Author: Alexander Naum

“Ending” the Public Health Emergency Will Further the Suffering of Elderly Individuals

The elderly population (those 65 and older) in the U.S. continue to face a disproportionately negative impact from the COVID-19 epidemic. While elderly individuals account for only 16% of the total U.S. population, they represent close to 90% of recent COVID-19 deaths in just the last few months. Throughout 2022, deaths among elderly individuals routinely spiked as the year progressed. The number of deaths among elderly individuals increased by 125% between April and July; a disturbing trend continuing to October, which experienced over 2,000 more deaths than in April. Even with these spikes in COVID-19 deaths among elderly individuals, the Biden Administration announced that the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency will end on May 11, 2023. The proposed end of this incredibly important federal program will be devasting to elderly populations as it will likely limit access to crucial COVID-19 prevention and treatment.

The end of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency will create cost barriers for both testing and vaccines. Elderly individuals under traditional Medicare will no longer have access to at-home tests free of charge and even those with Medicare Advantage plans are not guaranteed to receive them for free. When it comes to PCR and rapid tests administered by physicians, elderly individuals under both traditional and Medicare Advantage plans may now experience cost-sharing fees from their testing visits. While access to free COVID-19 vaccines will still be available after May 11th, the supply of federally purchased vaccines will eventually disappear and many pharmaceutical companies will commodify the vaccine, creating cost barriers that will decrease population-wide immunization rates.

The commodification of the vaccine and the new cost barriers in testing will likely lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.S., increasing the need for treatment. Unfortunately, elderly individuals receiving Medicare will now face cost-sharing fees for COVID-19 treatment due to the end of the Public Health Emergency. This cost barrier will lead to many elderly individuals not being able to access treatment, including the drug Paxlovid. Studies have demonstrated that Paxlovid can reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations in vaccinated elderly patients by 73%, along with reducing deaths by 81% in other studies.

Clearly the public health threat of COVID-19 has not ended, as the death rates among elderly individuals remain high. It is crucial that the Biden Administration revoke this proposal and extend the Public Health Emergency well beyond May 11, 2023. This proposal displays the federal government’s unjust intent to shift the financial responsibility of controlling the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S. onto patients, many of whom lack the means to financially take on this tremendous unresolved burden. This will undoubtedly cause further harm to elderly individuals, who may include our parents, our grandparents, and our neighbors.

A Health Paradox and a Path to Escape Absurdity

The United States began widespread COVID-19 vaccine distribution on December 14th, 2020; however, after ten months the CDC reports that only 56% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. When compared to other high socioeconomic (SES) nations, the U.S.’s vaccination rate ranks among the lowest. While the people of low SES nations are pleading to high SES nations to increase their access to this preventive medicine, the people of the United States are privileged to not face this access-related issue. Instead, a barrage of misinformation has convinced a large portion of the U.S. population to not get fully vaccinated. Efforts to counter vaccine misinformation have done little to repair the damage created in the public’s perception of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Biden Administration must follow through on their proposed OSHA COVID-19 vaccine mandate and expand those mandates to cover other gaps in our public health intervention. 

According to the scientific journal, Nature, low SES nations collectively have a vaccination rate of less than 1%. The low vaccination rate experienced in these nations is directly attributed to strict pharmaceutical patents in the United States and other western nations that are preventing these nations from producing cheaper alternatives. The UN Development Programme projects that low SES nations are expected to lose over $220 billion as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This immense economic loss will cause deep social impacts to these nations, likely impacting human rights, education, and food security. 

