As Covid-19-related hospitalizations increase again in many parts of the country, public health officials have expressed concerns about a perpetual source of pressure on the healthcare system: seasonal flu. As threats of a “twindemic” loom, health workers have stressed the need for vaccination and other preventive measures to slow the spread of the flu.
Insurance company goes further to try to mitigate the effects of the flu season: UnitedHealthcare, the country’s largest health insurance company, plans to provide at-risk patients with 200,000 kits including Tamiflu, the antiviral treatment on order; a digital thermometer; and a PCR diagnostic test for the coronavirus. People can take the test at home and then mail it in for lab analysis, helping patients and doctors determine the cause of their symptoms, which is especially important because coronavirus and the flu have symptoms. similar symptoms but differ in treatment.
“These viruses have proven to be highly capable of straining our health care system on their own,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, Associate Director of the Immunization Action Coalition. “Their combined impact is really worrying.”
At the end of September, UnitedHealthcare began inviting its Medicare Advantage members to sign up for the kits online or by phone, starting with a focus on those most at risk for complications from Covid-19 and influenza based on their age and state of health. Since then, 120,000 people have registered and the company has started shipping the kits. The company has more than five million Medicare Advantage members.
The company said providing people with Tamiflu in advance could help lessen the severity of influenza infections, as the antiviral drug becomes less effective with each hour after symptoms appear and is virtually ineffective after 48 hours. . Tamiflu on average shortens the duration of illness by one to two days if taken quickly, according to Dr. Moore. It may also help prevent illness in a person at high risk for complications who has 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 confirm their state of residence so that the prescription for Tamiflu could be dispensed by a doctor in their state. They had to certify, by phone or through an online form, that they would wait to take the prescription drug or coronavirus test until they received instructions from a doctor via a telemedicine appointment. , although there is no additional system to verify this process. once they have received their kits. Members also had to agree not to give the medicine to others.
“We thought, ‘Imagine if you start to get sick and already have 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 room visits, hospitalizations and deaths from seasonal flu.
There is no charge for Tamiflu or the coronavirus test, as long as people receive medical advice via telemedicine. A company spokesperson said the kits could save money by reducing hospital admissions through preventative care.
Recipients of the influenza kit will be asked to schedule virtual doctor appointments if they have viral symptoms. This initiative has become possible in large part thanks to the increased acceptance of telemedicine by the public amid the pandemic. A national Deloitte survey released in August found that the proportion of healthcare consumers using virtual medical visits rose to 28% in April 2020, from 15% in 2019, as patients avoided in-person clinic visits. where they are at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
UnitedHealthcare’s initiative targeted Medicare patients, as older people are at higher risk for serious infection with both the coronavirus and the flu. Covid-19 patients over 80 are hundreds of times more likely to die from the disease than those under 40. They are also more likely to die from the flu – between 70 and 85 percent of flu-related deaths occur in people 65 years of age or older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
UnitedHealthcare also plans to collect data on co-infection with coronavirus and influenza. Analysis from Public Health England showed that people infected with the two viruses were more than twice as likely to die and that most cases of co-infection were in older populations.
Although no other insurance company has announced plans to send prescription antiviral drugs, Aetna has announced that it will send its 2.7 million Medicare membership kits containing a thermometer, a hand sanitizer and face masks. Anthem has partnered with community organizations to create 500 local pop-up clinics that deliver free flu shots.
There is cause for optimism in efforts to mitigate the spread of influenza this year, according to Dr. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard. Australia reported a 99% decrease in reported influenza infections this year compared to 2019, in part due to widespread social distancing.
Americans should still do everything possible to prevent influenza infection through vaccination. “If the demand for the two viruses overlaps, it will exacerbate the problem of health care delivery,” said Dr Lipsitch. “Our health systems are already generally stretched by the flu season and could be further stretched by Covid.”