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Andrea Amelse knows hand-washing.

For the past eight years, she’s been washing her hands pretty much every time she passes a sink. When she’s near a bottle of antibacterial gel, she uses it. She makes a point of avoiding people with contagious illnesses, even though it can be uncomfortable to ask to work from home or miss a date with friends. And she makes sure she gets plenty of sleep, not always easy at age 25.

Amelse was diagnosed in 2012 with lupus, an autoimmune disease that makes her vulnerable to infections. She’s since developed pulmonary arterial hypertension, a condition that requires intravenous therapy via a central line to her heart. Both illnesses place her at heightened risk for viral and bacterial illnesses. So, she has adapted as a matter of survival, taking to heart long-standing axioms on what constitutes good hygiene.

As the highly contagious new coronavirus continues its spread through the U.S., the general public could learn a thing or two from Amelse and the millions of other Americans with weakened immune systems who already live by rules of infection control. Whether it’s people who had recent organ transplants, people undergoing chemotherapy or people with chronic diseases, America has a broad community of immunosuppressed residents who long ago adopted the lifestyle changes public officials now tout as a means of avoiding contagion: Wash your hands, and wash them often. Don’t touch your face. Avoid that handshake. Keep your distance from people who cough and sneeze.

Amelse doesn’t follow the advice perfectly — of course she touches her face sometimes. “You do these things unknowingly, so forcing yourself to break these habits can be challenging,” she said. But the incentive to keep getting better is there. “If you get a cold and you give me that same cold, you might get it for a week. I’ll get it for a month.”

Even with her dedication, COVID-19 is proving a daunting prospect to face. And she has a stake in Americans adopting these habits because, while the disease is relatively minor for many people who get it, it can be life-threatening for people with preexisting conditions.

Amelse works at a health literacy startup in Minneapolis that helps patients with complicated diseases learn about their illness. She knows a lot about health and how to prevent infection. Still, the threat of COVID-19 is unnerving, for her and her doctors.

With a virus so new, official guidance on what people at heightened risk should do to steer clear of COVID-19 is limited. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said the virus seems to hit hardest in people 60 and older with underlying health concerns. There is also concern for younger people with limited immune systems or complex diseases.

Health officials are asking those at risk to stockpile two-week supplies of essential groceries and medicines in case they need to shelter at home; to avoid crowds and heavily trafficked areas; to defer nonessential travel; and to track what’s going on in their community, so they know how strictly to follow this advice.

Infection control always follows a similar set of principles, said Dr. Jay Fishman, director of the Transplant Infectious Disease and Compromised Host Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. The most important things for people to do right now are the things he always recommends to his organ transplant and cancer patients. Again, think hand-washing and avoiding spaces where sick people congregate.

Still, the recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all. Some people are born with stronger immune systems, and immune deficits exist on a spectrum, said Fishman. How strict people need to be to prevent illness can vary depending on how susceptible they are.

Recommendations also need to take into account what people can and will do, he said. Children, for example, are among the greatest germ vectors of all time, but Fishman doesn’t ask his patients with grandchildren to stay away from their young family members. “We did the transplant so you can see your grandchildren,” he might tell them.

Similarly, avoiding crowds and staying away from sick people is easy for some but can be all but impossible if you work in food service, for example. Find ways to avoid the risks and reduce them where possible.

Though there isn’t great research on how well transplant patients and others manage to prevent infection, Fishman said many of his patients don’t get sick any more frequently than the general population, despite their vulnerabilities. But when they do, the illnesses tend to last longer, be more severe and put people at higher risk for additional infections. He counsels patients to be vigilant, but also to live their lives and not be ruled by fear.

Dr. Deborah Adey, a transplant nephrologist for UCSF Health, echoed Fishman, saying she likes to find ways to help her patients carry on with their lives. A patient recently asked if it was OK to fly to Salt Lake City, and she suggested they drive instead.

Gauging the risks can be tough. Amelse was relieved when a major health conference she was scheduled to attend recently in Florida was canceled at the last minute. She wasn’t sure it was safe to travel, but it also was unclear how to categorize an important work trip: Was this essential? Nonessential?

