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State sees 'Worrisome' COVID trend

The numbers are going the wrong way.

State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said the current data points for COVID-19 are concerning, with hospitalizations increasing and more people showing up in clinics with COVID-like illness.

“I do think we’re on the front end of something that could be bad,” he said during a talk with reporters Monday afternoon.

As of Monday, the state had 504 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, up from 419 a week earlier. Over the weekend, six major hospitals had no ICU capacity, he said.

As of Monday, the state had 145 COVID-19 patients in ICU and 69 on ventilators.

“All the indicators are looking in the wrong direction … The last time we saw that was before the summer surge,” said Dobbs. “It is a worrisome indicator.”

Although the mask mandate was allowed to expire, Dobbs continues to ask residents to wear a face covering when around other people.

“I’ve been a little bit disappointed just hearing from churches and businesses that they feel like they are no longer empowered to have their members or visitors wear masks, and I think that does increase risks, unfortunately,” he said.

State officials have not ruled out a return to a mask mandate.

“We just really want everybody to wear a mask in public for yourself and also for the people you love,” said Dobbs. “It’s really kind of baffling why it’s such a big deal. It’s such an easy thing, and it adds benefit to our safety. It allows us to keep schools open; it allows us to keep hospitals from overflowing; it allows us to visit people in nursing homes. It’s just mind-boggling why it’s become such an unnecessary controversy.”

Along with wearing a face mask, he encourages people to continue to practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings and practice hand hygiene.

With Halloween coming up, the Department of Health may issue some guidelines for how to handle the holiday activities. For now, Dobbs is directing people to the advice issued by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. He encourages people to have “much more modest Halloween plans” than normal.

“Anytime you’re social and letting your guard down, we’re seeing more and more cases,” he said.

Magnolia Regional Health Center had 12 hospitalized COVID patients as of the last reported update on Thursday.

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Rural hot spots
Parks: Funds will help get internet to students' homes

Local school districts will soon benefit from new legislation passed.

Lawmakers, in the final few days of the 2020 session, looked at how CARES Act funds could be used to help students in rural areas of the state.

Senate Bill 3057 passed both chambers and states a certain allotment of CARES Act funds will be used to purchase licenses for wifi hot spots for students who do not have access to internet service. Its one of several options to ensure that every student has the connectivity required for distance learning.

“We all know there are many rural areas in our district with little to no internet access,” said Republican Sen. Rita Potts Parks of Corinth. “With the additional $50 million, we could purchase more licenses for Wi-Fi hotspots.”

Parks said the money will be distributed based on a formula taking into account the unserved areas according to FCC data and free and reduced lunch application models.

“Regardless, every school we receive some funds,” she added. “This extra money is just another way we can give these students a more positive online learning experience during this COVID pandemic.”

The lawmaker also said CARES Act funds – approximately $370 million – will be used to provide Chromebooks and iPads to school districts to enhance online learning.

COVID coverage safety net has holes

COVID-19 can do more than torment patients physically. It also clobbers some financially.

Even though many insurers and the U.S. government have offered to pick up or waive costs tied to the virus, holes remain for big bills to slip through and surprise patients.

People who weren’t able to get a test showing they had the virus and those who receive care outside their insurance network are particularly vulnerable. Who provides the coverage and how hard a patient fights to lower a bill also can matter.

There are no good estimates for how many patients have been hit with big bills because of the coronavirus. But the pandemic that arrived earlier this year exposed well-known gaps in a system that mixes private insurers, government programs and different levels of coverage.

“There are in our system, unfortunately, lots of times when people are going to fall through the cracks,” said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

More than 7 million people have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the virus started spreading earlier this year in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The vast majority of those patients will incur few medical costs as they wait for their body to fight off mild symptoms. But patients who visit emergency rooms or wind up hospitalized may be vulnerable financially.

Melissa Szymanski spent five hours in a Hartford, Connecticut, emergency room in late March and wound up with bills totaling about $3,200.

The problem: The 30-year-old elementary school teacher couldn’t get a test even though she was fighting a fever and her doctor wanted a chest X-ray. At the time, the hospital was limiting tests, and she didn’t qualify.

Szymanski was never diagnosed with COVID-19 at the hospital and her insurer, Anthem BlueCross BlueShield, said she would have to pay the high deductible on her plan before coverage started.

The bill left her flabbergasted.

