Jun 23, 2020

Axios Vitals

Good morning ... Want to read the study that said the steroid dexamethasone could be a life-saving coronavirus treatment? A preliminary version — which has not yet been peer reviewed — is now online.

Today's word count is a nice, breezy 775, or a 3-minute read.

1 big thing: Racial disparities in testing
Adapting Peter Walker and Kyle Slugg’s analysis of URISA’s GISCorpsCoders Against COVID, Esri, U.S. Census data; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, areas with largely white populations have had access to more testing sites than communities that are predominantly made up of people of color, Axios' Caitlin Owens and Andrew Witherspoon report.

Why it matters: Black and Latino people are already more susceptible to infection and serious illness, and racial disparities in testing only contribute to that problem.

By the numbers: The whole country struggled to ramp up testing throughout the spring, but the ZIP codes with large white populations started off with more testing sites, and still have more testing sites, than ZIP codes with more people of color.

  • ZIP codes where the population is at least 75% white average one testing site for each 14,500 people, according to an analysis by researchers Peter Walker and Kyle Slugg of the COVID Tracking Project, using data from Coders Against COVID.
  • In ZIP codes that are at least 75% people of color, it's an average of one site per 23,300 people.

Yes, but: This analysis only includes ZIP codes with at least one testing site. But nearly two-thirds of rural counties — home to some 21 million people — have no testing sites at all, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Surgo Foundation.

  • Racial disparities persist there, too. The Surgo Foundation found that 35% of the rural black population lives in "highly vulnerable testing desert." Black Americans face an above-average risk of living in a testing desert, and in areas where cases are increasing.

The bottom line: The racial inequities baked into the U.S. health care system are a defining feature of this pandemic.

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2. The pandemic hasn't stopped hospital mergers

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Hospitals that have pocketed tens of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus bailouts are still pursuing big-ticket mergers and acquisitions, Axios' Bob Herman writes.

Why it matters: The pandemic has dried up big parts of hospitals' businesses, and that's why Congress established a $175 billion bailout fund to help them. At the same time, they're spending millions on lawyers and advisers to explore deals that expand their business empires.

Advocate Aurora Health and Beaumont Health are in discussions to merge into a giant hospital system spanning three Midwest states.

  • Beaumont has received more than $550 million so far in coronavirus bailout funds, and Advocate Aurora has received $328 million.

Atrium Health, Duke Health and Novant Health are in a multibillion-dollar bidding war to acquire New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina.

  • Atrium has pocketed $149 million, Novant has received more than $80 million and Duke has gotten almost $50 million in bailout funds.

ProMedica is offering to take over the operations of the University of Toledo Medical Center. ProMedica has received $158 million in coronavirus bailouts.

Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island have rekindled merger talks. The two systems have combined for more than $64 million in coronavirus funds.

The bottom line: The effects on competition and patients' wallets will live on after the pandemic ends.

3. Stat du jour

Medicare says it has spent $1.9 billion on coronavirus treatment, with an average payment of $23,094 per hospitalized patient.

  • That's just Medicare's payments. Medicaid and private insurance have, of course, picked up plenty of coronavirus bills, as well — though the virus' concentrated hit to elder-care facilities makes Medicare's costs particularly salient.

The same report also shows deep racial disparities among seniors.

  • Black Medicare recipients are being hospitalized with coronavirus infections at a rate roughly four times higher than white beneficiaries.
4. Red-state residents start to buckle down
Data: Ipsos/Axios survey, case data from The COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

People in the mostly red states where coronavirus cases have been rising the fastest are developing a heightened sense of risk and are taking steps to dial back their exposure, Axios' Margaret Talev writes in the latest installment of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Between the lines: In the states where new cases climbed by 50% or more last week, populations that had been leaning into visits with friends or getting their hair cut are now pulling back, compared with Americans in states that were hit harder earlier on.

  • In states with the highest rates of increase, the share of people visiting with friends dropped from 52% to 44% (-8) over the last two weeks.

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5. Catch up quick
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios.
  • Two Trump campaign staffers who attended the rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this past weekend have tested positive for the coronavirus. Thankfully, the campaign says they were wearing masks.
  • Health officials in California have gotten death threats over the state's coronavirus rules (L.A. Times). Similar threats, along with the general controversy surrounding the virus, has caused local health officials across the country to leave their jobs (Washington Post).
  • Even as Arizona becomes the latest coronaries hotspot, conservative residents are rejecting new rules requiring masks. "If we're gonna get it, there's nothing that's going to save us now," one business owner said (Wall Street Journal).
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — who has prohibited local governments from requiring face coverings — acknowledged that his state's caseload is growing at what he called an "unacceptable rate."