HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Ramps Up Covid Fight, Reverses Trump

President Joe Biden in his first full day in office plans to issue a sweeping set of executive orders to tackle the raging Covid-19 pandemic that will rapidly reverse or refashion many of his predecessor’s most heavily criticized policies.

Biden today is set to invoke orders to overhaul and unify the U.S. approach to virus testing, use federal powers to stabilize the supply chain for critical medical supplies, and boost the government’s ability to provide rapid and equitable vaccine distribution, according to a Biden administration briefing.

Biden is inheriting from former President Donald Trump a Covid testing strategy and vaccine rollout he has called a “dismal failure,” and he has warned there will be no quick fixes for ending the crisis. Yesterday, though, members of his Covid-19 team outlined a strategy using all levers of the federal government to attack the pandemic, starting with 10 executive orders.

The team said it was confident that Biden’s promise to immunize 100 million people in 100 days could be achieved. But while some of the plans will be funded by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Jeff Zients, Biden’s Covid-19 task force coordinator, said it’s important for the U.S. Congress to quickly approve funding for the effort.

“What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” Zients said in a call with reporters yesterday.

While the Biden team promised to produce more vaccine supply as well as places for people to be immunized, Zients declined to say when the vaccine would be available to the vast majority of Americans. Read more from Anna Edney.

Read the list of executive orders released by the Biden administration last night here.

Biden’s Health Agenda

Norris Cochran Named Acting HHS Head: Norris Cochran, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary of Budget, will serve as acting secretary of the Health and Human Services Department while the new administration works to turn around a coronavirus response it argues is inadequate, Biden’s administration said yesterday. Cochran will serve until Biden‘s nominee, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, is confirmed by the Senate. Confirmation is likely, although it’ll likely take some time. Read more from Shira Stein and Alex Ruoff.

Read the full list of acting agency heads released by the White House here.

Last-Minute Rules Subject to Biden 60-Day Pause: From insulin to life-saving medical devices to last-ditch efforts to protect premature infants (including those from “live birth” abortions), multiple rules posted by the HHS in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency are subject to a 60-day pause.

A memo circulated yesterday by White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain said all rules, guidances, or other agency actions that didn’t take effect prior to noon that day—the official handover time from Trump to Biden—will be subject to review by the new administration before they can take effect. If the previous administration’s actions raise questions of “fact, law, or policy,” the designated officials now leading the agencies can further delay effective dates and consult with the Office of Management and Budget about other actions. The agencies can also open comment periods on those actions. If there are no such questions, no further action is needed. The rule, proposal, or guidance can be considered active and effective, the memo said. Read more from Fawn Johnson.

Biden Team Worry Virus Surge Imperils Pledge: Biden’s team is increasingly worried the coronavirus pandemic is spiraling out of control, imperiling his pledge to contain the outbreak as cases and deaths mount, vaccinations lag, and the more-transmissible strain of the virus spreads across the country, according to people familiar with the matter. As they learned more about the federal response to the pandemic, Biden’s advisers grew alarmed at the federal government’s lack of coordination with states, the people said.

The stakes are escalating. U.S. hospitalizations are at nearly record levels, and daily cases and deaths have doubled since Election Day on Nov. 3. While much blame has fallen on the Trump White House for its failure to develop a national testing or vaccination strategy or encourage widespread mask-wearing, Biden’s team now inherits the job of containing the disease that’s killed 400,000 Americans and counting. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Nancy Cook.

  • Still, weekly Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. are forecast to dip in about a month, a refreshing change in the wake of months of increased fatalities. The U.S. is poised to register about 22,510 coronavirus deaths in the third week of next month, marking a slight decline that would reflect a lowering of the death curve from its steepest point since the beginning of the pandemic. The estimate is the latest forecast from the University of Massachusetts’ Reich Lab. Read more from Nic Querolo.

Fauci Pledges U.S. Covax Support in Re-Engagement With WHO: U.S. infectious-disease chief Anthony Fauci pledged his country’s commitment to the World Health Organization, including membership in a global effort to deploy Covid-19 vaccines. Fauci addressed the Geneva-based group a day after Biden’s inauguration, underlining the new U.S. president’s effort to mend ties with an agency crucial to fighting the pandemic. He confirmed that the U.S. will join Covax, a 92-nation vaccine collaboration that the Trump administration declined to participate in. Read more from Corinne Gretler, Thomas Mulier and James Paton.

Biden Stimulus Gets Skeptical GOP Response: Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan got a skeptical response from two Senate Republicans whose backing he’d likely need for quick congressional passage. Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), a member of the bipartisan group of senators who helped propel talks on the $900 billion stimulus enacted in December, said shortly after Biden’s inauguration he thinks it’s too early for Congress to act again. “I am not looking for a new program in the immediate future,” he said.

Another member of that group said to reporters she doesn’t disagree with Biden that another round of help for an ailing economy is necessary. Still, she said, it’s going to take some time to consider it. “The ink is just barely dry on the $900 billion, and what the president is proposing is significant, $1.9 trillion,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). “It’s going to require I think a fair amount of of debate and consideration.” Laura Litvan and Erik Wasson have more.

HHS on ‘Different Page’ About How to Curb Drug Prices: Biden enters the presidency with at least a dozen lawsuits waiting over Trump-era moves to lower drug prices, an issue the new administration will likely tackle in its own way. The Department of Health and Human Services under Biden inherits challenges to rules that tie drug reimbursement to cheaper foreign drug prices and allow medication imports from Canada. It also faces complaints over Trump’s push for drugmakers to ship discounted drugs bought by low-income health centers to commercial contract pharmacies. Read more from Ian Lopez.

More on Biden’s Agenda:

What Else to Know

ACA Trans ‘Mandate’ Void as to Catholic Entities: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from forcing Catholic health-care providers to perform gender-transition related services and from forcing employers to provide insurance to pay for them, the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota said. The government’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s gender or transgender status can’t be enforced against entities with moral beliefs that preclude them from covering such procedures, it said, Mary Anne Pazanowski reports.

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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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