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Travelers coming from Italy may have driven first US COVID-19 wave more than those from China, study suggests

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Professor and Chair of Business Economics and Public Policy, Indiana University
Associate Professor of Public Affairs, Indiana University
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The coronavirus was still a far-away problem in Wuhan when U.S. President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel from China in late January 2020. Six weeks later, as the coronavirus ravaged Italy, Trump closed travel from Europe.
These travel bans were highly controversial. Some people argued that they were unnecessary restrictions on travel. Others said they came too late. As New York’s COVID-19 case numbers shot upward, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the U.S. had “closed the front door with the China ban … but we left the back door wide open,” because the virus had already spread to other countries.
One big question remains: Once the virus was in the U.S., how much impact did international travel actually have on COVID-19 cases and deaths?
As researchers with experience studying airlines, we pulled together data to start answering that question. We compared COVID-19 cases and deaths in nearly 1,000 U.S. counties against the numbers of passengers arriving in each from two countries targeted by the bans – China and Italy.
Our results, released as a preprint study, suggest that travelers coming from Italy drove the first wave in the U.S. more than those from China. They also point to two conclusions about travel bans:
First, if a government is going to impose a travel ban, it should act quickly. The virus spreads fast.
Second, don’t impose narrow travel bans that just target individual countries. Because the virus spreads so quickly, you have to assume the virus has already spread to other countries.
We are discussing our findings before the paper has undergone peer review because the results are important for decisions being made now. On Jan. 25, 2021, almost a year after Trump’s ban on travel from China, the Biden administration issued new travel bans on countries that have rising numbers of new fast-spreading variants of SARS-CoV-2.
In our study, we used data on international airline travel and U.S. county-level statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths. We wanted to find out: Did U.S. counties with more arrivals from two initial COVID-19 hot spots – Italy and China – experience more COVID-19 cases or deaths during the first U.S. wave of the pandemic?
There are several challenges in trying to assess the relationship between international travel and COVID-19 outbreaks. Fewer people might travel to cities that are in the midst of a pandemic outbreak. The areas that attract many foreign travelers may also have more severe COVID-19 outbreaks for other reasons. For example, places attracting a lot of foreign travelers may have more large events such as conferences and sporting events.
We used data on passengers arriving from non-COVID-19 hot spots to help control for these factors. We also took into account other factors that can affect the virus’s spread and impact, such as population size and density, use of public transportation, demographics, policies and economic activity.
We came away with two key results:
U.S. counties that received more passengers from China at the beginning of the pandemic did not experience higher COVID-19 infection and fatality rates than other counties on average through May 2020; in fact, both outcomes were lower.
Counties that received more passengers from Italy at the beginning of the pandemic experienced higher COVID-19 infection and fatality rates. Specifically, an additional 100 passengers from Italy arriving in a given county during the fourth quarter of 2019 corresponded with an increase in both case and death rates of about 5%.
Our preliminary results suggest that travelers coming from Italy drove the first wave in the U.S. more than those from China. Other researchers have linked the predominant strain of virus in New York City early in the pandemic to Europe.
Based on our evidence, the relatively early ban on travel from China appears to have been effective in reducing cases and deaths.
In late January 2020, when Trump shut down flights from China, the virus may have not yet spread widely enough among travelers from China to significantly contribute to the early wave of the pandemic in the U.S. Waiting until mid-March to impose a ban on travel from Europe, however, may have had deadly consequences.
The lesson: If a travel ban is warranted, time is of the essence.
Although our results provide strong evidence that international travel from Italy increased the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. during the first wave of the pandemic, this occurred at a time when people were largely unaware of the virus and the threat that it posed.
Today, with both travelers and policymakers aware of the threat, it is uncertain what effect international travel would have on the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. At the same time, new, more transmittable strains of the virus increase the threat from international travel. If the evidence does warrant additional travel restrictions, our research says to act quickly and think broadly.
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We’re building a vaccine corps of medical and nursing students – they could transform how we reach underserved areas

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Chancellor and Professor of Population & Quantitative Health Sciences and Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Michael F. Collins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The U.S. faces one of the most consequential public health campaigns in history right now: to vaccinate the population against COVID-19 and, especially, to get shots into the arms of people who cannot easily navigate getting vaccinated on their own.
