When COVID-19 and flu season coexist, we need the right tests to tell which is which
Fred Pelzman reflected on his past training as a physician. Long ago, when I was a resident, I worked an overnight emergency room shift and saw a patient who presented with episodes of shortness of breath both at rest and on exertion.
As a fairly freshly minted new intern, I was still definitely getting the hang of things, and probably took way longer to do my history and physical exam, before I was finally ready to present to the attending who was staffing the emergency department that night. Maybe I wasn’t very good at taking a history back then, and I may have missed some critical questions that needed to be asked or hadn’t ordered the right tests, but I remember finishing up my evaluation and still not really being sure what was going on with this patient.
“Let’s Treat Both”
Back then we didn’t have troponins and BNPs and D-dimers run on everyone who showed up in the emergency room, but as I remember this, all we had was a chest X-ray and an EKG that were both pretty unrevealing. I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure whether this case was pulmonary or cardiac in nature.
But I also remember being confused by the advice I got from that particular doctor that day, as his way of solving a diagnostic dilemma. “Let’s treat both,” he said, “and see if he gets better.” His recommendation was that we send the patient out with an albuterol inhaler, in case this was a flare of reactive airway disease, as well as sublingual nitroglycerin, in case it was angina pectoris. “Take both of these next time this happens and call me in the morning.”
Since the patient wasn’t having symptoms at the time of their ED visit, neither treatment given in the emergency room was likely to answer the question, so the attending physician decided to try the two most obvious, and then see what worked. What bothered me most, I recall thinking at the time, was that if he tried both, how were we going to know which one was working?
Trying serial treatments for a non-life-threatening illness is a reasonable option we have all pursued (“Let’s try treatment A for a week, and if that does not do it, we can switch to treatment B and see how that goes”). But throwing everything and the kitchen sink never seems to clear things up; instead, it just muddies the waters.
This long-ago case reminds me of what we may be facing as we head into a second wave of COVID-19, if the pandemic continues its now-apparent summer push and builds into a torrent in the fall as the inevitable flu season rises up to join us.
In the early days of this pandemic, before we had much testing at all (in fact, at one point there was absolutely no outpatient testing allowed, and the limited tests we had were reserved for the sickest inpatients), in the outpatient world we pretty much assumed that anybody with a cough, shortness of breath, or a fever, was COVID-19, and for the most part we couldn’t even prove otherwise. There were restrictions on our use of respiratory viral panels (to diagnose influenza, RSV, or other viral pathogens), and no PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2 was available to us, so we pretty much assumed you had COVID-19, and if you were stable enough to go home, then that was it.
Luckily, in those earliest days, influenza had already significantly tapered off for the season, so there was little that we were seeing in the community to confuse the clinical picture. But what happens when they’re both here at the same time? What happens when we have both of these significant respiratory pathogens, and knowing which one is going on may make all the difference in the world?
The right test at the right time can make that difference. When we had no tests, we assumed everything was COVID-19, and either sent them home or sent them to the hospital to be admitted. Then, when we got the ability to test certain selected patients, we were able to further distinguish between the sickest that we needed to send to the emergency room, and those we could safely send home and give them their COVID-19 test results the next morning. But what if there are two virulent diseases raging through our community at the same time? At that point, having a rapid test that can safely distinguish influenza or other respiratory pathogens from COVID-19 may be just what we need.
Thinking About the Next Wave
As we begin to think about the next wave, about what the coming months may hold for us, it seems like having rapid flu testing available in the office, as well as rapid point-of-care testing for COVID-19, may be what we need to safely diagnose, safely treat, safely send home, safely quarantine, and safely track contacts, to prevent the second wave from being as devastating as the first. We need to begin now preparing for the next, not reacting after it’s already here, not wishing we had more testing, more PPE, more ICU beds, more ventilators.
This is how we need to be thoughtful, how we need to see this with the eyes of a public health officer, an epidemiologist, a scientist, a physician. Because when the time comes, when we’re knee-deep in this stuff, when things are going all to hell, we don’t want to wish we had what we need to do the right thing for our patients.
Hopefully those who are facing the new surge of this virus elsewhere in this country, away from the epicenter that was New York City, are heeding the lessons we learned about who is at highest risk for decompensation, who can safely go home, and how to treat the sickest of the sick. And while the next wave is still over the horizon, we need to ensure that those who have the power to make the decisions about how we might respond to what comes next are listening to the most experienced voices in the room. Otherwise we might be sending people home with a Z-Pak, some oral steroids, an albuterol inhaler, Tamiflu, an antihistamine, and a PPI just in case.
‘Cause you never know.
How the White House can build public trust and end the coronavirus crisis
Dan Goldberg reported on the mixed messages on the severity of the pandemic from federal and state officials helped drive a coronavirus surge in June across much of the United States and that the window to act is closing.
