiner, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

“And since the masks that are most effective are N95 that are now readily available, that’s the kind of mask you should wear,” he added.

Read the full article from CNN.

COVID-19 Public Health Emergency to End on May 11

Since January 2022, daily COVID-19 reported cases are down 92%, COVID-19 deaths have declined by over 80%, and new COVID-19 hospitalizations are down nearly 80%.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) will end on May 11. To prepare for this transition, HHS has released Fact Sheet: COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Transition Roadmap detailing what will and will not be affected by the end of the PHE.

For provider-specific information about PHE waivers and flexibilities, visit the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Emergencies webpage.

Long COVID: What We Know

Mild to moderate COVID-19 lasts about two weeks for most people. In others, the long-term effects of COVID-19 can cause lingering health problems that last for months. While it is clear that people with certain risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and obesity are more likely to have a serious case of COVID-19, there is not a clear link between these risk factors and the long-term effects of COVID-19. While the percentage of people who have had COVID and currently report long COVID symptoms has recently declined, the rate remains high.

This infographic explores what we currently know about long COVID. It also offers methods for preventing long COVID through protective measures and vaccines. Although we still do not know much about long COVID, scientists are working to better understand this new and emerging illness and how different groups of people experience it.

For more information, visit NIHCM.

Popular COVID-19 Treatment Program Returns

Free telehealth appointments expand access to oral antivirals

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) has relaunched its popular free telehealth program to increase access to potentially life-saving medication to treat COVID-19. The program expands the federal government’s Test to Treat initiative and gives people at risk of severe disease another way to quickly access treatment.

DOH’s telehealth program is an easy way to see if COVID-19 oral antivirals, such as Paxlovid, are right for you. Oral antivirals, which are COVID-19 treatment pills taken by mouth, are available by prescription only and must be started within five days of the first symptoms to be effective. Telehealth allows patients to connect with a clinician without having to go to a health care facility in person. This reduces barriers to access, especially in rural and underserved urban areas, and allows patients to stay at home for assessment and treatment, reducing the potential spread of the disease.

“Equity, innovation, and engagement are the cornerstone values that have informed DOH throughout our COVID-19 response,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Secretary of Health. “Ensuring that we continue this important program that connects communities with needed therapeutics is an essential step in continuing our mission of reducing unnecessary deaths from this disease.”

Between July 28 and Dec. 31, 2022, DOH’s telehealth program:

  • Served 6,329 patients from over 400 zip codes throughout Washington state.
  • Provided over 4,200 prescriptions to patients with positive COVID-19 tests.
  • Served over 975 patients that live in high Equitable Distribution Index (EDI) areas.

DOH encourages people who test positive for COVID-19 to discuss treatment options with their primary health care provider. In situations where this might not be possible, free telehealth consultations can make it easier to access treatments. People who test positive for COVID-19, including with a self-test, can consult with a health care provider using a smartphone or computer with a high-speed internet connection. If treatment is appropriate, they can receive a free prescription for oral antivirals for pick-up from over 1,000 pharmacies throughout the state that has the medication available. They can also choose to have the medication delivered.

Visit DOH’s new telehealth webpage to set up a telehealth appointment or call the DOH COVID-19 call center at 1-800-525-0127 if you have any questions. If the information provided indicates treatment may be appropriate, the patient will be connected virtually with a health care provider for a consultation. Telehealth appointments are currently available every day from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. PST in 240 languages via DOH’s collaboration partner Color Health.

“Restarting DOH’s telehealth program ensures that patients at high risk for severe disease have equitable access to lifesaving COVID-19 treatments,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, MPH, Chief Science Officer. “This service is free for everyone so that even those without insurance can access antiviral medications. Offering free telehealth consultations in multiple languages also increases access for non-English speakers.”

DOH will reassess the program in June to determine if it should continue in light of future needs.

FDA Experts Are Still Puzzled Over Who Should Get Which Covid Shots and When

At a meeting to simplify the nation’s covid vaccination policy, the FDA’s panel of experts could agree on only one thing: Information is woefully lacking about how often different groups of Americans need to be vaccinated. That data gap has contributed to widespread skepticism, undervaccination, and ultimately unnecessary deaths from covid-19.

