Jun 10, 2020

Axios Vitals

By Caitlin Owens
Caitlin Owens

Good morning.

Today's word count is 1,024, or a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Insurers limit which coronavirus tests they'll pay for
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Some large health insurers are only willing to cover coronavirus testing under certain circumstances — potentially undermining a key part of the U.S. coronavirus response.

Why it matters: Widespread, easily accessible testing is an essential part of containing the virus, and the country's testing capacity has gotten much better. But insurance restrictions that deter people from getting tested could undermine that progress and put people in danger.

The big picture: Public health experts say testing needs to keep increasing, especially in high-risk places like nursing homes, and for people with a high likelihood of exposure — for example, from a public-facing job or participating in protests.

  • Many employers are interested in using widespread diagnostic testing as a workplace safety tool.

In most circumstances, a coronavirus test costs an insurance plan roughly $50.

Yes, but: Some insurers aren't willing to cover purely precautionary tests, or at least won't do so without cost-sharing.

  • They're only extending that benefit to tests that are deemed "medically necessary" and which have been ordered by a doctor, and in some cases they explicitly exclude the types of regular surveillance testing that experts say is so important.

Details: UnitedHealthcare, for example, says that "we will cover medically necessary COVID-19 testing at no cost-share ... when ordered by a physician or health care professional."

  • BlueCross BlueShield of Mississippi says it won't cover tests that are "not medically necessary," which includes tests for asymptomatic people as part of public health monitoring efforts or screenings for returning to work.

What they're saying: Insurers have never typically covered medical services that aren't ordered by a health care professional, or that aren't considered medically necessary, and they say it's unclear whether they should be on the hook for such services now.

Go deeper.

2. Pfizer: No "huge price" for coronavirus vaccine

Pfizer won't try to break the bank if it's able to develop a coronavirus vaccine, CEO Albert Bourla said yesterday during a virtual conference held by Goldman Sachs, Axios' Bob Herman reports.

What he said: "If we were to implement free, open-market principles in pricing the product, we could go to huge prices and sell everything we can manufacture. But it would be unethical, I think. We will not do it, because that's really taking advantage of a situation, and people will not forget if you do that."

Yes, but: Bourla still said a vaccine is a "huge commercial opportunity," so Pfizer's definition of a fair price may differ from consumer advocates'.

  • Pfizer's best-selling drug is a vaccine, and the company has been criticized for raising its price.

Between the lines: The pandemic has taken some of the heat off the pharmaceutical industry's pricing tactics, and drug manufacturers are making an aggressive push to "refurbish their public image," Kaiser Health News reported last month.

  • Some of the industry's "strict critics ... are slowing down their criticism now," Bourla said during the conference. "Now is a great opportunity to reset all this."
3. Catch up on the latest
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

NIAID director Anthony Fauci called the coronavirus outbreak his "worst nightmare" and sounded the alarm over its continued spread in an interview aired to a biotechnology conference on Tuesday, the New York Times reports.

The Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday it is distributing $25 billion to health care providers most at risk of financial collapse from the coronavirus pandemic. Facilities that treat predominantly poorer patients had been largely shut out from previous relief funding, which drew criticism from health policy experts.

The World Health Organization clarified comments an official made on Monday that called asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus "very rare," saying in a press conference that these carriers do take part in spreading the virus but that more information is needed to know by how much.

NASCAR will allow some fans to attend Florida's Dixie Vodka 400 race and Alabama's GEICO 500 race this month, the company announced Tuesday.

Members of the District of Columbia National Guard that responded to protests over the death of George Floyd have tested positive for the coronavirus, a National Guard spokesperson confirmed to McClatchy DC on Tuesday.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr on Tuesday asking for a civil rights investigation into jurisdictions that have forced churches to remain closed or to operate at limited capacity.

4. By the numbers worldwide
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

131,296 new coronavirus cases were recorded worldwide on Wednesday, per data from the World Health Organization, Axios' Dave Lawler writes.

By the numbers: Compare that to 87,729 one month ago, or 4,589 on March 11 — the day the pandemic was declared. 51.9% of new cases are being recorded in the Americas, while Europe's share of new cases is down from nearly 80% in mid-March to 13.3%.

  • Zero new cases were reported Wednesday in Tanzania and Nicaragua, two countries that seem intent on ignoring the virus until it goes away.
  • More than a dozen Caribbean islands that are now deciding whether and how to open their borders to tourists also recorded zero cases. So did Costa Rica.
  • European members of the no-new-cases club included Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Slovakia and Slovenia.
  • The largest member of the club is Vietnam, which has a population of 96 million, but hasn't had a single confirmed death from the coronavirus.

539.5 cases per million were recorded in Qatar, in a rolling average of the past three days, making its outbreak the world's fastest-growing as a proportion of the population.

  • Other countries with particularly fast-growing outbreaks include Brazil, Chile, Peru and Panama, along with Armenia, Belarus and several Gulf states.

829 deaths per million make Belgium the hardest-hit country to date as a proportion of the population.

Go deeper.

5. The biggest coronavirus hiring slumps

The pandemic's upending of the way we work and live has roiled the job market — triggering hiring surges in some sectors and massive slumps in others, Axios' Erica Pandey reports.

Why it matters: Look for some of the pain to last beyond the end of the pandemic. "If some of the increase in remote work, distance learning and online entertainment is permanent, these jobs will be threatened by the new at-home economy," says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

By the numbers: Here are the jobs that saw the greatest declines in postings between mid-February and mid-May, according to ZipRecruiter data shared with Axios:

  1. Uber/Lyft Driver (-91%) 
  2. Flight Attendant (-90%) 
  3. Car Washer (-87%)
  4. Tour Guide (-85%)
  5. Retail Store Associate (-84%) 

Go deeper for the full list.

Caitlin Owens