Axios Vitals

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May 12, 2022

Good morning, Vitals readers. As we inch closer to the weekend, here's a new weird problem to think about...

Situational awareness: The White House is streaming its second Global COVID-19 Summit today starting at 9am ET.

  • Check out this list of ideas that experts told NPR they hope will come up at the summit.

Today's newsletter is 907 words or a 3-minute read.

1 big thing: Opioid abuse treatments don't reach those most at risk

Data: CDC; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Drugs for treating opioid abuse aren't reaching most high-risk patients, potentially widening gaps in care as overdose deaths hit record highs, Axios' Adriel Bettelheim writes.

The big picture: The National Center for Health Statistics said at least 107,622 people died from overdoses in 2021 — more than in any other year on record and a major increase from the estimated 93,655 deaths in 2020.

  • A growing number of deaths involve fentanyl, which is often mixed with other drugs, and the stimulant methamphetamine.

Yes, but: Roughly half of patients with opioid use disorder were not prescribed buprenorphine, a form of medication-assisted treatment that reduces the risk of future overdoses, according to a new analysis of insurance claims from about 180,000 people.

What they're saying: "This is equivalent to giving those with advanced cancer a less aggressive treatment," said co-author Laura Bierut, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University.

  • "It seems obvious to many of us that we should be giving the most aggressive and effective treatments to those who are most seriously ill."

ICYMI: National addiction treatment locator has outdated data and other critical flaws

2. Clash over vaccine strategy

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Congressional Republicans' concerns about wasting COVID vaccines are colliding with the Biden administration's commitment to making the shots as widely accessible as possible, adding another wrinkle to the stalled COVID funding negotiations, Axios' Caitlin Owens writes.

The intrigue: Some Republicans are growing skeptical of the currently available vaccines' ability to contain the Omicron variant, and don't want to allocate money for more doses without a firmer plan in place for the fall.

The big picture: Democrats stripped more than $15 billion of funding for more COVID countermeasures from a spending bill in March due to internal divisions over how the package would be paid for.

  • Democrats and Republicans have been at loggerheads since then, and the administration has warned that the country won't have critical tools for managing the virus this fall without new funding.
  • But two senior GOP Senate aides say that Republicans are also raising broader questions about the administration's vaccine strategy.
  • "We're not saying don't get vaccinated. We're saying that the current shot and boosters are reducing in effectiveness. New vaxx isn't ready and it's unclear where they are in the plan," one senior GOP Senate aide told Axios. "Since there is no plan, we don't want to give them blank check."

The other side: The administration says they do have a plan, and the problem is there isn't money to implement it.

Go deeper.

3. COVID deaths rise in the U.S. again

Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Deaths from COVID-19 are on the rise again after several weeks of upward ticking case rates sparked by Omicron variants, Axios' Kavya Beheraj and I report.

Driving the news: The U.S. averaged roughly 365 daily deaths, up 7% from about 342 two weeks ago. That's still a fraction of where things stood several months ago when the daily average was in the thousands.

Yes, but: The increase in deaths comes after several weeks of declining mortality counts. While the more transmissible Omicron variants have generally not appeared to cause as much serious illness, some people are still dying.

  • Waning immunity and low booster uptake has also meant a growing share of the deaths are among the vaccinated, officials warn.

By the numbers: There were roughly 77,000 new daily cases over the last week, up 44% from about 53,000 two weeks ago.

  • Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine were the four states with 50 or more new cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.
  • On the flip side, 15 states reported having 10 or fewer new cases per 100,00o people over the same time, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.

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4. Nurse shortfall to hit 250K in 3 years: report

The U.S. may have a shortfall of between 250,000 and 450,000 nurses for direct patient care within three years, about 10% to 20% less than what it needs, according to a new report from McKinsey.

What's happening: The available labor force was already shrinking due to an aging population and shifting sites of care, but the pandemic accelerated shortages, McKinsey said.

  • Meanwhile, demand for nursing services continues to rise due to the pandemic and its aftereffects, plus an aging population.

What they're saying: "To meet this demand, the United States would need to more than double the number of new graduates entering and staying in the nursing workforce every year for the next three years straight," the report says.

5. Pic du jour

Barbie Fashionistas. Photo: Mattel

A Barbie with a prosthetic leg and a Ken doll with vitiligo, a condition where the skin loses its pigment cells, are among several of different body types and disabilities to make their debut nationwide in June.

  • Mattel's new lineup — which will be added to 2022's collection of the Fashionistas line launched to represent more children from various backgrounds, the company told Axios' Herb Scribner.

6. Business notes

💵 In the latest bit of massive consolidation news, Advocate Aurora and Atrium Health announced a planned megamerger Wednesday. The deal will create a $27 billion health system spanning seven states. (Modern Healthcare)

👉 Johnson & Johnson is moving ever closer to the planned spin-off of its consumer health portfolio in 2023, announcing its chief financial officer Thibaut Mongon will lead the business. (CNBC)

👀 Last year was a lucrative one for the CEOs of the top publicly-traded health insurance companies. They cumulatively earned more than $283 million in 2021 — by far the most of any year in the past decade. (STAT)