Are You Old Enough to Get Vaccinated? In Tennessee, They’re Using the Honor System

In December, all states began vaccinating only health care workers and residents and staffers of nursing homes in the “phase 1A” priority group. But, since the new year began, some states have also started giving shots to — or booking appointments for — other categories of seniors and essential workers.

As states widen eligibility requirements for who can get a covid-19 vaccine, health officials are often taking people’s word that they qualify, thereby prioritizing efficiency over strict adherence to distribution plans.

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“We are doing everything possible to vaccinate only those ‘in phase,’ but we won’t turn away someone who has scheduled their vaccine appointment and tells us that they are in phase if they do not have proof or ID,” said Bill Christian, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Among the states pivoting to vaccinating all seniors, timelines and strategies vary. Tennessee started offering shots to people 75 and older on Jan. 1. So, Frank Bargatze of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, snagged an appointment online for his father — and then went ahead and put his own name in, though he’s only 63.

“He’s 88,” Bargatze said, pointing to his father in the passenger seat after they both received their initial shots at a drive-thru vaccination site in Murfreesboro, a large city outside Nashville. “I jumped on his bandwagon,” he added with a laugh. “I’m going to blame it on him.”

Bargatze does work a few days a week with people in recovery from addiction, he added, so in a way, he might qualify as a health care worker.

Some departments are trying more than others, but overwhelmed public health departments don’t have time to do much vetting.

Dr. Lorraine MacDonald is the medical examiner in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where she’s been staffing the vaccination site. If people seeking the vaccine make it through the sign-up process online, MacDonald said, and show up for their appointment, health officials are not going to ask any more questions — as long as they’re on the list from the online sign-up.

“That’s a difficult one,” MacDonald acknowledged, when asked about people just under the age cutoff joining with older family members and putting themselves down for a dose, too. “It’s pretty much the honor system.”

People getting vaccinated in several Tennessee counties told a reporter they did not have to show ID or proof of qualifying employment when they arrived at a vaccination site. Tennessee’s health departments are generally erring on the side of simply giving the shot, even if the person is not a local resident or is not in the country legally.

The loose enforcement of the distribution phases extends to other parts of the country, including Los Angeles. In response, New York’s governor is considering making line-skipping a punishable offense.

Still, many people who don’t qualify on paper believe they might need the vaccine as much as those who do qualify in the initial phases.

Gayle Boyd of Murfreesboro is 74, meaning she didn’t quite make the cutoff in Tennessee, which is 75. But she’s also in remission from lung cancer, and so eager to get the vaccine and start getting back to a more normal life, that she joined her slightly older husband at the Murfreesboro vaccination site this week.

“Nobody’s really challenged me on it,” she said, noting she made sure to tell vaccination staffers about her medical issues. “Everybody’s been exceptionally nice.”

Technically, in the state’s current vaccine plan, having a respiratory risk factor like lung cancer doesn’t leapfrog anyone who doesn’t otherwise qualify. But in some neighboring states such as Georgia, where the minimum age limit is 65, Boyd would qualify.

Even for those who sympathize with such situations, anecdotes about line-skipping enrage many trying to wait their turn.

“We try to be responsible,” said 57-year-old Gina Kay Reid of Eagleville, Tennessee.

Reid was also at the Murfreesboro vaccination site, sitting in the back seat as she accompanied her older husband and her mother. She said she didn’t think about trying to join them in getting their first doses of vaccine. “If you take one and don’t necessarily need it, you’re knocking out somebody else that is in that higher-risk group.”

But there is a way for younger, healthier people to get the vaccine sooner than later — and not take a dose away from anyone more deserving.

A growing number of jurisdictions are realizing they have leftover doses at the end of every day. And the shots can’t be stored overnight once they’re thawed. So some pharmacists, such as some in Washington, D.C., are offering them to anyone nearby.

Jackson, Tennesse, has established a “rapid response” list for anyone willing to make it down to the health department within 30 minutes. Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, said her own aunt and uncle received a call at 8 p.m. and rushed to the county vaccination site to get their doses.

Piercey called it a “best practice” that she hopes other jurisdictions will adopt, offering a way for people eager for the vaccine to get it, while also helping states avoid wasting precious doses.

This story is part of a partnership that include WPLN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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A Battle-Weary Seattle Hospital Fights the Latest COVID Surge

As hospitals across the country weather a surge of COVID-19 patients, in Seattle — an early epicenter of the outbreak — nurses, respiratory therapists and physicians are staring down a startling resurgence of the coronavirus that’s expected to test even one of the best-prepared hospitals on the pandemic’s front lines.

After nine months, the staff at Harborview Medical Center, the large public hospital run by the University of Washington, has the benefit of experience.

In March, the Harborview staff was already encountering the realities of COVID-19 that are now familiar to so many communities: patients dying alone, fears of getting infected at work and upheaval inside the hospital.

This forced the hospital to adapt quickly to the pressures of the coronavirus and how to manage a surge, but all these months later it has left staff members exhausted.

“This is a crisis that’s been going on for almost a year — that’s not the way humans are built to work,” said Dr. John Lynch, an associate medical director at Harborview and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

“Our health workers are definitely feeling that strain in a way that we’ve never experienced before,” he said.

Until the late fall, the Seattle area had mostly kept the virus in check. But now cases are rising faster than ever, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has warned a “catastrophic loss of medical care” could be on the horizon.

“This is the very beginning, to be honest, so thinking about what that looks like in December and January has got me very concerned,” Lynch said.

Lessons Learned From Spring Surge

When the outbreak first swept through western Washington, hospitals were in the dark on many fronts. It was unclear how contagious the virus was, how widely it had spread and how many intensive care beds would be needed.

Intensive care unit nurse Whisty Taylor remembers the moment she learned one of her colleagues — a young, active nurse — was hospitalized on their floor and intubated.

“That’s really when it hit — that could be any of us,” Taylor said.

Concerns over infection control and conserving personal protective equipment meant nurses were delegated all sorts of unusual tasks.

“The nurses were the phlebotomists and physical therapists,” said nurse Stacy Van Essen. “We mopped the floors and we took the laundry out and made the beds, plus taking care of people who are extremely, extremely sick.”

A lot has changed since those early days.

Staff members besides just nurses are now trained to go into COVID rooms and be near patients, and the hospital has ironed out the thorny logistics of caring for these highly contagious patients, said Vanessa Makarewicz, Harborview’s manager of infection control and prevention.

How to clean the rooms? Who’s going to draw the blood? What’s the safest way to move people around?

“We’ve grown our entire operation around it,” Makarewicz said.

The physical layout of the hospital has changed to accommodate COVID patients, too.

“It’s still busy and chaotic, but it’s a lot more controlled,” said Roseate Scott, a respiratory therapist in the ICU.

Harborview has also learned how to stretch its supplies of PPE safely. And as cases started to rise significantly last month, the hospital quickly reimposed visitor restrictions.

“In the past, we’ve had visitors who then call us two days later and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I just came up positive,’” said nurse Mindy Boyle.

Boyle said months of caring for COVID patients — and all the steps the hospital has taken, including having health care workers observed as they don and doff their PPE — has tamped down the fears of catching the virus at work.

“It still scares me somewhat, but I do feel safe, and I would rather be here than out in the community, where we don’t know what’s going on,” said Boyle.

‘We’re All Tired of This’

Preparation can go only so far, though. The hospital still runs the risk of running low on PPE and staff, just like so much of the country.

During the spring, the hospital cleared out beds and recruited nurses from all over the nation, but that is unlikely to happen this time, with so many hospitals under pressure at once.

“All things point to what could be an onslaught of patients on top of a very tired workforce and less staff to go around,” said Nate Rozeboom, a nurse manager on one of the COVID units. “We’re all tired of this, tired of taking care of COVID patients, tired of the uncertainty.”

Already, COVID’s footprint at Harborview is expanding and bringing the hospital close to where it was at its previous peak.

“The fear I have personally is overwhelming the resources, using up all the staff — and the numbers are still going to go up,” said Scott.

And she said the realities of caring for these desperately ill patients have not changed.

“When they’re on their belly, laying down with all the tubes and drains and all these extra lines hanging off of them, it takes about four to five people to manually flip them over,” Scott said. “It feels intense every time. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it.”

Hospitalized patients are faring better than in the spring, but there are still no major breakthroughs, said Dr. Randall Curtis, an attending physician in the COVID ICU and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

“The biggest difference is that we have a better sense of what to expect,” Curtis said.

