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Trusting Science – Who will be the next ‘Elvis’ in 2020-21?

Unfortunately, the race for a Covid-19 vaccine is sounding so political that it is proving to divide Americans by party voting preference. As we are now keenly aware, science and politics do not mix well.

Following the Democratic National Convention, V.P. Mike Pence told CNN: “We think there is a miracle around the corner. We believe it’s very likely that we’ll have one or more vaccines for the coronavirus before the end of this year.  All of that’s attributed to President Trump’s leadership.”

As of August 31, the number of confirmed Covid-19 infections in the U.S. has topped 6 million, while national fatalities approach 183,000. Based on state sources in Iowa, there have been 64,102 confirmed cases and 1,110 deaths.

Vaccine speed is desperately needed, but will it come at the expense of accuracy and safety? Should Americans be concerned? Yet, just as important as having an effective vaccine, is the trust that Americans have in believing that government officials will do what’s right, not just what is most expedient for political purposes.

Trusting science during this era of social media and partisan politics may be very difficult to overcome. But 64 years ago this coming October, Elvis Presley stepped up. The eventual King of Rock-and-Roll became an influencer for a segment of Americans. More on that later…

Herd Immunity

Having trust in our national infrastructure to develop and distribute effective and safe vaccines is paramount to reaching herd immunity, which is having enough people become immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely. Many experts estimate between 60% and 70% of the population need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity.

Here’s the growing concern: We could have the most effective and safe vaccine available, but if few Americans take it, then it won’t matter.

During the past six months, Americans have seen highly-touted solutions fall short of the hype. The U.S. and the world are starving for good news concerning a Covid-19 vaccine. The haste for finding the silver bullet is causing both confusion and hesitation for Americans to feel comfortable enough to eventually obtain a vaccine when it does become available.

As intent as one political party is for news of a year-end vaccine that could help ‘save’ the presidential election, the opposing party is nervously hoping any promising news does not occur until AFTER the election. Both parties are in precarious and compromised positions. This tug of war competition uses science as the rope.

Polling on ‘Vaccine Hesitancy’

Vaccine hesitancy is showing up in national polling during August. The results indicate that about half of Americans are ‘highly likely’ to get vaccinated for Covid-19. An Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs online poll in May indicated that half of Americans would hesitate to take or refuse a vaccine, while a King’s College London study found similar numbers in the United Kingdom. To make matters worse, a vaccine may likely need two doses, not just one. Convincing people to seek a vaccine twice will be quite challenging.

According to scientists and America’s own Dr. Anthony Fauci, a widespread uptake of a coronavirus vaccine is the most effective tool in combating infectious diseases. But so far, the type of information being shared with Americans is both inconsistent and, in many cases, inaccurate. This is not a good combination needed to build the necessary trust in achieving herd immunity.

Below is a short list of examples that will erode American public trust if and when a proven vaccine becomes available.

1. Operation Warp Speed (OWS)

Introduced in early April 2020, Operation Warp Speed was initiated by the Trump Administration to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. As a public-private partnership consisting of federal agencies and private pharmaceutical firms, OWS promotes mass production of multiple vaccines based on preliminary evidence allowing for faster distribution if clinical trials confirm one of the vaccines is safe and effective. Congress has directed nearly $10 billion to fund OWS so that any vaccine or therapeutic doses purchased with U.S. taxpayer money will be given to Americans at little or no cost.

Four coronavirus candidate vaccines are expected to be in large-scale clinical trials by the middle of September – a remarkable timeline since the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in December. However, the marketing of “Warp Speed” causes concerns for critics and some science experts that the government and its research partners may cut corners that would increase the likelihood that chosen vaccines are not really safe and effective.

2. Convalescent Blood Plasma Treatments

On the eve of the Republican National Convention, the FDA Commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, reiterated President Trump’s proclamation that 35 people out of 100 (35 percent) would survive the coronavirus if they were treated with convalescent plasma. This “historic breakthrough” was based on preliminary findings of Mayo Clinic observations.

