Covid Live Updates: U.S. Funnels Billions of Dollars to Bolster Rural Health

ImageThe waiting room at Starr County Memorial Hospital, a rural hospital treating Covid patients, in Rio Grande City, Texas, last year.
Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

The Department of Health and Human Services has begun distributing billions of dollars to rural health care providers to ease the financial pressures brought by the coronavirus pandemic and to help hospitals stay open.

The agency said on Tuesday that it had started doling out $7.5 billion to more than 40,000 health care providers in every state and six U.S. territories through the American Rescue Plan, a sprawling relief bill that Congress passed in March. The infusion of funds will help offset increased expenses and revenue losses among rural physicians during the pandemic, the agency said.

Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, said that the coronavirus pandemic had made clear the importance of having timely access to quality medical care, especially in rural America.

“When it comes to a rural provider, there are a number of costs that are incurred, that sometimes are different from what you see with urban providers or suburban providers,” Mr. Becerra said. “And oftentimes, they’re unique only to rural providers.”

Rural physicians serve a disproportionate number of patients covered by Medicaid, Medicare or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which often have more complex medical needs. Many rural hospitals were already struggling before the pandemic; 21 have closed since 2020, according to data from the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina.

Under the program, every eligible provider that serves at least one Medicare, Medicaid, or C.H.I.P. beneficiary in a rural part of the country will receive at least $500. Payments will range up to $43 million, with an average of $170,700; the size is based on how many claims a provider submitted for rural patients covered by these programs from January 2019 through September 2020.

Rural America is home to some of the country’s oldest and sickest patients, many of whom were affected by the pandemic.

The new funding is supposed to help rural hospitals stay open in the long run and improve the care they provide, building on efforts the Biden administration has already made to help improve access to health care in rural communities, which it considers crucial to its goal of addressing inequities in access to care.

The money can be put toward salaries, recruitment, or retention; supplies such as N95 or surgical masks; equipment like ventilators or improved filtration systems; capital investments; information technology and other expenses related to preventing, preparing for or responding to the pandemic.

The administration has also allocated billions of dollars through the American Rescue Plan for coronavirus testing for the uninsured, increased reimbursement for Covid vaccine administration, improving access to telehealth services in rural areas, and a grant program for health care providers that serve Medicare patients.

On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris said that the administration would be investing $1.5 billion to address the shortage of health care workers in underserved tribal, rural and urban communities. The funds — which will provide scholarships and pay off loans for clinicians who commit to jobs in underserved areas — come on the heels of a report from the White House’s Covid Health Equity Task Force that made recommendations on how inequalities in the health care system could be fixed.

Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israel began a campaign to vaccinate 5- to 11-year-olds against the coronavirus on Tuesday ahead of expected gatherings over next week’s Hanukkah holiday, but the initial response from parents appeared to be slow.

By Monday night, parents had made appointments for only a little over 2 percent of children in that age group, according to figures published by the country’s main health services. Health officials said they were trying to persuade parents of the benefits of vaccinating their children without applying pressure or any form of coercion.

In a bid to reassure the public, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accompanied his son David, 9, to a vaccination center of the Clalit Health Services in the seaside town of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

“I call on all Israeli parents to come and have their children vaccinated,” Mr. Bennett said. “It is safe and it safeguards our children.” In a video posted on the prime minister’s official Twitter account, David said he had agreed to be filmed to encourage other children to get vaccinated. He said he was a little afraid at first but assured other children that “it really didn’t hurt.”

Earlier this month, the United States also began vaccinating 5- to 11-year-old children. A number of countries have approved vaccinations for children starting at 12 years old, but few aside from China, Israel and the United States are vaccinating younger children.

Israel has emerged in recent weeks from a fourth wave of the virus, with new daily cases dropping to several hundred from a peak of 11,000 in mid-September. Israeli officials attribute the sharp decrease in cases to a booster shot campaign, suppressing a wave driven by a combination of waning immunity five or six months after the second injection, together with the spread of the highly infectious Delta strain.

At least 80 percent of Israelis ages 16 and older have been vaccinated against the virus, but the numbers are lower in the younger age groups. More than four million Israelis have received a booster shot since August, out of a total population of nine million.

In the Palestinian-administered territories, after a late start and some early hesitancy, about three million doses have been administered, enough to cover about a third of the population with two doses.

Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

Europe’s death toll from Covid will exceed two million people by next spring, the World Health Organization projected on Tuesday, adding that the continent remained “firmly in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Covid is now the leading cause of death in Europe, the W.H.O. said in a statement, with almost 4,200 new deaths a day, double the number at the end of September. To date, Europe, including the United Kingdom and Russia, has reported 1.5 million deaths. Between now and spring, hospital beds in 25 countries and intensive care units in 49 countries are predicted to experience “high or extreme stress,” the W.H.O. said.

Dr. Hans Kluge, a regional director for the W.H.O., said Europe faces a challenging winter. “In order to live with this virus and continue our daily lives, we need to take a ‘vaccine plus’ approach,” he said.

That means getting vaccinations or booster shots if offered and taking other preventive measures to avoid the reimposing of lockdowns, like calling on the public to wear masks and maintain physical distance, he said.

Over one billion vaccine doses have been administered in Europe; about 53 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. But countries have gaping disparities in vaccination rates, the organization said, and it was essential to drive the lagging rates up, the officials said.

In recent days, European countries have imposed restrictions to try to curb the highest surge of new cases in the region since the pandemic began. Austria on Monday began its fourth lockdown and Germany is pressuring its citizens to get vaccinated. Slovakia, Liechtenstein and the Czech Republic have the world’s highest rates of new cases compared to their populations.

The W.H.O. considers Europe to include not only the countries of the European Union, but…

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