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County-level estimates of excess all-cause mortality during 2020 from the Veterans Health Administration’s Corporate Data Warehouse. Screenshot: The Lancet Regional Health

More U.S. veterans died in 2020 than in previous years, but the increase was less than among the general population during the pandemic, according to a new study published in The Lancet Regional Health.

Why it matters: Veterans tend to have higher risks of severe health outcomes from COVID-19 due to their age, and other conditions like hypertension, diabetes and obesity.

By the numbers: The study, based on Veterans Health Administration data, showed 426,069 deaths among veterans from March–December 2020, a nearly 17% increase compared to previous years.

  • The excess deaths — 51,436 in all — were mostly in Alaska, the Great Plains, South Atlantic and West South Central regions of the U.S.
  • The U.S. had an excess mortality rate of 23% in the same time frame.

The big picture: While there's no specific explanation as to why deaths were lower for this at-risk population, the study authors point out veterans were able to keep their health insurance coverage.

  • "Many in the U.S. lost or were forced to switch health insurance plans due to layoffs — while in the VA access isn't conditional on employment," Yevgeniy Feyman, a doctoral candidate at Boston Unversity and co-author, said in a statement.
  • The VA also had existing telehealth infrastructure compared to private companies that had to build theirs out.

The bottom line: When hospitals and ICUs are full, patients die at higher rates for most diseases.

  • The VA system was better at preventing deaths related to the pandemic, per the study.

Go deeper

18 hours ago - Health

Pfizer could have vaccine data for children under five by end of 2021, CEO says

A health care worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine to a child at a Salvation Army vaccination clinic in Philadelphia on Nov. 12. Photo: Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pfizer could have data on COVID-19 vaccine efficacy for children under five by the end of the year, CEO Albert Bourla said on Friday in an interview with NBC News.

Why it matters: Omicron has raised concerns that young children are becoming more vulnerable to the virus. Tshwane, the epicenter of South Africa's Omicron outbreak, has seen a high number of hospital admissions for children under two in the last few weeks, though scientists have not confirmed a link to the variant, Reuters reports.

Updated Dec 2, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on health equity in 2022

On Thursday, December 2nd, Axios health care reporter Tina Reed and congressional reporter Alayna Treene examined persisting health equity issues and the work underway to close gaps in access, featuring Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), Baltimore City Health Department Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa, and Brown University dean of the School of Public Health & Professor of Health Services, Policy, & Practice Dr. Ashish K. Jha.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha identified the assumptions policymakers should be making about coronavirus through the winter season, what the pandemic highlighted in terms of health equity issues, and the most powerful tools to funding health inequity solutions.

  • On what policymakers should consider for coronavirus next year: “The big picture point I would make to policymakers is 2022 really should be our pivot year, the year we take this acute phase of the pandemic and turn it into something that we’re going to manage more chronically over the long run. What do we need to do that? Obviously, we need to continue to get more Americans vaccinated.”
  • On the pandemic’s exposure of longstanding health inequities: “It’s taken all of the challenges we’ve had, all of the longstanding inequities we’ve had in our country and really exposed them in a way and made them worse. It hasn’t created new inequities. I would say these inequities have existed for a long time, what it has really done is just highlight them in a way that is now hard to ignore.”

Rep. Robin Kelly discussed the health care initiatives in the Build Back Better agenda, the obstacles to health equity progress, and the policy provisions shaping next year’s health care agenda.

  • On obstacles standing in the way of progress: “People have different lenses, and I think that people know we need to get these things done. There’s no excuse for our maternal mortality rates, the health care disparities. COVID put a great big spotlight on the inequities and the disparities in this country.”
  • On upcoming health care policy priorities: “I think the Build Back Better Act is a great first step, but we’ll still be discussing maternal mortality, we’ll still be looking at health equity, we’ll still be looking at diversifying the health care pipeline, diversifying clinical trials, lowering prescription drug costs.”

Letitia Dzirasa explained potential impacts of the new Omicron variant on public health messaging, addressing health equity issues at a local level, and the public health challenges at the forefront for next year.

  • On looking at data and community input to inform health equity interventions: “I think it’s very important that we look at the data, that we understand the disparities and where they exist. But as we’re planning interventions and how best to implement a particular program or outreach method, we have to be community informed, so we’re looking to the community to plan alongside us.”
  • On the public health challenges defining the year ahead: “I think the important thing to note is that all of our other public health challenges did not go away because COVID came along, and so we’re going to be playing catch up in other public health areas for quite some time. I am encouraged by the increased federal funding going towards public health, but you have to remember this is an area that has been chronically underfunded.”

Axios Chief People Officer Dominique Taylor hosted a View from the Top segment with UnitedHealth Group senior vice president and chief health equity officer U. Michael Currie, who emphasized how addressing social determinants of health helps to advance health equity.

  • “You can’t have a conversation about achieving or advancing health equity and best addressing health disparities without having a real appreciation for what these social factors or social determinants of health have on individuals achieving their best possible health.”

Thank you UnitedHealth Group for sponsoring this event.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
37 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Trump social media group raises $1 billion from undisclosed investors

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Donald Trump's social media startup on Saturday announced that it secured $1 billion in new investment as part of its ongoing efforts to become publicly traded via a blank check company.

Between the lines: None of the investors were identified, which is highly unusual for this sort of transaction.