However, medical experts and scientists – including former FDA officials – pushed back saying the treatment’s value has not been established, and the claims vastly overstated preliminary findings of the Mayo Clinic.  One day later, Hahn backtracked from his comments, stating, “…The criticism is entirely justified. What I should have said better is that the data show a relative risk reduction not an absolute risk reduction.”

The FDA is under intense pressure from the White House to move the approval process along when deciding whether upcoming vaccines are safe and effective for Covid-19.

3. CDC Using Yesterday’s Technology to Fight Covid-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the federal agency that has primary responsibility for handling infectious diseases, which is a huge lift during this pandemic. Yet, according to authors Joel White and Doug Badger in a recent Op-Ed in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “the CDC uses an antiquated system to collect information essential to fighting the coronavirus.” The CDC, since 2006, has ignored four separate laws requiring it to build a modern, efficient system for collecting information to combat disease. Currently, they argue that “medical workers literally phone or fax in their data. And when they do, it’s not the data we need.” Fax???

During the week of August 24, the CDC quietly released controversial new guidelines that caused an outcry from various medical groups and allegations of political intervention. The agency dropped its previous recommendation to test everyone who’s come into close contact with a person infected with Covid-19 – even those who don’t have symptoms. Confusion reigns on what one should do if they become recently exposed but have no symptoms.  In fact, several large states and providers rebuke this latest testing plan.

4. Hydroxychloroquine

On May 18, President Trump claimed that he has been taking doses of hydroxychloroquine, a drug he has highly touted as a potential coronavirus cure despite concerns from medical experts and the FDA, specifically regarding its efficacy and potential harmful side effects.

Initial data from observational studies have shown this drug has limited or unproven benefits for Covid-19 patients, and could be harmful when used in certain combinations.

5. Reporting Glitches from the Iowa Department of Public Health

Not to be outdone by the CDC, according to an August 28 Des Moines Register article authored by Lee Rood, the state health department has drawn widespread criticism from other Iowa county authorities because of data collection and reporting problems, resulting in thousands of coronavirus infections being misreported. The accuracy of underreported new infections has plagued the state for months.

6. U.S. Postal Service Delivery Problems

This summer, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Republican, has been slashing budgets and services due to poor finances, causing concern on whether the USPS can handle mailed-in ballots of three-quarters of the voting population this coming November. In fact, the Postal Service informed 46 states and the District of Columbia that it did not have service capacity to meet the deadlines for voters to request and send in ballots, prompting almost two dozen states to sue DeJoy and the Postal Service. The fundamental infrastructure for voting now becomes highly questionable because the mail service has become politicized.

Who will be the next ‘Elvis Presley’?

The first half of the 20th century saw a series of polio epidemics affect hundreds of thousands of children across the world. As a result, many were left seriously incapacitated, with one victim being Franklin D. Roosevelt, the future U.S. president.  Major research was launched to combat polio, and in 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk announced that he developed a vaccine, that provided more than 90 percent protection after three shots.

At that time in America, the American public was somewhat indifferent towards the importance of vaccinations, in fact, there were organizations that lobbied against vaccinations in general, including polio.

Initiatives were launched for children to take the vaccine, but few U.S. teenagers and adults sought to be immunized, most believing they were not at risk. To boost teenager take-up of the polio vaccine, Elvis Presley was recruited, receiving massive media coverage while receiving the shot prior to his appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show 64 years ago this coming October 28. Newspapers all over the country published photos of the Presley vaccination. This publicity ‘stunt’ suggested that the vaccine was safe and helped promote public confidence. Presley, it should be mentioned, continued to work on behalf of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the vaccination became one of his advocacies.

Moving Forward

Even in ‘better’ times, there is a segment of the American population that believe vaccinations are not safe and can cause dangerous health problems, such as autism. In 2015, a Pew Research Center study found that about one in 10 Americans believe vaccines for diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella are not safe for healthy children.

