With Covid-19 hospital stays sharpen again In many parts of the country, public health officials have raised concerns about a permanent burden on the health system: seasonal flu. As a threat to a “twindemicHealth workers have emphasized the need for vaccinations and other preventive measures to help slow the spread of the flu.
An insurance company will continue to try to mitigate the effects of the flu season: UnitedHealthCare, the country’s largest health insurance company, plans to provide 200,000 kits to high-risk patients, including Tamiflu, the prescription antiviral treatment; a digital thermometer; and a coronavirus P.C.R. Diagnostic test. People can take the test at home and then send it in for laboratory analysis to help patients and doctors determine the cause of their symptoms. This is especially important as the coronavirus and the flu have similar symptoms but are different in treatment.
“These viruses have proven to be extremely capable of burdening our health system on their own,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director of the Immunization Action Coalition. “Their combined effects are really worrying.”
In late September, UnitedHealthcare invited its Medicare Advantage members to sign up for the kits online or by phone, focusing on those who are at the highest risk of complications from Covid-19 and flu because of their age and health. Since then, 120,000 people have signed up and the company has started shipping the kits. The company has more than 5 million Medicare Advantage members.
The company said providing people with Tamiflu upfront could help lessen the severity of flu infections as the antiviral drug becomes less effective with every hour that goes by after symptoms appear and is virtually ineffective after 48 hours. According to Dr. Moore, Tamiflu shortens the duration of illness by an average of one to two days when taken quickly. It can also help prevent illness in those at high risk for complications who have been exposed to the flu, but is not routinely recommended for preventive use in most populations.
All members who signed up for the flu kits were required to verify the state they live in in order for the Tamiflu prescription to be dispensed by a doctor in their state. They had to confirm, either by phone or via an online form, that they would wait to receive the prescription drug or coronavirus test until directed by a doctor through a telemedicine appointment, although there is no additional system to review this process there as soon as they receive their kits. Members also had to agree not to give the drugs to anyone else.
“We thought,” Imagine getting sick and already having a mini pharmacy at home, “said Dr. Deneen Vojta, executive vice president of research and development at UnitedHealthcare. The goal, she added, is to Reduce the number of emergency rooms, hospital stays, and deaths from seasonal flu.
There is no charge for the Tamiflu or coronavirus test as long as patients are advised by a doctor via telemedicine. A company spokesperson said the kits could bring savings by reducing hospital stays through preventive care.
Flu kit recipients are instructed to schedule virtual doctor appointments if they experience viral symptoms. The initiative was made possible primarily due to the increasing public acceptance of telemedicine during the pandemic. ONE National survey by Deloitte, which was released in August, found that the proportion of healthcare consumers using virtual doctor visits increased from 15 percent in 2019 to 28 percent in April 2020 as patients avoided in-person visits to clinics in who are at increased risk of coronavirus exposure.
UnitedHealthcare’s initiative was aimed at Medicare patients as the elderly are at higher risk of serious infections from both the coronavirus and the flu. Covid-19 patients older than 80 years of age are hundreds of times more likely to die of the disease than patients under 40 years of age. They’re also more likely to die from the flu – between 70 and 85 percent of flu-related deaths occur in people age 65 and over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
UnitedHealthcare also plans to collect data on co-infection with the coronavirus and the flu. Analysis of Public Health England showed that people infected with both viruses died more than twice as often and most cases of co-infection occurred in the elderly.
While no other insurance company has announced it will ship prescription antiviral drugs, Aetna announced that it will ship its 2.7 million Medicare member kits containing thermometers, hand sanitizer, and face masks. Anthem has partnered with community organizations to create 500 local pop-up clinics that will deliver free flu vaccines.
According to Dr. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, there is reason to be optimistic about efforts to contain the spread of the flu this year. Australia saw a 99 percent decrease in reported flu infections this year compared to 2019, partly due to widespread social distancing.
Americans should still make every effort to prevent flu infection through vaccination. “If the demand for the two viruses overlap it will exacerbate the health care problem,” said Dr. Lipsitch. “Our health systems are usually already stretched through the flu season and could be stretched even more by Covid.”