ACMI upcoming webinar:

Come learn from Dr. Carol Olson M.D., DFAPA, Chair, Psychiatry Department, Valleywise Health System

Date: February 24th, 6-7 PM MST

Time: 18:00-19:00

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Certificate of attendance by Copa Health available.

Crisis Evaluation
Psychiatric evaluation and diagnosis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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People with SMI on the streetsImage by Geesling photography -SMI people on the streets of Phoenix

Linda Mimms initially shared this article via social media. This article is a brilliant take by Dr. Rob Laitman on what it costs our society monetarily and, more importantly, our humanity. Failure to appropriately treat people with mental illness disorders is caused by not meeting people’s treatable medical brain disorders, in addition to multiple other factors. We have been violating the CIVIL RIGHTS of this neglected group of sick citizens who have needed treatment for decades with disastrous results. The family and community burden is one of these many disastrous outcomes. These members’ lives with serious mental illnesses are often 25 years shorter than the rest of the population. Jails and prisons are treating (though inadequately) our sickest society’s members using our criminal system as an alternative to a therapeutic environment.  They have become a de facto significant psychiatric provider in this punitive setting. We continue to treat the behaviors of mental illness as criminal acts.

Charles Goldstein, MD

  “The more I look into the horror of our healthcare system, the more outraged I become. Let me give you some perspective as a nephrologist (kidney specialist). End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) is the only medical diagnosis that automatically qualifies you for Medicare. Currently, there are 468,000 ESRD patients in the USA. The average expenditure per patient per year is $150,000. The total cost is 70 billion dollars. Employment in ESRD patients is 20% employed to age 55 and less than 3 % thereafter. Now let us look at the psychotic spectrum disorders representing 2% of the population (1 % schizophrenia spectrum and 1 % bipolar with psychosis). This percentage represents 6,620,000 individuals. If we were to support their medical needs fairly and comparably, we would be willing to devote 1 trillion dollars just for their care.

   So what do we spend? When it comes to direct patient care for schizophrenia, the most recent estimate from a 2016 study was 37.4 billion. If you were to assume that the cost of taking care of someone with bipolar with psychosis was similar (actually, we know it is substantially less), the cost would be about 75 billion. Essentially we are only spending less than 1/10 for our patients with psychosis medical care than we have already decided would be appropriate in the ESRD population.

   What is even more outrageous is this lack of support leads to tremendous non-direct healthcare costs, including law enforcement, homeless shelters, and productivity losses of both the patients and the caregivers. Specifically, for schizophrenia, unemployment cost was 59.2 billion, and caregiving was 52.9 billion.

   What drives this tremendous disparity in resource allocation starts with the nihilistic belief that psychotic spectrum disorders are not treatable. Why should we devote resources to a hopeless population? Another component is that 50 % of this population has anosognosia, and therefore does not feel that they need treatment. Given the current status of the laws that “protect” patient’s rights, such as HIPAA and the underutilized and underpowered AOT laws, it is impossible to engage the patient even to start an effective treatment. Where we are right now is less than 50% of all patients with psychosis receive any care. The biggest psychiatric providers are the LA jail, Cook County jail, and Rikers Island jail. It is estimated that 20-40% of the prison population has a psychotic illness. The ever-growing homeless population also has been found to have a similar % of serious mental illness. At present, in those receiving treatment, only 14 % are in meaningful recovery.

   The question is, what are we doing wrong, or is this just a hopeless population? What does the evidence say? As it turns out, there is increasing evidence that early identification of prodromal high-risk individuals can be identified, and by working on their processing speed (REM) the development of the full-fledged psychotic disorder can be aborted. Even after the development of psychosis, early treatment with the most effective treatment and wrap-around social services can change the trajectory of the illness. This is being demonstrated impressively with the Recovery After Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) study.  Remarkably,  the VA has shown that if patients are switched to clozapine, there is a savings of over $ 20,000 accrue per patient-year initially, and as monitoring becomes less, that saving grows. Switching to clozapine has also led to the best survival, the lowest hospitalization rate, and the best quality of life.  In my hands, I have demonstrated what is possible with optimal clozapine care. 75/103 of my patients treated over six months are in meaningful recovery. I define meaningful recovery as being in school, work, or a PROS program training to work. Hospitalization and, therefore, the cost of care has been minimized. In over 330 patient-years of care, there have been only 1.3 years of hospitalization. This translates out on average 1-2 days/year in the hospital. Medical compliance has been over 90% in those that have been successfully engaged, and overall over 98% of the population considers themselves improved with my care.

