Coronavirus Morning News Brief – May 19: New N.Y.C. Watchdog Agency Could Save Big Apple Billions in Healthcare Costs, Nursing Homes Lack Inspections

Nurses in South Korea Strike for Higher Wages and Better Working Conditions

By Jonathan Spira on 19 May 2023
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A bicyclist near Little Neck Bay with the Throgs Neck Bridge in the background

Good morning. This is Jonathan Spira reporting. Here now the news of the pandemic from across the globe on the 1,164th day of the pandemic as well as National Bike to Work Day in the United States.

National Bike to Work Day was created in 1955 by the League of American Bicyclists, a non-profit cycling organization, as part of the celebrations of Bike to Work Week and National Bike Month. If you didn’t bike to work today, relax: You can still take a bicycle-sharing service bike and ride it home.


The term “nursing home” implies that one would find a healthcare facility stocked full of, well, nurses, but that is far from reality.  Indeed, the British term for such a facility, a care home, is more accurate in this respect, although both a lack of nursing and a lack of care as well a lack of nursing home inspectors.

The title of a U.S. Senate report puts it rather succinctly: “Uninspected and Neglected: Nursing Home Agencies Are Severely Understaffed, Putting Residents at Risk.”

Nursing homes care for over one million Americans who are there due to age, illness or disability, or who require short-term stays for rehabilitation following surgery or a lengthy hospital stay.  State inspectors are responsible for protecting and ensuring the quality of care for this population yet most states are behind in their inspections, in part because federal oversight funding has stalled, leaving the agencies with fewer inspectors than are needed.

The findings of the Senate report are scary, at the very least.

The new report, which emanates from the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, found 31 states and the District of Columbia had inspection staff vacancy rates above 20% on average; nine were short-staffed by 50% or more. The highest rates were in Kentucky, Alabama, and Idaho, which were 83%, 80%, and 71%, respectively.

“Every year, the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on nursing home care, but Congress appropriates less than 80 cents per resident per day to nursing home oversight,” the report notes in its introduction.  “This investigation shows how these inadequate investments for much of the last decade has put older adults and people with disabilities at risk.”

“States reported that severe staffing shortages and high turnover rates, driven largely by the inability to offer competitive salaries, hampers their ability to conduct annual surveys on time and promptly investigate complaints,” the report read. “Such delays negatively affect nursing home residents … (and) also diminish the timeliness and accuracy” of Care Compare, the federal rating system used by prospective patients to evaluate the quality of various nursing homes.

In other news we cover today, we look at New York City’s plans to control its own healthcare expenditures and make hospital costs more transparent as well as how pandemic restrictions caused some North Koreans to defect to the south.


If any good has thus far come out of the past three years of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that people are more health aware than ever.  People are also more conscious of the cost of healthcare.

In New York City, the first epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, the city council is planning to enact a new law that would result in the creation of an Office of Healthcare Accountability, a watchdog agency that would monitor the city’s employee-related healthcare expenditures and also disclose prices for common hospital procedures. The bill’s main sponsor, councilman Julie Menin, a former N.Y.C. consumer-affairs commissioner, said that this could save the city as much as $2 billion a year once it is up and running.

The new agency would be the first of its kind for a city in the United States, according to Menin.  She reported that the Big Apple’s annual health-care costs for both employees and retirees is currently $11 billion, almost double what it was in 2017, when that figure was just $6.3 billion.

Not surprisingly, healthcare costs account for over 10% of the city’s budget.

“This bill is so incredibly important because it finally will allow a real savings in terms of driving down health care costs, which simply are unsustainable right now,” Menin told reporters.

The bill is expected to pass given that 42 of the council’s 51 members are co-sponsors of the measure.

In addition to addressing the city’s rising healthcare costs, the public website that the bill will result in will provide pricing on common procedures at various hospitals.  Menin cited the example of a colonoscopy which costs $2,000 at a city-run hospital versus as much as $10,000 at a private facility in the city.

Meanwhile, if you are in a doctor’s office or hospital, it might pay to ask the nurse treating you which institution the nurse graduated from and did post-graduate training.  If the answer is in one of six states you might want to dig a bit further.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating a scheme in which a prospective nurse could get a fake diploma and transcript from a Florida nursing school along with tutoring on how to pass the licensing exam. As a result, the search is on for unqualified healthcare workers posing as nurses without having actually spent a day in nursing school.  Authorities said that the scheme was concentrated in six states, namely Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Already, 25 people have been indicted on wire-fraud charges and the search is on for more fraudsters.

Some 2,800 people apparently bought fake credentials without attending classes from three unaccredited schools and then managed to pass the National Council Licensure Examination.  Authorities believe that these non-graduates used that shortcut to find work or better jobs in the health-care industry, said Fernando Porras, assistant special agent in charge of the Miami office of the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.