Time is of the essence. As new, potentially more dangerous variants of this coronavirus spread to new regions, widespread vaccination is one of the most powerful and effective ways to slow, if not stop, the virus’s spread.
Mobilizing large “vaccine corps” could help to meet this urgent need.
We’re testing that concept right now at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I am the chancellor. So far, 500 of our students and hundreds of community members have volunteered for vaccine corps roles. Our graduate nursing and medical students, under the direction of local public health leaders, have already been vaccinating first responders and vulnerable populations, demonstrating that a vaccine corps can be a force multiplier for resource-strained departments of public health.
On Feb. 16, we will help to launch a large-scale vaccination site in Worcester, where as many as 2,000 people could be inoculated per day.
Importantly, a large vaccination corps that includes local medical and public health students could help reach residents who might be missed by public campaigns and hospital outreach efforts. Students often represent their region’s races, ethnicities and backgrounds, which can make it easier for them to connect with communities that are hard to reach and might not trust vaccination.
The problem of getting people vaccinated quickly isn’t just about supply – it’s also about having enough people to carry out vaccinations, particularly in hard-to-reach communities.
If quickly mobilized on a large scale, a vaccine corps could directly meet three important challenges: accelerating the nationwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, ensuring that doses are distributed equitably to all and delivering on the promise that all Americans are able to benefit from major medical and public health advances.
Medical, nursing, pharmacy and other health students, as well as retired or unemployed clinicians, could deliver shots, monitor people who were just vaccinated or schedule the second doses that are required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be fully effective.
In particular, a large, well-organized vaccine corps could play a crucial role in reaching out to communities that are underserved, overlooked or hard to reach.
Corps members could staff phone banks to help people who lack internet or struggle to use online scheduling systems find vaccines in their areas and make appointments.
Our students in the vaccine corps have already helped administer vaccines in public housing complexes and homeless and domestic violence shelters. They could also provide transportation to vaccination sites or take doses directly to homebound elders who cannot safely venture out. In Alaska, for example, vaccine providers have been going out by plane and sled to remote villages to reach thousands of residents.
Members of a vaccination corps who share race or ethnicity with the community can also have an impact on overcoming people’s concerns about getting the vaccine. That’s important.
A poll released Feb. 10, conducted by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found that only 57% of Black U.S. residents said they would definitely or probably get the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 65% of Americans who identified as Hispanic and 68% as white. Fewer than half of Black Americans surveyed in a separate Kaiser Family Foundation poll in late January believed the needs of Black people were being taken into account.
Rural areas face similar concerns, as well as the geographical challenges of reaching people in remote areas. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that people who live in rural areas are “among the most vaccine hesitant groups.” In mid-January, it found that 29% of rural Americans surveyed either definitely did not want to get the vaccine or said they would do so only if required.
If we extrapolate these vaccine hesitancy survey results, suggesting that as many as three or four out of every 10 Americans may avoid inoculation, public health officials’ hopes of reaching herd immunity will be in jeopardy.
The U.S. has a long history of creating health corps. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government launched the volunteer Medical Reserve Corps to mobilize current and former medical professionals and others with needed health skills during emergencies. Several Medical Reserve Corps units around the country are now assisting vaccination efforts.
This concept could be expanded, including by partnering with universities, to have wider, game-changing reach. The model of service our students are testing opens up many possibilities, limited only by a lack of will and imagination.
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The US government’s $44 million vaccine rollout website was a predictable mess – here’s how to fix the broken process behind it

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Associate Professor of Operations Management & Business Analytics, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing
Tinglong Dai does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been a nightmare for many Americans as they struggle through multi-step registration and appointment systems.
The federal government had envisioned states using one national vaccine scheduling system, and it offered a contractor US$44 million to develop it. But that system turned out to be so poorly designed that all but nine states opted out before even trying to adopt it, even though it was being offered by the government for free.
The few states that do use the Vaccine Administration Management System, or VAMS, have reported random appointment cancellations and unreliable registrations. Some vaccinators have had to resort to creating records on paper because of system glitches, slowing down the pace of getting shots into people’s arms.