Now, top public health officials are warning that the country could see as many as 100,000 new cases per day, testing capacity is reaching its limit and the virus is spreading out of control. After months of downplaying the coronavirus threat, the White House has changed course, urging Americans to wear masks and avoid large gatherings. But it is not clear whether the public will listen, after months of recovery talk and political battles over everything from masks to infectious disease modeling.
Public health experts say the window to act is closing, and that if the government wants to change the course of the U.S. outbreak, officials need to deliver clear, consistent messages. They should be frank about what we still don’t know about the virus, emphasize that our fates are collectively tied and focus on the need for face coverings, social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
“National leaders, including the vice president and president and governors, should not only be talking about and encouraging people to follow public health guidance — they should be modeling it themselves wherever they can,” said Tom Inglesby, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security. “No more of this kind of strange commentary about ‘personal choice.’ The point is to protect your neighbor, so the idea of it being a personal choice is illogical.”
An administration official rejected the idea that the messages coming from the White House have been confusing or inconsistent. “Since March, the administration has consistently recommended the use of face coverings consistent with CDC guidelines, and that messaging has been included in every set of guidance from the administration,” the official said. “The messaging understands the urgency of certain states.”
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says the first step the Trump administration should take is unmuzzling its scientists.
Anthony Fauci with Vice President Mike Pence. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo
The CDC abruptly stopped its regular briefings on the virus in March and has held only a handful since then. The White House coronavirus task force, whose members include top government scientists such as Anthony Fauci, no longer addresses the nation via daily televised briefings. And its once-daily private meetings are down to twice a week.
At the same time, more than 80 percent of Americans trust medical scientists, and more than two-thirds trust Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.
“The CDC and the other public health experts within the government need to be on the front lines talking to the country every day,” Lipsitch said. “People without scientific qualifications … do not need to be stealing the show in terms of public communication.”
But that is what has happened over the last few months, as President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other political leaders have dominated the national conversation about how to fight the virus — often contradicting the government’s own health experts.
As cases soared in the Southeast in June, Trump repeatedly said that the new infections were simply a reflection of more testing. And as hospital capacity reached alarming levels in Texas and Arizona last week, Pence tried to tamp down concern by emphasizing that most new infections were in younger adults. He also attended a huge indoor rally at a Dallas church last Sunday and defended Trump’s decision to hold a rally in Arizona days before — where thousands of mostly maskless supporters spent hours cheering — saying it gave people the freedom to participate in the political process.
“It sends a message that those things are okay, and they are not,” Inglesby said. “These political leaders know the information and they still attended, suggesting these things are low risk. They are not low risk.”
With no clear message from the top, governors are sending their own mixed signals. Bars in Texas reopened in May while North Carolina’s stayed closed. Churches were allowed to remain open in Florida but not in Kentucky. Face coverings are mandated in New Jersey but a “personal preference” in Oklahoma.
The White House has sought to correct course over the last two weeks — with mixed results. Days after Pence said “panic is overblown,” he urged younger Americans, who were ignoring “the guidance that we gave on the federal level for all the phases of reopening,” to be more vigilant because they were a growing cause of the spread. The same administration official said there are also political considerations at play — if the vice president isn’t shaping the conversation, then the void will be filled by Trump critics or political opponents.
Trump on Wednesday told Fox Business that he’d wear a mask when he could not socially distance, in line with CDC recommendations, but only once has he been spotted wearing one. At a news conference in late May, Trump taunted a Reuters journalist for wearing a facial covering and accused the reporter of wanting to be “politically correct.” The president also mocked Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, for wearing a mask.
There is evidence that the president’s skepticism has influenced public behavior. Three-quarters of Democrats who responded to a recent Pew poll said they wore masks most or all of the time in public, while just 53 percent of Republicans did the same. The split held even after controlling for differences in the severity of the outbreak in different parts of the country. “The president has a unique ability to derail good policy,” Lipsitch said.
Going forward, the government needs to do a better job of managing expectations, said Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease researcher at the Columbia University School of Public Health. The coronavirus was unknown to science until December, and our understanding of it is changing as time passes and more people are infected.
The CDC, for example, first said masks would do little good and that the virus mostly affected the respiratory system. The guidance has evolved along with the understanding of the disease. Public health experts now know that children are more vulnerable than originally thought.
“This is where leadership and messaging are so important,” Shaman said. “People have to understand it’s not like you can spend a month wearing masks and then it’s done. We don’t have our Get Out of Jail Free card yet.”
White House messengers need to express more humility and explain how much we still don’t know, said Lori Freeman, CEO for the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
The cost of coronavirus treatment
Janette Setembre of Fox Business noted that the cost of the coronavirus can be devastating.
Americans could spend thousands of dollars on medical bills if they need treatment for COVID-19 – with or without insurance. And those who were hospitalized or caring for a loved who is could have to defer credit card bills, mortgage payments and deplete their savings to afford them.
Broadway star Nick Cordero died Sunday at 41 after spending nearly four months in the hospital battling COVID-19. Days earlier, his wife, Amanda Kloots, posted on social media about having to refinance her home to help pay for the treatment costs. A family friend created a GoFundMe page for Cordero’s medical costs with a goal of raising $400,000. It received nearly 5,000 donations raising $813,507.