The pandemic apparently convinced some North Koreans to defect southwards.

Defectors who fled North Korea early this month decided to do so because of the country’s continued strict coronavirus pandemic controls, South Korea’s spy agency said on Friday.

The news agency Yonhap reported that nearly ten people – the exact number wasn’t specified – escaped by ship the night of May 6 when they crossed the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea to reach South Korea, the news agency said.

The identity of the Covid defectors was withheld so as not to put family members in North Korea at risk, the spy agency told reporters.

While the physicians’ strike at two New York City hospitals was averted earlier in the week, that was not the cause for nurses in South Korea.

Tens of thousands of nurses there went on strike on Friday after President Yoon Suk Yeol vetoed a law that would have increased their pay and improved working conditions. Doctors and nursing assistants protested the increase, saying that the bill would hurt their jobs.


Now here are the daily statistics for Friday, May 19.

As of Friday morning, the world has recorded 688.7 million Covid-19 cases, an increase of 0.1 million from the previous day, and just under 6.88 million deaths, according to Worldometer, a service that tracks such information. In addition, over 661 million people worldwide have recovered from the virus, an increase of just over 0.1 million from the previous day.

The reader should note that infrequent reporting from some sources may appear as spikes in new case figures or death tolls.

Worldwide, the number of active coronavirus cases as of Friday at press time is 20,784,762, an increase of 10,000. Out of that figure, 99.8%, or 20,746,196, are considered mild, and 0.2%, or 38,566, are listed as critical. The percentage of cases considered critical has not changed over the past eight months.

The United States reported 72,136 new cases in the period May 4 through May 10, a figure that is down 26% over the same period one week earlier, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The death toll for the same period is 840, a figure that is down 20%.  The average daily number of hospital admissions from Covid was 4,073 on May 15, a figure that is down 5% over the preceding 14 days.  Finally, the test positivity rate is 5.2%, up 5% over the 14 days preceding May 11.

Starting on March 25, 2023, the Morning News Brief began to update case data as well as death tolls on a weekly basis.  In addition, starting on May 15, the Morning News Brief has pressed pause on certain data sets as we assess the update of changes in reporting by U.S. health authorities at the CDC.

Since the start of the pandemic the United States has, as of Friday, recorded just under 106.9 million cases, a higher figure than any other country, and a death toll of 1.16 million. India has the world’s second highest number of officially recorded cases, just under 45 million, and a reported death toll of 531,818.

The newest data from Russia’s Rosstat state statistics service showed that, at the end of July, the number of Covid or Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic there in April 2020 is now 823,623, giving the country the world’s second highest pandemic-related death toll, behind the United States.  Rosstat last reported that 3,284 people died from the coronavirus or related causes in July 2022, down from 5,023 in June, 7,008 in May and 11,583 in April.

Meanwhile, France is the country with the third highest number of cases, with over 40 million, and Germany is in the number four slot, with 38.4 million total cases.

Brazil, which has recorded the third highest number of deaths as a result of the virus, 702,421, has recorded over 37.5 million cases, placing it in the number five slot.

The other five countries with total case figures over the 20 million mark are Japan, with 33.8 million cases, South Korea, with 31.5 million cases, placing it in the number seven slot, and Italy, with 25.8 million, as number eight, as well as the United Kingdom, with just under 24.6 million, and Russia, with 22.9 million.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that, as of Thursday, over 270.2 million people in the United States – or 81.4% – have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Of that population, 69.5%, or 230.6 million people, have received two doses of vaccine, and the total number of doses that have been dispensed in the United States is now over 676.7 million. Breaking this down further, 92.23% of the population over the age of 18 – or 238.2 million people – has received at least a first inoculation and 79.1% of the same group – or 204.3 million people – is fully vaccinated.  In addition, 20.5% of the same population, or 53 million people, has already received an updated or bivalent booster dose of vaccine, while 23.7 million people over the age of 65, or 43.3% of that population have also received the bivalent booster.

Starting on June 13, 2022, the CDC began to update vaccine data on a weekly basis and publish the updated information on Thursdays by 8 p.m. EDT, a statement on the agency’s website said.

Some 70% of the world population has received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine by Friday, according to Our World in Data, an online scientific publication that tracks such information.  So far, 13.38 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered on a global basis and 73,356 doses are now administered each day.

Meanwhile, only 29.9% of people in low-income countries have received one dose, while in countries such as Canada, China, Denmark, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, at least 75% of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

Only a handful of the world’s poorest countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia and Nepal – have reached the 70% mark in vaccinations. Many countries, however, are under 20% and, in countries such as Haiti, Senegal, and Tanzania, for example, vaccination rates remain at or below 10%.

In addition, with the start of vaccinations in North Korea in late September, Eritrea remains the only country in the world that has not administered vaccines.

Anna Breuer contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)


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