   So we need to let our legislators know that they are not throwing good money after bad money. We need to have the resources to change the barriers to care. Specifically, we need a national uniform rational AOT program that gives the provider the ability to treat the patient where the need is demonstrated. Serious mental illness is a team sport, and communication has to be seamless, so we need to reform HIPAA to assure that caregivers are involved in every step of the way. We need to invest in improving access. Taking care of these patients takes a lot of work, and the reimbursement is dismal for the provider. So I return to the ESRD program. For every dialysis patient, the provider is paid a fixed amount for dialysis management. Clozapine is a lot of work and is superior to all other antipsychotics in every setting, and yet only 2% of the population is so treated. We need to invest in these patients and provide a treatment stipend for management. A reasonable fee schedule would be initially $1000/mo for the first six months, $750/mo for the next six months, and then $500/mo after one year. If the patient is hospitalized, the amount should be reduced proportionally to the time spent in the hospital. This is how the ESRD program works, and this carrot has led to superior clinical care. In our population, this small carrot could be a game-changer not only in the quality of care but the end of being a tremendous cost saver. With the cost-saving, we would then be able to devote more resources to all of the appropriate supports.

   In summary, we need to convince the powers that be to devote appropriate resources. We need bravery to insist on rational laws that help engage our patients and families in therapeutic relationships. Our medical professionals need to be re-educated in what is possible and learn the correct approach to treatment. We need to pay adequately for this arduous but rewarding work. If we do this, we will be able to provide an optimal clozapine based regimen with full wrap-around psycho-social services. With this, we will not only end suffering, but we will see a majority of this population lead lives of purpose and meaning.” Robert S. Laitman, MD

ACMI Board

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Arizona State Hospital

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Association of the Chronically Mentally Ill is focused on the sickest group within the SMI population. This group is non-compliant with treatment and often afflicted with anosognosia or the lack of ability to perceive the realities of one’s own condition. There are a number of systemic issues within our public systems that impact this target group. One such issue is the 55 bed limit at the Arizona State Hospital, which was created to incentivize the state to create community-based programs. Long past the usefulness of that policy, Josh Mozell’s November 30th, 2020 article in the Capitol Times help to explain some of the fallout of this policy, and the reasons the 55-bed limit should be eliminated.

   Solving the problems of our broken mental health system often seems so overwhelming that work does not begin. However, there are narrow solutions with broad implications that can be implemented. One such solution is ending Arizona’s long-standing bed limitation placed upon our state hospital.

   It may surprise many to learn that Arizona still has an operational mental asylum. Opened in 1887, it is now known as the Arizona State Hospital. The purpose of the State Hospital is and has always been to provide care for the most mentally ill in our community. For many in that group, months, if not years, of long-term programming is necessary for real recovery. That being the case, the State Hospital becomes the only place in Arizona where they have a chance for meaningful improvement.

   However, the hospital is nearly inaccessible for Maricopa County’s residents due to an arbitrary 55-bed limitation. To provide perspective, health policy experts estimate that a community needs between 40 and 60 beds per 100,000 to meet the demand for state hospital beds. In Maricopa County, however, for those who are civilly committed, we have one bed per 100,000.

   Why? In 1981, a path-breaking class-action lawsuit, Arnold v Sarn, was filed on behalf of Maricopa County’s mentally ill. The litigation lasted over 30 years, finally settling in 2014. During that time, the case revolutionized Arizona’s mental health system. But in 1995, the parties entered into a plan to resolve the litigation. In that stipulation, the parties agreed there would be a cap of 55-beds at the Arizona State Hospital for civilly committed patients from Maricopa County. Due to this limitation, the only pathway to gaining admission is to fail repeatedly, in spectacular fashion, and do it for years.