The few treatments that have shown promise, including the steroid dexamethasone and the antiviral remdesivir, have “important but marginal effects,” he said.

“They’re not magic bullets. … People are not jumping out of bed and saying, ‘I feel great. I’d like to go home now,’” Curtis said.

Taylor said nursing has never quite felt the same since she started in the COVID ICU.

“These people are in the rooms for months. Their families can only see them through Zoom. The only interaction they have is with us through our mask, eyewear, plastic,” Taylor said. “We’re just giving their body a runaround trying to keep them alive.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes NPR and KHN

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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What Happened When the Only ER Doctor in a Rural Town Got COVID

Kurt Papenfus, a doctor in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, started to feel sick around Halloween. He developed a scary cough, intestinal symptoms and a headache. In the midst of a pandemic, the news that he had COVID-19 wasn’t surprising, but Papenfus’ illness would have repercussions far beyond his own health.

Papenfus is the lone full-time emergency room doctor in the town of 900, not far from the Kansas line.

“I’m chief of staff and medical director of everything at Keefe Memorial Hospital currently in Cheyenne County, Colorado,” he said.

With Papenfus sick, the hospital scrambled to find a replacement. As coronavirus cases in rural Colorado, and the state’s Eastern Plains especially, surge to unprecedented levels, Papenfus’ illness is a test case for how the pandemic affects the fragile rural health care system.

“He is the main guy. And it is a very large challenge,” said Stella Worley, CEO of the hospital.

If she couldn’t find someone to fill in while he was sick, Worley might have to divert trauma and emergency patients nearly 40 miles north to Burlington.

“Time is life sometimes,” she said. “And that is not something you ever want to do.”

‘The ‘Rona Beast Is a Very Nasty Beast’

As deaths from the coronavirus have surpassed 250,000 in the U.S., new data show the pandemic has been particularly lethal in rural areas — it’s taking lives in those areas at a rate reportedly nearly 3.5 times higher than in metropolitan communities.

About 63 people in Cheyenne County have been diagnosed with COVID-19, most of them in the past three weeks.

Papenfus, a lively 63-year-old, was discharged after a nine-day stay at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, and he was eager to sound the alarm about the disease he calls the ‘rona.

“The ‘rona beast is a very nasty beast, and it is not fun. It has a very mean temper. It loves a fight, and it loves to keep coming after you,” Papenfus said.

He isn’t sure where he picked it up but thinks it might have been on a trip east in October. He said he was meticulous on the plane, sitting in the front, last on, first off. But on landing at Denver International Airport, Papenfus boarded the crowded train to the terminal, and soon alarm bells went off in his head.

“There are people literally like inches from me, and we’re all crammed like sardines in this train,” Papenfus said. “And I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, I am in a superspreader event right now.’”

An airport spokeswoman declined to comment about Papenfus’ experience.

A week later, the symptoms hit. He tested positive and decided to drive himself the three hours to the hospital in Denver. “I’m not going to let anybody get in this car with me and get COVID, because I don’t want to give anybody the ‘rona,” he said. County sheriff’s deputies followed his car to ensure he made it.

Once in the hospital, chest X-rays revealed he’d developed pneumonia.

“Dude, I didn’t get a tap on the shoulder by ‘rona, I got a big viral load,” he texted a reporter, sending images of his chest scans that show large, opaque, white areas of his lung. Just a week earlier, his chest X-ray was normal, he said.

Back in Cheyenne Wells, Dr. Christine Connolly picked up some of Papenfus’ shifts, although she had to drive 10 hours each way from Fort Worth, Texas, to do it. She said the hospital staff is spread thin already.

“It’s not just the doctors; it’s the nurses, you know. It’s hard to get spare nurses,” she said. “There’s not a lot of spares of anything out that far.”

Besides himself, six other employees — out of a staff of 62 at Keefe Memorial — also recently got a positive test, Papenfus said.

Hospitals on the Plains often send their sickest patients to bigger hospitals in Denver and Colorado Springs. But with so many people around the region getting sick, Connolly is getting worried hospitals could be overwhelmed. Health care leaders created a new command system to transfer patients around the state to make more room, but Connolly said there is a limit.

“It’s dangerous when the hospitals in the cities fill up, and when it becomes a problem for us to send out,” she said.

‘Bank Robbers Wear Masks Out There’

The impact of Papenfus’ absence stretches across Colorado’s Eastern Plains. He usually worked shifts an hour to the northwest, at Lincoln Community Hospital in Hugo. Its CEO, Kevin Stansbury, said the town mostly dodged the spring surge and his facility could take in recovering COVID patients from Colorado’s cities. Now, Stansbury said, the virus is reaching places such as Lincoln County, population 5,700. It has had 144 cases, according to state data, and neighboring Kit Carson has had 301. Crowley County to the south, home to a privately managed state prison, has had 1,239 cases. It is far and away the No. 1 most affected county per capita in the state.

“So those numbers are huge,” Stansbury said. He said that as of mid-November about a half-dozen hospital staffers had tested positive for the virus; they think that outbreak is unrelated to Papenfus’ case.

Lincoln Community Hospital is ready once again to take recovering patients. Finances in rural health care are always tight, and accepting new patients would help.

“We have the staff to do that, so long as my staff doesn’t get ravaged with the disease,” Stansbury said.

Rural communities are particularly vulnerable. Residents tend to suffer from underlying health conditions that can make COVID-19 more severe, including high rates of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. And Brock Slabach of the National Rural Health Association said 61% of rural hospitals do not have an intensive care unit.

“This is an unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in right now,” Slabach said. “I don’t think that in our lifetimes we’ve seen anything like what is developing in terms of surge capacity.”

A couple of hours east of Cheyenne Wells, COVID-19 recently hit Gove County, Kansas, hard.

The county’s emergency management director, the local hospital CEO and more than 50 medical staff members tested positive. In a nursing home, most of the more than 30 residents caught the virus; six have died since late September, according to The Associated Press. A county sheriff ended up in a hospital more than an hour from home, fighting to breathe, because of the lack of space at the local medical center.

Papenfus fretted about his home county and its odds of fighting off the virus.

“The western prairie isn’t mask country,” he said. “People don’t wear masks out there; bank robbers wear masks out there.” He is urging Coloradans to stay vigilant, calling the virus an existential threat. “It’s a huge wake-up call.”

Since being released from the hospital, Papenfus has had a rocky recovery. His wife, Joanne, drove him back to Cheyenne Wells, wearing an N95 mask and gloves, while he rode in the back on oxygen, coughing through the three-hour drive.

Once back at home after that initial nine-day stay, Papenfus hunkered down, with the occasional trip outside to hang out with his pet falcon.

But a week after going home, he started having nightly fevers. He had a CT scan done at Keefe Memorial, the hospital where he works. It revealed pneumonia in his lungs, so he went back to Denver, getting readmitted at St. Joseph’s Hospital. This time, Papenfus arrived via ambulance.

Finding a replacement for Papenfus at Keefe has been hard. The hospital is working with services that provide substitute physicians, but these days, with the coronavirus roaring across the country, the competition is fierce.

“They’re really scrambling to get coverage,” Papenfus texted from his hospital bed. “Whole county can’t wait for my return but this illness has really taken me down.”

He said he was now at Day 35 from his first symptoms, lying in his hospital bed in Denver, “wondering when I’ll ever get back.” Papenfus noted that COVID-19 has affected his critical thinking and that he will need to be cleared cognitively to return to work. He said he knows he won’t have the physical stamina to get back to full duty “for a while, if ever.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes Colorado Public RadioNPR and KHN.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Rural Areas Send Their Sickest Patients to Cities, Straining Hospitals

Registered nurse Pascaline Muhindura has spent the past eight months treating COVID patients at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

But when she returns home to her small town of Spring Hill, Kansas, she’s often stunned by what she sees, like on a recent stop for carryout food.

“No one in the entire restaurant was wearing a mask,” Muhindura said. “And there’s no social distancing. I had to get out, because I almost had a panic attack. I was like, ‘What is going on with people? Why are we still doing this?’”

Many rural communities across the U.S. have resisted masks and calls for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but now rural counties are experiencing record-high infection and death rates.

Critically ill rural patients are often sent to city hospitals for high-level treatment and, as their numbers grow, some urban hospitals are buckling under the added strain.

