EEOC says employers can mandate vaccinations

U.S. companies can mandate that employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced last week (Source: “US companies can mandate vaccinations, federal agency says,” USA Today, May 29). 

In a May 28 statement, the agency said that federal EEO laws do not prevent employers from requiring that all employees physically entering a workplace be vaccinated as long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws.

Employers may also offer incentives to employees to get vaccinated, "as long as the incentives are not coercive," the statement said.

Rural areas of Ohio, U.S. lag behind in COVID-19 vaccine rates

Just 32% of the eligible population in Ohio’s 15 least populous counties are vaccinated, on average, according to an analysis of data from the Ohio Department of Health (Source: “In Ohio and U.S., vaccine coverage lags in rural areas,” Ohio Capital Journal, May 20).

This trails both the statewide and national average (about 48%), adding another piece to a vexing puzzle of vaccine hesitancy.

On Tuesday, the CDC published research finding the trend holds nationwide: COVID-19 vaccination coverage was lower in rural counties (38.9%) than urban counties (45.7%), according to an analysis of data from adults aged 18-and-up between Dec. 14 and April 10.

For Ohio, the split was slightly broader: 37.2% in rural counties vs. 45.3% in urban counties, according to the CDC.

Ohio updates mask mandate to align with new CDC guidance

Vaccinated Ohioans will no longer need to wear masks under state health orders that will be revised to align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Source: “Ohio will change mask mandate for vaccinated Ohioans to follow CDC guidance,” Columbus Dispatch, May 14).

The orders will still require masks and social distancing for people who have not been vaccinated, Gov. Mike DeWine said Friday in a statement.

The revised order will stay in place until June 2, when remaining health orders that don't apply to long-term care or data collection will be lifted.

DeWine said Ohioans will have ample time before then to get vaccinated, and the state is awarding cash prizes and college scholarships to individuals who get at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Ohio drug overdose deaths top 5,000 in 2020

Drug overdoses killed more Ohioans in 2020 than in at least the previous 14 years, a grim milestone likely made possible by the pandemic (Source: “'Every death is a heartache:' More than 5,000 Ohioans died of a drug overdose in 2020,” Columbus Dispatch, May 7).

At least 5,001 Ohioans died of overdoses last year, according to a Columbus Dispatch analysis of mortality data from the Ohio Department of Health as of Tuesday.  The total number of overdose deaths in 2020 is likely to increase since county coroners have six months to investigate, meaning 2020 overdose deaths could climb further.

The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably contributed to the rise of overdoses in 2020, said Lori Criss, Director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

The pandemic changed life as Ohioans knew it, forcing many into isolation to stop the spread of the virus. In difficult times, it's more common for people to turn to drugs, or for those in recovery to relapse, Criss said.

Lockdowns across the world also led to one drug flooding the market: fentanyl. Fentanyl was readily available, is easy to transport and is often discreetly hidden in mail. Fentanyl was a factor in 81% of 2020 overdose deaths, Criss said.

U.S. ‘turning the corner’ in COVID-19 pandemic

Across the country, the outlook for the COVID-19 pandemic has improved, putting the United States in its best position against the virus yet (Source: “‘Turning the Corner’: U.S. Covid Outlook Reaches Most Hopeful Point Yet,” New York Times, May 6).

The nation is recording about 49,000 new cases a day, the lowest number since early October, and hospitalizations have plateaued at around 40,000, a similar level as the early fall. Nationwide, deaths are hovering around 700 a day, down from a peak of more than 3,000 in January.

“We’re clearly turning the corner,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Public health experts remain cautious, but said that while they still expect significant local and regional surges in the coming weeks, they do not think they will be as widespread or reach past peaks.

In the past, lulls in the pandemic were short-lived, giving way to the surge across the Sun Belt last summer, and the painful outbreak that stretched across the United States this winter.

But now, there is one crucial difference: More than half of American adults — 148 million people — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, perhaps the biggest reason experts are optimistic that the improved outlook may last. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen at a time when the weather is getting warmer, which, in many places, will allow people to spend more time outdoors, where the virus spreads less easily.