   The failure looks like this: Because this group of chronically mentally ill does not receive the long-term treatment needed, they transition from one crisis to the next, experiencing more serious decompensation. This results in a constant recycling through the various public systems at an enormous cost to the taxpayers. Year by year the person is increasingly overcome by the disease. There are persistent police and fire interactions, multiple visits to emergency rooms, long medical hospital stays, arrests for petty crimes, and, unfortunately too often for serious crimes. Then there is the involvement of the judicial system, homeless shelters, and the penal system. Rinse and repeat – the cycle continues for years. For this group of people, the system is not just broken, but inhumane.

   The bed limitation also has many downstream effects. For instance, those who need access to Arizona State Hospital do not disappear simply because there is not an available bed. Instead, they consume scarce mental health resources, which otherwise could be provided to others in need. The most serious manifestation is in our civil commitment system. To be hospitalized through civil commitment, a patient receives a bed at Valleywise Health, the one hospital system licensed to carry out the process in Maricopa County. The average length of stay during the process is 22 days, and, during those 22 days, the patient receives very good psychiatric care. But, we have just 343 beds in Maricopa County, which is far less than what is needed to serve the population. Due to that bed shortage, our system is already limited in its ability to treat those who need help.

  The Arizona State Hospital 55-bed limit pours gasoline on a fire. To keep the patient and the public safe, Valleywise is often forced to keep the patient for months until the patient stabilizes, without the infrastructure for true long-term treatment. Therefore, despite maximizing the stabilization possible at a short-term hospital, it is not enough. The patient is often back at Valleywise within weeks after release. This routine can continue for years until the patient finally fails enough for State Hospital consideration.

   Commonly, the amount of failing will total 1,000 days or more at Valleywise – in addition to visits to the ER, jail, crisis centers, etc. Therefore, on just one patient who would be most appropriately treated at Arizona State Hospital, 45 patients could receive a 22-day hospital stay at Valleywise. Consequently, the bed shortage is made worse, individuals do not receive care, and scarce state resources are exhausted. This extends the system to the point of breaking, which cannot be sustained.

  Our system is broken in many ways. But again, there are many narrow fixes with broad positive implications which start the process of improvement. This is one of those narrow fixes. The 55-bed cap is a monumental failure – it should be eliminated.

Josh Mozell is a lawyer with Frazer, Ryan, Goldberg & Arnold, L.L.P.

Josh Mozell

ACMI President

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Come hear from Dr. Rosenberg about his insight into America’s mental health crisis. There will be an opportunity to submit questions prior to or during the webinar. Submit questions prior to the webinar at contact@acmionline.com or in the chat feature during the webinar.

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Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

    I was pleasantly surprised to read this article stating the FDA approval for a new drug trial for schizophrenia. Research into the treatment of schizophrenia is long overdue, as it can be a devastating disease process.

    Schizophrenia is a complicated chronic disease affecting approximately 3.5 million people in the United States, and its annual healthcare costs exceed $155 billion. People living with schizophrenia often experience a reduced quality of life (QOL) and are more likely to be homeless, unemployed, or living in poverty than the general population. Life expectancy for patients with schizophrenia is 15 to 20 years below the average. It is complicated by numerous comorbidities, such as weight gain, increased cardiovascular risk, and mood and cognition changes. Treatment nonadherence can increase the risk of relapse, rehospitalization, and self-harm, leading to a reduced QOL and increased economic burden.

    Schizophrenia is a complex chronic illness with multiple comorbidities and high mortality rates. The development of Long-Acting Injectables and generic medication options has significantly improved patient adherence and reduced care costs in patients with schizophrenia. Despite these advances, schizophrenia has a high economic burden for patients and society. Providers caring for patients with schizophrenia are charged with a complicated task of ensuring individualized care while managing numerous adverse effects that may occur with recommended therapy (Wander, 2020).

Wander, C. (2020).  Schizophrenia: Opportunities to Improve Outcomes and Reduce Economic Burden Through Managed Carehttps://www.ajmc.com/view/schizophrenia-opportunities-to-improve-outcomes-and-reduce-economic-burden-through-managed-care

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FDA Advisory Board In Favor of ALKS 3831 for Schizophrenia

October 9, 2020

Kenny Walter

Relevant Topics

The schizophrenia drug currently has a PDUFA date set for November 15.