Kansas City has a mask mandate, but in many smaller communities nearby, masks aren’t required — or masking orders are routinely ignored. In the past few months, rural counties in both Kansas and Missouri have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

At the same time, according to an analysis by KHN, about 3 in 4 counties in Kansas and Missouri don’t have a single intensive care unit bed, so when people from these places get critically ill, they’re sent to city hospitals.

A recent patient count at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas City showed a quarter of COVID patients had come from outside the metro area.

Two-thirds of the patients coming from rural areas need intensive care and stay in the hospital for an average of two weeks, said Dr. Marc Larsen, who leads COVID-19 treatment at St. Luke’s.

“Not only are we seeing an uptick in those patients in our hospital from the rural community, they are sicker when we get them because [doctors in smaller communities] are able to handle the less sick patients,” said Larsen. “We get the sickest of the sick.”

Dr. Rex Archer, head of Kansas City’s health department, warns that capacity at the city’s 33 hospitals is being put at risk by the influx of rural patients.

“We’ve had this huge swing that’s occurred because they’re not wearing masks, and yes, that’s putting pressure on our hospitals, which is unfair to our residents that might be denied an ICU bed,” Archer said.

study newly released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Kansas counties that mandated masks in early July saw decreases in new COVID cases, while counties without mask mandates recorded increases.

Hospital leaders have continued to plead with Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson, and with Kansas’ conservative legislature, to implement stringent, statewide mask requirements but without success.

Parson won the Missouri gubernatorial election on Nov. 3 by nearly 17 percentage points. Two days later at a COVID briefing, he accused critics of “making the mask a political issue.” He said county leaders should decide whether to close businesses or mandate masks.

“We’re going to encourage them to take some sort of action,” Parson said Thursday. “The holidays are coming and I, as governor of the state of Missouri, am not going to mandate who goes in your front door.”

In an email, Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, agreed that rural patients might be contributing to hospital crowding in cities but argued that the strain on hospitals is a statewide problem.

The reasons for the rural COVID crisis involve far more than the refusal to mandate or wear masks, according to health care experts.

Both Kansas and Missouri have seen rural hospitals close year after year, and public health spending in both states, as in many largely rural states, is far below national averages.

Rural populations also tend to be older and to suffer from higher rates of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Those conditions can make them more susceptible to severe illness when they contract COVID-19.

Rural areas have been grappling with health problems for a long time, but the coronavirus has been a sort of tipping point, and those rural health issues are now spilling over into cities, explained Shannon Monnat, a rural health researcher at Syracuse University.

“It’s not just the rural health care infrastructure that becomes overwhelmed when there aren’t enough hospital beds, it’s also the surrounding neighborhoods, the suburbs, the urban hospital infrastructure starts to become overwhelmed as well,” Monnat said.

Unlike many parts of the U.S., where COVID trend lines have risen and fallen over the course of the year, Kansas, Missouri and several other Midwestern states never significantly bent their statewide curve.

Individual cities, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, have managed to slow cases, but the continual emergence of rural hot spots across Missouri has driven a slow and steady increase in overall new case numbers — and put an unrelenting strain on the states’ hospital systems.

The months of slow but continuous growth in cases created a high baseline of cases as autumn began, which then set the stage for the sudden escalation of numbers in the recent surge.

“It’s sort of the nature of epidemics that things often look like they’re relatively under control, and then very quickly ramp up to seem that they are out of hand,” said Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Now, a recent local case spike in the Kansas City metro area is adding to the statewide surge in Missouri, with an average of 190 COVID patients per day being admitted to the metro region’s hospitals. The number of people hospitalized throughout Missouri increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks.

Some Kansas City hospitals have had to divert patients for periods of time, and some are now delaying elective procedures, according to the University of Kansas Health system’s chief medical officer, Dr. Steven Stites.

But bed space isn’t the only hospital resource that’s running out. Half of the hospitals in the Kansas City area are now reporting “critical” staffing shortages. Pascaline Muhindura, the nurse who works in Kansas City, said that hospital workers are struggling with anxiety and depression.

“The hospitals are not fine, because people taking care of patients are on the brink,” Muhindura said. “We are tired.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes KCUR, NPR and KHN.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Clots, Strokes and Rashes: Is COVID a Disease of the Blood Vessels?

Whether it’s strange rashes on the toes or blood clots in the brain, the widespread ravages of COVID-19 have increasingly led researchers to focus on how the novel coronavirus sabotages blood vessels.

As scientists have come to know the disease better, they have homed in on the vascular system — the body’s network of arteries, veins and capillaries, stretching more than 60,000 miles — to understand this wide-ranging disease and to find treatments that can stymie its most pernicious effects.

Some of the earliest insights into how COVID-19 can act like a vascular disease came from studying the aftermath of the most serious infections. Those reveal that the virus warps a critical piece of our vascular infrastructure: the single layer of cells lining the inside of every blood vessel, known as the endothelial cells or simply the endothelium.

Dr. William Li, a vascular biologist, compares this lining to a freshly resurfaced ice rink before a hockey game on which the players and pucks glide smoothly along.

“When the virus damages the inside of the blood vessel and shreds the lining, that’s like the ice after a hockey game,” said Li, a researcher and founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation. “You wind up with a situation that is really untenable for blood flow.”

In a study published this summer, Li and an international team of researchers compared the lung tissues of people who died of COVID-19 with those of people who died of influenza. They found stark differences: The lung tissues of the COVID victims had nine times as many tiny blood clots (“microthrombi”) as those of the influenza victims, and the coronavirus-infected lungs also exhibited “severe endothelial injury.”

“The surprise was that this respiratory virus makes a beeline for the cells lining blood vessels, filling them up like a gumball machine and shredding the cell from the inside out,” Li said. “We found blood vessels are blocked and blood clots are forming because of that lining damage.”

It’s already known that the coronavirus breaks into cells by way of a specific receptor, called ACE2, which is found all over the body. But scientists are still trying to understand how the virus sets off a cascade of events that cause so much destruction to blood vessels. Li said one theory is that the virus directly attacks endothelial cells. Lab experiments have shown that the coronavirus can infect engineered human endothelial cells.

It’s also possible the problems begin elsewhere, and the endothelial cells sustain collateral damage along the way as the immune system reacts — and sometimes overreacts — to the invading virus.

Endothelial cells have a slew of important jobs; these include preventing clotting, controlling blood pressure, regulating oxidative stress and fending off pathogens. And Li said uncovering how the virus jeopardizes the endothelium may link many of COVID-19’s complications: “the effects in the brain, the blood clots in the lung and elsewhere in the legs, the COVID toe, the problem with the kidneys and even the heart.”

In Spain, skin biopsies of distinctive red lesions on toes, known as chilblains, found viral particles in the endothelial cells, leading the authors to conclude that “endothelial damage induced by the virus could be the key mechanism.”

Is Blood Vessel Damage Behind COVID Complications?

With a surface area larger than a football field, the endothelium helps maintain a delicate balance in the bloodstream. These cells are essentially the gatekeeper to the bloodstream.

“The endothelium has developed a distant early warning system to alert the body to get ready for an invasion if there’s trouble brewing,” said Dr. Peter Libby, a cardiologist and research scientist at Harvard Medical School. When that happens, endothelial cells change the way they function, he said. But that process can go too far.

“The very functions that help us maintain health and fight off invaders, when they run out of control, then it can actually make the disease worse,” Libby said.

In that case, the endothelial cells turn against their host and start to promote clotting and high blood pressure.

“In COVID-19 patients, we have both of these markers of dysfunction,” said Dr. Gaetano Santulli, a cardiologist and researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

The novel coronavirus triggers a condition seen in other cardiovascular diseases called endothelial dysfunction. Santulli, who wrote about this idea in the spring, said that may be the “cornerstone” of organ dysfunction in COVID patients.

“The common denominator in all of these COVID-19 patients is endothelial dysfunction,” he said. “It’s like the virus knows where to go and knows how to attack these cells.”

Runaway Immune Response Adds a Plot Twist

A major source of damage to the vascular system likely also comes from the body’s own runaway immune response to the coronavirus.

“What we see with the SARS-CoV-2 is really an unprecedented level of inflammation in the bloodstream,” said Dr. Yogen Kanthi, a cardiologist and vascular medicine specialist at the National Institutes of Health who’s researching this phase of the illness. “This virus is leveraging its ability to create inflammation, and that has these deleterious, nefarious effects downstream.”

