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Resident Perspective: Volunteering at a Testing Site

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

 

With my office hours consolidated and no longer attending morning and noon teaching conferences, I find myself wanting to get back in the action. During my self-isolation I signed up for the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps. I signed up to be a “swabber” (obtaining samples from the back of the throat) at the South Philly screening site in the parking lot of Citizen’s Bank Park. I have Phillies tickets for a game that was supposed to take place this weekend. But instead I arrive at the stadium parking lot to see swathes of asphalt without cars. Instead they’re filled with tents, traffic cones, and people gowned from head to toe in PPE rather than tailgaters. This screening site is a joint venture between the Philly Department of Health, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There is plenty of PPE to go around and I suspect this is due to FEMA’s presence because right now nobody seems to be overly concerned about limiting volunteer access to equipment.

Testing Site

I’m interested to see who comprises the volunteer corps because there is a wide variety of people in the Delaware Valley that suddenly have nothing to do. There are retired physicians, nurses, medical students (suddenly without any clinical duties), as well as people not at all involved in medicine who just want to help. Everyone is eager and energetic. You couldn’t tell there was a pandemic about to make its way to Philadelphia and the people that are most concerned they have an infection are driving to your current location.

There are multiple large white tents set up to receive cars to drive through. Each tent has the capacity to test about 100 people per day. The decision on how many tents to open each day is dictated by the number of volunteers available and the weather. On my first day it’s windy—very windy in South Philly. So windy in fact if you dropped a glove or a face shield you better start running because it would be 10 yards away before it hit the ground. Mornings start with huddles of teams where we begin the process of assigning volunteers to different stations and assign roles for the day. A woman in a vague military ensemble and standing up perfectly straight, presumably from FEMA, calls our medical director over after our huddle. There is a line of about 30 cars waiting for the entrance gate to the parking lot to be lifted to signal we’re ready to start testing. We typically start at 1pm on the dot but today things are dragging along. The Medical Director slowly walks back to the “swabbers” tent, facemask in hand, and dejectedly says that we have to close the operation today due to high winds which are anticipated to become worse as the day wears on. This is because the specimens may blow over and be scattered in the wind, putting Philly on the map as the first city to accidentally infect its own citizens with coronavirus. We have to go car by car to notify the inhabitants that if they are truly sick they should go to the nearest ED or come back at a future date. Demoralizing indeed.

Our positive rates with the nasal swab at the testing site are between 25% to 30%. If we had tested only 200 people that day, that’s still at least 50 people we would have identified as being COVID-19 positive. Who knows how many had to take off from work to come in or might not get the chance to come in tomorrow. The volunteers are pretty disappointed.

The screening site is a well-oiled machine by the time I arrive in late March. Through intake, data collection, verification, swabbing, etc. it takes about 8 to 10 volunteers to run one “lane” of cars. Ultimately the car completes its journey at our site in the swabbing tent where the specimen is collected. The more volunteers present, the more tents and lanes can be open,  which will greatly decrease wait time for the public to get screened—therefore enticing more people to receive testing. There are times when I volunteer and only two tents are open due to staffing issues. Additionally, I’m told by the Medical Director at the site that samples are now taking closer to 10 days to process, not the 5 to 7 that we had been telling the patients. Lastly, something that I find somewhat incomprehensible is that the FEMA guidelines for eligible patients to get tested do not align with those of the Philadelphia Department of Health. This leads to some people being taken out of line by FEMA representatives even though they’re eligible for testing according to the Department of Health. It never occurred to me that things like this can affect an overall city’s number of cases. Closing or decreasing screening capacity as well as delays in reporting can make numbers artificially lower.

I’m trying to find silver linings to come from the pandemic. Some are that the people being screened are overwhelmingly appreciative of our efforts. Local restaurants provide free lunch and dinner to the volunteers so it very much feels like a community coming together. I’m fortunate to observe the way people are supporting one another during these stressful times. Philadelphians are responding positively—for now. It likely won’t stay like this for the entirety of the pandemic as economic and other life-changes will exacerbate the anxiety that many people are feeling. I take comfort in knowing that there is potential for a lot to change in our society as we emerge from the pandemic.

It won’t be a surprise that our lives will be markedly different in the coming months and most likely years. For the foreseeable future,  society will no longer run as “business as usual” following the first wave of the pandemic. The way our healthcare system functions is something I’m most looking forward to seeing evolve as people realize that our employer-based model leaves millions behind is not equipped for delivering the most care to the most people. A new awareness of what we find important in life will also develop. This may entail rethinking the significance of the local community and each person’s role. We’ll be forced into introspection – things like where we get our food how we view work, and how we spend our free time will require reflection and evaluation – whether we like it or not.

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Resident Perspective: My Biggest Fear

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Monday, April 6th

Aside from the very real concerns over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), ICU beds, and ventilators, I believe that the biggest cause for anxiety among healthcare professionals is not having answers. Traditionally, the public has turned to physicians during public health scares as they purportedly know how to approach all ailments. This virus is demonstrating that given all of our progress in the medical field from state-of-the-art imaging modalities to treatments utilizing personal genetic properties, we still can’t answer many basic questions about this new disease.