As troubled as the VAMS website may be, it is also a predictable result. We’ve seen this movie before.
HealthCare.gov, the federal healthcare exchange website that was launched to implement the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion. When HealthCare.gov was launched on Oct. 1, 2013, only six people were able to sign up for health care on the first day. The Obama administration ended up having to enlist a team of engineers from Google, Amazon and Facebook to fix it.
The U.S. is among the most technologically advanced nations in the world, with some of the most powerful technology giants and the largest talent pool. So, why has the federal government repeatedly failed to deliver a functioning website essential to public health?
As an expert in health care operations management and contracting, I believe the complex federal contracting process bears much of the blame. The Biden administration has the power to fix it.
The U.S. government is the largest buyer on Earth. It spends more than half a trillion dollars a year procuring a wide range of goods and services from the private sector.
While private buyers may have their own rules governing purchasing, the U.S. government has to follow a set of procurement regulations. These regulations are known as the Federal Acquisition Regulations, or FAR, and they have been in place since 1983. The rules dictate all aspects of the federal purchasing process, including the contracting process for building websites such as HealthCare.gov and VAMS.
The Federal Acquisition Regulations were created to uphold the federal government and taxpayers’ interests through a uniform set of rules. Despite its good intention, this process has three key problems.
First, with thousands of clauses that are difficult to navigate, the Federal Acquisition Regulations have created a complicated and time-consuming contracting process, and many of those clauses are nearly impossible to implement in practice. That restricts the government to using a small group of vendors who are experienced in the game of contracting but are not necessarily the best choices for delivering products.
When the government announced the HealthCare.gov project, the tech giants that were eventually called in to fix it did not even participate in the bidding process, because the process favors past vendors such as CGI Federal, which specialized in federal contracting.
Second, in many cases, the complicated nature of the rules enables vendors to be selected without competition. In choosing a vendor for developing VAMS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that Deloitte was the only contractor that met the project requirements. The reason: The CDC believed VAMS required GovConnect, which is Deloitte’s propriety platform. The GovConnect platform was launched in June 2020 and has had some problems. It is not clear why a vaccine rollout platform had to be built on GovConnect.
Third, the contracting process discourages communications and interactions between vendors and contracting officers. For websites like HealthCare.gov and VAMS that have many stakeholders, the needs of those stakeholders typically evolve during the development process. Companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook use an “agile” method designed for changes during development. The current federal acquisition process naturally supports a traditional “waterfall” model that largely specifies all requirements at the beginning and allows little room for change.
How can the federal contracting process be fixed? Repealing the Federal Acquisition Regulations would likely cause chaos, but fixing it is doable. The executive branch of the U.S. government can modify the Federal Acquisition Regulations on its own, so it is up to the Biden administration to make changes.
Next, the federal contracting process must value results, not only the process itself or the vendors’ history of winning federal contracts. Deloitte and CGI Federal both continue to win federal contracts worth billions of dollars despite past failures.
VAMS has sparked far less public outcry than HealthCare.gov, but its failure is no less consequential, because a rapid vaccine rollout is the key to ending the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Deloitte spokesman Austin Price told Bloomberg News the company “continues to enhance the system based on feedback and priorities of VAMS users.”
The Obama administration started some reforms of the federal contracting system, particularly moving it away from the “waterfall” approach to allow more changes during development. The Biden administration could continue that work as it rethinks the tangle of federal contracting rules.
Unless it fixes the outdated federal contracting process, the U.S. will almost certainly repeat the same disaster again and again.
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How can I get the COVID-19 vaccine? Here’s what you need to know and which state strategies are working

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Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, University of Southern California
Steven W. Chen receives funding from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1817 Wellness Grant.

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For many people, trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine has been a lesson in frustration. The vaccine supply is limited in many areas, creating confusion over who can get a first and sometimes second dose of vaccine. Even when given the green light because of their age or occupation, many Americans have no idea how to go about getting vaccinated.