When inflammation spreads through the inner lining of the blood vessels — a condition called endothelialitis — blood clots can form throughout the body, starving tissues of oxygen and promoting even more inflammation.

“We start to get this relentless, self-amplifying cycle of inflammation in the body, which can then lead to more clotting and more inflammation,” Kanthi said.

Another sign of endothelial damage comes from analyzing the blood of COVID patients. A recent study found elevated levels of a protein produced by endothelial cells, called von Willebrand factor, that is involved in clotting.

“They are through the roof in those who are critically ill,” said Dr. Alfred Lee, a hematologist at the Yale Cancer Center who coauthored the study with Hyung Chun, a cardiologist and vascular biologist at Yale.

Lee pointed out that some autoimmune diseases can lead to a similar interplay of clotting and inflammation called immunothrombosis.

Chun said the elevated levels of von Willebrand factor show that vascular injury can be detected in patients while in the hospital — and perhaps even before, which could help predict their likelihood of developing more serious complications.

But he said it’s not yet clear what is the driving force behind the blood vessel damage: “It does seem to be a progression of disease that really brings out this endothelial injury. The key question is, what’s the root cause of this?”

After they presented their data, Lee said, Yale’s hospital system started putting patients who were critically ill with COVID-19 on aspirin, which can prevent clotting. While the best combinations and dosages are still being studied, research indicates blood thinners may improve outcomes in COVID patients.

Chun said treatments are also being studied that may more directly protect endothelial cells from the coronavirus.

“Is that the end-all-be-all to treating COVID-19? I absolutely don’t think so. There’s so many aspects of the disease that we still don’t understand,” he said.

COVID Is Often a Vascular ‘Stress Test’

Early in the pandemic, Dr. Roger Seheult, a critical care and pulmonary physician in Southern California, realized the patients he expected to be most vulnerable to a respiratory virus, those with underlying lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, were not the ones ending up disproportionately in his intensive care unit. Seheult, who runs the popular medical education website MedCram, said, “Instead, what we are seeing are patients who are obese, people who have large BMIs, people who have Type 2 diabetes and with high blood pressure.”

Over time, all those conditions can cause inflammation and damage to the lining of blood vessels, he said, including a harmful chemical imbalance known as oxidative stress. Seheult said infection with the coronavirus becomes an added stress for people with those conditions that already tax the blood vessels: “If you’re right on the edge and you get the wind blown from this coronavirus, now you’ve gone over the edge.”

He said the extensive damage to blood vessels could explain why COVID patients with severe respiratory problems don’t necessarily resemble patients who get sick from the flu.

“They are having shortness of breath, but we have to realize the lungs are more than just the airways,” he said. “It’s an issue with the blood vessels themselves.”

This is why COVID patients struggle to fill their blood supply with oxygen, even when air is being pumped into their lungs.

“The endothelial cells get leaky, so instead of being like saran wrap, it turns into a sieve and then it allows fluid from the bloodstream to accumulate in the air spaces,” Harvard’s Libby said.

Doctors who treat COVID-19 are now keenly aware that complications such as strokes and heart problems can appear even after a patient gets better and their breathing improves.

“They are off oxygen, they can be discharged home, but their vasculature is not completely resolved. They still have inflammation,” he said. “What can happen is they develop a blood clot, and they have a massive pulmonary embolism.”

Patients can be closely monitored for these problems, but one of the big unknowns for doctors and patients is the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the circulatory system. The Angiogenesis Foundation’s Li puts it this way: The virus enters your body and it leaves your body. You might or might not have gotten sick. But is that leaving behind a trashed vascular system?”

This story is part of a partnership that includes NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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When False Information Goes Viral, COVID-19 Patient Groups Fight Back

For decades, people struggling with illnesses of all kinds have sought help in online support groups. This year, such groups have been in high demand for COVID-19 patients, who often must recover in isolation.

But the fear and uncertainty regarding the coronavirus have made online groups targets for the spread of false information. And to help fellow patients, some of these groups are making it a mission to stamp out misinformation.

Shortly after Matthew Long-Middleton got sick on March 12, he joined a COVID-19 support group run by an organization called Body Politic on the messaging platform Slack.

“I had no idea where this road leads, and so I was looking for support and other theories and some places where people were going through a similar thing, including the uncertainty,” said Long-Middleton, 36, an avid cyclist who lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His illness started with chest discomfort, then muscle weakness, high fever, loss of appetite and digestive problems. In addition to all the physical symptoms, the mystery weighed on him, making him feel like he and other patients “have to figure this out for ourselves.”

But with the support came misinformation. Group members reported taking massive amounts of vitamins — including vitamin D, which can be harmful in excess — or trying other home remedies not backed by science.

Experts warned that such false or unverified information spread on online support groups can not only mislead patients, but also potentially undermine trust in science and medicine in general.

“Even if we’re not actively seeking information, we encounter these kinds of messages on social media, and because of this repeated exposure, there’s more likelihood that it’s going to seep into our thinking and perhaps even change the way that we view certain issues, even if there’s no real merit or credibility,” said Elizabeth Glowacki, a health communication researcher at Northeastern University.

In an effort to help fellow COVID-19 sufferers, some patients, like Vanessa Cruz, spend most of their days fact-checking their online support groups.

“It’s really become like a second family to me, and being able to help everybody is a positive thing that comes out of all this negativity we’re experiencing right now,” Cruz said.

Cruz, a 43-year-old mother of two, moderates the Facebook COVID-19 support group called “have it/had it” from her home in the Chicago suburbs. She’s also a “long-hauler” who has been dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, including fatigue, fever and confusion, since March.

The worldwide group has more than 30,000 members and has recently been buzzing with reports from India about treating COVID-19 with a common tapeworm medication (it’s not FDA-approved and there’s little evidence it works) — as well as speculation about President Donald Trump’s recent diagnosis.

Other troubling posts include people pushing hydroxychloroquine, which has not been proved effective in treating COVID-19, and sharing the viral video “America’s Frontline Doctors,” which promotes other unproven treatments and spreads conspiracy theories.

Cruz said supporting fellow patients can be a tricky balance of getting the facts right but also giving people who are scared the chance to be heard.

“It’s like you really don’t know what to question, what to ask for, how to reach for help,” Cruz said. “Instead of doing that, they just write up their story, basically, and they share it with everybody.”

To keep the group evidence-based, it has built up a 17-person fact-checking team, which includes two nurses and a biologist. Someone on the team reviews every post that goes up.

However, many online COVID-19 groups don’t have the resources or strategy to address misinformation.

Mel Montano, a 32-year-old writing instructor who lives in New York and has also felt sick since March, said she left a large Facebook support group because she was frustrated by the conspiracy theories that filled its posts.

“All of these conflicting theories completely took away from the focal point of it,” Montano said. “It was a mess.”

Montano is now a moderator of the Body Politic group on Slack.

Facebook and Twitter have made changes in their approaches toward COVID-19 misinformation, including additional fact-checking, removing posts that contain falsehoods and removing users or groups that spread them.

However, critics say more changes are needed.

Fadi Quran, director of campaigns for Avaaz, a human rights group that focuses on disinformation campaigns, said Facebook needs to revise the way it prioritizes content.

“Facebook’s algorithm prefers misinformation, prefers the sensational stuff that’s going to get clicks and likes and make people angry,” Quran said. “And so the misinformation actors, because of Facebook, will always have the upper hand.”

A study by Avaaz showed that misinformation and disinformation had been viewed on Facebook four times as often as information from official health groups, like the World Health Organization.

Facebook did not respond to inquiries for this story.

COVID-19 patient Long-Middleton thinks the problem goes deeper than getting the data right. He said a lot of bad information is spread because patients so badly want to find ways to feel better.

After nearly six months of symptoms, Long-Middleton said he’s returned to better health in the past month, though he continues to check in on fellow support group members who are still struggling.

He never tried risky treatments discussed in the group himself, but he understands why someone might.

“You want to find hope, but you don’t want the hope to lead you down a path that hurts you,” he said.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KCUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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Listen: COVID Stresses Rural Hospitals Already ‘Teetering on the Brink’

When KHN Editor-in-Chief Elisabeth Rosenthal heard a sample of the voices that correspondent Sarah Jane Tribble brought back from her reporting trip to rural Kansas, Rosenthal said she knew the story needed to be told through audio.

