Tag Archives: California Healthline

Califiornia’s Deadliest Spring In 20 Years

The first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic in California rank among the deadliest in state history, deadlier than any other consecutive five-month period in at least 20 years.

And the grim milestone encompasses thousands of “excess” deaths not accounted for in the state’s official COVID death tally: a loss of life concentrated among Blacks, Asians and Latinos, afflicting people who experts say likely didn’t get preventive medical care amid the far-reaching shutdowns or who were wrongly excluded from the coronavirus death count.

About 125,000 Californians died from March through July, up by 14,200, or 13%, from the average for the same five months during the prior three years, according to a review of data from the state Department of Public Health.

By the end of July, California had logged about 9,200 deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 in county death records. That left about 5,000 “excess” deaths for those months — meaning deaths above the norm not attributed to COVID-19. Deaths tend to increase from year to year as the population grows, but typically not by that much.

A closer look at California’s excess deaths during the period reveal a disturbing racial and ethnic variance: All the excess deaths not officially linked to COVID infection were concentrated in minority communities. Latinos make up the vast majority, accounting for 3,350 of those excess deaths, followed by Asians (1,150), Blacks (860) and other Californians of color (350).

Map by Phillip Reese for California Healthline Source: California Department of Public Health

The overall number of excess deaths across all races and ethnicities was ultimately tempered because, compared with the three prior years, there were actually 383 fewer deaths among white Californians than would be expected in the absence of COVID-19. In addition, California Healthline adjusted the overall numbers to reflect more than 320 COVID deaths that could not be categorized by race or ethnicity because that information was missing from state records.

Several epidemiologists interviewed said they believe a sizable portion of the excess deaths among people of color did, in fact, stem from COVID infections but went undetected for a variety of reasons. Among them: a shortage of coronavirus tests in the early months of the pandemic; an uneven strategy for how and when to administer those tests, which persists; and inadequate access to health care providers in many low-income and immigrant communities.

Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco, is among those who suspect the excess deaths reflect a COVID undercount in minority communities. She noted that several chronic health conditions that disproportionately affect Blacks and Latinos — including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — also place them at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

In addition, Bibbins-Domingo said, the prolonged shutdown of medical offices in the early months of the pandemic — and with them non-urgent surgeries and routine medical care — likely accelerated death among people with those chronic conditions.

“Shutdowns always come at a cost,” she said. “It is our most marginalized communities that experience the cost of a shutdown.”

According to state Department of Public Health data, deaths in California attributed to diabetes rose 12% from March through July when compared with the average for the same period over the past three years. In addition, deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease rose 11%.

“Dementia is also a disease where we have racial, ethnic minorities already at greater risk,” said Andrea Polonijo, a medical sociologist at the University of California-Riverside. “Now that we have the pandemic, they’re more socially isolated. Social isolation we know can cause deeper cognitive decline.”

It’s hard to determine whether a death is due to COVID-19 if the victim never sought medical care, said Jeffrey Reynoso, executive director of the nonprofit Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. Latinos in California are less likely to have health insurance, he said. They may face language barriers if their medical provider — or contact tracer — does not speak Spanish. Latino immigrants working in the U.S. without authorization may hesitate to visit the doctor.

“Immigration is definitely a driver in creating a fear and a mistrust of systems, and that includes our health care system,” Reynoso said.

Polonijo said the fact that Latinos make up the bulk of the excess deaths correlates with their dominant role in farming, meat processing, manufacturing and food service, jobs all deemed essential during the pandemic.

“This population is also more likely to live in more crowded conditions,” she said. “So not only are they exposed at work, but they are bringing disease home and with it the possibility of spreading it to their family, bringing it to the community.”

Bibbins-Domingo noted that, while a major portion of COVID deaths overall have occurred among seniors and nursing home residents, a disproportionate number of the state’s excess deaths are of working-age adults.

“The excess deaths that we’re seeing in communities of color and in low-income communities are deaths that are occurring at younger ages,” she said. “These are deaths that are occurring in these ages from 20 to 60, generally speaking — the ages when people would be out working.”

Kathy Ko Chin, president of the Oakland-based Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, said Asian Americans also tend to be overrepresented in essential worker occupations, noting that a large proportion of the state’s nurses are Filipino. In addition, she said, government officials have not done enough to translate COVID educational materials into the many languages spoken by California’s Asian Americans. The Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigration during the past four years, she added, has had a “chilling effect” that has kept many foreign-born Asian Americans from visiting a doctor.

“People were really, really scared,” Chin said.

