Readers top picks in health news in 2022

Linda Rider

By Will Atwater, Anne Blythe Rachel Crumpler, Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven, Thomas Goldsmith, Rose Hoban and Taylor Knopf

Will North Carolina legalize medical marijuana?

Our most read stories of the year dove into the status of medical marijuana in the state. North Carolina remains one of just 13 states that has yet to legalize any cannabis products for medical use, though that could change soon. The NC Compassionate Care Act, first introduced in the North Carolina Senate in April 2021, would make medical marijuana accessible for a small subset of people with chronic illnesses, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and post traumatic stress disorder.

On June 6, the bill passed the senate and moved over to the state House of Representatives. Two days later, it was referred to the house committee on Rules, Calendar, and Operations, a committee where, often, bills are sent to die. Sure enough, the bill hasn’t gone anywhere since. 

North Carolinians of all political stripes overwhelmingly support legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana. A poll from SurveyUSA and WRAL found 72 percent of voters supported legalizing medical marijuana, and 57 percent supported recreational legalization.  

Because so many people who use medical marijuana do so to alleviate pain, researchers across the country have investigated whether medical marijuana could be used as a substitute for opiates. Two studies from 2015, one in the Journal of Health Economics and the other in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that states with legal medical marijuana saw lower rates of opioid addiction and overdose deaths than the states where it remained illegal. 

—Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Year three of the coronavirus pandemic

North Carolina started the year in an Omicron rage. On New Year’s Eve, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported a daily case count record of 19,174 new cases of the novel coronavirus, with new infections being driven by new variants to COVID-19. 

Record numbers of hospitalizations followed within weeks and the health care system groaned under the strain.

A workforce shortage further complicated scenarios at hospitals struggling to keep up with the influx of patients.

The highest average case count in North Carolina of 235,688 occurred during the week of Jan. 15, 2022, according to the tracker created by DHHS.

The Omicron variant proved to be a survivor, morphing into sub-variants that have continued to menace as 2022 comes to a close.

The past year has shown how remarkable advances in vaccine technology have led to revised vaccines and boosters such as the bivalent booster that protects against Omicron. Though vaccines and antibodies from COVID infections have helped North Carolinians and others return to some pre-pandemic activities — travel, sporting events, concerts, larger gatherings, in-person school and on-site work in office and retail jobs, COVID still can throw curves.

MAHEC Nurse Katie Neligan gives Kristen Gonzalez, 34, of Asheville a first coronavirus shot at a clinic on the Asheville UNC campus. Photo credit: Liora Engel-Smith Credit: Liora Engel-Smith

People have learned to isolate and mask when infected and manage risks that not only protect them from severe illness but help prevent huge surges in cases and deaths.

In just three years, scientists and researchers have developed treatments such as Paxlovid and monoclonal antibodies that can be taken within days of infection to ward off severe illness, but as the virus continues to mutate, some of those treatments have become less effective or completely ineffective. 

Vaccines have been developed for young children. The percentage of children younger than 4 who have received vaccines is only about 4 percent, but nearly all of the 65-and-older population has had two doses COVID-19 vaccine, according to the DHHS COVID dashboard.

Fifth-nine percent of North Carolinians who completed the initial series of vaccination have also received a booster, but only 19 percent have gotten the bivalent booster that specifically targets Omicron, according to the dashboard.

With the wider availability of home tests, the 3.316 million cases in North Carolina might be an underestimate since many home-test results are not captured in the data.

COVID-19 has created societal changes that are likely to last beyond the pandemic. Working from home is a trend many companies are likely to embrace more, and masking up against respiratory illnesses during winter months might become more common in heavily traveled indoor facilities.

Cisco employee Colleen Coogan talks with her doctor, Alison Guptill, about her new blood pressure medication via video link. All of the clinic exam rooms will be telehealth-enabled. Photo credit: Rose Hoban Credit: Rose Hoban

Kody Kinsley, the DHHS secretary who stepped into the job after former secretary Mandy Cohen resigned in 2021, hopes to persuade lawmakers to better fund and add to the public health infrastructures built during the pandemic as North Carolina evolves into recovery and reformation modes.

In the short term, Kinsley has used DHHS funds to create a temporary telehealth program with StarMed through which COVID-infected people without insurance or a primary care doctor can have a free appointment and receive prescriptions for oral antivirals.

“More than 1 million people in North Carolina don’t have health insurance, which has made accessing care for COVID-19, as with other diseases, very challenging,” KInsley said in the announcement. “This program provides a temporary bridge to care for many in rural and historically marginalized communities, but we still need long-term investments to close the coverage gap.”

 — Anne Blythe

Medicaid’s changes after a year

In July, North Carolina’s Medicaid transformation turned one year old. At the start of the transition, providers spoke of significant administrative burdens and patients shared their confusion  when they were registered with one of the state’s contracted managed care companies. About a year in, things seem about the same, though — luckily — with fewer disruptions to care than expected. 

While the technical parts of the state’s Medicaid switch are important to follow, we’ve also been watching North Carolina’s unique pilot project, the Healthy Opportunities Program, which theorizes that by using Medicaid dollars to help people access basic, non-medical services such as housing and healthy food, the state can save money on medical care in the long run. 

This summer, we published a three–part series on the program and hosted our monthly Health Care Half Hour with some of the people making the program happen. I think each story is worth a read, but to summarize: the pilot holds a ton of potential, but faces a lot of barriers. 

There are issues with the referral process and with increased paperwork for the housing providers. As of September, the state hadn’t yet figured out how to make the domestic violence portion of the program feasible, given the serious privacy concerns involved in supporting people through that experience. 

But, for the people who have received services through the program, the impact has been massive. One example: after receiving free produce and whole grains through the program, Mary K, who has diabetes, saw her A1C (a measure of average blood sugar over three months) decrease from 10.8 to 7.6. In the months before, Mary had suffered one health problem after another, so the impact of getting some good news could not be overstated. 

Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

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