That’s the genesis for “No Mercy,” season one of the podcast “Where It Hurts.” The series documents the fallout after Mery Hospital closed in Fort Scott, Kansas.

Rosenthal and Tribble were featured on the latest episode of Crooked Media’s “America Dissected: Coronavirus.”

“When a rural hospital shuts down, it’s much more than health care that’s lost. It was really pulling the fabric of this town apart economically and socially,” Rosenthal said.

Fort Scott is a town of about 8,000, and more than 200 people — from janitorial staff to physicians — lost their jobs when the hospital closed.

“The trickle-down effect of a major anchor institution in a rural community closing is not just from the hospital jobs but from all the jobs supporting the hospital,” said Tribble, who grew up in southeastern Kansas and is the host of “No Mercy.”

The coronavirus pandemic is an added stress for rural hospitals, she said.

“COVID, despite what Donald Trump has said, is not a good moneymaker. It is a money loser for hospitals,” Rosenthal said. “If you’re teetering on the edge, as these hospitals were, a massive pandemic that requires a lot of high-intensity care, that will not get reimbursed that well, is going to push you over the edge.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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They Work in Several Nursing Homes to Eke Out a Living, Possibly Spreading the Virus

To make ends meet, Martha Tapia works 64 hours a week at two Orange County, California, nursing homes. She is one of thousands of certified nursing assistants who perform the intimate and physical work of bathing, dressing and feeding the nation’s fragile elderly.

“We do everything for them. Everything you do for yourself, you have to do for the residents,” Tapia said.

And she’s one of many in that low-paid field, predominantly women of color, who work at more than one facility.

In March, when the coronavirus began racing through nursing homes, the federal government banned visitors. (That guidance has since been updated.) But even with the ban, infections kept spreading. A team of researchers from UCLA and Yale University decided to examine the people who continued to enter nursing homes during that time: the employees.

Keith Chen, a behavioral economist and UCLA professor, said the key question is this: “The people who, we can infer, work in this nursing home — what other nursing homes do they work at?”

Using location data from 30 million smartphones when the visitor ban was in place helped the scientists “see” the movements of people going into and out of nursing homes. The data showed a lot of nursing home workers are — like Tapia — working at more than one facility. Chen said the findings suggest that staffers who work in multiple nursing homes are one source of the spread of infections.

“When you learn that over 20 of your workers are also spending time in other nursing homes, that should be a real red flag,” Chen said.

The Toll on Patients and Beyond

More than 84,000 residents and staff members of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19 across the U.S., representing 40% of all coronavirus fatalities in the country, according to KFF’s most recent analysis. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

In California, the analogous toll is more than 5,700 deaths, making up 35% of all coronavirus fatalities in the state.

The UCLA team created maps of movement and found that on average each nursing home is connected to seven others through staff movement. Limiting nursing home employees to one facility could mean fewer COVID-19 infections — but that would hurt the workforce of people who say they work multiple jobs because of low wages.

After each of her shifts, Tapia worries she’ll bring the coronavirus home to her granddaughter. She tries to take precautions, including buying N95 masks from nurses. She knows it’s not just patients who are at risk. Nursing home workers such as Tapia are also contracting COVID-19 — in California alone, 153 of them have died since the pandemic began.

At the nursing home where she works in the morning, Tapia gets an N95 mask that she must only use — and reuse — in that facility. At her other nursing home job, in the afternoons, she gets a blue surgical mask to wear.

“They say they cannot give us N95 [masks],” she said, because she works in the “general area” where residents haven’t tested positive for the coronavirus.

She doesn’t want to work at multiple nursing homes, but her rent in Orange County is $2,200 a month, and her low pay and limited hours at each nursing home make multiple jobs a necessity.

“I don’t want to get sick. But we need to work. We need to eat, we need to pay rent. That’s just how it is,” Tapia said.

Staff Connections Equal Infections

The UCLA study also found that some areas of the country have a much higher overlap in nursing home staffing than others.

“There are some facilities in Florida, in New Jersey, where they’re sharing upwards of 50 to 100 workers,” said UCLA associate professor Elisa Long, who, along with her colleagues, examined data during the federal visitor ban from March to May. “This is over an 11-week time period, but that’s a huge number of individuals that are moving between these facilities; all of these are potential sources of COVID transmission.”

They also found the more shared workers a nursing home has, the more COVID-19 infections among the residents.

“Not only does it matter how connected your nursing home is, but what really matters is how connected your connections are,” Long said.

The researchers say they’ve informally dubbed these highly connected nursing homes as each state’s “Kevin Bacon of nursing homes,” after the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game.

“We found that if you’re going to see a nursing home outbreak anywhere, it’s likely to spread to the Kevin Bacon of nursing homes in each state,” Chen said.

The team hopes that local health departments could use similar cellphone data methods as an early warning system. Using the test results from the “Kevin Bacon of nursing homes” as an indicator would be the first step.

“As soon as you detect an outbreak in one nursing home, you can immediately prioritize those other nursing homes that you know are at increased risk,” Chen said.

Prioritize Masks and Hand-Washing

The California Association of Health Facilities represents most nursing homes in the Golden State. In response to the study, the group said its members can’t prevent workers such as Tapia from taking jobs elsewhere, and they can’t pay them more, because California doesn’t pay them enough through Medicaid reimbursements.

Mike Dark, an attorney with the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, doesn’t buy that argument. He said the state already tried paying nursing homes more in 2006 — and that made them more profitable but not more safe and efficient. He said he’s skeptical that extra funding to pay staff would reach those workers.

“We know from past experience that money tends to go into the pockets of the executives and administrators who run these places,” Dark said.

He agreed that health workers such as Tapia should be paid more but cautioned against one idea being floated in some policy circles: limiting workers to one nursing home.

“Then you can wind up depriving some of the crucial health caregivers that we have in these facilities of their livelihoods, which can’t be a good solution,” he said.

Instead, he said, regulators need to focus on the basics, especially in the 100 California nursing homes with ongoing outbreaks, since it’s been shown that infection control measures work.

“Right now there’s poor access to [personal protective equipment]. There’s still erratic compliance with things like hand-washing requirements,” he said. “If we spent more time addressing those key issues, there would be much less concern about spread between facilities.”

Jackie Fortiér is health reporter for KPCC and This story is part of a partnership that includes KPCC, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Evictions Damage Public Health. The CDC Aims to Curb Them ― For Now.

In August, Robert Pettigrew was working a series of odd jobs. While washing the windows of a cellphone store he saw a sign, one that he believes the “good Lord” placed there for him.

“Facing eviction?” the sign read. “You could be eligible for up to $3,000 in rent assistance. Apply today.”

It seemed a hopeful omen after a series of financial and health blows. In March, Pettigrew, 52, learned he has an invasive mass on his lung that restricts his breathing. His doctor told him his condition puts him at high risk of developing deadly complications from COVID-19 and advised him to stop working as a night auditor at a Motel 6, where he manned the front desk. Reluctantly, he had to leave that job and start piecing together other work.

With pay coming in less steadily, Pettigrew and his wife, Stephanie, fell behind on the rent. Eventually, they were many months late, and the couple’s landlord filed to evict them.

Then Pettigrew saw the rental assistance sign.

“There were nights I would lay in bed and my wife would be asleep, and all I could do was say, ‘God, you need to help me. We need you,’” Pettigrew said. “And here he came. He showed himself to us.”

As many as 40 million Americans faced a looming eviction risk in August, according to a report authored by 10 national housing and eviction experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited that estimate in early September when it ordered an unprecedented, nationwide eviction moratorium through the end of 2020.

That move — a moratorium from the country’s top public health agency — spotlights a message experts have preached for years without prompting much policy action: Housing stability and health are intertwined.

The CDC is now citing stable housing as a vital tool to control the coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans. Home is where people isolate themselves to avoid transmitting the virus or becoming infected. When local governments issue stay-at-home orders in the name of public health, they presume that residents have a home. For people who have the virus, home is often where they recover from COVID-19’s fever, chills and dry cough — in lieu of, or after, a hospital stay.

But the moratorium is not automatic. Renters have to submit a declaration form to their landlord, agreeing to a series of statements under threat of perjury, including “my housing provider may require payment in full for all payments not made prior to and during the temporary halt, and failure to pay may make me subject to eviction pursuant to state and local laws.”

Confusion surrounding the CDC’s order means some tenants are still being ordered to leave their homes.