The committee voted unanimously Thursday to support the FDA’s proposal for all vaccine-makers to adopt the same strain of the virus when making changes in their vaccines, and suggested they might meet in May or June to select a strain for the vaccines that would be rolled out this fall.

However, the panel members disagreed with the FDA’s proposal that everyone get at least one shot a year, saying more information was needed to make such a declaration. Several panelists noted that in recent studies, only about a third of people hospitalized with a positive covid test actually were there because of covid illness. That’s because everyone entering a hospital is tested for covid, so deaths of patients with incidental infections are counted as covid deaths even when it isn’t the cause.

The experts questioned the rationale for annual shots for everyone, given that current vaccines do not seem to protect against infection for more than a few months. Yet even a single booster seems to prevent death and hospitalization in most people, except for the very old and people with certain medical conditions.

“We need the CDC to tell us exactly who is getting hospitalized and dying of this virus — the ages, vulnerability, the type of immune compromise, and whether they were treated with antivirals. And we need immunological data to indicate who’s at risk,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Only then can we decide who gets vaccinated with what and when.”

Offit and others have expressed frustration over the lack of clear government messaging on what the public can expect from covid vaccines. While regular boosters might be important for keeping the elderly and medically frail out of the hospital, he said, the annual boosters suggested by the FDA and the drug companies may not be necessary for everyone.

Read the full article from KHN.

Omicron-targeted COVID-19 boosters now authorized for children ages 6 months and older

OLYMPIA  – The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and other healthcare providers will soon begin offering omicron variant-targeted bivalent booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines to children ages 6 months and older. This follows guidance and recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • Children 6 months through 5 years of age who received the original (monovalent) two-dose Moderna COVID-19 vaccine series are now eligible to receive a booster of the updated (bivalent) Moderna COVID-19 vaccine two months after their last dose.
  • Children 6 months through 4 years of age who have not started or completed their three-dose Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine series will now receive the updated (bivalent) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as the third dose following two doses of the original (monovalent) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Children 6 months through 4 years of age who have already completed their three-dose primary series with the original (monovalent) Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are not eligible for an updated (bivalent) booster dose at this time.

DOH urges all parents and guardians of children ages 6 months and older to prioritize vaccinating their children with the updated booster if eligible, or starting the COVID-19 vaccine primary series if they are yet to begin. Washington state is currently seeing record pediatric hospitalizations from respiratory viruses and vaccines add an extra level of protection from severe illness. Additionally, flu vaccines are available to everyone 6 months and older at provider offices and pharmacies across the state. Flu and COVID-19 vaccines can be safely given at the same time.

“This is great news that infants and young children can now get the updated bivalent booster, which offers better protection against Omicron subvariants,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, MPH, Chief Science Officer. “We encourage everyone 6 months and older to get up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines and boosters as well as the seasonal flu shot in order to keep yourself and those around you safe, and to reduce the pressure on our severely stressed hospital system.”

Pediatric-focused COVID-19 boosters are expected to start arriving in provider offices the week of December 12. To make a vaccine or booster appointment, visit VaccinateWA.org, or call the COVID-19 Information Hotline at 833-VAX-HELP. Language assistance is available. If you have questions, visit DOH’s COVID-19 Vaccine Frequently Asked Questions webpage or talk to a trusted healthcare provider.

COVID-19 Cases and Deaths, Vaccinations, and Treatments by Race/Ethnicity as of Fall 2022

As the United States enters its third holiday season navigating a potential increase in COVID-19 cases as well as other respiratory illnesses, federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that as of November 9, 2022, 80% of the total population in the United States have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and only 10% of eligible individuals have received the updated, bivalent booster that was authorized for use among individuals 5 years of age and older in early Fall 2022. Individuals who have not received any booster dose are at higher risk of infection from the virus, and people who remain unvaccinated continue to be at particularly high risk for severe illness and death.