Philadelphia has a geographic advantage over many other regions in relation to the viral spread. We have an up-close view of the damage that the virus has wrought in New York without having nearly the number of cases or hospital burden at this time. The delay it takes for the virus to move westward globally and down I-95 not only allows us to stock up on PPE, prepare the hospitals, and practice social distancing, it also gives us the opportunity to analyze the studies that have come out of places like China and Italy. Although hospital beds in Philadelphia are now filling up with COVID-19 patients, it’s the barrage of images in the media of trashbag-wearing nurses, overflooded hallways and pleas from staff urging more supplies or more assistance that make this even more terrifying. The answers to our questions will come, but during the quarantine when each day feels like a week, data collection isn’t necessarily the issue — interpreting the data is.

As the pandemic ramps up in our region, the ever-present fear of not knowing which patients entering the hospital with upper respiratory infection symptoms are positive is anxiety-producing, not only because these patients can become sick quickly, but because it’s easy to let your guard down. When you know your patient is infected you know to be extra cautious. Also, determining whom to test prior to admission, given the tests’ continued scarcity, remains an issue, even as our own institutions’ guidelines continuously evolve.

In an ideal world we’d screen everyone and it would be an accurate test. However, right now we cannot screen everyone and we know the test has a high rate of false-negatives. Let’s say we do identify a COVID-19 patient through testing but who doesn’t require hospitalization. Our guideline for duration of self-isolation is just a recommendation as we simply don’t know if they are still infectious post-isolation. We can’t even tell patients that tested positive whether or not they are susceptible to getting re-infected, and if it will return in autumn; we can only posit given what we know about other viruses in these situations. Lastly, we don’t even have a proven treatment plan, only what experts surmise is the best approach given the information we have. Hydroxychloroquine, among many other proposed treatments, is still in the nascent stages of evaluation but the public wants answers quickly. This is not typically how the peer-review process works in academia as it often takes months to years to evaluate therapies. In this case public expectations need to be grounded to a reality in which even when expedited, implementation of new practices moves at a seemingly-glacial pace.

Residents get daily updates regarding our own institutional policies as well as new relevant findings that could be practice-changing. It’s amazing seeing the sausage being made, but it’s also terrifying because the Attendings and veteran physicians that we as trainees look to for answers are now looking to each other for answers and opening the floor to all ideas.

The good news is that while we don’t have the answers yet (and we may never have all the answers), we can take comfort in knowing that we are in the golden age of data- and knowledge-sharing. Pooling the resources of physicians, epidemiologists, researchers, and statisticians internationally has allowed us to make great strides in our understanding of COVID-19 in a relatively short time, and work toward mitigating our greatest fear – the unknown.

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Resident Perspective: Ready or not, time for telehealth

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Wednesday, April 1st

Medicine residents work in the hospital as well as the outpatient office. Cleared to go back to work, I’m scheduled to see some of my patients in the office. In an effort to limit the exposure to coronavirus for both the patients and the office staff, as many appointments as possible have been converted into telemedicine visits. These are essentially video-chat appointments using a HIPAA-compliant app where I can talk to a patient, ask about their symptoms and have them show me any relevant physical exam information, like using the camera on their phone to show me the back of their throat. I complete the online training modules that all providers have to pass and I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

Something is off as I arrive at my clinic prior to my shift. First, it’s nearly empty, no front desk employees are there to wave to, and there are new standing hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere. Magazines from February populate the waiting room tables which may not be alarming for most businesses, but for my clinic, not having new editions of Philadelphia Magazine on display is shocking and noteworthy. No patients in the waiting room and doors to individual offices are closed, preventing natural light from gaining entry to the normally well-trafficked hallways. This place definitely feels more bunker-like than I remember. The few staff and attendings that are present are all wearing scrubs and face masks. Recognizable but unfamiliar, the pandemic has now officially warped and invaded every facet of my life and there is no sanctuary for normalcy.

Previously, only a small portion of physicians were utilizing telehealth visits. Fewer than 1% of Medicare beneficiaries used it prior to the pandemic.  Presumably because there is a learning curve on both the provider and the patient’s end, you have the opportunity to be more thorough during an in-person visit, and the big one: it wasn’t fully reimbursed by Medicare. Recently, under the Stafford Act and National Emergencies Act, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced its beneficiaries will now be able to use telehealth to access their PCP for non-routine visits. Important to note, this is only temporary, as once the crisis is over (whatever that means), CMS will go back to its prior payment structure. Notably, other providers like social workers, psychologists, dieticians, etc. that are also integral to a person’s overall well-being will be covered.

Many of my appointments for the day involved patients interested in COVID testing. There’s an algorithm providers are to follow to determine who should be tested given the scarcity of tests. Mainly if the patient has symptoms, has other elevated risk factors such as coming into contact with a known COVID positive person, or recent travel to a coronavirus “hot spot”, they should be tested. This doesn’t cover a lot of other vulnerable people or others who should be tested, but the algorithm is designed to only catch the most likely positive cases at this point. The rapidity with things like which screening tests are performed and whom to test are just part of the equation in this constantly developing situation. Someone who is not eligible for testing one week, very well may be eligible the next.

