Rising COVID cases, China pneumonia outbreak and free COVID treatment with Andrea Garcia, JD, MPH [Podcast]

. 11 MIN READ

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AMA Update

Rising COVID cases, China pneumonia outbreak and free COVID treatment with Andrea Garcia, JD, MPH

Dec 13, 2023

The latest developments on respiratory virus season, including COVID and the flu. AMA's Vice President of Science, Medicine and Public Health, Andrea Garcia, JD, MPH, discusses the latest case counts, tips to protect yourself, why the COVID vaccination rate is so low, and a new government program that provides free COVID testing and treatment. Plus, an overview of everything we know about the rise of respiratory illnesses, including pneumonia, in China and the U.S. AMA Chief Experience Officer Todd Unger hosts.

Speaker

  • Andrea Garcia, JD, MPH, vice president, science, medicine & public health, American Medical Association

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Unger: Hello and welcome to the AMA Update video and podcast. Today we have our weekly look at the headlines with the AMA's Vice President of Science, Medicine and Public Health, Andrea Garcia. I'm Todd Unger, AMA's chief experience officer in Chicago. Welcome, Andrea.

Garcia: Hi, Todd. Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.

Unger: Well, it's been another week with a lot of news about COVID and other respiratory viruses. Let's start by taking a look at the latest numbers from the CDC. Andrea, what are the trends that we're seeing this week?

Garcia: Well, since we last talked those numbers across the board have continued to rise. And if we look at the CDC data, the COVID test positivity increased slightly by 0.9% in the most recent week.

Other indicators, though, are showing more significant increases. So emergency department visits due to COVID rose about 4%, And hospitalizations increased over 17%. And if we look at the CDC's new wastewater dashboard for COVID, it shows that viral activity is still high, and it continues to be the highest here in the Midwest.

When it comes to flu, those cases have increased by about 6.8%, and that's according to the latest FluView report from the CDC. These increases are not too surprising, since we are in respiratory virus season. But those sharper increases in emergency department visits and hospitalizations due to COVID are definitely something to keep an eye on.

Unger: Absolutely. Andrea, the new director of the CDC, Dr. Mandy Cohen, took to social media to share some advice on how people can protect themselves at this moment. What's the top line on what she had to say?

Garcia: Yeah, in the video she posted, Dr. Cohen managed to share a lot of great advice and reminders. And she acknowledged that rise in respiratory viruses, including the increase in COVID cases that we just talked about. She also underscored that the CDC hasn't seen anything new or unfamiliar in terms of viruses or sicknesses.

And she also shared ways to stay safe this holiday season, that included encouraging people to get vaccinated for COVID, flu and RSV. Also included reminders to stay home if you're sick, avoid others who are sick, plus washing your hands, improving ventilation and wearing a mask.

These are all measures that we've heard of before, and become very familiar with during the pandemic, still it was a good reminder from the CDC about those additional layers of protection that are available. And the importance of testing and treatment if you do get sick.

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Unger: Absolutely. Well, those reminders are especially important, particularly the one about getting vaccinated because we are approaching the holiday season. But we're still continuing to see low vaccination rates this year. Andrea, what's the latest there?

Garcia: Well, we talked a couple of weeks ago about that low vaccination rate for COVID, and I'm sorry to say that not much has changed since then. COVID vaccination rate among adults stands at about 16% based on the latest CDC data. This is significantly lower than the vaccination rate for flu, which is at just over 38%.

And there was a recent survey that offered some more insights into that low adoption rate. And while we know some people are waiting to get the COVID vaccine or they've just been too busy to go and get it, some people are simply just not planning to get it.

And a survey from a Emerson College polling showed that about 51% of Americans are choosing not to get that updated vaccine. And that number is noticeably higher in certain areas like the Midwest where 60% of people say they're not getting the new vaccine.

Despite all of that, we do expect that the number of people who get vaccinated against COVID will continue to rise over the coming months. But that's going to require, of course, reminders from the CDC, from physicians, from public health experts, and from friends and family.

Unger: I just don't like getting sick, so thankfully, those vaccines help me prevent that. Andrea, there was some good news around COVID and the flu last week. The government is increasing access to testing and treatment through a program from the National Institutes of Health. Tell us more about that.

Garcia: Yeah, that program is called Home Test to Treat. And it was initially launched as a pilot program in select areas but it's now available nationwide. It's free. It offers tests and treatments to eligible adults for COVID and the flu.

I think it's important to note that the program is prioritizing tests for people who cannot afford them. That includes those without health insurance, those on government plans, such as Medicare, Medicaid and VA coverage.