The people of U.S. do not experience the access-related issue that low SES nations face, on the contrary there is an overabundance of the vaccine, allowing immunocompromised people to receive third doses. The main driving force behind the low vaccination rate in the U.S. is the bombardment of misinformation, which has its biggest impact on marginalized and working-class communities. Much of this misinformation targets the mistrust these marginalized groups already have in public health intervention, especially relating to abuses like the Tuskegee Study and the early stages of HIV/ AIDS outreach. When it comes to working-class communities, finding time to get the vaccine can be hard due to potentially missing work or lack of adequate transportation.  For many working class people, these factors in conjunction with misinformation, causes many workers to view missing work to receive the vaccine doses as too risky

In September of 2021, the Biden administration announced that it will compel OSHA to mandate vaccinations for all companies with more than one hundred workers. The Administration projects that this mandate will push “80 million American workers” to vaccinate. While this will be great at incentivizing more workers to receive the vaccination, it will significantly burden marginalized and working-class individuals if these mandates aren’t coupled with protections and benefits. These could include providing subsidies for the transportation cost and missed work, as well as protections from employer retaliation. Further, the Administration can compel other agencies to promulgate rules that expand the mandate even more. For example, the Administration can compel the Department of Transportation to mandate proof of vaccination for all interstate public transportation. With these modified actions, the Biden Administration can help to significantly increase the United States’ vaccination rate.

Overhauling The U.S.’s Crumbling Infrastructure: Access to Clean Drinking Water is a Human Right

Seven years ago, the U.S. media began reporting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. While the City of Flint has finally replaced its pipes and the 95,000 residents of Flint have become eligible to receive a portion of a $650 million dollar settlement, many residents of Flint still do not trust their water. This lack of trust stems from years of community neglect and environmental racism. The water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan isn’t a rare incident, many communities around the U.S. lack access to clean drinking water. As the Biden Administration engages in partisan negotiations over the proposed infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan, repairing U.S. water infrastructure must remain a priority. 

It is estimated, that every year, nine to forty-five million Americans obtain their drinking water from a source with contaminants that violate the Safe Drinking Water Act. These contaminants have a wide variety of health effects, from acute effects like stomach disturbances, to chronic effects like certain cancers and neurological disorders. Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule,  lead concentrations must not exceed 15ppb and copper concentrations must not exceed 1.3ppb in more than 10% of the sampled taps of residents. The regulation provides that if levels exceed this, the public must be informed, and service lines may need to be replaced in order to protect public health. However, many of the small, rural communities struggling with unsafe drinking water can’t even afford to hire a full-time water treatment operator, so the idea of these communities being able to afford the costs associated with replacing their drinking water infrastructure without adequate federal funding and oversight, is not realistic. 

Under the current American Jobs Plan proposal, $111 billion in total will be allocated to improving U.S. drinking water. Within that total, the Administration proposes that $45 billion dollars in grants will be enough to replace 100% of U.S. lead pipes and service lines. Also, within that total, the Administration proposes providing $56 billion in grants and federal loans to help modernize rural water infrastructure and $10 billion to be allocated to water surveillance programs. While media coverage and the GOP make these costs seem way over budget, are these proposals even enough to fully address the issue at hand? According to a Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment released to Congress by the EPA in 2018, the costs associated with repairing U.S. drinking water utilities is estimated to be $472.6 billion. The costs associated with replacing pipes, service lines and mains alone are estimated to cost $312.6 billion, according to the EPA’s survey, drastically above the proposed $45 billion. 

As Congress and the Biden Administration are actively engaged in negotiating the terms of the American Jobs Plan, the allocation of funds to repair our nation’s drinking water needs to increase rather than decrease. Access to cleaning drinking water is a human right that has been established under the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, a right that should be guaranteed in both developing and developed nations like the United States.

A License to Discriminate in Health Settings

In a recent federal court case, Religious Sisters of Mercy v. Azar (2021), a coalition of healthcare entities affiliated with the Catholic Church attacked a nondiscrimination provision under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). The U.S. District Court in North Dakota granted a permanent injunction that enjoins the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from enforcing Section 1557 of the PPACA. This injunction also prevents the HHS from withholding federal funding to religiously affiliated providers and insurers who deny transition services. The Plaintiff in this case originally sought an exemption from the anti-discriminatory laws that compelled them to perform and provide coverage for gender transitions and abortions. The Court, however, chose not to rule on the abortion claims. Although this ruling granted protection of religious freedoms under the First Amendment, it also allows healthcare providers impose their religious beliefs onto others and deny essential transgender health services. The implications of this ruling could lead to a broader chipping away of protections for healthcare services that are perceived as “unconscionable” by religiously-affiliated providers and insurers.

Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act states that patients shall not, “be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance.” The congressional intent of this provision was to create an all-encompassing healthcare antidiscrimination statute. This was demonstrated through the expansion of existing civil rights laws, specifically the expansion of Title IX, which had only prohibited sex discrimination in federally-funded school activities. Other important civil rights laws that the provision expanded include Title VI (preventing race, color and national origin discrimination), Section 504 (preventing disability discrimination) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (preventing age discrimination).

Religiously-affiliated hospitals make up a large portion of the of the hospital’s patients have access to in the United States. In 2016, MergerWatch and Maidson Healthcare Advisors released a report showing that 14.5% of all acute care hospital in the U.S. were Catholic affiliated. The report also found that 46 of these Catholic affiliated hospitals are the sole short-term, acute health care resource for many patients living in specific geographical regions. As a result of this ruling, patients living in these regions who lack access to adequate transportation, have now lost access to transition services.

Should religious protections under the First Amendment extend to health programs at the expense of equitable health care access? While some could argue that those in need of transgender health services can just go to a non-religiously-affiliated hospital, many of these individuals are limited to the hospitals within their geographical region. As other First Amendment lawsuits similar to Religious Sisters v. Mercy are filed, courts will have to determine if granting relief  to religiously-affiliated health entities limits the protections of Section 1557 under the guise of religious freedom.           

A Summer without Pride: Public Health Efforts to Reduce the Spread of HIV During COVID-19

Across the United States, Pride festivals provide opportunities for members of the LGBTQ community to celebrate their identities, receive free HIV testing, and other HIV prevention resources. This past summer, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced many cities in the United States to cancel their pride celebrations to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. While these state and municipal stay-at-home orders were needed to protect the public from COVID-19, the resulting loss of Pride events that provide the public with free HIV testing and PrEP advocacy may contribute to a potential increase in HIV cases.

HIV disproportionally affects members of the LGBTQ community in the United States, especially Black and Latinx members. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six of all gay or bisexual men in the United States will contract HIV in their lifetime. When looking at the health risks by race, the CDC estimates that 1 in 2 Black men, one in four Latinx men, and one in eleven white men who identify as gay or bisexual will contract HIV in their lifetime. For transgender women,  the CDC estimates that 14% of all transgender women in the United States live with HIV. When analyzing the data by race, the CDC approximates that 44% of Black transgender women, 26% of Latinx transgender women, and 7% of white transgender women live with HIV.

Free HIV testing at Pride events have been shown to be an important strategy to promote HIV prevention in LGBTQ community, especially for those who lack access to healthcare. A study conducted by the CDC surveyed participants who were getting tested for HIV at Pride events held in thirteen separate cities in the United States. Among the participants tested at the Pride events, 11.9% had never been tested for HIV and 21.7% had not been tested for HIV for more than twelve months prior to the event. When analyzing the participants who tested positive for HIV, 84.4% stated that they were unaware of their HIV infection. Overall, the study found that free HIV testing in nonclinical settings like Pride events are an extremely useful strategy to promote HIV prevention among groups who lack access to healthcare and/ or fear societal stigma.

Some public health organizations have emphasized the importance of at-home HIV testing and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the non-profit organization Greater Than AIDS created an online platform to link people with participating local health agencies and community-based organizations in order to obtain free or reduced cost at-home HIV tests. Other efforts include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Ready Set PrEP program. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is a daily pill that studies have shown to reduce the risk of contracting HIV by more than 90%. The Ready Set PrEP program works to provide free PrEP medication from participating pharmacies or by mail to individuals without insurance.

COVID-19 is a pressing public health issue in the United states. The total reported COVID-19 cases in the United States have reached the millions and the total reported COVID-19 related deaths are nearing 250,000. Yet, COVID-19 is not the only public health crisis that the United States faces. In 2018, an estimated 36,400 new HIV infections occurred in the United States. Currently, 1.2 million Americans live with HIV and about 14% of those people do not know they have the virus and need testing. While HIV prevention outreach like Pride events have been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health organizations are trying to work around this obstacle. By expanding access to free at-home HIV testing and distribution of PrEP, public health officials may continue to be effective at reducing the spread of HIV.