I’d never performed a telehealth visit but the obvious problems that come to mind, like poor internet connection and not being able to get a gestalt on a patient that you can by an in-person exam, were apparent. In my first session I immediately encountered an  issue with a patient which our staff couldn’t get in touch with to see if they could convert their in-person appointment to telehealth. The patient’s partner had lost their job and couldn’t pay their cell phone bill so they were splitting the phone and the voicemail-box was full. The current economic crisis will of course exacerbate issues like this. Additionally, most commercial insurance as well as CMS will pay for audio/video calls but not necessarily only an audio (traditional telephone) call. My next patient actually was having difficulty accessing the proprietary HIPAA-compliant app on his phone, necessitating a phone call appointment which ultimately won’t be billable. Other appointments went smoothly and were unremarkable but already it’s clear there will be growing pains in moving patients to telehealth.

I’m a big believer in the future of telemedicine for many reasons but primarily because it provides a lower threshold for patients to access their providers, and this will be beneficial to delivering healthcare. These next few months will be telling if we can make it work nationally from a logistical standpoint. I’m not as convinced from a reimbursement standpoint as I’m sure there will be many kinks to work out. If my first foray into telehealth has shown me anything it’s that for my patients telehealth is a generally welcome idea in theory– many of whom did not grow up with cell phone technology– but in practice it’s a different story. Since the beginning of the quarantine, there’s been a surge in popularity of video and teleconferencing software connecting co-workers and friends alike. This current crisis will hasten the public’s comfort with interacting over the internet.  We’ll see how long it will take to successfully adopt and integrate into daily medical practice but the test has arrived regardless of whether insurance, the public, or providers are prepared.

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Resident Perspective: waiting for test results

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Sunday, March 29th

Although I’m a resident and I’m able to access my own medical chart through the electronic medical record, I’m not allowed, per hospital policy. I’m relegated to waiting for my results once “released” to me. While waiting for results in self-isolation, at a certain point you don’t really care whether it’s positive or negative, you just want to know something. Unfortunately, we still don’t know if being coronavirus positive prevents you from getting infected again so I’m not at the point where I would prefer to be positive just to get it over with.

Finally, five days after having the back of my throat swabbed I get an email saying my results are back: SARS CoV-2—undetected. Whew, negative. I was able to isolate for 5 days while my wife worked and took care of our baby simultaneously. Many other households aren’t that fortunate and either the other parent would have to take unpaid time off from their job (if they are able) or the person in quarantine would have to watch the kids and therefore expose the entire family to coronavirus. This is problematic for many obvious reasons.

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A picture of me and Jack at the tail-end of my quarantine. I still smiled under the mask for some reason.

The responsiveness from the government to obtaining and manufacturing tests was bungled from the very beginning. Quick turnaround time for testing is beneficial for giving patients a diagnosis promptly and is beneficial for epidemiologic prediction models that guide how much a region will be impacted and which locations that will be hit hardest next.

There are two main testing locations. In-patient testing for those that are hospitalized, where the test is performed in the hospital’s own microbiology labs (“in-house”) which have continuously improving turnaround times. Once the tests became available to hospital labs across the country, waiting times went from 48 hours down to about 4 or 5 hours (and in some hospitals turnaround is under an hour). The other main testing sites are commercial labs (LabCorp, Quest Diagnostic, etc.), where your test would be performed if your outpatient doc sent in a referral or if you went to a screening center. Unfortunately wait times are getting much longer as the public demand goes up for testing, and along with it, any part of the supply chain that is lacking—from swabs to reagents to protective gear for the providers—will back up everything.

The answer to better prediction models and better care isn’t just faster turnaround time for tests. The media has really honed in on getting quick results as a major issue in the epidemic because the news can show a long queue waiting to be swabbed or interview people frustrated by the lack of knowing their status. Arguably just as important is the accuracy of these tests. Swabs of the nose and throat are analyzed by something called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which is designed to multiply the virus genetic material—RNA in the case of coronavirus—and detect the presence of the virus itself. A couple of problems arise from PCR as there have been reports of high rates of false negatives—meaning getting an inaccurate “undetected” reading when in fact, one is coronavirus positive. This is called low sensitivity in a test.

Because PCR looks for the virus itself from the swab, there have been studies in which essentially, if you go lower down the trachea (“wind pipe”) and obtain a sample closer to the lungs there are higher concentrations of virus located there so you will get a better sample and potentially provide more RNA material to amplify and detect with PCR. The issue with going down the trachea, in addition to being very unpleasant, can cause more of the virus to be coughed up during the procedure potentially infecting more people. So it seems not only possible, but likely that the swab going to the back of the throat either by way of mouth or nose just doesn’t pick up enough virus to be amenable to detection in many instances.