    A US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) advisory committee has given a recommendation for the ultimate approval of a combination of olanzapine and samidorphan (ALKS 3831) in schizophrenia patients.

    During the joint meeting of the Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee and the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee, the group voted 16-1 to approve the treatment, developed by Alkermes.

    ALKS 3831 is an investigational, novel atypical antipsychotic earmarked for once-daily oral application for the 2 psychiatric disorders composed of samidorphan, a novel, new molecular entity, co-formulated with olanzapine, an established antipsychotic agent in a single bilayer tablet.

    Recently, researchers presented data from the ENLIGHTEN-2 trial, a six-month study evaluating the weight gain profile of ALKS 3831 compared to olanzapine in 561 patients with stable schizophrenia.

    “The favorable outcome of today’s joint advisory committee meeting represents an important milestone for the patients, clinicians and families who may benefit from new medicines for the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar I disorder,” Craig Hopkinson, MD, chief medical officer and executive vice president of R&D at Alkermes, said in a statement. The personal testimonies shared during today’s open public hearing reinforced the need for treatment approaches that consider patients’ overall mental and physical health. The ALKS 3831 development program is part of our ongoing commitment to develop new therapeutic options for adults living with serious mental illness.”

    There is currently a Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) target action date of Nov. 15.

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James Lee Carr, Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Sherriff’s office

Last Tuesday my husband called as I dropped our son off at his group home after spending the morning shopping and enjoying coffee together. He wanted to know where we were, and I could hear the unease in his voice. An officer had just been shot outside of a Federal court building in downtown Phoenix and given the recent escalation in violence, I could understand his concern.

We now know that this incident had nothing to do with our current political climate, but it had everything to do with another person with under-treated mental illness that resulted in a violent outcome and a ruined life. James Carr will likely be forgotten and spend the rest of his life in prison. A Federal court officer’s life has been significantly altered.

What can be done to decrease the number of heartbreaking tragedies? We need a laser-like focus on policy and resource efforts toward the gaps in care for those with more chronic forms of mental illness and who are most at risk. This is why ACMI is committed to the following solutions:

  • a person-centered culture (instead of a program-centered),
  • financial & other incentives, based on performance & outcomes, for providers to better serve this population;
  • more Lighthouse- like homes, i.e. community living properties with 24-hours per day and 7-days per week supportive staff inside these properties,
  • humane, well-regulated facilities for a secure residential treatment, involuntary as medically appropriate, for those who need more intensive care for a longer period of time to gain insight and continue their recovery in a less restrictive setting; and,
  • other possible solutions that include increasing capacity and oversight at the Arizona State Hospital.

I will continue to spend every Tuesday with my son who has a chronic mental illness because he is one of the fortunate few whose family has been able to obtain these appropriate and humane levels of treatment and support. Sadly, James Carr’s family will only be able to visit him in prison along with so many other people in this same situation. We must do better in order to prevent these needless tragedies and keep the general public safe.

By Deborah Geesling

ACMI Board

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Photograph by Laurie Goldstein on streets of San Diego August 23rd, 2020

It seems to be tragic that individuals suffering from the symptoms of serious mental illness must try and fail oral medication therapies before qualifying for long-acting injectables. Besides being much more effective and efficient in medicine delivery, adherence increases significantly. Physicians are well aware that people do not take medications as directed. Lack of compliance in taking medicines as prescribed holds for physical health and mental health treatments. A person suffering from bronchitis may stop taking their antibiotics after five days of a 10-day course once they are feeling better. So, it is not surprising that many people struggle with adherence to daily or twice daily oral medications.

The issue of non-adherence has dire consequences if the condition involves the brain and psychosis. Repeated psychotic events can result in a change in the baseline. According to McKnight (2017) “Researchers now stage schizophrenia. Just like cancer, the more advanced the stage, the worse the outcome,” said Dr. Nasrallah, the Sydney W. Souers Endowed Chair and professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Saint Louis University, told his audience. “The additional damaging effects of the second episode is what leads to clinical deterioration and can start the process of treatment resistance. But if no psychotic episodes are allowed to recur after the first episode, many patients can return to their baseline functioning, such as school or work.”