Adey conducts follow-up appointments via teleconferencing where possible, to keep her patients out of medical facilities. Hospitals are, by design, places for the sick, and people with compromised immune systems are generally advised to avoid them and the viruses and bacteria potentially inside.

That matches advice from officials in California and other states, asking people to stay out of emergency rooms unless absolutely necessary. They are asking people, when possible, to call ahead to their doctors and stay home unless an illness is serious.

And, similar to what public officials are advising the general population, Adey does not recommend that her patients wear face masks when out in public or even at the clinic. “The only people I would recommend is if they’ve got a lot of close contact with the general public, and they can’t afford to be off work.”

While much has been made of the hoarding sprees for face masks, the empty hand sanitizer shelves are equally frustrating for Amelse. Every 48 hours, she has to mix and administer drugs she places in an IV that goes into her heart. Everything must be sanitized, and she typically gets monthly shipments of antibacterial wipes and sanitizer. If suppliers run out, she’s worried she’ll have to go to a hospital to have the drugs administered — exactly where her doctors don’t want her to be.

Officials are desperately working on a vaccine for the coronavirus for use in as little as 12 to 18 months. But many vaccines are made from live viruses and can’t be given to some immunosuppressed people.

Given the risk COVID-19 poses for people with compromised immune systems, the government needs to stress how important it is for everyone to follow good hygiene protocols, said Fishman. “The worst thing we can do is downplay it.”

And for those just getting up to speed on preventing infections, Amelse has advice: “Viruses don’t pick and choose; they will latch on anywhere,” she said. Even if it’s not a serious illness for you, “there are people in your life that you can infect. You have the obligation and the responsibility to take care of your loved ones.”

In an interview on the Fox News Channel on Monday, Trump explained his objection to Democrats’ efforts to appropriate billions of dollars for election security in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. “The things they had in there were crazy,” he told the hosts. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”.................Read more

Our coronavirus numbers continue to climb. Today America has more than 185,000 known infections and Covid-19 has killed 3,768 people, more than those who died on 9/11. Coronavirus continues to weaken the economy as well. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 400 points today, ending the worst quarter in stock market history, despite more than $2 trillion in relief measures and actions by the Federal Reserve to inject money into the economy. .........Read More

The coronavirus stimulus package Congress rushed out last week to help the nation’s hospitals and health care networks hands the industry billions of dollars in windfall subsidies and other spending that has little to do with defeating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $2 trillion legislation, which President Donald Trump signed Friday, includes more than $100 billion in emergency funds to compensate hospitals and other health care providers for lost revenue and other costs associated with COVID-19. The measure also calls for spending up to $16 billion to replenish the nation’s depleted stockpile of medical gear, such as ventilators, medicines and personal protective equipment, or PPE.

But health care businesses will get billions of dollars in additional funding not directly related to the pandemic, in some cases because Congress agreed to reverse scheduled cuts in the rates paid by Medicaid and Medicare, which the federal government had tried for years to impose.

“Anything that could tangentially be related to the crisis lobbyists tried to get stuffed in this bill ― particularly health-care-related items,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. While the stimulus package is “not as big” a “Christmas tree” as some other bills, Ellis said, “I’m sure we’ll find a few baubles and gifts along the way.”

Hospitals have won widespread praise as their doctors and other medical staffs labor under perilous conditions, including shortages of protective gear. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the industry emerged as a big winner in the stimulus negotiations. Not only can hospitals draw on the $100 billion fund to stem their losses and cover other costs, but they will also see a boost in one stream of revenue as Congress overturned some planned rate cuts.

More than 3,000 hospitals that treat outsize numbers of Medicaid or uninsured patients, for instance, will share in an $8 billion windfall through the stimulus provision that reverses cuts in their Medicaid payments for 2020 and 2021.

Separately, hospitals will rake in at least $3 billion more because of a temporary suspension of a 2% cut in Medicare fees, according to the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents more than 1,000 for-profit hospitals and health systems. The infusion of cash also benefits doctors, nursing homes, home health companies and others.

“That’s welcome news during this time of crisis,” said Joanne Cunningham, executive director of the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare.

