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Axios Vitals

Good morning, Vitals readers. Today's newsletter is 521 words, or a 2-minute read.

Situational awareness: The White House will announce this morning it's making 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile available for free.

  • They'll be at pharmacies and community health centers nationwide by late next week.
1 big thing: The end of Omicron is in sight
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Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

The Omicron wave is likely beginning to recede in the U.S., experts say.

Why it matters: Omicron is still wreaking havoc in parts of the country, but infectious disease experts are optimistic there's some relief in sight.

Details: In South Africa and in the U.K., which experienced their Omicron waves before the U.S., cases spiked dramatically and then fell almost as quickly.

  • That appears to be happening now in parts of the U.S. that got hit with the variant early, including Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.

"The trajectory was incredibly steep and rising to, of course, a new height in infections. That does appear now, in aggregate, to be starting to decline," Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Axios.

Yes, but: While cases are beginning to fall in the East Coast cities that were among the first to see the variant take hold, Omicron likely hasn't peaked yet in other parts of the U.S.

  • "In this country as a whole, it might take a while longer to resolve this surge," in comparison to South Africa or the U.K., Dan Barouch, director of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, told Axios.
  • U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned over the weekend that a "national peak" hasn't been reached yet, urging caution as hospitalizations continue to strain health systems, the Washington Post reported.

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2. U.S. has unusually high hospitalizations
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Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

America is seeing more COVID hospitalizations than other wealthy countries during the Omicron surge, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports, citing Our World in Data.

Why it matters: Vaccines keep the vast majority of COVID cases out of the hospital, but vaccination rates are lower in the U.S. than these other countries.

  • U.S. hospitals — particularly the health care workers that staff them — are struggling to keep up with the workload.

By the numbers: Of all the countries included in this analysis, the U.S. has the lowest proportion of its population that is fully vaccinated and also the lowest rate of booster shots administered, per Our World in Data.

3. The big MA players keep getting bigger
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Data: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Six health insurers control roughly three-quarters of the fast-growing Medicare Advantage market, according to Axios' Bob Herman's analysis of federal data.

Why it matters: Medicare Advantage enrollment hasn't slowed down in 2022, even though dismal projections from Humana and Cigna freaked out Wall Street earlier this month, and concentration at the top remains high.

The big stat: UnitedHealth Group had almost 7.9 million MA members as of Jan. 1, the most of any insurer and an 11% increase from the 7.1 million members it had at the same time in 2021, according to federal data.

  • That means UnitedHealth captured roughly one out of every three people who joined Medicare Advantage this year.

Check out the details.

4. Charted: Omicron's takeover
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Data: GISAID; Chart: Will Chase/Axios
5. 1 big number: Drug affordability

About 3.5 million adults 65 and older and 1.8 million Medicare beneficiaries under 65 had difficulty affording their medications in 2019, per the National Health Interview Survey published today by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

  • Black and Latino adults over age 65 were 1.5 to two times as likely to report difficulty affording prescription medications compared to white Medicare beneficiaries, the report shows.

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