HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Promises Virus ‘War Footing’

President Joe Biden offered Americans a glimpse of hope that life would begin to return to normal this summer as he marked a year of U.S. shutdowns and death, ordering a further acceleration of the government’s efforts to end the pandemic.

In his first prime-time address to the country since his inauguration, the president directed states to make all U.S. adults eligible for vaccinations by May 1, and he said his administration would reach his goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office by his 60th day as president.

“We’re not only going to meet that goal, we’re going to beat that goal,” he said in remarks on the anniversary of the day a year ago when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. “I need you to get vaccinated when it’s your turn and you can find an opportunity,” Biden said.

He has previously said the administration expects to have enough vaccine by the end of May to vaccinate all U.S. adults, though officials have warned that actually administering shots will take more time.

If the nation can reach its vaccination goals, it will be possible for Americans to gather in small groups to celebrate July 4, Biden said.

“The only way to get our lives back, to get our economy back on track, is to beat the virus,” Biden said.

In addition to setting the May 1 and July 4 vaccination goals, the administration will begin distributing vaccines to 700 more community health centers, to reach underprivileged communities, and that it will double the number of retail pharmacies receiving shots directly from the federal government. Read more from Jenny Leonard.

More Health Workers Can Administer Vaccine: A variety of additional health professionals—midwives, paramedics, and dentists—can now administer Covid-19 vaccines without being held liable for harms, according to a regulatory change from HHS yesterday. HHS expanded the liability shields to include those professionals and physician assistants, eye doctors, and veterinarians licensed or who have been licensed in the last five years. Shira Stein has more.

Majority Confident in Biden on Pandemic: A majority of Americans approve of how Biden is handling the coronavirus pandemic, which he has called his top priority. But fewer believe he is achieving his other key goal of uniting the country, according to a Pew Research Center poll released yesterday. The poll found 65% of Americans are confident in Biden’s handling of the public health impact of Covid-19. Read more from Emma Kinery.

Happening on the Hill

Becerra Facing Narrow Confirmation: Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services is nearing confirmation after the Senate advanced the nomination of current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with just one Republican vote. Yesterday’s 51-48 procedural vote will move his nomination to the floor, signaling that Becerra could get the lowest amount of Republican support of any of Biden’s cabinet nominees. The chamber will need to vote two more times to confirm him for the post. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the single Republican to vote to move forward with Becerra’s nomination, Alex Ruoff reports.

Democrats Offers $300 Billion for Public Health Infrastructure: House Democrats introduced a infrastructure package investing in climate, broadband and public health, as Democrats move into the next phase of their economic recovery effort following passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders released the package that would provide more than $312 billion in funding for infrastructure projects under their jurisdiction, a priority of Biden’s administration.

Health-related provisions include $37 billion to be invested in public health infrastructure, providing $7 billion to state and local health agencies, $4.5 billion to clinical labs, and $10 billion to community health centers. The funds aim to help modernize health departments and hospitals, as well as to renovate health-care facilities run by the Indian Health Services. Read more from Rebecca Kern and Alex Ruoff.

Groups Campaign Against Public Option: A coalition of health industry groups is ramping up its campaign against a public health care option, buying advertising space and creating local affiliates in states mulling a government-run insurance plan, Alex Ruoff reports.

The Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a group founded by hospital, doctor and insurer lobbies to oppose efforts to expand public health insurance programs such as Medicare, has bought nearly $1.3 million in ad space, much of it airing in Washington, D.C., and Colorado, according to figures from Advertising Analytics. The group has also created an affiliate, the Colorado’s Health Care Future, that’s spent $235,000 so far this year on ads that warn a public option could be ruinous to rural hospitals.

The buys come as Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced their public option bill and as Colorado’s legislature considers legislation to have the state create one.

The early ad buys are a common tactic to push public sentiment against a policy the industry opposes, Wendell Potter, a former insurance executive who now runs the Center for Health and Democracy, said. Expect industry groups like the Partnership to ramp up these campaigns as lawmakers try to gather support for their public option measures. The Partnership has created affiliates in Connecticut and Nevada, according to research by Potter’s organization.