A blood test was recently approved by the FDA under Emergency Use Authorization which will test for antibodies (our own immune system response to the virus). These tests are already in use in China and other countries and can return results in under an hour. The benefit is that these tests aren’t dependent on obtaining an adequate swab and they could potentially tell us if someone’s been exposed in the past. It will also lead to more data regarding immunity to future infections with SARS CoV-2. The downside is that the test may not be accurate either and potentially detect non-COVID-causing coronavirus like CoV-1. There also arises questions like: is it better to know with 80% accuracy with one method vs 70% accuracy with another but it takes half the time to get the results back? There are no clear-cut answers because there are pros and cons to both.

The good news amongst all of this is that there is high “specificity” with these tests, meaning that if you get a positive result then you almost certainly have COVID, however comforting that may be. Keep in mind, for the time being these only apply to people that are having symptoms. I haven’t even touched upon the messed up screening guidelines and how they’ve morphed over the past few weeks. All of this is really to say we don’t know how many people are SARS CoV-2 positive currently for lots of reasons, and looking at the current positive cases on the news only tells part of the story.

At our institution there have been patients that we’ve been so sure are COVID positive that we’ve performed multiple PCR tests yet have all returned negative. Unfortunately, the answer to those that are so sure they are positive with coronavirus but have received negative testing is to assume the test is wrong. Given the rapidity with which this is all developing there just isn’t enough data regarding how accurate these tests are and how they should be employed.

I finally received a call from occupational health telling me the test results and to go back to work. Typically I’d be starting on outpatient weeks at this time, meaning I would be seeing patients in the office and go to morning and afternoon conferences with other residents. The pandemic has disfigured outpatient life for a resident, so now I start with telemedicine appointments and we’re given strict instructions to stay away from the hospital until it is our turn again—I’ll gladly oblige.

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Resident Perspective: Who is “Essential”?

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Friday, March 27th

I’m not having any symptoms at all at this point, really itching to get back to work. All residents have been instructed to check their temperatures before and after every shift since last week, in the hopes of catching any early signs of infection. We were not supplied any thermometers by the program, local drug stores are all sold out, and checking online the cheapest thermometers that will arrive in fewer than 4 days are all over $50. Luckily, I have my son’s infant forehead thermometer but I’m pretty sure doesn’t really work—I use it anyway and consistently have a temperature below 95 degrees, whatever that’s worth. I hadn’t felt feverish so I continued to go in to work at the hospital.

I’ve been reading a lot of self-congratulatory posts on social media from those in healthcare, selfies with a mask on, a team posing for a picture in all their protective gear, etc. For the most part it’s pretty benign but important stuff—reminding people to wash hands and stay home. The other intention is to self-promote and remind others they’re putting themselves at risk for the greater good. A troubling type of post I’ve been seeing is from providers (often not directly taking care of any COVID patients) excited and proud at the prospect for the medical community to come together to defeat this invisible foe. Maybe these sentiments are posted because morale is low and physician burnout is even higher than typical at this time? Bully for those that go into the fight ready, willing, and able. This mentality seems to say that as healthcare providers we should all rush to the frontlines as it’s a commendable action. I suspect many people not working in healthcare may not realize that residents are not really given a choice whether to participate or engage with high-risk coronavirus patients.

Residents are at an even higher risk of burning out at this time because all “non-essential” employees are not permitted in the hospital and they are limiting the number of employees for the essential roles as a way to decrease overall exposure. Medical students typically make discharge appointments, obtain outside hospital records, and other vital tasks—but medical students are no longer permitted in the hospitals because in many ways they’re paying for the privilege of being there. That topic in and of itself could be another blog post.  Gone or restricted hours also apply to many case managers, social workers, patient transporters, nutritionists, physical therapists, drug or alcohol rehab representatives, etc. The burden of caring for patients and providing a safe discharge now falls more squarely on the remaining, smaller medical teams, which includes residents (and more specifically the interns—first year residents). This is time-consuming and no doubt will hasten burnout. In our program we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to take certain measures to mitigate this, like shorter duration spent on COVID teams for residents, but we may not have that luxury in the coming weeks.

Is this what we signed up for as trainees? My institution for now has been remarkable in being able to accommodate residents that are particularly vulnerable or have vulnerable household members; others may not be so lucky. Hospital administrations have to make the decision as to who to put in harm’s way. It’s not always cut-and-dry—should we protect older attendings or younger trainees? Is the duty to provide the best care for these current patients or to minimize exposure of budding physicians who will be practicing for decades to come? We have no idea if there are any long-term repercussions to the lungs or any other organ systems in people with asymptomatic coronavirus, and they may confer a higher rate of complications not seen for years or decades—we just don’t know. The vast majority of residents and clinicians in Internal Medicine are very hesitant to jump right in, and understandably so. Initially no med students, interns, or residents were to take care of COVID patients. As the epidemic grew into a pandemic more and more hands needed to be on deck. But still, the decision regarding which specialties will be taking care of these patients is growing. The public may not realize it either, but some residents and even attendings from subspecialties that don’t have much clinical patient exposure (e.g. Radiology) may have to dust off their stethoscope and start taking care of loved ones in your hospital.