As data mount confirming the neurodegenerative effects of psychotic episodes in schizophrenia, one expert urges psychiatrists to think of psychosis as a “brain attack” which, like heart attacks, must be prevented from recurring. McKnight (2017)

According to McKnight (2017) “Schizophrenia doesn’t have to be progressive neurodegenerative unless patients relapse again and again, but that happens all the time because we give our patients pills they don’t take as prescribed. There are many reasons for poor adherence,” Henry A. Nasrallah, MD, said at the meeting held by Global Academy for Medical Education.

 By Laurie Goldstein 

ACMI

 

See more surprising schizophrenia statistics, including:

  • Rise in cost related to relapse
  • Number of hospital beds available for patients
  • Connection between adherence and relapse

https://www.medscape.com/infosites/285165.1/isarticle-1?src=0_nl_sm_0&uac=371324FZ

McKnight, W. (2017, July). First-episode psychosis is a ‘brain attack,’ and LAIs can prevent recurrence, expert says. Clinical Psychiatry News2017(1), 1.

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Photo courtesy of Town Moor, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom

Forward by Dr. Charles Goldstein

It is well known to physicians like me who have spent a lifetime in Emergency Medicine that many patients are super-utilizers of the healthcare system, which we refer to in the vernacular of the ER as “frequent fliers.”

Quite often, these individuals run up high costs to the healthcare system, driven to emergency department rooms for primary care due to an underlying undertreated or untreated, serious mental illness. I believe that one of the reasons for this failure of treatment is due to a lack of safe, appropriate, and affordable housing. Though there are many other reasons why individuals with serious mental illness fail in our current behavioral health system, a fundamental problem is a lack of safe and affordable housing.

Recent findings in the Milliman firm report, a provider of actuarial and related products and services, entitled “How do individuals with behavioral health conditions contribute to physical and total healthcare spending,” revealed that the authors examined in detail the total health care costs for super-utilizers.  Its findings were that just a fraction of individuals with serious mental illness accounted for nearly half the overall health care costs of the entire population of the study group.

Remember that this is only healthcare costs, not other costs associated with undertreated or untreated mental illness, which may include interactions with community resources such as police, fire personnel, and the judicial system. Sadly, this population often ends up in jails and or prisons or homeless due to behaviors related to undertreated or untreated mental illness.

Please look at the recent article by the Treatment Advocacy Center, and its embedded link to the Milliman report for further details.

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RESEARCH WEEKLY: The Path Forward for Severe Mental Illness and Super-Utilization

By Elizabeth Hancq

Prevelance Rates by Cost Group Chart

RESEARCH WEEKLY: The Path Forward for Severe Mental Illness and Super-Utilization

By Elizabeth Hancq

Individuals with severe mental illness are often caught in the revolving door of super-utilization, cycling through inpatient hospitals, emergency departments, jail or homeless shelters.

Super-utilization refers to the phenomenon where a relatively small number of people make relatively frequent use of high-cost services at enormous public expense. Anecdotes of the role of severe mental illness in super-utilization can be found in countless local media stories, such as Super Dave in Tennessee who was arrested more than 250 times in his lifetime, or Jane in New Jersey who generated $4.4 million dollars in hospital charges in a five-year period.

However, the enumerated costs of the role of severe mental illness in super-utilization are largely unknown. “Accounting for barely 3% of the adult population, individuals with diagnoses of schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder are known to be overrepresented in the systems most affected by the failure of the US mental health system, principally when untreated. Yet despite the human and economic toll of this pattern, the role of SMI in high utilization is largely uncharted,” the Office of Research and Public Affairs wrote in the 2017 report on the topic, A Crisis in Search of Data. 

A ground-breaking new report released last week by Milliman is an important step toward understanding the role of serious mental illness in high utilization of health and mental health care services. The report’s findings provide cost estimates to the total healthcare services received and compares spending patterns between high-cost groups, with a focus on mental health and substance use disorders.

The study authors utilized 2017 healthcare claims data from 21 million individuals with commercial insurance. They compared levels of spending for physical and mental health care by spending group, high- cost (top 10%) and non-high-cost (remaining 90%), across the prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders among this population.

