HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Officials Grilled on Covid Response

The Biden administration came under fire for its pandemic response and communications as the omicron variant continues to drive U.S. Covid-19 infections. Conflicting guidance on issues such as boosters and testing have left the public confused about how best to protect themselves, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said at a hearing yesterday.

The White House booster rollout and the recent update to the quarantine and isolation guidance were a “mess” and a “disaster,” Burr said in the hearing. “I’m not questioning the science,” he said, “but I’m questioning your communication strategies. It’s no wonder the American people are confused.” Criticisms came from members of both parties, as Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) claims she’s heard from many people who can’t find tests or have given up because of high prices and lack of availability.

Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s medical adviser and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that the appearance of new variants shows the importance of developing new vaccines that remain effective in the face of new mutations. After omicron passes it might be a good time to reassess the federal approach to the pandemic, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell said.

The meeting was held in a large space to allow for distancing, and the number of attendees was limited to try to limit infection risks, Murray said. She asked everyone in attendance to remain masked. Yet the lack of consistency in observing her guidelines was evident even during the hearing. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, who also testified, kept their masks on through the hearing. Meanwhile, Fauci took it off when speaking. Some senators wore masks and others didn’t. Read more from Fiona Rutherford.

  • At the hearing, Fauci slammed Sen. Rand Paul, accusing him of fueling death threats against him and his family. He said Paul (R-Ky.) has claimed he was “responsible for the death of 4 to 5 million people, which is really irresponsible.” Fauci, who has sparred with Paul at Senate hearings throughout the pandemic, referenced a person who was arrested at a speed stop in Iowa last month and found to have a hit list with Fauci’s name on it. Read more from Mark Schoifet.
  • The administration is also trying to drive up domestic production of high-quality masks in coming weeks to help stem the rise of Covid-19 cases. The federal stockpile of medical supplies contains 737 million N95 filtering masks typically worn by health-care workers, O’Connell told senators. HHS is looking to award contracts soon to makers of masks to create 141 million per month until Covid-19 cases start to decrease, she said. Read more from Alex Ruoff.
  • None of the contracts announced by the Biden administration to make 500 million Covid-19 tests available to Americans for free involve manufacturing additional test kits, O’Connell told the panel. The U.S. in recent days signed four contracts to buy Covid-19 at-home kits from Goldbelt Security, Revival Health, Atlantic Trading and Medea. Medea prior to the pandemic sold vodka, while Goldbelt Security labels itself as a product distribution and logistics company. The reason for the unusual supply choice: each of the companies has a stockpile of unused Covid-19 tests, O’Connell said. Courtney Rozen has more.

The White House is moving to prevent future shortages of Covid-19 tests by ensuring they continue to be produced in large numbers even after the surging omicron variant recedes and demand fades. “We’re going to keep moving at this speed, and faster, to get volume up on a monthly basis,” Tom Inglesby, Biden’s newly appointed testing coordinator, said in an interview, Josh Wingrove reports.

Biden is under pressure to bolster availability of testing. Americans are waiting in long lines — sometimes for hours — to get tested, and quickly snap up the limited supply of at-home kits from store shelves, leading to widespread frustration that poses a political risk for the president.

The U.S. recorded nearly 1.5 million cases on Monday, which have shuttered schools and forced businesses to close because of a shortage of healthy employees.

Biden’s administration has taken steps to expand availability, including a plan to ship 500 million at-home test kits to households that request them. Details about a website to order them will be released this week, Inglesby said, adding that shipments will start this month. It’s not clear how many tests will be immediately available.

The administration will also increase the amount of Covid-19 tests available for schools by 10 million per month, according to a White House statement, Max Zimmerman reports. The would more than double the amount of testing available for schools compared to testing that took place in Nov. 2021.

The U.S. will also send 5 million no-cost rapid tests per month to schools, with the first shipments set to be delivered later this month.