Counties in Southern California and the largely rural Central Valley — places with a high proportion of Latino residents — tended to have high rates of excess deaths from March to July. Among counties with at least 100,000 people, Kings County, an arid expanse north of Los Angeles that is home to industrial-scale agriculture, had the highest rate of excess deaths per capita.

Officials at the Kings County Department of Public Health did not return a message seeking comment.

Bibbins-Domingo and others said it is important for state and county health officials to take a hard look at their excess death numbers. Excess deaths matter, she said, because they expose shortcomings in health care delivery. In addition, local and state responses to COVID-19 are grounded in data; if that data is inaccurate, the responses may be misguided.

“Deaths are important because they also help us to understand how much severe COVID is there in the community that we have to worry about,” Bibbins-Domingo said. “I think when we undercount that, we both fly blind for the overall pandemic management, and we might fly particularly blind in understanding the impact of the pandemic in particular communities.”


Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and an assistant professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Can COVID Tracing Apps Help Fight The Pandemic?

My 18-year-old daughter, Caroline, responded quickly when I told her that she’d soon be able to download an app to alert her when she had been in risky proximity to someone with COVID-19, and that public health officials hoped to fight the pandemic with such apps.

“Yeah, but nobody will use them,” she replied.

My young smartphone addict’s dismissal sums up a burning question facing technologists around the country as they seek to develop and roll out apps to track the newly resurgent pandemic.

The app developers, and the public health experts who are watching closely, worry that if they do not engage enough people, the apps will fail to catch a significant number of infections and people at risk of infection. Their success relies on levels of compliance and public health competence that have been sorely lacking in the U.S. during the COVID crisis.

“We can’t even get people to wear masks in this country,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego. “How are we going to get them to be diligent about using their phones to help with contact tracing?”

The tracking apps, a handful of which have already been launched in the U.S., enable cellphones to send signals to one another when they are nearby — and if they are equipped with the same app, or a compatible one. The devices keep a record of all their digital encounters, and later on, they alert users when someone with whom they were in physical proximity tests positive for the virus.

For an app to stop an outbreak in a given community, 60% of the population would have to use it, although a lower rate of participation could still reduce the number of cases and deaths, according to one recent study. Some say an adoption rate as low as 10% could provide benefits.

In many places where apps have been implemented so far, adoption has failed to reach even that lower threshold. In France, less than 3% of the population had activated the government-endorsed app, StopCovid, as of late June. Italy’s app had attracted about 6% of the population. The percentage of residents who have downloaded the app endorsed by North and South Dakota, Care19, is in the low single digits.

One exception is Germany, where more than 14% of the population downloaded the new Corona Warn App in the first week after its launch.

COVID-19 apps are generally intended to supplement the work of human contact tracers, who follow up with people who’ve tested positive for the virus, asking them where they’ve been and with whom they’ve been in contact. The tracers then contact those potentially exposed individuals and advise them on the next steps, such as testing or self-quarantine.

Human contact tracing, slow and laborious in the best of times, has been a notable failure in the United States so far: An insufficient number of sometimes inadequately trained people have been deployed, and the infected people they’ve contacted often won’t cooperate.

The prospects for digital tracing appear no better. “Ideally, we’d have a digital way to supplement the human contact tracing,” said Topol. But “there hasn’t been any place yet globally where there’s proof that it goes from a clever idea to really helping people.”

Close to 20 tracing apps are in use or under development in the U.S.

A growing number of U.S. app developers are targeting state health agencies because Google, the maker of Android cellphone software, and iPhone maker Apple won’t enable an app to use their joint platform without a state’s endorsement. The Google-Apple technology, despite very limited use so far, is considered by many the most promising platform.

However, many states are lukewarm to the Google-Apple technology — and to digital contact tracing more broadly. In a Business Insider survey published in June, only three states said they had committed to the Google-Apple model, while 19 — including California — were noncommittal. Seventeen states had no plans for a smartphone-based tracking system. The remaining 11 didn’t respond or gave unclear plans.

In April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said his office was working with Apple and Google to make their technology a part of the state’s plan for easing out of the stay-at-home order. Two months later, the Golden State seems to have backed off the idea.

Instead, it is training 20,000 human contact tracers with the hope they will hit the ground running this month. The state’s Department of Public Health told California Healthline in an email that most contact tracing “can be done by phone, text, email and chat.”

Trust Is Important

The multiple obstacles to successful use of digital tracing apps include indifference or outright hostility to anti-COVID measures. Some people won’t even wear masks or are leery of other public health efforts.