But the treatment part of the program is open to anyone over 18 who tests positive for flu or COVID, and that's regardless of whether they've used one of the free tests from the program.

So, if you test positive, you'll receive a free telehealth service, and potentially a prescription for treatment, if warranted. That program is supported by the NIH, which with the goal of really researching how at home tests and telemedicine can improve access to care across the country.

The program expires in the spring of 2024. So it is going to be available throughout this current respiratory virus season. And another reminder, if you have not got your free COVID test which the federal government also recently relaunched, you can go to covidtest.gov to get those tests as well.

Hopefully, people will take advantage of these programs to get the care they need, to protect themselves and their loved ones this season.

Unger: Excellent. Thank you for that update. Let's turn our attention to a different topic. A lot of headlines still about the rise of pneumonia cases in children. Andrea, is there anything new that we need to know about?

Garcia: Well, two weeks ago we spoke about this. And the spike in respiratory illnesses in children in China was concerning, not much has changed since then. But patients continue to have questions, so I think it's worth taking a moment to recap what we know.

So, first, this rise in respiratory illnesses overseas and in some parts of the U.S. is not due to a new pathogen. It's being driven by those illnesses that we're familiar with, like flu, COVID and RSV.

And second, patients might have seen mentions of mycoplasma in connection with this. Mycoplasma pneumonia is a bacterium that generally causes mild illnesses. And the WHO said that mycoplasma infections have been climbing since May. So it's indeed one of the drivers causing the spike we're seeing in respiratory illnesses.

You do think it's important to note that this is something we're familiar with, and infections tend to surge periodically, it's a normal respiratory germ that patients encounter throughout their lives. And the spike in respiratory illnesses is not the result of a new pathogen. It's being driven by those common culprits. And the recommendations that Dr. Cohen shared in her video can certainly help people protect themselves.

Unger: Well, thank you so much for that update, Andrea. Respiratory viruses weren't the only public health threat in the news lately. Over the last couple of weeks we've seen tragic series of mass shootings, which caused us to hit a grim milestone in the gun violence crisis. Andrea, can you shed some more light on that?

Garcia: Well, this was really sobering to see. And if we look at data from the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 40 mass murders involving firearms this year. That's higher than any year since 2006. And just for reference, a mass murder is defined as a shooting in which four or more people are killed, and that does not include the shooter.

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The Gun Violence Archive has also recorded even more mass shootings. That's when four or more people are shot. So that number is 633.

In the past nine years, only 2021 and 2022 had more mass shootings than we have this year. But we know that those are not the only tragic milestones that we've seen related to firearm violence. Just last week we talked about the fact that the rate of suicide involving firearms reached the highest level since officials began tracking it more than 50 years ago.

I think this just underscores that dire issue of firearm violence, and the need for action certainly has never been more urgent.

Unger: Andrea, speaking of action, how is the AMA responding to this crisis?

Garcia: Well, we've long advocated to prevent firearm injuries in deaths and promote firearm safety. And as you know, Todd, we have extensive policy on this issue. We've developed educational resources for physicians that are available on the AMA Ed Hub. But we also have our task force on firearm injury prevention.

That task force is actually scheduled to meet this week at AMA headquarters. So we should have more updates to share on that work soon.

Unger: That's such important work. Andrea, before we wrap up, the American Psychological Association released a survey last week that gave a look at the state of mental health care in the U.S. What were some of the findings?

Garcia: Well, we've talked numerous times now about the mental health crisis in this country, including the challenges people faced in the pandemic, and are certainly continuing to face. And this survey from the American Psychological Association really reinforced that and more.

According to that survey about 52% of psychologists reported seeing an increase in the severity of their patient symptoms, and 41% reported that their patients needed treatment for longer periods of time.

The other takeaways had to do with the lack of availability of care. That survey showed that over half of psychologists had no openings for new patients. And if you look at those who keep wait lists, the average wait times were three months or longer.

So those challenges to accessing mental health care are really challenging. But it's similar to what we're seeing happening across medicine. And I think whether that's due to the physician shortage, to private practices closing, because of declining Medicare payments, patients aren't always able to get the care they need when they need it.

And it's a serious problem without an easy solution. And that's really been driving a lot of our work at the AMA at the moment.

Unger: Absolutely. And Andrea, thank you so much for joining us as always, and giving us your important updates and perspective.

If you enjoyed this discussion, you can support more programming like it by becoming an AMA member at ama-assn.org/join.

That wraps up today's episode. And we'll be back with another AMA Update. In the meantime, you can find all our videos and podcasts at ama-assn.org/podcasts. Thanks for joining us today. Please take care.


Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this podcast are those of the participants and/or do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.

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