Public health officials concerned about sustaining resources after pandemic passes

After the pandemic is over, public health officials across the U.S. fear that they will be back to scraping together money from a patchwork of sources to provide basic services to their communities — much like after 9/11, SARS and Ebola (Source: “Public Health Experts Worry About Boom-Bust Cycle of Support,” Kaiser Health News/Associated Press, April 19).

Funding for the federal Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, which pays for emergency capabilities for state and local health departments, dropped by about half between the 2003 and 2021 fiscal years, accounting for inflation, according to Trust for America’s Health, a public health research and advocacy organization.

Spending for state public health departments dropped by 16% per capita from 2010 to 2019, and spending for local health departments fell by 18%, Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press found in a July investigation. At least 38,000 public health jobs were lost at the state and local level between the 2008 recession and 2019. Today, many public health workers are hired on a temporary or part-time basis. Some are paid so poorly they qualify for public aid. Those factors reduce departments’ ability to retain people with expertise.

The recently released HPIO Health Value Dashboard found that one reason Ohio ranks poorly for health value compared to most other states and D.C. is that Ohio’s “sparse public health workforce leads to missed opportunities for prevention.”

The report also found that “Ohioans spend a lot on downstream medical care, but investment in public health infrastructure is limited and prevention policies could be stronger.”

Wealthier counties in Ohio also have highest COVID vaccine rates

ounties in Ohio with the highest incomes also have the highest vaccination rates, according to analysis from the Columbus Dispatch (Source: “Wealthier Ohio counties more likely to have higher COVID vaccination rates,” Columbus Dispatch, April 19).

The Dispatch found a 27-percentage point difference in vaccination rates between Ohio's wealthiest and poorest counties. Delaware County, the wealthiest county in the state, is also the most vaccinated against COVID-19.

The connection does not come as a surprise to most experts who see it as a result of long-term disparities in health care.

In Ohio, vaccines were distributed to each county mostly based on population and a few risk factors. But the state didn't require Ohioans to get their shots in their counties of residence, meaning people with the time and the means could travel to get vaccinated.

People with more flexibility in their jobs tend to make more money and have good access to transportation, said HPIO President Amy Rohling McGee. That translates to more access to COVID-19 shots and health care services as a whole, she said.

Study: 4 in 10 Americans live in cities with unhealthy air

More than 40% of Americans live with unhealthy air, with certain cities and types of Americans far more prone to be affected, according to a new national study (Source: “More than 40% in U.S. live in cities with unhealthy air, study says,” United Press International, April 21).

The American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report, which was released this week, found that people of color are 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than are white people and three times more likely to live in a county with failing air-quality grades across the board.

Moreover, the report says climate change continues to worsen air pollution in much of the country. Research also shows that air pollution can make COVID-19 worse, the authors pointed out.

DeWine plans to target COVID-19 vaccines to areas with case spikes, higher demand

As daily coronavirus cases have begun to rise in Ohio, the state will rush shots to areas with increased spread, Gov. Mike DeWine announced Thursday (Source: “Ohio will rush coronavirus vaccines to areas with case spikes,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 1).

That may head off a fourth wave that Ohio physicians have warned about, spurred by more contagious variants of the virus.

“As we vaccinate more and more people, it will be harder and harder for this virus to travel from person to person,” he said. “But, you know, in the next month, next two months, we’re concerned.” 

In addition to sending doses to locales across the state with increasing cases, DeWine announced more efforts to increase the overall number of Ohioans who are vaccinated. He said that each week, the state will look at where vaccine demand is greatest and allocate more doses to those areas.

Feds announce $2.5 billion in grants to public health departments to promote health equity

The Biden administration announced this month that billions of dollars in federal money will be used to help communities hardest hit by the pandemic, including $2.25 billion in grants for public health departments to promote health equity (Source: “White House Sets Aside Billions for Health Equity,” WebMD, March 17).

The funding, which will be distributed as grants averaging $20 million, will improve testing and contact tracing, along with prevention strategies, according to CDC officials.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services signed a $150 million agreement today to help vulnerable areas get better access to monoclonal antibody therapy -- lab-made proteins that mimic an immune response and have been shown to prevent severe illness in COVID-19 patients. This may include more staff and equipment needed to administer the antibodies via IV, said Marcela Nunez-Smith, MD, the White House COVID-19 equity task force chair.