“I was surprised that I got a bill because it just so clearly seemed to be COVID,” said Szymanski, who also shared her story with the nonprofit Patient Rights Advocate.

Szymanski later got a blood test that showed she had the virus, and she’s working to reduce the bill.

Mary Lynn Fager also got sick in late March from a suspected COVID-19 case, and she has not received a single bill. Fager spent four days in a hospital on oxygen and has had several doctor appointments.

She eventually asked someone at the hospital about the cost, and they said she shouldn’t receive any bills. Fager had lost her job in March and qualified for New York’s Medicaid coverage program. She said it picked up all the costs.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Even when I couldn’t breathe, that was in the back of my mind the whole time I was there. I was thinking about the hospital bills.”

Separately, the federal government has said it will reimburse hospitals that treat uninsured patients for COVID-19. And 78 insurers have waived expenses like deductibles or copayments for individuals covered by their plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Many large employers that pay their own health care costs have done the same thing. But these waivers are not universal, and they have limits. Some will expire later this year.

The waivers also may be good only for care sought within an insurer’s network of doctors and hospitals.

“If you get any out-of-network care for COVID ... you could be looking at big bills,” said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow with Kaiser.

Even insured patients who wind up at an in-network hospital could get smacked financially. There’s no guarantee that every doctor treating that person also is in their insurance network.

It can sometimes take months for hospital claims to be processed, so it’s too early to know how many patients are slipping through these coverage cracks, said Matthew Eisenberg, an economist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

If a large bill does arrive, patients shouldn’t immediately pay. First, ask questions and check for errors.

Hospitals that received federal money to help with coronavirus-related expenses or lost revenue aren’t supposed to send so-called surprise bills to patients who receive out-of-network care. Anyone who receive those bills should ask if the hospital got that help.

Georgetown’s Corlette also noted that hospital billing departments are adjusting to processing COVID-19 claims. Some may have used the wrong code or made another error.

“There are reasons why both the provider and the insurer may say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake,’” she said.

Szymanski figures she made more than 20 phone calls and emails over the past five months fighting the coverage decision on her care.

She finally made progress after contacting the state insurance department. Szymanski said state regulators helped her get an additional $2,900 taken off the bill, and she hopes to have the rest covered as well.

Aside from fighting a coverage decision or questioning a bill, patients also should seek help, said Elisabeth Benjamin, a vice president with Community Service Society of New York, which helps people deal with medical bills.

“It’s important to ask for financial aid or for the copay to be forgiven in this one circumstance because you are in tighter straits right now,” she said. “I think many providers want to do the right thing.”

Benjamin said patients were frustrated early in the pandemic because hospital billing offices weren’t even answering the phone. Now, she’s seeing a wave of cases where people are surprised by bills from out-of-network care.

“It’s really tricky stuff,” she said. “It’s sad that our health care system requires people to be experts in how it works and how the billing processes work.”

City presses for cleanup on several properties

The latest session of the Corinth Board of Mayor and Aldermen included a number of actions and discussions on properties that have been deemed derelict or, in at least one case, a potential public health hazard.

A property at the corner of Eighth Street and Nelson Street is under scrutiny by both the city and the health department for what Code Enforcement Officer Kim Ratliff described as some “major sewer-related issues.” The board scheduled a public hearing for the property for 5 p.m. Nov. 3.

Ratliff said action up to condemning the property and demolition are possible, and the property owner has been given deadlines.

“We need this adjudication process to be in place in the event that they fail to meet the timeline,” he told the board.

The owner of property at 1601 and 1603 Gaines Road, at the corner of Galyean Road, received a 60-day continuance and will be on a 30-day progress review. The city has given the owner a list of nine items that must be addressed.

“We’ve had a number of issues with this property for some time,” said Ratliff. “The community will be glad once the issues are corrected.”

The board scheduled several properties for new hearings to take place at the Oct. 20 meeting, including a highly visible South Harper Road property at the corner of Liddon Lake Road. A vacant house sits on the commercial property, and it is one that the city would like to see demolished, according to Ratliff. Also set for hearings at that time are 412 Shiloh Road, 110 Melody Lane and a Highway 72 property (number not available).

The board heard from Elizabeth Kennedy regarding property at 933 North Madison Street, where she is having trouble getting a renter to clean up. Aldermen voted to adjudicate, and Ratliff met with Kennedy to share information about a landlord’s options when a tenant is causing code violations.