Moreover, to the extent that people do adopt phone-based tracing, it might miss potential outbreaks among the hardest-hit populations — seniors and low-income people, who are less likely than others to engage with smartphones.

“If adoption is high among 20-year-olds and low among seniors and in nursing homes, we probably don’t want the result to be that seniors and nursing homes don’t get the attention they should get through contact-tracing efforts,” said Greg Nojeim, director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Technology and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

Unresolved technical challenges could also hamper the effectiveness of the apps.

To capture risky close encounters between users, some apps employ GPS to track their location. Others use Bluetooth, which gauges the proximity of two cellphones to each other without revealing their whereabouts.

Neither approach is perfect at measuring distance, and either might incorrectly assess a COVID threat to users. GPS can tell if two people are at the same address, but not if they are on different floors of a building. Bluetooth determines distance based on the strength of a phone’s signal. But signal strength can be distorted if a phone is in somebody’s purse or pocket, and metal objects can also interfere with it.

The biggest barrier to public buy-in is the privacy question. Advocates of the Google-Apple system, which uses Bluetooth, say the two companies enhanced the prospects for wide adoption by addressing fundamental privacy concerns

Google-Apple won’t allow apps to track the locations of smartphone users, and it ensures that all contacts traced are stored on the phones of individuals, not on a centralized database that would give public health authorities greater access to the information.

That means every decision based on the tracking data is up to the smartphone users. They decide whether to notify other app users if they contract the virus or whether to follow the advice — to self-quarantine and contact public health authorities — that would accompany an alert of possible exposure.

The Google-Apple system makes it easy for apps that use it to communicate with one another, which could be particularly important in multistate regions — the Washington metropolitan area, for example — where each state might have a different app and people frequently travel back and forth across state lines.

But developers of apps that don’t use the Google-Apple platform will struggle to sync with it, especially if their apps track locations or use a centralized server. Those include the Care19 app in the Dakotas and Healthy Together, Utah’s app, which both use GPS and Wi-Fi to track locations. Healthy Together also allows public health officials to see people’s names, phone numbers and location history.

These models are anathema to privacy-first app proponents, which might limit their uptake. In fact, North Dakota has announced it is planning a second app based on the Google-Apple technology.

Some public health experts, however, warn that the strong privacy focus of Google-Apple, to the exclusion of other important factors, may limit the value of the apps in tackling the pandemic.

“Apple-Google in their partnership have pretty narrowly defined what is acceptable,” said Jeffrey Kahn, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics. “If these things are going to work as everyone hopes, we have to have a fuller and more soup-to-nuts discussion about all the parts that matter.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Using Patient Stories To Mentally Survive As A COVID-19 Clinician

Dr. Christopher Travis, an intern in obstetrics-gynecology, has cared for patients with COVID-19 and performed surgery on women suspected of having the coronavirus. But the patient who arrived for a routine prenatal visit in two masks and gloves had a problem that wasn’t physiological.

“She told me, ‘I’m terrified I’m going to get this virus that’s spreading all over the world,’” and worried it would hurt her baby, he said of the March encounter.

Travis, who practices at the Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center, told the woman he knew she was scared and tried to assure her she was safe and could trust him.

Asking many questions and carefully listening to the answers, Travis was exercising the craft of narrative medicine, a discipline in which clinicians use the principles of art and literature to better understand and incorporate patients’ stories into their practices.

“How do we do that really difficult work during the pandemic without it consuming us so we can come out ‘whole’ on the other end?” Travis said. Narrative medicine, which he studied at Columbia University, has helped him be aware of his own feelings, reflect more before reacting, and view challenging situations calmly, he said.

The first graduate program in narrative medicine was created at Columbia University in 2009 by Dr. Rita Charon, and the practice has gained wide influence since, as evidenced by the dozens of narrative medicine essays published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and its sister journals.

Learning to be storytellers also helps clinicians communicate better with non-professionals, said writer and geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson, who directs the medical humanities program at the University of California-San Francisco. It may be useful to reassure patients — or to motivate them to follow public health recommendations. “Tell them a story about having to intubate a previously healthy 22-year-old who’s going to die and leave behind his first child and new wife, and then you have their attention.”

“At the same time, telling that story can help the health professional process their own trauma and get the support they need to keep going,” she said.