Also tucked into the stimulus: a rollback of planned rate cuts to clinical laboratories and some medical equipment suppliers.

At this stage, it is unclear how much these measures will add to the COVID-19 tab ― or if far more stimulus would be required for the health care industry to rebound.

Take the 2% rate cut known as “the sequester.” The Office of Management and Budget expected it would save Medicare $16.2 billion in fiscal 2021. But the stimulus bill rescinds that rate cut from May 1 through the end of this year. As part of the legislation, Congress said it would, in effect, recoup the payments later by adding another year to the sequester. Whether lawmakers will follow through on that is anyone’s guess.

Anders Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), expects the sequester relief to translate to a “huge” financial boost for more than 15,000 medical practices his group represents.

“This would never have been done under any other circumstances,” Gilberg said. “The situation was recognized as dire.”

Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said the stimulus offers “needed financial relief to hard-hit workers, health systems and physician practices. At this critical moment, physician practices need significant financial support to sustain themselves and continue to meet the health care needs of all Americans during this time.”

Similarly, American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack called the legislation “an important first step forward. But, he added, “more will need to be done to deal with the unprecedented challenge of this virus.”

In a nod to clinical laboratories, which have helped bail out the federal government’s early failure to supply enough COVID-19 tests, the stimulus delayed planned rate cuts in 2021 likely to amount to tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Medicare officials have been at odds with the lab industry for years over rates for lab tests.

While other health care interests praised the bill, the laboratory trade association said it comes up short.

Just before the Senate passed the stimulus bill Wednesday, American Clinical Laboratory Association President Julie Khani slammed Congress for not designating funding to support labs. She said labs were in “an untenable situation, absorbing growing, uncompensated costs for testing specimens with no assurance that they will be appropriately or fairly reimbursed for all the tests they are performing.”

She added a not-so-veiled threat, saying: “If Congress fails to designate essential emergency funding for clinical laboratories to support our efforts, labs will be soon be forced to make difficult decisions about whether they can keep building the [testing] capacity our nation needs.”

The lab association, in a statement to Kaiser Health News, said labs have absorbed “staggering” Medicare reimbursement cuts of as much as 30% for many common tests in recent years.

In public securities filings this year, lab giants Quest Diagnostics Inc. and Laboratory Corp of America Holdings, known as LabCorp, reported they expected rate cuts in 2020 totaling more than $150 million. LabCorp said it supported the views of the lab association. Quest did not respond to a request for comment.

While labs processing COVID-19 tests missed out on direct funding, they could be eligible for some of the $100 billion allocated for hospitals and other providers to cover their losses, congressional aides said.

And the stimulus measure states that even in the event a lab is out-of-network, health plans are expected to pay the price it sets — as long as the lab publishes that price online — or negotiate with the lab.

Given that laws in some states ban surprise billing in particular, this provision seems to favor the labs, said Katie Keith, a Georgetown University law professor and health policy expert. “No one just lets the provider set the price,” she said.

The lab association disputes that, saying that many health plans are expected to pay them less than the $51.50 government recommended for a COVID-19 test.

Just how the $100 billion in health care funding will be distributed and how much oversight will occur is another unknown.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has the authority to decide how long the emergency provisions remain in effect. Tracking all that money will be a challenge as well.

Ellis, the taxpayer advocate, noted that no government agency “is ready to handle the rush of extra funding.” He said that the stimulus grants extra resources to inspector general offices to monitor spending.

“There will be waste, there will be abuse,” he said. “It’s about exposing and rooting it out.”

The HHS Office of Inspector General expects to receive $4 million to support this oversight, according to spokesman Donald White.

Some groups aren’t waiting to compete over the $100 billion. The MGMA sent a letter March 27 to Azar and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services chief Seema Verma asking for more direct help. Gilberg noted that some medical practices, such as doctors who perform colonoscopies, have not been able to continue their work.

“Doctors and physician practices are having a lot of trouble right now,” Gilberg said. “They are literally shut down, and they are having financial troubles. Their operations have come to a full halt.”

KHN correspondents Rachana Pradhan and Emmarie Huetteman contributed to this report.

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