January 14, 2022
😎 Happy Friday, Vitals readers. Today's newsletter is 712 words, or a 3-minute read.
👀 Can you say awkward?: In what almost sounds like the plot of a new Hallmark movie, a woman in China got stuck at the home of her blind date due to sudden COVID lockdowns.
Programming note: Vitals will not publish on Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We'll be back in your inboxes on Tuesday.
1 big thing: The upper limits of vaccinations
The U.S. is likely reaching the end of the road on new vaccinations after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for large employers Axios' Emily Peck and I report.
Why it matters: Cash prizes and other incentives barely moved the needle on vaccinations. So the government turned from carrots to sticks — but now it has lost its biggest stick.
- "It is now highly unlikely that the U.S. will hit the ~85-90% of Americans vaccinated to get to the other side of the pandemic," tweeted Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert and former Biden administration advisory board member.
By the numbers: 63% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated and about 38% of them have gotten boosted.
State of play: Employers in most of the country are still free to impose their own mandates, if they want to, but there's not much reason to expect that to produce any major increase in vaccinations.
- Only a few large companies, such as United Airlines, have required vaccines. Most employers haven't enacted a mandate, and labor shortages could make them even less likely to do so now.
- Plus, 13 states prohibit employers from enacting vaccine mandates, according to data from KFF.
Yes, but: The Supreme Court allowed the federal vaccine mandates for health care facilities to take effect.
- That does, however, raise serious concerns about workforce shortages that could unevenly hit health systems in regions with low vaccination rates, in rural areas where workforces are already much smaller, or among certain job categories where there are alternative jobs paying comparable wages.
2. The virus is outpacing new vaccinations
If you needed more evidence that vaccinations have stalled: There are now more new COVID cases in the U.S. each day than new vaccines administered, including booster shots, Axios' Caitlin Owens and Kavya Beheraj report.
Why it matters: Vaccines still work very well at keeping people infected with the Omicron variant from becoming severely ill, but the massive surge of cases doesn't appear to be changing most unvaccinated Americans' minds.
3. Lobbying blitz for Aduhelm
The pharmaceutical industry is ready to pressure Medicare and demand the agency reverse its restrictive coverage plan for new Alzheimer's treatments like Aduhelm, Axios' Bob Herman writes.
The big picture: Doctors, researchers and health policy experts praised Medicare's proposal as a way to get more data to prove whether Aduhelm works.
- But with billions of dollars and many other similar Alzheimer's drugs on the line, the industry is prepared for war.
What to watch: An all-out lobbying blitz that pushes Medicare to scrap its plan and allow full coverage of the $28,000-per-year drug.
- Now that CMS proposed limiting coverage of Aduhelm to patients who enroll in a randomized, controlled clinical trial, the public has 30 days to submit comments.
4. Defining "mild" with Omicron
The Omicron variant doesn't cause as much severe illness as other variants have, but its "mild" symptoms can still be pretty unpleasant.
The big picture: The way health care professionals and doctors differentiate between "mild" and "severe" illness may not align with a layperson's understanding of those terms.
"To a health care professional, 'mild' means you're not getting hospitalized," said Megan Ranney, academic dean at the Brown University School of Public Health.
- But, she said: "Omicron symptoms can range from absolutely no symptoms to a really mild cold to something where you are in bed with shakes and chills, and have a horrible cough and are fatigued and headachy for weeks. Those are all 'mild.'"
- A "severe," illness means you'd likely have symptoms such as very low oxygen levels, kidney damage and heart impairment, she said.
What we're watching: Omicron is causing a lot less severe illness than previous variants, but a "mild" case can still require about a week away from work, especially in front-line jobs.
What they're saying: "It's going to be a messy few weeks. I don’t think there’s any way around it," said Joseph Allen, a professor of public health at Harvard, per The Atlantic.
5. Dog of the week
Meet Tristan, a Brittany Spaniel who was rescued from the street in Tucumcari, New Mexico.
- He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his human mom and dad, Ioana and Rich Engstrom. "He loves leaving us his favorite toy in our bed every morning and loves carrots, cucumbers and pupuccinos from Starbucks for treats," Ioana said.
🩸 Did you know? January is National Blood Donor month — and if you've been thinking about it, it'd be a really good time to give.