Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed administrator for Centers of Medicaid Services and the Trump administration’s Health Policy Consultant Seema Verma to the show.
During the third hour, Verma gave the latest numbers of the recent uptick of coronavirus positive test results in the state of Tennessee. She noted that it was of great concern due to the fact that Tennessee is now showing the highest increase in the nation and urged citizens to take common-sense approaches to help stop the spread.
Leahy: We welcome you to our microphones Seema Verma who is the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Welcome, Ms. Verma. Thank you for joining us today.
Verma: Thanks for having me. Good morning.
Leahy: First, we want to compliment you for the work that you did in helping a situation a couple of years ago here with a doctor in West Tennessee in Mackenzie, Tennessee who lost his Medicare billing privileges. It was kind of a clerical error and you guys reached in and fixed it. So thank you for doing that. It was back in 2017. It was a great accomplishment.
Verma: I appreciate that. A lot of bureaucracy that the Trump administration is trying to cut through and get rid of a lot of that red tape.
Leahy: Another little connection to Tennessee. You made a terrific hire.
Verma: Ah yes.
Leahy: Your deputy administrator is Brad Smith. Tell us about Brad a Tennessean.
Verma: Brad is terrific. He is helping us with redesigning how we pay for healthcare. He’s also played a very large role in our response to the coronavirus. And he’s been helping us get supplies. And testing up and going. And just a tremendous individual. Hard-working and also just a great guy.
Leahy: You have one of the most difficult jobs in America today. Not only are you the head of the Centers of Medical Services but you are on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. You wanted to talk a little bit with us about what is going on and what the federal government is doing in Tennessee. Where are we now in Tennessee?
Verma: Well Michael we are concerned about the situation in Tennessee. We consider Tennessee to be in the red zone for positivity. This means we are seeing more than 10 percent of the cases come back positive. That is very concerning to us and is why we have reached out to you this morning. We are urging people to take those common-sense approaches. Washing their hands.
Watching their distance. And also making sure they are wearing masks. Those are very critical things. When the positivity rate gets above 10 percent that’s when we get really concerned with our hospitals being overwhelmed. That type of thing. So we are urging people to adopt these common-sense measures.
It can make a big difference where we saw a little bit of an uptick in cases. And when people really double down on those common-sense approaches it really made a difference. The reality is that we are going to have to figure out how to live with this virus. It is still out there.
We are seeing in other countries that even when they get past a big surge that you can have a re-occurrence. It can come back. And that’s why the simple things and simple common-sense measures of masks. Washing your hands. Watching your distance. All of that makes a really big difference.
So we are urging everybody out there. We’ve seen this uptick in three counties in Tennessee. Shelby County, Davidson County, and Knox County all seeing increases. So we are very concerned about the situation in Tennessee.
Leahy: You talked about the positivity of those that have taken tests. The cumulative since the start of this in Tennessee is 8.4 percent. But I’m looking at the chart right now and over the past month, it varied between 10 percent and 12 percent. So that you see is an indicator of concern. How are we doing in terms of hospitalizations and fatality rates in Tennessee?
Verma: Generally when we look at the positivity rate that’s what we sort of see. The positivity rate goes up first. Then you see an increase in hospitalizations. And then, unfortunately, we experience those losses. So this is an early indicator. But again, if we double down we can prevent that situation. That being said, really just kudos to our healthcare system.
I think that healthcare providers now across the country are more experienced in treating COVID. We do have some treatments using plasma and using Remdesivir. So we are in a different place than we were before in terms of supplies and testing. And I think our medical system is more experienced in dealing with these cases. But obviously we want to do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable.
The area I’m most concerned about is the nursing home. When we know it’s spreading in the community that also makes our nursing homes more vulnerable. And we know that if we look at nursing homes and assisted living facilities and we look at all the losses that have occurred. Most of them have occurred in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. So again trying to be very careful with those communities is important.
Leahy: Carol Swain by the way is a former professor at Vanderbilt. And every Thursday she is a co-host of this program. And she’s in right now. And Carol would like to ask you a question, Ms. Verma.
Swain: Yes. I have two questions. One is the number of positives, isn’t that directly correlated to the people who are getting tests? And there are people that if they sneeze they can get a test and we know that the tests are prone to false positives. So I’m wondering about how the CDC counts positive tests as cases and whether or not we should be encouraging people who are otherwise healthy to go out and get tested?
Verma: I agree with you. If people are healthy they probably don’t need a test. There are certain circumstances. If you’ve had symptoms. If you’ve been exposed. If you are a high risk person. I would agree with you. We don’t need to test people unnecessarily. But in terms of what you were saying in terms of tests and the positivity cases, we adjust it. So we look at cases per 100 thousand.
And in Tennessee, we had about 13,000 new cases last week. And that runs at about 189 new cases per 100,000 people. That’s more than the overall United States average which is at 114 per 100,000. Even when we make those adjustments Tennessee’s positivity rate is running higher than the rest of the country right now.
Leahy: Ms. Verma, you can look at those 13,000 new cases. I don’t know if you have this data in front of you. Is there a change in the age distribution of those new cases? Are you seeing more younger people test positive than older people? And are you also seeing that the hospitalization and mortality rates for younger people are lower?
Verma: Yes. That’s a great point Michael and you’re exactly right. That’s where we are seeing the spread. It’s in that 30 to 40 age group or under 40. And they have better results. Many of them are healthier, to begin with. So the impact isn’t as severe as what we would say in somebody who is older with underlying health conditions.
That being said, I think we all need to be cautious here because we don’t know how the virus is going to impact you. As you know there are people that are asymptomatic. They could be infected. And we have no idea. There are no symptoms whatsoever. That’s the importance of wearing masks because you don’t know who’s been infected and who’s not.
And then we know for other people that they may have a couple of weeks of illness but a lot of them are reporting that they are having lingering health effects. Being tired. They call it the COVID fog. It’s hard to know how it’s going to impact people. The results for people that are older with underlying health conditions has been more significant. We’ve seen higher mortality rates with older people who have underlying health conditions.
Swain: Well, one of my concerns about Tennessee and some other states is they are now allowing COVID positive patients to stay in nursing homes. They are putting them in separate wings. If they are sharing the same air conditioning and heating systems of everyone else, then why is that safe? And why wouldn’t we want to stop that?
Verma: Well I agree with you that we need to be really very concerned about nursing homes and do everything that we can. One of the things that we’ve been encouraging states to do is to go into these nursing homes and do that survey. Because just as you said, you really have to evaluate each and every nursing home to understand their capacity.
As you said, some may have some good air filtration systems. Some people may be able to do that isolation but some may not. I’ve talked to nursing homes across the country where they have residents sharing bathrooms. Or they have staff that is working with people that are COVID positive and those that are not. And that doesn’t work. significant spread in the nursing home. We’re seeing an uptick in cases in nursing homes. And that’s very concerning.
I think we are urging state and local officials to really double down by looking at those nursing homes and assess which ones can safely access keeping their patients apart. Local communities have done are setting up COVID positive facilities. That really is the best way where you can have no chance of any cross-contamination or spread if you can keep the patients in a separate facility. That is something we’ve seen across the country that’s been effective.
Listen to the third hour here:
– – –