Similarly to reports about physicians having to decide which patients get a ventilator, we are also making the decision as to which providers get greater amounts of exposure, which is a morbid endeavor. In Philadelphia, we’re fortunate enough that we haven’t had the same patient burden as New York so it hasn’t been all-hands-on-deck, but we may have to start asking which residents can handle more exposure than others, sooner rather than later.  Does taking care of an elderly family member, or a child at home come into consideration? What about providers with immune system issues? Where does my duty to provide for my patients trump my duty to keep my family’s risk of exposure at a minimum? Is it moral to ask a young, healthy, single resident to have repeated exposure or is it better to spread it out over several residents but lessen their daily exposure?

Although I personally hope to continue to be at or near the front lines, I understand those that are in a compromised position, and they shouldn’t feel bad for wanting to protect themselves or their family. There is no portion of the Hippocratic oath that implicitly or explicitly states that physicians have a duty to patients above their own safety. This is a nuanced situation that doesn’t have a blueprint in place. There are many features that as a society we’re having to figure out in real-time, which is just adding to our collective anxiety.

Healthcare workers are put in an awkward situation in these times. We need to be discussing this openly, with transparency about the treatment of healthcare workers, especially nurses and residents. How to improve the healthcare system is an important topic that hopefully will not be able to be ignored after we pass the emergency of the pandemic. It will not be easy to address this because the goals of the industry are not aligned with the goals of the public or those providing care. Even though we’re in the midst of the pandemic it’s a beneficial practice to reflect and think about the way we can improve the safety and efficacy of those delivering care.

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Resident Perspective: It Begins

This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.

Wednesday, March 25th

Today was my first day of quarantine and now I feel like I’m a part of society. In the prior weeks, working on the general hospital floor I was constrained by daily ritual –nothing said on the news or by the government about isolating or “staying home” applied to healthcare workers, or residents, more specifically. Those working in hospitals are in the thick of it, but we have a completely different experience because we have to continue to go to work and do our jobs while everyone else has just had drastic changes dictated for their daily lives. I was working long hours every day so I didn’t observe any special social distancing; my daily routine recently had been to come home and only have about an hour before turning in for the night so I wasn’t doing much socializing. Now home and quarantined, I found out quickly how fast things could change as I spend most of the day sequestered in our bedroom away from my family and where they typically are during the day.

My wife’s mother watches our son but we’ve collectively decided that while I might feel fine, because of my high risk exposures it would just be best for her to not come until things cool off. We’re lucky that we have the opportunity to actually have this option as many families in our situation would either have to choose exposing a loved one to potential coronavirus or have the parent take time from work to watch their kid. I fully appreciate we’re privileged enough to even have that possibility.

I look out my closed bedroom window and think it’s a shame that the weather’s so nice as I’m sure everyone is itching to be outside. Spring is in full swing even on our street, as the trees are approaching full bloom, and I’m pretty sure a bird’s nest is being built in our gutter as I hear constant chirping with rustling of leaves and tin behind the upper corner of my bedroom. I can hear neighborhood kids outside playing. I look down and see groups of 4 or 5 parents awkwardly try to stay 6 feet apart on our narrow street. I’d like to kindly remind them to keep their distance, but like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I just gaze at them from the safety of my newly shuttered life.

Hearing the kids play, I wondered, what are they thinking is going on? How much have their parents told them? I don’t know what age you go from being elated you’re off from school to being worried about whether or not you and your family will survive. Do they think this is a normal occurrence and something they’ll have to deal with frequently in their lives? This must have a major impact in many different ways on kids of varying ages. I remember getting talks at school about fire safety and going home every night and practicing an escape plan with my family because I was so terrified. I don’t know what 8 year old me would be feeling about the invisible yet much more real confrontation with a virus. I couldn’t imagine having a 2 or 3-year-old that doesn’t understand that they can’t go outside to play with friends and then have to keep them entertained throughout the day. Then do it again the following day indefinitely.

I’m now realizing there will be so many unforeseen consequences, namely impacting those on the lower socioeconomic scale. When you work in healthcare during a crisis all you care about is how it impacts you and your patients. When suddenly removed, I’m forced to take a step back and come to grips with how this affects literally everything and everyone else in society. Maybe it’s because I now have my own child to look out for, but children have been on the forefront of my thoughts related to the pandemic. They may not be medically the most vulnerable in this case but they are in terms of long-lasting impact. Every facet of their lives are being disrupted—psychologically, educationally, nutritionally, and overall developmentally. Many families rely on food provided for kids at school. Expansion of SNAP benefits under Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which recently passed, may lead to unhealthier food choices for children as well, as this isn’t regulated like nutrition guidelines for school lunches. I’d also have to assume that kids aren’t getting the same quality of education if it’s all strictly remote, let alone the meaningful and necessary bonding that takes place at school. No doubt there will be a wealth of data to supply research to tell us what we intuitively know, which is when society stops functioning as usual the most vulnerable among us are impacted the greatest.

This time away from the hospital is allowing me to reflect on the many facets of life that are touched by this pandemic, so I’ll treat it like sabbatical.