Test Plan Seen to Address Concerns on Price Gouging: The Biden administration’s mandate that health insurers and employer health plans cover free over-the-counter Covid-19 tests for beneficiaries was “thoughtful,” and addressed their primary concerns about price-gouging by test providers, an executive with a major industry trade group said. “The guardrails that were included in that guidance will protect consumers and patients and will help employers to operate efficiently,” according to James Gelfand, an executive for the ERISA Industry Committee. ERIC represents large employers on employee benefits. Sara Hansard has more.

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Happening on the Hill

FDA Nominee Vote: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee postponed its plans to vote on nominations including Robert Califf to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration until Thursday, according to a statement. In prepared remarks, Califf said the FDA must have infrastructure in place reflecting lessons learned from the pandemic “so it is ready for the next one.” Find his remarks here.

  • Sen. Maggie Hassan, a member of the committee, earlier yesterday said she’ll vote no on his nomination. “New Hampshire has been hit especially hard by the substance misuse epidemic,” Hassan (D-N.H.) said. “It is imperative that we have a strong FDA Commissioner in place who recognizes the role that the agency’s decisions played in fueling this crisis,” Hassan wrote. She joins Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in opposing Califf, who now needs three GOP votes. Read more from Se Young Lee.
  • According to the committee’s website, the hearing won’t be live-streamed. That’s spurred Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) to urge Murray in a letter to open up the meeting to the public or use a livestream because the panel “will consider nominations of great significance to the everyday life of Americans.” Paige Smith has more.

House Leader Calls for Isolating Mask-Spurners: Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), who is the assistant speaker of the House under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), called for lawmakers who refuse to wear masks on the House floor to be forced to vote on legislation from “isolation boxes.” In a tweet yesterday, Clark said that as omicron surges, lawmakers “breaking House rules by refusing to #maskup are threatening our dedicated staff and Members. Fines are not enough.” In her tweet, the Democrat posted a letter to the House’s Sergeant at Arms to enforce the mask rule. Read her tweet here.

Republicans Want Action Against Fentanyl: House Energy and Commerce ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and House Oversight and Reform ranking member James Comer (R-Ky.) want the heads of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy to brief their committees on the fentanyl crisis. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for most U.S. drug-overdose deaths in 2021, they said, seeking details on “any efforts by the Biden Administration to stop the flow of fentanyl across the southern border.” Find their statement here.

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What Else to Know Today

U.S. Limits Coverage of Alzheimer’s Therapy: The U.S. government limited Medicare coverage of Biogen’s Alzheimer’s disease treatment and similar drugs to patients enrolled in clinical trials, a highly unusual move that will curb access to the controversial treatment approved last year. Coverage of Biogen’s therapy sold under the brand name “Aduhelm” and other amyloid-targeted Alzheimer’s therapies, will be restricted to those participating in qualified clinical trials, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in a statement yesterday. Read more from John Tozzi, Angelica Peebles, and Robert Langreth.

Health Costs Seen Taking Bigger Chunk of Pay: Workers in most states paid nearly 12% of median income for health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses in 2020, up from 9% in 2010, according to a study published today. The costs of premiums and annual deductibles—expenses health plan enrollees need to pay before health-care claims are covered—consume a greater share of income in every state than they did a decade ago, the Commonwealth Fund study found. It found that those health-care costs take up 10% or more of median income in 37 states. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Officials Meddling in Science a Threat, U.S. Says: Interference from high-level officials—including political appointees—are the biggest and most vexing threat to the federal bureaucracy’s scientific process, the White House said in a report that was billed as the first government-wide assessment of scientific integrity policy. Most government scientists follow a culture of integrity that is undergirded by professional standards and agency policies to prevent research misconduct. But such protections aren’t effective against high-level officials, according to the National Science and Technology Council’s report. Stephen Lee has more.

Call Centers on ‘Shoestring Budget’ for Suicide Prevention Line: Resource-strapped call centers anticipate a burst of demand in July when the new 988 national suicide prevention hotline number goes live. But a lack of funds to help meet that demand is delaying efforts to publicize the service. Read more from Maria Curi.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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