The researchers found that 57% of the individuals in the high-cost group had a mental health or substance use disorder, accounting for less than 6% of the total population but 44% of the total healthcare costs. Although the total healthcare costs for the individuals in this group averaged $45,782 per year, half of these individuals had less than $95 of spending for mental health or substance use disorder treatment in a one-year period.

Accounting for fewer than 1% of the 21 million individuals in the study sample, individuals with severe mental illness accounted for 3.3% of the total healthcare costs with the highest percentage of mental health service costs for any of the groups studied. Individuals with severe mental illness “have 6.3 times higher annual total healthcare costs and 4.2 times higher medical/surgical costs,” according to the report.

The findings in the report have important implications for policy makers and insurers to consider regarding the health coverage and spending associated with high-cost individuals. The report further validates the role of severe mental illness in super-utilization and points to how the current fragmented healthcare system has contributed to a lack of equitable, accessible treatment for individuals with severe mental illness. In addition, the findings underscore the importance of integrated mental health and substance use disorder treatment to prevent the high impact of these disorders on healthcare spending and reduce the personal and societal consequences of lack of treatment for individuals in need.

References: 

Elizabeth Hancq is the director of research at the Treatment Advocacy Center.

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August 19th, 2020 05:00 PM Arizona Come learn from respected psychiatrists- Dr. Beth Darling and Dr. Alicia L Cowdrey

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Queen Butterfly photo by Bankim Desai @rochangraphics

COVID-19 update as we start to leave our cocoons by Dr. James Stein- Cardiologist at UW

Forward by Laurie Goldstein

With all the noise in the media and the conflicting advice, it is hard to determine fact from fiction regarding the spread of COVID and how to protect yourself. As with many choices in life, it depends. It depends on your risk factors and your comfort level.

It appears that this disease will be with us for some time, and I think there is also harm (both mental and physical) from social isolation—a quandary for sure.

I enjoyed the article by Dr. James Stein as it provides a reasonable approach to rejoining society.? Enjoy this article as I have.

Laurie Goldstein

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The purpose of this post is to provide a perspective on the intense but expected anxiety so many people are experiencing as they prepare to leave the shelter of their homes. My opinions are not those of my employers and are not meant to invalidate anyone else’s – they simply are my perspective on managing risk.

In March, we did not know much about COVID-19 other than the incredibly scary news reports from overrun hospitals in China, Italy, and other parts of Europe. The media was filled with scary pictures of chest CT scans, personal stories of people who decompensated quickly with shortness of breath, overwhelmed health care systemsand deaths. We heard confusing and widely varying estimates for risk of getting infected and of dying – some estimates were quite high.

Key point #1: The COVID-19 we are facing now is the same disease it was 2 months ago. The “shelter at home” orders were the right step from a public health standpoint to make sure we flattened the curve and didn’t overrun the health care system which would have led to excess preventable deaths. It also bought us time to learn about the disease’s dynamics, preventive measures, and best treatment strategies – and we did. For hospitalized patients, we have learned to avoid early intubation, to use prone ventilation, and that remdesivir probably reduces time to recovery. We have learned how to best use and preserve PPE. We also know that several therapies suggested early on probably don’t do much and may even cause harm (ie, azithromycin, chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir/ritonavir). But all of our social distancing did not change the disease. Take home: We flattened the curve and with it our economy and psyches, but the disease itself is still here.

Key point #2: COVID-19 is more deadly than seasonal influenza (about 5-10x so), but not nearly as deadly as Ebola, Rabies, or Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever where 25-90% of people who get infected die. COVID-19’s case fatality rate is about 0.8-1.5% overall, but much higher if you are 60-69 years old (3-4%), 70-79 years old (7-9%), and especially so if you are over 80 years old (CFR 13-17%). It is much lower if you are under 50 years old (<0.6%). The infection fatality rate is about half of these numbers. Take home: COVID-19 is dangerous, but the vast majority of people who get it, survive it. About 15% of people get very ill and could stay ill for a long time. We are going to be dealing with it for a long time.

Key point #3: SARS-CoV-2 is very contagious, but not as contagious as Measles, Mumps, or even certain strains of pandemic Influenza. It is spread by respiratory droplets and aerosols, not food and incidental contact. Take home: social distancing, not touching our faces, and good hand hygiene are the key weapons to stop the spread. Masks could make a difference, too, especially in public places where people congregate. Incidental contact is not really an issue, nor is food.

