US ups COVID vaccine payment, notes good dosing compliance

Today, the Biden administration bumped up Medicare reimbursements to healthcare providers for COVID-19 vaccines from $28 to $40 for a single dose and from $45 to $80 for a two-dose regimen, said Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor for COVID response, in a morning coronavirus press briefing.

"This will make it easier for more healthcare providers to get out into communities and give more COVID shots to people in need," Slavitt said. "We need this heroic team in particular to make sure that our highest-risk and underserved populations are cared for."

Good 2-dose coverage

At the briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, reported promising new data published today in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), including that only 3% of vaccinees missed their second vaccine doses as of mid-February. "We also found that 96% of people who got [second] doses did so within the recommended timeframe."

The CDC, Walensky said, is working with state and community agencies to help people who have difficulties with scheduling, need reminders, or would be better off with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"I encourage those who can commit to help others get vaccinated," she said. "This can be as simple as helping family members and other loved ones with scheduling an appointment, reminding them about the appointment, and driving them."

As of yesterday, 135,847,835 COVID-9 vaccine doses had been delivered, 109,081,860 had been administered, and 38,335,432 Americans were fully vaccinated, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker.

Along with rising vaccination rates, weekly US COVID-19 averages have fallen to roughly 52,000 new infections, 4,700 hospitalizations, and 1,200 deaths per day, Walensky said. As of Mar 12, 30,791 Americans were hospitalized with coronavirus, according to the CDC tracker.

In other hopeful vaccine news, MMWR today also published a retrospective cohort study among 463 residents at two Connecticut nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks from December 2020 to February 2021. It found that a single dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 63% effective at least 2 weeks after vaccination.

The study was unable to evaluate two-dose efficacy owing to a lack of new cases and remaining person-time in the unvaccinated group toward the end of the study.

Caution urged for spring break, warming weather

While signs are hopeful, in the White House briefing, Walensky pleaded with Americans not to let their guard down with the warming weather and start of Daylight Saving Time over the weekend. "Where this goes is dependent on whether we do what must be done to protect ourselves and others," she said.

In particular, the CDC noted that upwards of 1.3 million US Americans traveled by air on Mar 12, more than any single-day total since before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic 1 year ago. "We have seen footage of people enjoying spring break festivities maskless," Walensky said. "This is in the context of still 50,000 cases a day, and equally concerning are the resurgences we are seeing in some European countries."

And frontline healthcare workers called some states' early relaxation of coronavirus mitigation protocols such as mask wearing as people on spring break descend on the nation's southern states a "recipe for disaster," reports ABC News.

Texas, Mississippi, Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota have all dropped mask mandates, and Alabama announced it will follow suit starting Apr 9. Over the weekend, state data showed that only 12% of Texans and 0.3% of Alabamans had been fully vaccinated. "There's a phrase we've tossed around—'personal freedom comes hand in hand with personality responsibility,'" a Montana nurse told ABC. "A word that comes to mind is 'vigilance.'"

In total, the United States has reported 29,478,109 COVID-19 cases and 535,406 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-10 tracker.

The more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variant B117, first identified in the United Kingdom, is behind more than 4,700 US COVID-19 infections in 50 states, making up 25% of cases in Florida and California. "By the end of March or early April, B117 will be the dominant variant," Walensky said. (See related CIDRAP News story today on its deadliness.)

The B1351 variant has been implicated in 143 cases in 25 states, while P1 has caused 25 cases in 10 states as of Mar 11, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker.

Other US news

  • President Joe Biden has selected economist and longtime Democratic adviser Gene Sperling to lead the rollout of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus "rescue plan" signed into law last week, NPR He will oversee a package that includes $1,400 stimulus checks to most Americans, enhanced unemployment insurance, an expanded child tax credit, and billions of dollars for school and business aid and vaccine deployment.

  • The entire Duke University student body is under quarantine due to a surge of COVID-19 cases tied to fraternity parties, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

  • Although advances in patient care and less-crowded hospitals have eased COVID-19 death rates, many still die, and the 20% rate for hospitalized patients needing intensive care hasn't budged in the last year, physicians told USA Today. "A year later, we're still flying blind," a neurosurgeon and research institute CEO said.

  • Facebook reports that it is labeling Facebook and Instagram social media posts that mention the safety of coronavirus vaccines with text saying that the vaccines are tested for safety and effectiveness before deployment, according to Reuters.

  • The Associated Press reports that about half of prison corrections employees in several states are declining COVID-19 vaccinations, despite case rates more than three times that of the general public. According to the report, prison workers worsen outbreaks by not wearing face coverings, downplaying coronavirus symptoms, and only inconsistently enforcing physical distancing and hygiene protocols amid crowded conditions and recirculated air.

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