The Cordero family is one of the millions grappling with the emotional and burdening financial costs of the deadly virus. An estimated 15 percent of people who contract COVID-19 could end up in the hospital, according to data published in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on medical issues. The data shows that up to an estimated 2 percent to 7 percent – or 670,000 to slightly more than 2 million — of uninsured people will require hospitalization for the novel coronavirus.
That would have been the case for Denver-based Tim Regan, 40, who went to the emergency room in March when he experienced a fever, chest pain and shortness of breath. He went to the emergency room when a nurse advised him to, explaining he had COVID-19 symptoms. Regan received a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram (EKG) but was told he wasn’t sick enough to qualify for a COVID test.
“The doctor told me he was convinced I had it, several people in the medical field told me I had it without giving me a test,” Regan told FOX Business. Regan worried that if he had to be admitted to a hospital, he would deplete his savings so he continued working from home while he was sick. “I was thinking I had to make all the money I could in case we all had to be hospitalized,” he said, worried that he might infect his wife and child. Regan was billed $3,278 for his ER visit. “The insurance told us, ‘We’re not paying for it.’ We would have been stuck with everything. I don’t think we quite met the deductible. It would have wiped out any savings we had,” Regan said.
Medical bills for uninsured patients can range between $42,486 to $74,310, according to a report by FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit. But even those who do have insurance could be saddled with out-of-pocket costs between $21,936 and as much as $38,755.
“Even after you get the treatment it leaves a bunch of financial questions. If you have traditional insurance, the reason for that is so many plans have high deductibles, and if you’re on a high deductible plan you’re responsible for that deductible amount; it can be $5,000, $8,000 or more,” said Patrick Quigley, CEO and co-founder of Sidecar Health, which provides personalized and affordable health insurance.
“The second issue is the network – if you happen to go to a hospital that’s out of network your traditional insurance company isn’t responsible for those charges – they may help, but they don’t have negotiated rates with those hospitals so people with insurance will have to pay the remaining balance,” Quigley said.
And some survivors who battled for their lives while seeking treatment for the virus are left with shocking medical costs. The Seattle Times reported last month the case of Michael Flor, a 70-year-old man from Seattle who was hit with a $1.1 million hospital bill, which included 181 pages of expenses like $9,736 per day for the intensive care room, almost $409,000 for it to be sterilized and $82,000 for the ventilator, among other treatment costs. Flor had Medicare insurance and would be covered for most of the expenses, the Times reported.
Congress allocated more than $100 billion to assist insurance companies and hospitals dealing with the unprecedented treatment costs during COVID-19.
|Arizona is #1, Bahrain is #4|
This chart ranks the countries with the most confirmed new cases over the past week, adjusted for population size, and treats each U.S. state as if it were a country. (Many states are larger in both landmass and population than some countries.)
Coronavirus expert says Americans will be wearing masks for ‘several years’
Shawn Carter reported that health experts won’t ask Americans to take off their masks any time soon. That’s the take of Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He has been preparing for an outbreak like the novel coronavirus as part of his work for years.
Johns Hopkins practices virus simulations as part of is preparedness protocol, with the goal of offering public health experts and policymakers a blueprint of what to do in a pandemic. One of those simulations took place in October 2019, when Toner and a team of researchers launched a coronavirus pandemic simulation in New York, running through various scenarios on how residents, governments and private businesses would hypothetically react to the threat.
One thing that stood out to him: Face coverings are a vital defense to stop the spread of the virus. He believes COVID-19 won’t slow down in the U.S. even as states start to slowly reopen.
“There’s going to be no summertime lull with a big wave in the fall,” he said as part of CNET’s Hacking the Apocalypse series. “It’s clear that we are having a significant resurgence of cases in the summer, and they’ll get bigger. And it’ll keep going until we lock things down again.”
The U.S. recently added about 43,000 positive COVID-19 cases to its 2.9 million totals, according to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. The death total has surpassed 130,000.
Toner, contrasting the novel virus to seasonal influenza, said until there is a vaccine, communities’ best defense to fight it is through creating distance and wearing masks. “I think that mask wearing and some degree of social distancing, we will be living with — hopefully living with happily — for several years,” he said. “It’s actually pretty straightforward. If we cover our faces, and both you and anyone you’re interacting with are wearing a mask, the risk of transmission goes way down.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top official handling the U.S. COVID-19 response, said recently he was cautiously optimistic that there could be a vaccine for the virus by 2021. For those who refuse to wear a mask in the interim, Toner said they’ll eventually wise up. “They will get over it,” he says. “It’s just a question of how many people get sick and die before they get over it.”
One final thought, Congress must decide whether to extend federal aid for the unemployed beyond July. Ten million more Americans are out of work than in February, but evidence has emerged of falling poverty levels due to the stimulus. Could the coronavirus change the politics of poverty?