Over the course of the pandemic, racial disparities in cases and deaths have widened and narrowed. However, overall, Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) people have borne the heaviest health impacts of the pandemic, particularly when adjusting data to account for differences in age by race and ethnicity. While Black and Hispanic people were less likely than their White counterparts to receive a vaccine during the initial phases of the vaccination rollout, these disparities have narrowed over time and reversed for Hispanic people. Despite this progress, a vaccination gap persists for Black people. COVID-19 outpatient treatments, which can mitigate hospitalization and death from COVID-19, are also available. However, early data suggest racial disparities in access to and receipt of these treatments.

This data note presents an update on the status of COVID-19 cases and deaths, vaccinations, and treatments by race/ethnicity as of Fall 2022, based on federal data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What is the status of COVID-19 cases and deaths by race/ethnicity?

Racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths have widened and narrowed over the course of the pandemic, but when data are adjusted to account for differences in age by race/ethnicity, they show that AIAN, Black, and Hispanic people have had higher rates of infection and death than White people over most of the course of the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, there were large racial disparities in COVID-19 cases. Disparities narrowed when overall infection rates fell. However, during the surge associated with the Omicron variant in Winter 2022, disparities in cases once again widened with Hispanic (4,341 per 100,000), AIAN (3,818 per 100,000), Black (2,937 per 100,000), and Asian (2,755 per 100,000) people having higher age-adjusted infection rates than White people (2,693 per 100,000) as of January 2022 (Figure 1). Following that surge, infection rates fell in Spring 2022 and disparities have once again narrowed. However, as of September 2022, the age-adjusted COVID-19 infection rates were still highest for Black and Hispanic people (192 per 100,000 for each group), followed by AIAN people at 188 per 100,000. White and Asian people had the lowest infection rates at 164 per 100,000 and 153 per 100,000, respectively. While death rates for most groups of color were substantially higher compared with White people early on in the pandemic, since late Summer 2020, there have been some periods when death rates for White people have been higher than or similar to some groups of color. However, age-adjusted data show that AIAN, Black, and Hispanic people have had higher rates of death compared with White people over most of the pandemic and particularly during surges. For example, as of January 2022, amid the Omicron surge, age-adjusted death rates were higher for Black (37.4 per 100,000), AIAN (34.7 per 100,000), and Hispanic people (29.9 per 100,000) compared with White people (23.5 per 100,000) (Figure 1). Following that surge, disparities narrowed when death rates fell. As of August 2022, age-adjusted death rates were similar for AIAN (4.9 per 100,000), Black (4.4 per 100,000), and White people (4.2 per 100,000) and lower for Hispanic (3.6 per 100,000) and Asian (2.7 per 100,000) people. Despite these fluctuations over time, total cumulative age-adjusted data continue to show that Black, Hispanic, and AIAN people have been at higher risk for COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths compared with White people.

Read the full article from KFF here.

People With Long Covid Face Barriers to Government Disability Benefits

When Josephine Cabrera Taveras was infected with covid-19 in spring 2020, she didn’t anticipate that the virus would knock her out of work for two years and put her family at risk for eviction.

Taveras, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, said her bout with long covid has meant dealing with debilitating symptoms, ranging from breathing difficulties to arthritis, that have prevented her from returning to her job as a nanny. Unable to work — and without access to Social Security Disability Insurance or other government help — Taveras and her family face a looming pile of bills.

“We are in the midst of possibly losing our apartment because we’re behind on rent,” said Taveras, 32. Her application for Social Security disability assistance, submitted last fall, was rejected, but she is appealing.

Like many others with long covid, Taveras has fallen through the cracks of a system that was time-consuming and difficult to navigate even before the covid pandemic. People are facing years-long wait times, insufficient legal support, and a lack of clear guidance on how to prove they are disabled — compounded by the challenges of a medical system that does not have a uniform process for diagnosing long covid, according to health experts and disability attorneys.

The Biden administration promised support to people with long covid, but patient advocates say many are struggling to get government help.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long covid broadly, as a “range of ongoing health problems” that can last “weeks, months, or longer.” This description includes people, like Taveras, who cannot work, as well as people with less severe symptoms, such as a long-term loss of smell.

Read the full article from KHN.