Princeton University is tracking eviction filings in 17 U.S. cities during the pandemic. As of Sept. 19, landlords in those cities have filed for more than 50,000 evictions since March 15. The tally includes about 11,900 in Houston, 10,900 in Phoenix and 4,100 in Milwaukee.

It’s an incomplete snapshot that excludes some major American cities such as Indianapolis, where local housing advocates said court cases are difficult to track, but landlords have sought to evict thousands of renters.

Children raised in unstable housing are more prone to hospitalization than those with stable housing. Homelessness is associated with delayed childhood development, and mothers in families that lose homes to eviction show higher rates of depression and other health challenges.

Mounting research illustrates that even the threat of eviction can exact a physical and mental toll from tenants.

Nicole MacMillan, 38, lost her job managing vacation rentals in Fort Myers, Florida, in March when the pandemic shut down businesses. Later, she also lost the apartment where she had been living with her two children.

“I actually contacted a doctor, because I thought, mentally, I can’t handle this anymore,” MacMillan said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go. And maybe some medication can help me for a little bit.”

But the doctor she reached out to wasn’t accepting new patients.

With few options, MacMillan moved north to live with her grandparents in Grayslake, Illinois. Her children are staying with their fathers while she gets back on her feet. She recently started driving for Uber Eats in the Chicagoland area.

“I need a home for my kids again,” MacMillan said, fighting back tears. The pandemic “has ripped my whole life apart.”

Searching for Assistance to Stay at Home

That store window sign? It directed Pettigrew to Community Advocates, a Milwaukee nonprofit that received $7 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds to help administer a local rental aid program. More than 3,800 applications for assistance have flooded the agency, said Deborah Heffner, its housing strategy director, while tens of thousands more applications have flowed to a separate agency administering the state’s rental relief program in Milwaukee.

Persistence helped the Pettigrews break through the backlog.

“I blew their phone up,” said Stephanie Pettigrew, with a smile.

She qualifies for federal Social Security Disability Insurance, which sends her $400 to $900 in monthly assistance. That income has become increasingly vital since March when Robert left his motel job.

He has since pursued a host of odd jobs to keep food on the table — such as the window-washing he was doing when he saw the rental assistance sign — work where he can limit his exposure to the virus. He brings home $40 on a good day, he said, $10 on a bad one. Before they qualified for rent assistance, February had been the last time the Pettigrews could fully pay their $600 monthly rent bill.

Just as their finances tightened and their housing situation became less stable, the couple welcomed more family members. Heavenly, Robert’s adult daughter, arrived in May from St. Louis after the child care center where she worked shut down because of concerns over the coronavirus. She brought along her 3-year-old son.

Through its order, the CDC hopes to curtail evictions, which can add family members and friends to already stressed households. The federal order notes that “household contacts are estimated to be 6 times more likely to become infected by [a person with] COVID-19 than other close contacts.”

“That’s where that couch surfing issue comes up — people going from place to place every few nights, not trying to burden anybody in particular, but possibly at risk of spreading around the risk of coronavirus,” said Andrew Bradley of Prosperity Indiana, a nonprofit focusing on community development.

The Pettigrews’ Milwaukee apartment — a kitchen, a front room, two bedrooms and one bathroom — is tight for the three generations now sharing it.

“But it’s our home,” Robert said. “We’ve got a roof over our head. I can’t complain.”

Housing Loss Hits Black and Latino Communities

A U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted before the federal eviction moratorium was announced found that 5.5 million of American adults feared they were either somewhat or very likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months.

State and local governments nationwide are offering a patchwork of help for those people.

In Massachusetts, the governor extended the state’s pause on evictions and foreclosures until Oct. 17. Landlords are challenging that move both in state and federal court, but both courts have let the ban stand while the lawsuits proceed.

“Access to stable housing is a crucial component of containing COVID-19 for every citizen of Massachusetts,” Judge Paul Wilson wrote in a state court ruling. “The balance of harms and the public interest favor upholding the law to protect the public health and economic well-being of tenants and the public in general during this health and economic emergency.”

The cases from Massachusetts may offer a glimpse of how federal challenges to the CDC order could play out.

By contrast, in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers was one of the first governors to lift a state moratorium on evictions during the pandemic — thereby enabling about 8,000 eviction filings from late May to early September, according to a search of an online database of Wisconsin circuit courts.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s most populous city, has seen nearly half of those filings, which have largely hit the city’s Black-majority neighborhoods, according to an Eviction Lab analysis.

In other states, housing advocates note similar disparities.

“Poor neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color, have higher rates of asthma and blood pressure — which, of course, are all health issues that the COVID pandemic is then being impacted by,” said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana.

“This deadly virus is killing people disproportionately in Black and brown communities at alarming rates,” said Dee Ross, founder of the Indianapolis Tenants Rights Union. “And disproportionately, Black and brown people are the ones being evicted at the highest rate in Indiana.”

Across the country, officials at various levels of government have set aside millions in federal pandemic aid for housing assistance for struggling renters and homeowners. That includes $240 million earmarked in Florida, between state and county governments, $100 million in Los Angeles County and $18 million in Mississippi.

In Wisconsin, residents report that a range of barriers — from application backlogs to onerous paperwork requirements — have limited their access to aid.

In Indiana, more than 36,000 people applied for that state’s $40 million rental assistance program before the application deadline. Marion County, home to Indianapolis, had a separate $25 million program, but it cut off applications after just three days because of overwhelming demand. About 25,000 people sat on the county’s waiting list in late August.

Of that massive need, Bradley, who works in economic development in Indiana, said: “We’re not confident that the people who need the help most even know about the program — that there’s been enough proactive outreach to get to the households that are most impacted.”

After Milwaukeean Robert Pettigrew saw that sign in the store window and reached out to the nonprofit Community Advocates, the group covered more than $4,700 of the Pettigrews’ rental payments, late charges, utility bills and court fees. The nonprofit also referred the couple to a pro-bono lawyer, who helped seal their eviction case — that means it can’t hurt the Pettigrews’ ability to rent in the future, and ensures the family will have housing at least through September. The CDC moratorium has added to that security.

The federal eviction moratorium, if it withstands legal challenges from housing industry groups, “buys critical time” for renters to find assistance through the year’s end, said Emily Benfer, founding director of the Wake Forest Law Health Justice Clinic.

“It’s protecting 30 to 40 million adults and children from eviction and the downward spiral that it causes in long-term, poor health outcomes,” she said.

Doctor: Evictions Akin to ‘Toxic Exposure’

Megan Sandel, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said at least a third of the 14,000 families with children that seek treatment at her medical center have fallen behind on their rent, a figure mirrored in national reports.

Hospital officials worry that evictions during the pandemic will trigger a surge of homeless patients — and patients who lack homes are more challenging and expensive to treat. One study from 2016 found that stable housing reduced Medicaid spending by 12% — and not because members stopped going to the doctor. Primary care use increased 20%, while more expensive emergency room visits dropped by 18%.

A year ago, Boston Medical Center and two area hospitals collaborated to invest $3 million in emergency housing assistance as community organizing focused on affordable housing policies and development. Now the hospitals are looking for additional emergency funds, trying to boost legal resources to prevent evictions and work more closely with public housing authorities and state rental assistance programs.

“We are a safety-net hospital. We don’t have unlimited resources,” Sandel said. “But being able to avert an eviction is like avoiding a toxic exposure.”

Sandel said the real remedy for avoiding an eviction crisis is to offer Americans substantially more emergency rental assistance, along the lines of the $100 billion included in a package proposed by House Democrats in May and dubbed the Heroes Act. Boston Medical Center is among the 26 health care associations and systems that signed a letter urging congressional leaders to agree on rental and homeless assistance as well as a national moratorium on evictions for the entire pandemic.

“Without action from Congress, we are going to see a tsunami of evictions,” the letter stated, “and its fallout will directly impact the health care system and harm the health of families and individuals for years to come.”

Groups representing landlords urge passage of rental assistance, too, although some oppose the CDC order. They point out that property owners must pay bills as well and may lose apartments where renters can’t or won’t pay.

In Milwaukee, Community Advocates is helping the Pettigrews look for a more affordable apartment. Robert Pettigrew continues attending doctors’ appointments for his lungs, searching for safe work. He looks to the future with a sense of resolve — and a request that no one pity his family.

“Life just kicks you in the butt sometimes,” he said. “But I’m the type of person — I’m gonna kick life’s ass back.”