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Resident Perspective

I was encouraged by my wife to keep a journal for thoughts and feelings surrounding the developing coronavirus pandemic because I may be able to offer a unique perspective as a resident in medicine who is also a new parent and attempting to overcome fear of the unknown and what’s to come. I will try to update as frequently as I am able.

Monday March 23rd 2020

I found out that the Attending Physician I had been working with all last week and who was coughing during rounds was getting tested for coronavirus last night in the emergency department. I can convince myself I’m having symptoms of fatigue, sore throat and maybe a headache but I’ve also been working in the hospital for almost four weeks straight and this could just be general exhaustion mixed with a touch of seasonal allergies. I try not to think about it too much.

I haven’t been wearing any masks or other personal protective equipment around the hospital yet. At this point I feel like we are still in the nascent stages of the impending unknown so wearing a mask right now seems premature. The practice isn’t mandatory but I see more and more random staff in the hallways with facemasks on, many of whom aren’t clinicians which is a greater indication that I should probably get on board. Every now and then I’ll check a supply closet or outside a patient’s room to see what the surgical mask inventory is like. There are constant rumors floating around that, like the N95 facemasks, other equipment will be locked up and parsed out by a charge nurse on an “as needed basis”. If a run-on-the-banks situation were to occur, I want to make sure I hit the sweet spot where I don’t contribute too much to the hysteria but ensure I’ve got a mask without having to fight for scraps. I’ll continue to assess the situation.

Meanwhile, I observe more PAPRs (Powered Air-Purifying Respirator—special protective equipment) next to rooms on the wards, awaiting their donning by newly trained hands. They’ll be used for all COVID patients but since there aren’t any confirmed as of yet in our hospital, the purpose is to be used by all COVID “rule-outs” for now–those that are being tested and don’t have results back. We have a three to five day turnaround for test results right now, meaning we simply don’t know if the virus is already in our presence. The increasing numbers of PAPRs seen daily act as a surrogate for the proximity of the disease to Philadelphia and as a gauge for the level of concern amongst residents.

Over the last several days quite literally every discussion between residents in the hospital is about the coronavirus. Either discussing potential treatments; rumors as to what’s going on in China, Italy, or New York; sending memes or chatting about our trepidation and general anxiety that has gripped the entire hospital. Even when seeing my patients, every TV seems to be tuned into the news, all of which are giving up-to-the-minute global figures alternating between death tolls and economic indices. Patients ask questions for which I don’t have answers. No families or visitors are allowed in the premises. No students or “non-essential personnel” permitted to the hospital. Residents are instructed to follow social distancing protocols and there are to be no gatherings of more than five.

I went to a stroke alert today at a patient’s room for a patient that I wasn’t directly taking care of, I just happened to be nearby. The patient was in a designated “rule-out” room meaning all personnel involved need to treat the patient with extreme caution, and to limit those in contact with the patient to only those “essential.” Two nurses and a tech were in the cramped room already while the neurology resident was outside the room, not wanting to unnecessarily expose herself, miming the actions for a neurologic exam to one of the nurses. She gave instructions through the patient’s door window and into a speakerphone in a patient’s room a mere 4 or 5 feet away. The nurse and the tech cautiously proceeded to ask the patient to perform the maneuvers coached by the neurologist. It was an odd scene as clearly the patient could hear the instructions from the hallway through the door as well as the speakerphone but was polite enough to not mention that to the nurse directly in front of him. The nurse dutifully relayed the commands, “can you follow my finger with your eyes and keep your head still?” and the patient dutifully followed them. It would be funny if it weren’t so bizarre. Turns out he wasn’t having a stroke but it was good to have the opportunity to work out kinks regarding the protocol for patient emergencies. Residents are instructed to make note of instances in which normal protocols can’t be followed given the extra necessary precautions we now have to take. No doubt there will be plenty.

The hospital is both quiet but buzzing lately. Most of the services only have a few patients on each team and I walk down the wards and can find four-five-six! rooms in a row without any occupants. I’ve never seen more than two consecutive empty beds during my years here. The hospital policy is to discharge as many patients as possible with the impending influx of COVID cases to come. No elective surgeries and if you don’t absolutely need to be hospitalized you’d be safer at home. The atmosphere was akin to the episode of Game of Thrones just prior to the final battle in the last season. Nervous and anxious, we have no overflowing wine to keep us preoccupied and stumbling about. The morale is low and the silence in the hallways and in the former resident-gathering areas from our lounge to the cafeteria forces it to reverberate. Philadelphia has the temporary advantage of being able to watch from the shore as the tidal wave from China picks up steam as it makes its way across Europe, to New York City and crashing down I-95.

That night at home I continued to mentally scan my body for any possible symptoms. I hardly ever get sick so I don’t know if I’m short of breath at the top of the stairs because I’m out of shape or because I have a deadly infection. Best to push it to the back of my mind as there’s nothing I can do about it at this moment.

Bedtime routine completed. I get a text message at 10:00pm from a co-worker saying that the Attending I had been working with came back positive for coronavirus.