What does this all mean as we return to work and public life? COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. It may not go away for a year or two and may not be eradicated for many years, so we have to learn to live with it and do what we can to mitigate (reduce) risk. That means being willing to accept some level of risk to live our lives as we desire. I can’t decide that level of risk for you – only you can make that decision. There are few certainties in pandemic risk management other than that fact that some people will die, some people in low risk groups will die, and some people in high risk groups will survive. It’s about probability.

Here is some guidance – my point of view, not judging yours:

  1. People over 60 years old are at higher risk of severe disease – people over 70 years old, even more so. They should be willing to tolerate less risk than people under 50 years old and should be extra careful. Some chronic diseases like heart disease and COPD increase risk, but it is not clear if other diseases like obesity, asthma, immune disorders, etc. increase risk appreciably. It looks like asthma and inflammatory bowel disease might not be as high risk as we thought, but we are not sure – their risks might be too small to pick up, or they might be associated with things that put them at higher risk.

People over 60-70 years old probably should continue to be very vigilant about limiting exposures if they can. However, not seeing family – especially children and grandchildren – can take a serious emotional toll, so I encourage people to be creative and flexible. For example, in-person visits are not crazy – consider one, especially if you have been isolated and have no symptoms. They are especially safe in the early days after restrictions are lifted in places like Madison or parts of major cities where there is very little community transmission. Families can decide how much mingling they are comfortable with – if they want to hug and eat together, distance together with masks, or just stay apart and continue using video-conferencing and the telephone to stay in contact. If you choose to intermingle, remember to practice good hand hygiene, don’t share plates/forks/spoons/cups, don’t share towels, and don’t sleep together.

  1. Social distancing, not touching your face, and washing/sanitizing your hands are the key prevention interventions. They are vastly more important than anything else you do. Wearing a fabric mask is a good idea in crowded public place like a grocery store or public transportation, but you absolutely must distance, practice good hand hygiene, and don’t touch your face. Wearing gloves is not helpful (the virus does not get in through the skin) and may increase your risk because you likely won’t washing or sanitize your hands when they are on, you will drop things, and touch your face.
  2. Be a good citizen. If you think you might be sick, stay home. If you are going to cough or sneeze, turn away from people, block it, and sanitize your hands immediately after.
  3. Use common sense. Dial down the anxiety. If you are out taking a walk and someone walks past you, that brief (near) contact is so low risk that it doesn’t make sense to get scared. Smile at them as they approach, turn your head away as they pass, move on. The smile will be more therapeutic than the passing is dangerous. Similarly, if someone bumps into you at the grocery store or reaches past you for a loaf of bread, don’t stress – it is a very low risk encounter, also – as long as they didn’t cough or sneeze in your face (one reason we wear cloth masks in public!).
  4. Use common sense, part II. Dial down the obsessiveness. There really is no reason to go crazy sanitizing items that come into your house from outside, like groceries and packages. For it to be a risk, the delivery person would need to be infectious, cough or sneeze some droplets on your package, you touch the droplet, then touch your face, and then it invades your respiratory epithelium. There would need to be enough viral load and the virions would need to survive long enough for you to get infected. It could happen, but it’s pretty unlikely. If you want to have a staging station for 1-2 days before you put things away, sure, no problem. You also can simply wipe things off before they come in to your house – that is fine is fine too. For an isolated family, it makes no sense to obsessively wipe down every surface every day (or several times a day). Door knobs, toilet handles, commonly trafficked light switches could get a wipe off each day, but it takes a lot of time and emotional energy to do all those things and they have marginal benefits. We don’t need to create a sterile operating room-like living space. Compared to keeping your hands out of your mouth, good hand hygiene, and cleaning food before serving it, these behaviors might be more maladaptive than protective.
  5. There are few absolutes, so please get comfortable accepting some calculated risks, otherwise you might be isolating yourself for a really, really long time. Figure out how you can be in public and interact with people without fear.

We are social creatures. We need each other. We will survive with and because of each other. Social distancing just means that we connect differently. Being afraid makes us contract and shut each other out. I hope we can fill that space created by fear and contraction with meaningful connections and learn to be less afraid of each of other

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