She informed the board the house has a historical angle as a “railroad house” – one of the seven houses constructed near the railroad for the workers and one of two still remaining.

The board also set a public hearing for Nov. 3 on a property on Madison Street between Linden and Gloster and gave a 30-day continuance for 10 Ridgeview Drive.

Trump holds 1st rally since contracting coronavirus

SANFORD, Florida — Just a week after his release from the hospital, President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail Monday for the first time since contracting the coronavirus, resuming his effort to stage a late comeback in the election’s final stretch.

“It’s great to be back in my home state, Florida, to make my official return to the campaign trail,” Trump declared in front of a crowd of thousands of supporters, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, mostly without masks, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Trump said that, after being given experimental medication and other VIP treatment, he’s feeling great and glad he no longer needs to be concerned about infection because he’s now “immune.”

“I feel so powerful,” said Trump, displaying no obvious signs of lingering infection. “I’ll walk into that audience. I’ll walk in there, I’ll kiss everyone in that audience. I’ll kiss the guys and the beautiful women ... everybody. I’ll just give ya a big fat kiss.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said Monday on CNN that those who recover from COVID-19 are likely to be immune for a limited period of time, but there are cases emerging of people getting reinfected weeks or months later.

With three weeks to go before Election Day, Trump – whose doctor said Monday for the first time that he had received a negative test for COVID-19 – is pushing to correct a stubborn deficit in national and battleground state polling as he continues to spread misinformation about a virus that he spent months downplaying.

That includes in Florida, which is seen as critical to his reelection chances. Trump narrowly beat his 2016 rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, in the state by just over 112,000 votes. Some recent polls have suggested a close race in the state, while others have put Democrat Joe Biden ahead.

Trump’s Sanford rally was his first stop in a busy week that will include events in Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The robust schedule underscored the urgency he is facing to recover from a series of self-inflicted setbacks that have rattled his base of support and triggered alarm among Republicans who fear the White House is on the verge of being lost to Biden.

And it comes amid still-unanswered questions about the impact so much travel so soon could have on the 74-year-old president’s health. The progression of COVID-19 is often unpredictable, and there can be long-term complications.

After Air Force One lifted off from Joint Base Andrews, the president’s doctor released an update on his health that said Trump had tested negative for the virus – and had done so on consecutive days. His doctor, Navy Cmdr. Scott Conley, said that the tests, taking in conjunction with other data, including viral load, have led him to conclude that Trump was not contagious.

For days, the White House had sidestepped questions about whether Trump had tested negative. Conley over the weekend said that the president met Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for safely discontinuing isolation and that by “currently recognized standards,” Trump was no longer considered a transmission risk.

Some medical experts, however, have voiced skepticism that Trump could be declared contagion-free so soon. And it was unclear what – if any – added precautions and safety measures the campaign planned to take to prevent the trip from further spreading a virus that has already infected so many of the president’s closest aides and allies, including his campaign manager and the head of the Republican Party.

Trump’s decision to so quickly return to the campaign trail drew criticism from Biden and other Democrats.

“President Trump comes to Sanford today bringing nothing but reckless behavior, divisive rhetoric, and fear mongering,” Biden said in a statement. “But, equally dangerous is what he fails to bring: no plan to get this virus that has taken the lives of over 15,000 Floridians under control.”

Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who is running for state Senate and who recently recovered from his own COVID-19 infection, said in a conference call with reporters that Trump should not be coming to Florida.

“It’s reckless and irresponsible,” Jones said.

Fauci also questioned the wisdom of holding such an event, noting the climbing test positivity rates in parts of the Sun Belt.

“We know that that is asking for trouble when you do that,” Fauci said.

Trump has been eager to show the world that he is no longer sidelined by a virus that he has consistently played down and that has killed 215,000 people across the nation, including more than 15,000 in Florida.

Indeed, Trump on Monday continued to mock Biden for his efforts to encourage social distancing at his campaign events, deriding as “crazy” the circles Biden’s campaign uses to delineate individual space.

“He’s got a lot of bad days coming,” Trump said at another point.

Since his release from a military hospital after three days of around-the-clock care that included access to experimental antibody treatments unavailable to the public, Trump has used his personal experience to try to convince the public that he was right all along.

He has repeatedly told Americans who contract the virus that they’re “going to get better really fast,” although hundreds of people in the U.S. die of the virus every day.