Image from Getty Images.

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How Mainstream News Coverage Distorts the Policy, Politics, and Polling on Medicare For All

Jonathan Martin and Abby Goodnough discuss a brewing Democratic Party debate about Medicare For All in The New York Times. Does it mean a single-payer system in which the government covers everyone’s health care costs? Or is it just rhetoric intended to mean “I support a better health care system” without a commitment to challenging insurance industry power?

Martin and Goodnough helpfully note that only one of the five likely 2020 presidential candidates they discuss* is committed to a single-payer system: Bernie Sanders. But their article is also misleading in its discussion of Medicare For All policy, politics, and polling. Their errors are all too common in news articles and anyone wishing to responsibly cover politics over the next few years needs to correct them.

First, when it comes to the policy implications of Medicare For All, Martin and Goodnough characterize single-payer health care as a system “in which many would lose their current insurance options and pay higher taxes.” They fail to mention that the policy replaces people’s “current insurance options” with more expansive coverage that (under Sanders’ plan) eliminates premiums, copays, and deductibles. As pretty much every distributional analysis of proposed single-payer plans show, the vast majority of people will pay substantially less money in taxes plus health care costs under Medicare For All than they currently pay. The omission of these details is akin to implying Martin should have felt “uneasy” about losing his health insurance options and paying higher taxes in 2013 – without mentioning that he was replacing his insurance and making a higher income by moving from Politico to The New York Times.

sanders-tax-and-transfer-distributional-analysis

Similarly, in an attempt to support Michael Bloomberg’s claim that single-payer health care will “bankrupt” America, Martin and Goodnough cite a study from the Mercatus Center that “predicted [Sanders’ plan] would increase federal spending by at least $32.6 trillion over the first decade.” That study also predicted that combined private and public spending on health care in the United States – the most important number in health care cost estimates – would fall by $2 trillion, but Martin and Goodnough don’t mention that fact. As Matt Bruenig has documented extensively, it’s hard to read the numbers in the Mercatus report as anything other than an endorsement of Sanders’ plan.

Mercatus doesn’t want us to read their study that way, which brings us to the second way in which the Times article is misleading. Martin and Goodnough describe Mercatus as the “Mercatus Center of George Mason University,” giving it the imprimatur of impartial academic institution, when Mercatus is in reality a Right-wing think tank funded by the Koch family foundations. This neutral description is inconsistent with how the Times news pages describe other think tanks – they routinely call my old employer, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “liberal” or “liberal-leaning” – and erroneously suggests to the reader that the concerns Mercatus raises come from an objective source.

Martin and Goodnough fail to provide key context for other political opinions, too. They write about how “moderates believe” that Medicare For All will “frighten” an important crop of general election voters, for example, but don’t note that these moderates have been consistently wrong about what voters care about. If there’s any lesson to learn from the 2016 election result, it’s that people’s beliefs about what makes politicians electable should be discounted – especially the beliefs of people who ignored electability evidence the last time around.

Third, Martin and Goodnough cherry-pick the Medicare For All polling data that makes their preferred case. They acknowledge that the term itself “has broad public support,” but they highlight how support for the policy drops “when people hear that it would eliminate insurance companies or that it would require Americans to pay more in taxes.” A result from the same poll that goes unmentioned? That support for the policy rises when people hear that it would “guarantee health insurance as a right for all Americans” or “eliminate all health insurance premiums and reduce out-of-pocket health care costs for most Americans.” Martin and Goodnough also cite a Gallup poll finding that “70 percent of Americans with private insurance rate their coverage as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’” without pointing out that the number jumps to 79 percent for Americans on Medicare or Medicaid.

What Martin and Goodnough get right is that “attitudes [about Medicare For All] swing significantly depending on…the details.” If you tell people that the policy will result in them losing their current insurance, paying higher taxes, and interacting with a bankrupt federal government, they’re less likely to support it. If you tell people the truth, however – that public insurance in the United States is well-liked and more cost-efficient than private insurance, that other countries with Medicare-For-All-type systems spend way less money while covering a much higher percentage of their populations than we do, and that, under a Medicare For All system, all but the richest among us will get better coverage while paying less than they do today – people are fully on board. We need our news media to start telling the truth.

*Update (2/4/19): Thanks to a reader comment, I updated this sentence post-publication to clarify that the Times did not discuss every likely 2020 candidate. Tulsi Gabbard, for example, may also be committed to a true single-payer system.

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Filed under 2020 Election, Health Care and Medicine, Media, US Political System

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

Bernie Sanders-Style Health Care Would Be a Big Win for Low- and Middle-Income Americans

Bernie Sanders just released his new proposal for a single-payer health care system.  As former US Labor Secretary Rob Reich notes, Sanders’ plan would be “a huge advance over what we have now.”  Reich’s summary:

It builds on the strengths of Medicare. Like Medicare, it’s universal — separating health insurance from employment, and enabling people to choose a health care provider without worrying about whether that provider is in-network: All they’d need do is go to the doctor and show their insurance card. No more copays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges.