Teaching Storytelling To Doctors

This fall, Keck School of Medicine of USC will offer the country’s second master’s program in narrative medicine, and the subject also will be part of the curriculum in the new Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine in Pasadena, which opens its doors July 27 with its first class of 48 students. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

Narrative medicine trains physicians to care about patients’ singular, lived experiences — how illness is really affecting them, said Dr. Deepthiman Gowda, assistant dean for medical education at the new Kaiser Permanente school. The training may entail a close group reading of creative works such as poetry or literature, or watching dance or a film, or listening to music.

He said there’s also “real, intrinsic value” for patients because a doctor isn’t only being trained to care about the body and medications.

“Literature in its nature is a dive into the experience of living — the triumphs, the joys, the suffering, the anxieties, the tragedies, the confusions, the guilt, the ecstasies of being human, of being alive,” Gowda said. “This is the training our students need if they wish to care for persons and not diseases.”

Dr. Andre Lijoi, a geriatrician at WellSpan York Hospital in Pennsylvania, recently led a virtual session for 20 front-line nurse practitioners who work in nursing homes. Two volunteers recited Mary Oliver’s 1986 poem “Wild Geese,” which reads, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.”

Sharing the poet’s words helped the nurses relieve their pent-up tensions, enabling them to express their feelings about life and work under COVID-19, Lijoi said.

One participant wrote, “As the world goes on around me I mourn seeing my aging parents, planning my daughter’s wedding, and missing my great niece’s baptism. I wonder, when will life be ‘normal’ again?”

Processing Fear To Provide Better Care

Dr. Naomi Rosenberg, an emergency room physician at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, studied narrative medicine at Columbia and teaches it at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine. The discipline helps her “metabolize” what she takes in while caring for COVID-19 patients, including the fear that comes with having to enter patients’ rooms alone in protective gear, she said.

The training helped her counsel a worried woman who couldn’t visit her sister because the hospital, like others around the country, wasn’t allowing relatives to visit COVID-19-infected patients.

“I’d read stories of Baldwin, Hemingway and Steinbeck about what it feels like to be afraid for someone you love, and recalling those helped me communicate with her with more clarity and compassion,” Rosenberg said. (After a four-day crisis, the sister recovered.)

Dr. Pamela Schaff (right) discusses narrative medicine in the Hoyt Gallery at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, as Chioma Moneme, a student in the class of 2020, looks on. (Credit: Chris Shinn)

Close readings can also help students understand the various ways metaphor is used in the medical profession, for good or ill, said Dr. Pamela Schaff, who directs the Keck School’s new master’s program in narrative medicine.

Recently, Schaff led third-year medical students through a critical examination of a journal article that described medicine as a battlefield. The analysis helped student Andrew Tran understand that describing physicians as “warriors” could “promote unrealistic expectations and even depersonalization of us as human beings,” he said.

Something similar happens in the militarized language used to describe cancer, he added: “We say, ‘You’ve got to fight,’ which implies that if you die, you’re somehow a failure.”

In the real world, doctors are often focused narrowly, devoting most of their attention to a patient’s chief complaint. They listen to patients on average for only 11 seconds before interrupting them, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Narrative medicine seeks to change that.

While listening more carefully may add one more item to a physician’s lengthy “to-do” list, it could also save time in the end, Schaff said.

“If we train physicians to listen well, for metaphor, subtext and more, they can absorb and act on their patients’ stories even if they have limited time,” she said. “Also, we physicians must harness our narrative competence to demand changes in the health care system. Health systems should not mandate 10-minute encounters.”

Telling The Patient’s Whole Story

In practice, narrative medicine has diverse applications. Modern electronic health records, with their templates and prefilled sections, can hamper a doctor’s ability to create meaningful notes, Gowda said. But doctors can counter that by writing notes in language that makes the patient’s struggles come alive, he said.

The school’s curriculum will incorporate a different patient story each week to frame students’ learning. “Instead of, ‘This week, you will learn about stomach cancer,’ we say, ‘This week, we want you to meet Mr. Cardenas,’” Gowda said. “We learn about who he is, his family, his situation, his symptoms, his concerns. We want students to connect medical knowledge with the complexity and sometimes messiness of people’s stories and contexts.”

In preparation for the school’s opening, Gowda and a colleague have been running Friday lunchtime mindfulness and narrative medicine sessions for faculty and staff.

The meetings might include a collective, silent examination of a piece of art, followed by a discussion and shared feelings, said Dr. Marla Law Abrolat, a Permanente Medicine pediatrician in San Bernardino, California, and a faculty director at the new school.

“Young people come to medicine with bright eyes and want to help, then a traditional medical education beats that out of them,” Abrolat said. “We want them to remember patients’ stories that will always be a part of who they are when they leave here.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.