By this November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans to launch a public-awareness campaign across television, radio and social media, with the intent of focusing on vaccine safety and efficacy. Medical experts will be paired with celebrities to help these messages resonate with the public. Based on the confusion, doubts and concerns mentioned earlier, this will be a formidable challenge to overcome.

Several health policy experts envision vaccine ‘mandates’ coming from the government, much like the current vaccine requirements for school-age children, military personnel, and hospital workers. Imagine restaurants and bars having signs at the entrance saying, “No Shirt, Not Shoes, No Inoculation, No Service.” Providing proof of inoculation (and booster shots) could be mandatory before entering the establishment. In essence, being inoculated becomes your reward for doing the right thing.

It’s time to put science ahead of politics. Trust, as we all know, must be diligently earned.

Will the next ‘Elvis’ be able to restore our sagging confidence?

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Employers and the Coronavirus Crisis

Given the escalating local and worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we are now inviting Iowa organizations to complete an unscientific ‘survey’ on this website. We hope to learn more about what precautions and business practices employers are taking to avert potential disruptions to the workplace. One example is mandating that a certain classification of employees work remotely. From this information, I will then periodically share personnel practices that have been implemented by Iowa organizations.

In just one day, I’ve been contacted by two friends and an Iowa business on what employers are currently doing to help alleviate the growing concern about this ‘epidemic.’ Because the COVID-19 is both fresh and fluid in our local communities as well as worldwide – so many decisions are being made on the fly as to how to handle and protect employees within the workplace.

Examples of National Employers

How are some key employers locally and around the U.S. responding to COVID-19? Employers have an obligation to notify their employees (and customers) who may have been in contact with a sick employee. Employers should encourage sick employees to stay home – using paid time off benefits or perhaps short-term disability coverage. If no leave is available, the employer may also choose to pay employees – even when they are not sick. This is one way to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

Walmart, effective March 10, began an emergency leave policy after an associate tested positive for the illness. Walmart will allow employees to stay home if they are unable to work or feel “uncomfortable” at work. According to a memo seen by Bloomberg News, employees will need to use regular paid time off options. If their workplace is placed under quarantine, Walmart will pay employees for up to two weeks, and this absence will not count against attendance.

If a Walmart employee is affected by this virus, in addition to receiving two weeks of pay, the retailer will pay “additional pay replacement” beyond the two weeks (if needed), up to 26 weeks for both full-time and part-time hourly associates.

Paid leave and workplace practices are front and center now for employers, and critical for retailers and restaurants. Paid sick leave is much less common for lower-wage employees who work in the leisure and hospitality sector. These employees typically interact with the public, such as in the restaurant industy.

Organizations like Twitter Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon have instructed thousands of employees to work from home, if possible. Whereas Costco Wholesale said that corporate employees cannot work remotely unless there is concern about employees being at high risk. If this should happen, the employee could use vacation or sick time to stay at home.

Wells Fargo, the third largest bank in the U.S., indicated that 62,000 of its 259,000 employees worked from home on Monday, March 9. One employee in San Francisco tested positive for the virus and Wells Fargo learned of this diagnosis two days earlier. Other financial institutions are also taking precautions.

Google, in order to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, has sent out a memo to employees across North America to work remotely. Just hours later, Google is extending this recommendation to include all workers in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. will have many of its 3,300 employees in Des Moines begin working from home, beginning on Monday, March 16. The goal is to have half of its employees working at home at any given time.

An insightful SHRM piece, written by Stephen Miller, regarding employer health, wellness and leave benefits and COVID-19 can be found here.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC has a webpage that provides resources for businesses and employers when preparing for COVID-19. It provides a good beginning to address interim guidance for employers, in addition to cleaning and disinfection recommendations. Employers are advised by the CDC to “ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) just sent out a document that contains useful information on measures to keep workplaces, schools, homes and commercial establishments safe.

Summary

Within the span of writing this particular piece, new emails and updates about COVID-19 are coming in with a flurry. One might expect this will be the new normal for a while.

We live in a world that requires vigilance both at home and at work. Despite this evolving environment, remaining calm and gathering as much trustworthy information as possible is the best solution to navigate through this ‘season’ of the unknown.