Through a single national insurance system, we’ll no longer be paying for the marketing and advertising of private for-profit health insurers, nor their giant executive salaries, or their complex billing systems. Government will negotiate fair prices with drug companies, hospitals, and medical suppliers.

The plan’s release came right before the fourth Democratic debate and after a week of attacks from the Hillary Clinton campaign, which had been simultaneously complaining about not having plan details and distorting the details of a similar proposal Sanders introduced in the Senate in 2013.  Even those sympathetic to Clinton have labeled these attacks “questionable” or “genuinely strange,” while those willing to more accurately describe her team’s “GOP fear tactics” have noted that they are “wildly misleading,” “flagrantly mischaracterizing,” “mostly false,” “nonsense,” “disingenuous,” “stupid,” and “dishonest.”  Sanders’ plan would expand Medicare, not “dismantle” it; cover more people, not “strip millions” from coverage; ensure that insurance is provided in every state, not “empower” governors to “take [it] away;” and save most Americans lots of money, not “cost” them.

That last point in particular deserves more emphasis, as it’s one about which Clinton appears to have been lying outright.  Speaking to George Stephanopolous about single-payer health care on Wednesday, January 13, Clinton said: “Every analysis that I’m aware of shows it’s going to cost middle-class families and working families.”  Yet I have never seen such an analysis, and every analysis I am aware of says the exact opposite: that most families would gain big from a switch to a Sanders-style health care system (as Sanders explained at the debate, their savings from not having to pay premiums anymore would outweigh any increased taxes they would have to pay to fund the program).

Consider, for example, a 2013 analysis of the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act from UMass-Amherst economist Gerald Friedman.  Physicians for a National Health Program called this bill and Sanders’ old plan (which, despite Clinton’s suggestion to the contrary at the debate, is not all that different from his new one) “simply two expressions of the one single payer concept;” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon agreed that the two bills were “similar” in a recent interview.  As shown in the graph below, Friedman estimated that everyone in the bottom 95% would see their after-tax incomes rise under such a proposal.  Fallon is clearly familiar with this analysis – he selectively referenced parts of it in the interview linked above – and it’s been the most common citation for cost estimates that Clinton herself has used; it’s near impossible to believe that Clinton was not “aware of” it.

Friedman HR 676

Distributional analysis, from UMass-Amherst economist Gerald Friedman, of a 2013 proposal for single-payer health care.

Friedman now estimates that, “[f]or a middle-class family of four with an income from wages of $50,000 and an employer-provided family plan of an average price, the Sanders program would save $5,807, or 12% of income.”  Similarly, the Sanders campaign had previously estimated that his old plan would have saved a typical family between $3,855 and $5,173.  PolitiFact argued that employers might respond to the financing scheme in that plan by reducing workers’ paychecks, but still estimated, even under pessimistic assumptions, that “the average family would save $505 to $1,823 a year.”

There have also been analyses of proposed state-level single-payer health care plans.  A proposal in Vermont in 2001 would have saved an estimated $995 on average for families making between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, while a proposal in California in 2006 would have saved families in that same income range an estimated average of $2,942 (the poorest families – those making less than $10,000 a year – would have saved an estimated average of $608 in both states).

Each of these analyses indicates that Bernie Sanders-style single-payer health care is a major win for low- and middle-income Americans.  It’s theoretically possible that Clinton both isn’t “aware of” any of them and that she and Fallon are sitting on credible analyses that say something different, but I’d give that possibility much lower odds than Martin O’Malley winning the Democratic nomination.  And while Clinton shifted gears slightly at the debate in response to Sanders’ new plan, many of her comments, like the assertions that Sanders would “tear [the Affordable Care Act] up” and that Democrats “couldn’t get the votes for” a public option during the ACA debate, were still extremely misleading.

This conversation about single-payer health care has become a perfect window into the choice facing Democratic primary voters.  After receiving millions of dollars from the health insurance industry, Hillary Clinton no longer supports the type of truly universal health care coverage she backed in the early 1990s.  Instead, she has attacked Bernie Sanders’ support of such a plan with very similar tactics to those she herself decried in 2008 as “right out of Karl Rove’s playbook” (see video below).  These attacks, besides being dishonest, undermine key Democratic values.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has a consistent record of fighting for those values.  He rejects money from special interests and believes, as his new proposal reiterates and he said at the debate, that health care is a right that “should be available to all of our people.”  As he also pointed out, the real question isn’t whether single-payer health care is desirable – it’s quite clearly “a pretty good deal.”  The more pertinent question is “whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry.”

Sanders certainly does.  Let’s hope the voters choose wisely.

Update (5/29/16): The Tax Policy Center issued an analysis of Sanders’ overall proposals on May 9.  While headlines have tended to focus on their estimates of how much the plan would increase the national debt – estimates which other analysts sharply dispute – less attention has been paid to the fact that the Tax Policy Center also found, consistent with every other analysis above, that Sanders’ plans would bring large benefits for low- and middle-income families.

Sanders Tax and Transfer Distributional Analysis.png

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Filed under 2016 Election, Health Care and Medicine