Nationwide, 6 in 10 older adults reported in a recent survey that they didn’t have enough information to know when or where they could get the vaccine. Those that do locate appointment systems are often finding them hard to use, and some have faced cancellations.
The Biden administration has promised to help alleviate some of the underlying problems, particularly vaccine shortages in some areas and inconsistent deliveries that have upended appointment scheduling. But the federal government doesn’t control the vaccination process within states or communication about it, and many states have pushed those decisions to understaffed counties. Currently, fewer than two-thirds of all vaccine doses distributed to the states have been administered, suggesting the problems go beyond supply shortages.
Some states are doing better than others, and they can offer lessons for the rest. And another Biden administration proposal could also soon connect more people with the vaccine and improve communication: activating more pharmacies to help.
As a pharmacy professor, I have been following developments in the U.S. vaccination effort. Here’s what you need to know.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one satisfying answer to this question right now. The federal government recommended priorities based primarily on age, preexisting health conditions and jobs that create a greater risk of exposure, like medical personnel. But states are following through in different ways.
To find your state’s information, you can check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of state links. Or enter the name of your state and “COVID vaccine” in your favorite search engine to find out whether your state has a centralized process or whether each county or city maintains its own priority system.
States that centralize their COVID-19 vaccination procedures generally match registrants with available vaccine providers, as New Mexico and California do. If your state does not centralize vaccination procedures, you’ll need to look up the details for your county or city. Even within the same state, who is allowed to receive vaccinations and how to get one can vary widely.
A few states that have done well with vaccinations can offer lessons for the rest.
West Virginia vaccinated all of its long-term care residents and staff who wanted the vaccine within three weeks and started on second doses before other states had finished the first round. It had been the only state to opt out of the federal vaccination partnership with CVS and Walgreens for long-term care residents, instead relying primarily on a network of independent pharmacies.
The state also centralized vaccine decisions, coordination and registration at the state level rather than having West Virginia counties and localities come up with their own rules and processes. This eliminated a lot of the confusing messages and conflicting priority lists. Not everything was perfect. There were still problems with canceled appointments, particularly for groups using a troubled new appointment management system created for the CDC called the Vaccine Administration Management System.

North Dakota, which has had one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the nation, expanded its priority list early to include anyone 65 and older, as well as adults with at least two high-risk medical conditions and front-line school or child care workers. It maintained its own warehouse to store and manage vaccine supplies, which allowed it to more easily send vaccine to providers across the state instead of only hospitals and health systems, as most other states were doing. It also deployed independent pharmacies to vaccinate people in long-term care facilities.
New Mexico credits its success in large part to a website that matches registrants with providers who have available vaccine and arranges appointments accordingly.
These three states have small populations, making the logistics somewhat simpler than in more populous states, but their approaches to vaccinating residents have worked.
Looking outside the U.S., Israel leads the world by far in vaccination rates, having vaccinated over half of its 9 million citizens. A strong public health system that treated vaccination efforts as a national security issue was key. Early preparation including aggressive acquisition of vaccines and allowing anyone over 60 to be vaccinated were also important strategies.
In many states, local pharmacies remain an untapped community resource for vaccination information.
With about 67,000 sites across the U.S., community pharmacies are highly accessible and experienced at administering vaccines due to their long history of providing vaccinations for flu and other preventable illnesses.
They also have established relationships with the communities they serve, often with staff who reflect the community’s ethnicities. This is critically important for improving the low vaccination rates among minorities.
And they have had continuing contact with people during the pandemic. Many patients have been unable or unwilling to see their medical providers as often during the pandemic, but they still pick up their medications and interact with their pharmacies.
States and counties can leverage this relationship to reach patients with information about when and how they can be vaccinated. Pharmacists have access to older and underserved patients who may have difficulty accessing and navigating websites. They can also help address questions about the vaccines from people who may be concerned after hearing rumors and misinformation. If people aren’t getting vaccinated, that could put herd immunity and a return to normal in jeopardy.
Vaccination is critical to slow the spread of new and more contagious virus variants and hopefully prevent the development of vaccine-resistant mutations. The president’s plan includes securing enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for everyone in the U.S. to receive both doses by the end of summer, provided the doses are distributed effectively.
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