Again, completing our informal online survey will allow us to share various organizations’ business practices and policies.  As a reminder, our official 2020 survey will be covering many components of paid time off and paid parental leave benefits.

To stay abreast of employee benefits, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Understanding Health Insurance 101

Health benefit claim formI’ll always remember my first day on the job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa (now Wellmark BC/BS) in 1984. A relatively newly-minted college graduate, I was asked a fundamental question about health insurance – “What is a deductible?”

I’m somewhat ashamed to share with you that I was clueless. Until my employment at an insurance company, why would I even care what a deductible was? That day in 1984, I quickly learned about deductibles and other cost-sharing tools commonly found in health plans.

According to a 2013 article in the Journal of Health Economics, almost nine out of 10 Americans (86 percent), could not define all of the following terms on a multiple choice questionnaire:

  • Deductible
  • Copayment
  • Coinsurance
  • Out-of-pocket maximum

This is both important, and frankly, troubling. Here’s why…

In 2006, approximately one in 10 American employees had a health insurance deductible of $1,000 or more for single coverage. Today, almost half do. During this same year in Iowa, the average single deductible for an employer-sponsored health plan was $776. According to our 2015 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©, this average mushroomed by 114 percent to $1,662. The increase is quite simple: as health costs continue northward, so, too, will the premiums that employers and employees pay. To keep the premiums ‘reasonable,’ employers continue to shift cost-sharing arrangements – deductibles, copayments, coinsurance & out-of-pocket maximums – to employees and their family members.

Making informed decisions about purchasing healthcare is paramount in the post-Affordable Care Act (ACA) era. Teaching employees (and their family members) the A,B,C’s of their health plans is critical when choosing high-value care at affordable prices. This so-called ‘healthcare consumerism’ is supposed to push the mainstream delivery system into a more efficient, patient-centric ‘system’ of care. The building blocks to get there require Americans to fully understand what they must pay for the care they seek – and understand the terms in which they are asked to pay (e.g. deductibles, etc).

One key premise of the ACA was to have more Americans covered by some form of health insurance, whether it be through employers, Medicare, Medicaid or through individual plans, subsidized through marketplaces, such as a state or federally-qualified exchange. By doing so, Americans would seek care prudently and not access care through more expensive hospital emergency rooms.

Yet, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the number of emergency room visits continue to increase, with one in five Americans taking at least one annual trip to the hospital ER for urgent care purposes. In 2015 alone, about 131 million Americans visited emergency rooms, with 29 percent having private insurance, 25 percent with Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program policies, 18 percent had Medicare and 14 percent had no insurance.

Employers – Consider a Simple Health Terminology Pretest

Test QuizEmployers can do their part by educating their employees on terms and provisions offered through their health coverage policies. To begin, learn whether employees understand the four key payment concepts of health coverage (deductibles, copayments, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maximums). This can be done by simply surveying the workforce with a simple pretest.*

  1. Do you know what a Deductible is? (Yes or No)
  2. Which of the following best describes a Deductible?
    a. An amount deducted from your paycheck to pay for your insurance premium.
    b. The amount deducted (covered) out of your total yearly-medical expenses.
    c. The amount you pay before your insurance company pays benefits.
    d. The amount you pay before your health expenses are covered in full.
    e. I’m not sure.

Curious about additional questions to ask employees? I highly recommend reviewing the Journal of Health Economics article, “Consumers’ misunderstanding of health insurance.” By surveying your employees, perhaps you can follow-up with them via email or handouts and define each healthcare term, providing examples of how they are used within your particular health plan. Later, you may wish to perform a post test to determine improvement in comprehension of these particular terms. Something to consider…

Much like Orwell’s ‘1984,’ my education about deductibles came and went. How about you? It’s never too late to bring others up to speed on health insurance concepts.

To stay abreast of employee benefits and other tangential issues, we invite you to subscribe to this blog.

*Loewenstein, G., et al. Consumers’ misunderstanding of health insurance. Journal of Health Economics 32 (2013) 850-862.