For this story, NPR and KHN partnered with the investigative journalism site Wisconsin Watch, Side Effects Public Media, Wisconsin Public Radio and WBUR.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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Swab, Spit, Stay Home? College Coronavirus Testing Plans Are All Over the Map

Yousuf El-Jayyousi, a junior engineering student at the University of Missouri, wanted guidance and reassurance that it would be safe to go back to school for the fall semester. He tuned into a pair of online town halls organized by the university hoping to find that.

He did not.

What he got instead from those town halls last month was encouragement to return to class at the institution affectionately known as Mizzou. The university, in Columbia, would be testing only people with symptoms, and at that point, the university said people who test positive off campus were under no obligation to inform the school.

“It feels like the university doesn’t really care whether we get sick or not,” said El-Jayyousi, who is scheduled for two in-person classes, and lives at home with his parents and 90-year-old grandmother.

He’s seen the studies from researchers at Yale and Harvard that suggest testing needs to be much more widespread. He asked his instructors if he could join lectures remotely once classes begin Monday. One was considering it; the other rejected it.

“It was kind of very dismissive, like ‘so what?’” El-Jayyousi said.

But it’s an enormous “so what?” packed with fear and unknowns for Jayyousi and some 20 million other students enrolled in some level of postsecondary education in America, if they are not already online only.

As with the uncoordinated and chaotic national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education has no clear guidance or set of standards to adhere to from the federal government or anywhere else. Policies for reentry onto campuses that were abruptly shut in March are all over the map.

Hundreds Undecided

According to the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, a project of Davidson College that monitors how higher ed is responding to the pandemic, there is nothing resembling a common approach. Of 2,958 institutions it follows, 151 were planning to open fully online, 729 were mostly online and 433 were taking a hybrid approach. Just 75 schools were insisting on students attending fully in person, and 614 were aiming to be primarily in-person. Some 800 others were still deciding, just weeks before instruction was to start.

The decisions often have little correlation with the public health advisories in the region. Mizzou, which is in an area with recent COVID spikes, is holding some in-person instruction and has nearly 7,000 students signed up to live in dorms and other university-owned housing. Harvard, in a region with extremely low rates of viral spread, has opted to go all online and allowed students to defer a year.

The specific circumstances colleges and universities face are as much determined by local fiscal and political dictates as by medicine and epidemiology. It is often unclear who is making the call. So it’s every-student-for-herself to chart these unknown waters, even as students (or their families) have written tuition checks for tens of thousands of dollars and signed leases for campus and off-campus housing.

And the risks — health, educational and financial — boomerang back on individual students: Two weeks after University of North Carolina students, as instructed, returned to the flagship campus in Chapel Hill with the promise of at least some in-person learning, all classes went online. Early outbreaks surged from a few students to more than 130 in a matter of days. Most undergrads have about a week to clear out of their dorms.

“It’s really tough,” said neuroscience major Luke Lawless, 20. “Chapel Hill is an amazing place, and as a senior it’s tough to know that my time’s running out — and the virus only adds to that.”

Location, Location, Location

C2i’s creator, Davidson education Assistant Professor Chris Marsicano, said the extreme diversity of approaches comes from the sheer diversity of schools, the penchant of many to follow the leads of more prestigious peers, and local politics.

“Some states have very strong and stringent mask requirements. Some have stronger stay-at-home orders. Others are sort of leaving it up to localities. So the confluence of politics, institutional isomorphism — that imitation — and different needs that the institutions have are driving the differences,” Marsicano said.

Location matters a lot, too, Marsicano said, pointing to schools like George Washington University and Boston University in urban settings where the environment is beyond the control of the school, versus a place like the University of the South in remote, rural Sewanee, Tennessee, where 90% of students will return to campus.

“It’s a lot easier to control an outbreak if you are a fairly isolated college campus than if you are in the middle of a city,” Marsicano said.

Student behavior is another wild card, Marsicano said, since even the best plans will fail if college kids “do something stupid, like have a massive frat party without masks.”

“You’ve got student affairs professionals across the country who are screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘We can’t control student behavior when they go off campus’” Marsicano said.

Another factor is a vacuum at the federal level. Although the Department of Education says Secretary Betsy DeVos has held dozens of calls with governors and state education superintendents, there’s no sign of an attempt to offer unified guidance to colleges beyond a webpage that links to relaxed regulatory requirements and anodyne fact sheets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on preventing viral spread.

Even the money that the department notes it has dispensed — $30 billion from Congress’ CARES Act — is weighted toward K-12 schools, with about $13 billion for higher education, including student aid.

The U.S. Senate adjourned last week until Sept. 8, having never taken up a House-passed relief package that included some $30 billion for higher education. A trio of Democratic senators, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is calling for national reporting standards on college campuses.

No Benchmarks

Campus communities with very different levels of contagion are making opposite calls about in-person learning. Mizzou’s Boone County has seen more than 1,400 confirmed COVID cases after a spike in mid-July. According to the Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID risk map, Boone has accelerated spread, with 14 infections per day per 100,000 people. The institute advises stay-at-home orders or rigorous testing and tracing at such rates of infection. Two neighboring counties were in the red zone recently, with more than 25 cases per day per 100,000 people. Mizzou has left it up to deans whether classes will meet in person, making a strong argument for face-to-face instruction.

Meanwhile, Columbia University in New York City opted for all online instruction, even though the rate of infection there is a comparatively low 3.8 cases per day per 100,000 people.

Administrators at Mizzou considered and rejected mandatory testing. “All that does is provide one a snapshot of the situation,” University of Missouri system President Mun Choi said in one of the town halls.

Mizzou has an in-house team that will carry out case investigation and contact tracing with the local health department. This week, following questions from the press and pressure from the public, the university announced students will be required to report any positive COVID test to the school.

Who Do You Test? When?

CDC guidance for higher education suggests there’s not enough data to know whether testing everyone is effective, but some influential researchers, such as those at Harvard and Yale, disagree.

“This virus is subject to silent spreading and asymptomatic spreading, and it’s very hard to play catch-up,” said Yale professor David Paltiel, who studies public health policy. “And so thinking that you can keep your campus safe by simply waiting until students develop symptoms before acting, I think, is a very dangerous game.”

Simulation models conducted by Paltiel and his colleagues show that, of all the factors university administrators can control — including the sensitivity and specificity of COVID-19 tests — the frequency of testing is most important.

He’s “painfully aware” that testing everyone on campus every few days sets a very high bar — logistically, financially, behaviorally — that may be beyond what most schools can reach. But he says the consequences of reopening campuses without those measures are severe, not just for students, but for vulnerable populations among school workers and in the surrounding community.

“You really have to ask yourself whether you have any business reopening if you’re not going to commit to an aggressive program of high-frequency testing,” he said.

The Fighting — And Testing — Illini

Some institutions that desperately want students to return to campus are backing the goal with a maximal approach to safety and testing.

About a four-hour drive east along the interstates from Mizzou is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose sports teams are known as the Fighting Illini.

Weeks ago, large white tents with signs reading “Walk-Up COVID-19 Testing” have popped up across campus; there students take a simple saliva test.

“This seems to be a lot easier than sticking a cotton swab up your nose,” graduate student Kristen Muñoz said after collecting a bit of her saliva in a plastic tube and sealing it in a bag labeled “Biohazard.”

In just a few hours, she got back her result: negative.

The school plans to offer free tests to the 50,000 students expected to return this month, as well as some 11,000 faculty and staff members.

“The exciting thing is, because we can test up to 10,000 per day, it allows the scientist to do what’s really the best for trying to protect the community as opposed to having to cut corners, because of the limitations of the testing,” said University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke, who helped develop the campus’s saliva test, which received emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration this week.

The test is similar to one designed by Yale and funded by the NBA that cleared the FDA hurdle just before the Illinois test. Both Yale and Illinois hope aggressive testing will allow most undergraduate students to live on campus, even though most classes will be online.

University of Illinois epidemiologist Becky Smith said they are following data that suggest campuses need to test everyone every few days because the virus is not detectable in infected people for three or four days.

“But about two days after that, your infectiousness peaks,” she said. “So, we have a very small window of time in which to catch people before they have done most of the infection that they’re going to be doing.”

Campus officials accepted Smith’s recommendation that all faculty, staffers and students participating in any on-campus activities be required to get tested twice a week.