Insurance companies and hospitals have long opposed the creation of a public option because, by design, the publicly-run insurance plan would look to decrease reimbursement rates for health-care providers and compete with privately-run insurer. “They see a well-crafted public option as being a threat to profits and they will spend a lot of money to keep it from being created,” Potter said.

Appropriators Eye Mental Health During Pandemic: Congress should increase annual funds for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant and for mental health programs in schools, American Psychological Association CEO Arthur Evans Jr. told lawmakers at a House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee hearing yesterday, Jack Fitzpatrick reports. House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also mentioned expanding the behavioral health workforce in the hearing, which focused on the coronavirus pandemic’s toll on mental health.

The APA’s annual poll on stress found that 61% of Americans had inadvertently gained or lost weight, with weight gains averaging 29 lbs, during the pandemic. It also found that 67% of Americans had experienced unwanted changes in their sleep schedule, and 23% had been drinking more during the pandemic.

Fauci, Walensky to Appear March 18: Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky are set to appear at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing March on 18 examining the nation’s Covid-19 response. The hearing will also include former FDA chief David Kessler, chief science aide for the government’s pandemic response, and Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, according to a notice posted online.

  • Also next week, the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on March 17 that aims to explore how Covid-19 impacted nursing homes in the U.S. The hearing, announced by Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), will feature testimony from John Dicken, director of health care at the U.S. Accountability Office, among others, according to a notice.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Vaccine PSAs Feature Ex-Presidents, Except One: Four of the five living former presidents appear in a public service announcement released yesterday to encourage Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine. Notably absent from the PSA showing the Obamas, the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Carters receiving their vaccinations were the most recent inhabitants of the White House, Donald and Melania Trump. Read more from Emma Kinery.

More U.S. Headlines:

Novavax Shot Found 96.4% Effective in Final Analysis: Novavax’s coronavirus vaccine was 96.4% effective against mild, moderate and severe symptoms of the disease in a final analysis of a late-stage trial in the U.K. The drugmaker also published final results of a mid-stage trial from South Africa showing that its vaccine was 55.4% effective against the variant circulating there that’s already been shown to partially elude the effects of some shots. Read more from John Lauerman.

E.U. Approves Johnson & Johnson Vaccine: Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine won clearance from the European Union, adding the first single-dose shot to the bloc’s arsenal as it aims to speed up a sluggish immunization campaign. The European Commission gave conditional marketing authorization after the E.U.’s drug regulator recommended approval for adults earlier. It’s the fourth shot to be cleared in the bloc after vaccines made by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, Pfizer and BioNTech, and Moderna. Read more from Suzi Ring and Nikos Chrysoloras.

Pfizer Vaccine Blocks Spread in Israeli Study: Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine blocked 94% of asymptomatic infections in an Israeli study that further builds the case for the shot’s overwhelming effectiveness against the virus a year after the pandemic began. The vaccine stopped 97% of symptomatic cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the companies and Israel’s Ministry of Health said. Importantly, the results were measured two weeks after the second dose. Read more from Naomi Kresge.

More Global Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

ACA Directors Press Insurers to Promote New Subsidies: Obamacare’s exchange directors want insurers to spend a lot to get people enrolled in insurance plans now that the American Rescue Plan Act is signed into law. The $1.9 trillion relief package includes premium subsidies for the first time for people earning over 400% of the federal poverty level. Those households won’t have to pay more than 8.5% of their income on ACA policies. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Biden Directs $2.5 Billion to Mental Illness, Addiction: Biden is sending $2.5 billion to help address the country’s mental health and addiction crisis, Axios reports, citing an official from the Department of Health and Human Services. A total of $1.65 billion will be allocated to the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant, while $825 million will head toward Community Mental Health Services Block Grant program, Axios reports.

U.S. Delays Health Payment Model for Chronic Patients: The U.S. Medicare agency halted a Trump administration model to test new ways to pay doctors and hospitals for treating people with complex, chronic health-care needs. The model is “under review, and won’t begin on the previously announced April 1, 2021 start date,” according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ website. Read more from Shira Stein.

More Headlines:

With assistance from Jack Fitzpatrick and Alex Ruoff

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@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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