Midweek update

Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

From the Omicron front —

  • David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, informs us that while the surge of Omicron cases is stressing hospitals, Omicron has created less hospitalizations, milder hospitalizations, and fewer deaths compared to the Delta variant which Omicron replaced.
  • Becker’s Hospital Review reports that “The national surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant may last weeks, rather than months, according to the most recent projections from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a consortium of researchers helping the CDC track the pandemic’s trajectory.”
  • Medscape offers expert opinions on whether the current Omicron surge will hasten the transition from pandemic to endemic. For example —

Whether the current surge will mean the predicted switch to endemic COVID-19 will come sooner, however, “is very hard to predict,” Michael Lin, MD MPH, told Medscape Medical News.

“It’s an open question,” he said, “if another highly transmissible variant will emerge.”

On a positive note, “at this point many more people have received their vaccinations or been infected. And over time, repeated infections have led to milder symptoms,” added Lin, hospital epidemiologist at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois.

“It could end up being a seasonal variant,” he said.

On the COVID vaccine front, AHIP tells us that

Today the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended a single Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine booster dose for persons aged 12-17 years at least 5 months after their primary series, by a vote of 13-1.

The Committee reviewed real-world data from Israel and the CDC showing there are no new safety concerns following a booster in this population, and that adverse events were less common from a 3rd dose as compared to the primary series.

Members of the Committee also stressed the primary focus continues to be vaccination of unvaccinated individuals, and that there is a need to increase education and understanding of the effects of COVID-19 on children and adolescents in order to help parents make informed decisions.

The FDA noted that it continues to review data on children aged 5-11 and will update recommendations when more data is available.

On the COVID testing front, Bloomberg offers a comprehensive look at the state of the Biden Administration’s efforts to improve availability of rapid at home COVID tests. Of note to health plans —

Private insurers will reimburse for at-home tests beginning at some point next week, when a Biden administration rule is set to take effect. That will allow Americans to submit claims, and could spark an initial spike in demand. But it remains to be seen whether people will take advantage of the reimbursement as filing insurance claims can be a time-consuming and tedious task.

In the FEHBlog’s view the Affordable Care Act converted health plans into public utilities. Aside from the wisdom of imposing this public health responsibility on health plans, this approach does not make sense due to the high administrative cost of processing paper claims. It will become a side show.

On the COVID treatment front, STAT News reports that

The Biden administration doubled its order of Covid-19 pills from Pfizer, a move that will modestly increase the limited U.S. supply of the treatment in the short term amid a record-setting surge in coronavirus casesThe New York Times writes. The new order will eventually provide enough pills for an additional 10 million Americans, bringing the government’s total order of the drug to 20 million treatment courses. But they will not all be available right away. Only 35,000 of the additional courses will be delivered this month, and 50,000 more in February, supplementing 350,000 treatment courses that were already expected over the next two months.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, Govexec reports that the Postal Service has asked the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for “a 120-day extension to implement the [vaccinate or test] rule, saying that would allow enough time to update its systems for record collection and bargain with its unions over the details.”

From the Rx coverage front

  • Reuters reports that “Pfizer Inc  and Germany’s BioNTech SE  will develop an mRNA-based vaccine for viral infection shingles, collaborating for the third time after th success of their COVID-19 vaccine based on the same technology.
  • Healthcare Dive offers its observations on where drug prices are headed this year.
  • Biopharma Dive identifies five Food and Drug Administration approval decisions to watch in the first quarter of 2022.
  • In related news, mHealth Intelligence tells us that

“Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University have collaborated to create a wireless sensor designed to prevent opioid relapses and overdoses. * * *

The opioid epidemic has steadily worsened across the country since the late 1990s. In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid-related overdoses, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Further, around 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, the federal data shows.  

To combat this issue, the research team — headed by Tauhidur Rahman, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Information and Computer Sciences at UMass Amherst and co-director of the MOSAIC Lab — is developing a sensor, which will use machine learning to pinpoint psychophysiological signs in real time and determine whether they are consistent with opioid cravings. Cravings are one of the main drivers behind relapses and overdoses.

If a craving is identified, the sensor providers the user with mindfulness-based interventions. These ultimately could be customized based on the user’s behaviors and clinician input.

“Nothing like this exists today,” Rahman said in the news release. “And we believe that mobile technologies can provide an effective mechanism for people with addiction to monitor their condition and manage their cravings better.”

Cool.

From the OPM front, Govexec reports that

The Office of Personnel Management is set to publish regulations implementing a 2021 law aimed at improving agency accountability for acts of discrimination and whistleblower retaliation against federal workers.

The Elijah E. Cummings Federal Employee Antidiscrimination Act, named for the late lawmaker who led the House Oversight and Reform Committee and signed on Jan. 1, 2021, encourages agencies to take action against federal employees who are found to be responsible for “intentional” acts of discrimination or retaliation, and be more transparent with the public when such incidents are adjudicated.

In a proposed rule set to be published to the Federal Register Thursday, OPM said that [among other new requirements] agencies will be expected to post a notification on their public-facing websites within 90 days of the finalization of any case in which the agency was found to have discriminated or retaliated against a federal employee.

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