Illinois can do that because its test is convenient and not invasive, which spares the campus from using as much personal protective equipment as the more invasive tests require, Burke said. And on-site analysis avoids backlogs at public health and commercial labs.

Muddled in the Middle

Most other colleges fall somewhere between the approaches of Mizzou and the University of Illinois, and many of their students still are uncertain how their fall semester will go.

At the University of Southern California, a private campus of about 48,500 students in Los Angeles, officials had hoped to have about 20% of classes in person — but the county government scaled that back, insisting on tougher rules for reopening than the statewide standards.

If students eventually are allowed back, they will have to show a recent coronavirus test result that they obtained on their own, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of USC Student Health.

They will be asked to do daily health assessments, such as fever checks, and those who have been exposed to the virus or show symptoms will receive a rapid test, with about a 24-hour turnaround through the university medical center’s lab. “We believe it is really important to have very rapid access to those results,” Van Orman said.

At California State University — the nation’s largest four-year system, with 23 campuses and nearly a half-million students — officials decided back in May to move nearly all its fall courses online.

“The first priority was really the health and safety of all of the campus community,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesperson for the CSU Chancellor’s Office. About 10% of CSU students are expected to attend some in-person classes, such as nursing lab courses, fine art and dance classes, and some graduate classes.

Uhlenkamp said testing protocols are being left up to each campus, though all are required to follow local safety guidelines. And without a medical campus in the system, CSU campuses do not have the same capacity to take charge of their own testing, as the University of Illinois is doing.

For students who know they won’t be on campus this fall, there is regret at lost social experiences, networking and hands-on learning so important to college.

But the certainty also brings relief.

“I don’t think I would want to be indoors with a group of, you know, even just a handful of people, even if we have masks on,” said Haley Gray, a 28-year-old graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley starting the second year of her journalism program.

She knows she won’t have access to Berkeley’s advanced media labs or the collaborative sessions students experience there. And she said she realized the other day she probably won’t just sit around the student lounge and strike up unexpected friendships.

“That’s a pretty big bummer but, you know, I think overall we’re all just doing our best, and given the circumstances, I feel pretty OK about it,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KBIA, Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Deadly Mix: How Bars Are Fueling COVID-19 Outbreaks

From the early days of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, states have wrestled with the best course of action for bars and nightclubs, which largely have their economic prospects tied to social gatherings in tight quarters. As the virus has pinched the industry’s lifeblood, bar owners in a handful of states are fighting in court against government orders that they stay closed.

But public health experts and top health officials, including the nation’s top infectious diseases official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said: When bars open, infections tend to follow.

Some states moved quickly to shutter bars early in the pandemic for months or longer, keeping them entirely closed or open only under very strict conditions. Many other states moved to reopen bars on a faster timeline — only to shut them down again as viral case counts rebounded this summer.

“We’re big targets. It’s just wrong,” said Steve Smith, whose Nashville, Tennessee, businesses include honky-tonks that serve alcohol and cater to tourists. But some legal experts said public health authorities have broad power to close down any business they deem particularly risky.

“They can’t regulate in ways that are arbitrary or capricious,” said Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University. “But if there’s good evidence that a certain class of establishment is causing the spread of infectious diseases, it’s absolutely clear that they have the right — in fact, they have the duty — to do it.”

The evidence that bars are a particular problem has continued to grow, said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease specialist in El Paso, Texas.

“If you were to create a petri dish and say, How can we spread this the most? It would be cruise ships, jails and prisons, factories, and it would be bars,” said Alozie. He was a member of the Texas Medical Association committee that created a COVID-19 risk scale for common activities, such as shopping at the grocery store.

Bars top the list as the riskiest.

“You can’t drink through the mask, so you’re taking off your mask. There are lots of people, tight spaces and alcohol is a dis-inhibitor — people change their behaviors,” said Alozie.

‘What Am I Going to Do?’

At The Beer Junction in West Seattle, the stools are stacked in the corner. These days the craft brewery’s taps flow for to-go drinks only.

“It would be very lively,” owner Allison Herzog said about the brewery’s pre-pandemic days. “It is weird to come in here and not feel that vibrancy.”

The coronavirus pandemic has compromised the bedrock of Herzog’s business: people gathering together to drink, talk, laugh and let loose in one another’s company.

“I wake up and I think, every day, what am I going to do to keep going?” Herzog said.

In the spring, The Beer Junction shut down indoor service as the coronavirus swept through Washington state. Then, as coronavirus numbers improved, restrictions on restaurants and bars were eased in the early summer. Finally, Herzog was allowed to open up a few tables and serve a limited number of customers indoors.

“I could hear people laughing in the bar,” she recalled. “It just touched my heart and it felt like something was normal again.”

But the reprieve did not last long.

By late July, the coronavirus had made a resurgence in the Seattle area and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee soon put another ban on indoor service at places that sold alcohol — including Herzog’s bar.

Even though it’s hard on her bottom line, she said, she believes the risk of the coronavirus justifies the decision.

“I trust that they will open when it’s responsible and scale back when it’s responsible,” Herzog said.

What the Evidence Shows

There are now many examples across the U.S. of bars and nightclubs that have fueled outbreaks.

In July, Louisiana rolled back its limited opening of bars, reporting that more than 400 people had caught the coronavirus from interactions at those businesses. Texas and Arizona ordered bars to close down when infections skyrocketed and customers continued to crowd into bars. In Michigan, public health authorities have traced nearly 200 cases back to a now-infamous East Lansing pub.

While bars can ask customers to wear masks and sit at tables, Alozie is skeptical that such guidance, however well-intentioned, can be successful, even when bargoers plan to be prudent.

“The reality is, man proposes, God disposes,” he said. “Alcohol disposes even more.”

An outbreak linked to a bar and grill in southwestern Washington state is instructive. For karaoke night, the staff spaced the tables, checked temperatures at the door, even put up plexiglass barriers near the singers. Nonetheless, a few weeks later, close to 20 customers and employees had been infected.

“You’re asking customers who are drinking and doing karaoke to follow the physical distancing and masking requirements,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, director of the Clark County Health Department, which conducted the investigation. “So that was challenging in this particular situation.”

The chance of catching the virus through tiny airborne respiratory droplets, known as aerosols, goes up significantly in indoor spaces. When some states reopened bars after the first round of lockdowns, Jose Luis-Jimenez, who studies the behavior of aerosols, was dismayed.

“I thought these were superspreading events waiting to happen, and look — that’s what happened,” said Luis-Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “It was irresponsible.”

Many of the risk factors for airborne transmission of the coronavirus come together in a bar — think of each one like a “check mark” that adds to a person’s overall risk.

And behavior matters, said Luis-Jimenez. It can determine whether an indoor gathering becomes a superspreading event, which is why a bar is more problematic than even a restaurant.

“I would put my money that a bar is where the transmission is most likely to occur [compared with a restaurant] because that’s where you’re most likely to have people that are shouting and who are not wearing masks,” he said.

Bars Are Fighting Back

Bars and taverns have brought legal challenges to coronavirus restrictions in Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana.

In Arizona, more than 60 bars filed a lawsuit to overturn the governor’s order to shut them down. Ilan Wurman, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, is representing the bar owners who argue that the state has unfairly singled them out, while letting restaurants stay open late and serve alcohol.

“Either treat them all equally and shut them all down — or treat them all equally and allow them all to conform to reasonable health measures,” Wurman argued. “What you can’t do is pick out a criterion, something like alcohol, that’s totally arbitrary and that totally discriminates.”

Gostin, the Georgetown University legal scholar, said courts historically have sided with public health decisions — even as recently as last month.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Nevada church’s challenge to limitations on holding services, although attorneys for the church had argued that the restrictions on worship services were more onerous than the ones placed on casinos and restaurants.

“We have to remember we’re in an emergency,” Gostin said, regarding the court’s decision. “The health department should have reasonable discretion so as long as it’s acting on the basis of good evidence.”

Closing bars has a “double effect,” according to Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It reduces the spread of the virus within the bar and it makes everyone take this situation more seriously.”

Sharfstein, who is a former secretary of health and mental health services for the state of Maryland, said he thinks, in most communities, keeping bars open will only set back other efforts to reopen society.

“You can’t look at the decision about bars separate from the need to save lives in nursing homes or to be able to open schools,” Sharfstein said. “They’re all connected.”

This story is part of a partnership that includes NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


This story can be republished for free (details).