Cases still rising in most states; health insurers now cover at home testing; feds investigate testing centers: COVID-19 updates

·6 min read

On Saturday a federal rule requiring health insurers cover at home testing took effect, one of a number of recent moves aimed at curbing cases in the U.S. amid a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 infections.

The wave showed signs of peaking this week, but most states are still reporting rising cases in the past seven days. Federal agencies have also moved toward recommending higher quality masks, and the Biden administration is poised to launch a website where Americans can order free COVID-19 testing kits.

Access to testing has been a national issue for weeks, as federal and state officials continue to warn about fraudulent "pop-up" testing sites and take-home test scams across the U.S.

And public health experts have long been cautioning that high-quality masks offer better protection against more contagious variants of the coronavirus, including omicron. On Friday, new CDC guidance acknowledged masks like KN95s offer superior protection, while still noting that a cloth masks are better than not wearing a mask at all.

The CDC urged people to choose "the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently."

The Infectious Diseases Society of America applauded the CDC's move but acknowledged that high-quality masks are also more expensive and asked officials to try to reduce these cost barriers that may exacerbate health inequities.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that plans to make “high-quality masks,” including N95s, available for free. He said more details were coming next week.

Also in the news:

►The Biden administration on Wednesday will launch a website where Americans can order up to four free COVID-19 testing kits per person, according to a senior administration official.

►Tennis star Novak Djokovic was back in immigration detention Saturday after his legal challenge to avoid being deported from Australia for being unvaccinated for COVID-19 was moved to higher court.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 65 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 849,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 324 million cases and nearly 5.5 million deaths. More than 208 million Americans – 62.9% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘What we're reading: Insurance will cover at-home COVID testing starting Saturday. Here's how to get free tests or reimbursement.

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Omicron not as deadly to unvaccinated people as previous variants, study suggests

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is not as deadly to unvaccinated people as previous variants of the virus, a new study — which has not yet been peer reviewed — suggests.

The study, by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa, found that omicron cases around the globe have tended to cause less severe disease, and even fewer hospital admissions, than delta and other variants.

"In the Omicron-driven wave, severe COVID-19 outcomes were reduced mostly due to protection conferred by prior infection and/or vaccination, but intrinsically reduced virulence may account for an approximately 25% reduced risk of severe hospitalization or death compared to Delta," the study said.

The new study's findings back up the results of a previous CDC study that found omicron is more than 90 percent less likely to kill those infected.

Federal authorities investigate Center for COVID Control

The principal lab for the Center for COVID Control, a nationwide coronavirus testing company under investigation by several states, is now the focus of a federal agency probing allegations of misconduct at the site.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is investigating what the Center for COVID Control says is its primary lab and clinical testing vendor partner, Doctors Clinical Lab.

"We take seriously any allegations of fraud or misbehavior by COVID-19 testing sites. CMS’s Center for Clinical Standards and Quality investigates these kinds of complaints and is aware of several alleged instances of misconduct by this company’s labs," Dr. Lee Fleisher, chief medical officer and director of the agency's Center for Clinical Standards and Quality, said in a statement Friday.

The news comes as federal and state officials continue to warn about fraudulent "pop-up" testing sites and take-home test scams across the U.S. The ventures have cropped up amid a surge of COVID-19 cases and a national shortage of coronavirus tests, prompting desperate Americans to turn to questionable alternatives.

— Grace Hauck, USA TODAY

US insurers likely paid $100M+ for disproven COVID-19 treatment ivermectin, study finds

A new study says U.S. insurers paid the annual equivalent of $129 million for the de-worming medication ivermectin, despite the drug having not been found to benefit COVID-19 patients.

Ivermectin is used to treat heart worms and ear mites in cats and dogs and to fight parasites in horses, cattle, pigs and sheep. In rare occasions it is given to humans with parasitic worm infestations.

It’s been promoted as a COVID-19 cure but there’s little data to suggest it is effective.

The researchers excluded the few patients who had a diagnosis of parasitic infection, about 6% of prescriptions.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and Boston University, it was published Friday by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Food and Drug Administration specifically says ivermectin should not be taken for COVID-19 and cites side effects such as skin rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, facial or limb swelling, seizures and confusion and liver injury.

Despite that, millions of prescriptions for the drug have been written for COVID-19 patients.

The study found that on average the insurer reimbursement for the drug was $35.75 for private insurance and $39.13 for Medicare Advantage patients.

– Elizabeth Weise

Study: Being unvaccinated can put pregnant people, babies in danger

The number of pregnant people who are getting vaccinated is steadily increasing amid the current coronavirus surge, but health experts say the modest improvement is not enough.

The renewed concern comes following a large study published Thursday in "Nature Medicine" that shows unvaccinated pregnant people and their babies may suffer the worst consequences of the virus.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh Usher Institute analyzed data collected by the COVID-19 in Pregnancy in Scotland study – a national cohort of women who were pregnant on, or became pregnant after, March 1, 2020. The database tracked nearly 145,000 pregnancies in 130,000 women from March 2020 to Oct. 2021.

The study found 98% of pregnant women admitted to critical care were unvaccinated. Researchers reported more than 450 perinatal deaths, when a baby dies in the womb or during the newborn period, all associated with unvaccinated pregnant women.

— Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID cases still rising in most states; insurers cover rapid testing

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