HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Touts National Strategy for Pandemic

President Joe Biden unveiled a national strategy to combat the coronavirus yesterday, saying the pandemic is likely to claim another 100,000 lives over the next month.

“We’ll move Heaven and Earth to get more people vaccinated for free,” Biden said at a White House event yesterday, before warning: “The brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated.”

Biden announced a series of executive actions aimed at overhauling the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed over 400,000 Americans. He repeated his warning that the crisis will worsen before it improves, and that the U.S. will undergo a “dark winter.” But he encouraged Americans to be vigilant about mask-wearing, saying the simple precaution could save 50,000 lives before May.

“The fact is, it’s the single best thing we can do,” he said. “More important than the vaccines.”

  • Despite Biden’s warning, cases have fallen in 46 states, reducing pressure on hospitals that have been fighting the virus for a year. In 42 of those states, the seven-day case average has fallen over 10% from the previous week, while the other four had more modest drops, according to Covid Tracking Project data. Jonathan Levin has more.

The distribution of coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. has been plagued by delays, and the Biden administration has criticized former President Donald Trump’s for the lags, saying there was no federal plan in place to ensure shots were administered. “What we’re inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined,” Jeff Zients, Biden’s Covid-19 task force coordinator, said yesterday.

Biden’s executive actions include stabilizing the supply chain for critical medical supplies, boosting the government’s ability to provide rapid and equitable vaccine distribution, and targeting schools for reopening. Jennifer Jacobs and Josh Wingrove have more.

  • Joining Biden at the event was Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s foremost expert on infectious diseases, who later at a White House press briefing said he feels “somewhat” liberated working for Biden after Trump tried to sideline him. “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is and know that it’s, let the science speak, is somewhat of a liberating feeling,” Fauci said.
  • Fauci acknowledged that he had to contradict Trump at times, such as when the former president had advocated for the use of an unproven malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, to help treat Covid-19, Jennifer Jacobs and Jennifer Epstein report.

Biden Order Charts Path to Help Schools Reopen: Biden also signed an executive order to direct federal agencies to get schools resources for testing, contact tracing, and vaccination for teachers. It also directs the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide new guidance for colleges and schools on whether and how they can reopen safely. Andrew Kreighbaum has more.

Republicans Push Back on Major Vaccine Overhaul: Republicans in Congress are pushing back on the Biden administration’s claim that a massive overhaul of the coronavirus vaccine distribution system is underway and that more federal funds are necessary. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said the country was already on track to achieve Biden’s goal, 100 million doses being administered over the first 100 days of his administration, even before Biden took office.

A Republican aide said a relief package passed in December gave the government $28 billion for vaccine distribution, enough to lay the groundwork for the 100 million dose goal. Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus plan included a request for $20 billion to bolster development and distribution of vaccines, one aspect that was welcomed by some Republicans.

“I suspect the whole package is a nonstarter, but it has plenty of starters within it,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Republican Senate leadership, told reporters. He said added that vaccine funds and funds for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were among ideas in Biden’s stimulus he could support, Alex Ruoff reports.

More on the Vaccine:

More on the Pandemic:

Also on Biden’s Health Agenda

Return of Obama Staffers to Biden HHS: Senior staffers from the Obama administration are returning to the Department of Health and Human Services, as the Biden administration takes the reins of an agency battling Covid-19 without any of Biden’s officials confirmed. The department’s top staffers will be responsible for doing much of the work to implement Biden’s agenda.

The returning senior staffers to HHS are veterans of the department and bring a “wealth of knowledge,” said Al Fitzpayne, HHS’s former chief of staff. The appointees, according to an internal email obtained by Bloomberg Law, include:

  • Anne Reid as deputy chief of staff, who served as a counselor to former Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell;
  • AJ Pearlman, former HHS Office for Civil Rights chief of staff, as chief of staff for the coronavirus response;
  • Kathryn Alvarez, former chief adviser to the HHS chief of staff, as deputy chief of staff for the coronavirus response;
  • Dawn O’Connell, former senior counselor to Burwell, as senior counselor for the coronavirus response;
  • Ben Sommers, an HHS economist during the Obama administration, as deputy assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the office of health policy;
  • Alison Barkoff, a lawyer and disability policy advocate, as principal deputy administrator of the HHS Administration for Community Living;
  • Lisa Barclay, former chief of staff for then-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Peggy Hamburg, as HHS deputy general counsel; and
  • Paul Rodriguez, head of the New Jersey consumer protection agency, as HHS deputy general counsel.

Biden’s HHS secretary-designee Xavier Becerra and Chief of Staff Sean McCluskie, both of whom will be newcomers to the department, will “get the great benefit of having people who have worked there for years and understand the culture of the place, the value of the career staff” to help them navigate a large, diffuse agency, Fitzpayne said. Read more from Shira Stein.

Biden to Have Hard Time Withdrawing Obamacare Waivers: The Biden administration will have a tricky time walking back Trump-era waivers that allowed states to enact work requirements for Medicaid, switch program funding to a lump sum, and pull out of Obamacare’s federally funded health insurance marketplace. With litigation over the waivers pending, Biden’s HHS will have to not only act fast but be strategic in the reasons it gives for rescinding the Trump administration approvals. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

HHS to Mull Surprise Billing Rules: Health-care costs could escalate depending on how the Biden administration writes regulations implementing a new law that prohibits hospitals and doctors from issuing surprise medical bills. The ban on those bills is included in the omnibus spending and virus legislation signed at the end of 2020 (H.R. 133). Starting in 2022, it will block health-care providers from billing patients in emergencies or for services from out-of-network caregivers at facilities in patients’ insurance networks. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Biden’s Regulatory Pause Includes Two Drug Rules: The halt on Trump-era rulemaking initiated by Biden on Wednesday includes two controversial rules designed to curb high drug prices—one that changes the way pharmacy liaisons and drugmakers can pay each other and another that ties Medicare rates for expensive drugs to the prices paid in other countries. Read more from Fawn Johnson.

More on Biden’s Agenda:

What Else to Know Today

Drugmakers’ Lobbying Falls in First Since 2010: As the heat on the pharmaceutical industry died down last year, so did lobbying spending by the sector, according to lobbying disclosures released yesterday. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America decreased its year-to-year lobbying for the first time in five years in 2020. The lobbying arm for drugmakers spent $25.5 million in 2020, down from $28.8 in 2019. Drugmakers such as Sanofi, AbbVie, and Eli Lilly also spent less than in 2019, which saw an all-time high by these companies and PhRMA.

Congress turned its attention almost solely to responding to the ongoing spread of Covid-19 in 2020. The pharmaceutical industry responded by developing a vaccine for the coronavirus in record time. But Democrats, now wielding control of both Congress and the White House, have vowed to make drug pricing part of their agenda this year. Last year’s drop in spending could mean the industry has plenty left in its coffers to respond, Alex Ruoff reports.

Burgess Loses Health Panel Role After Leader Challenge: Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) will be the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health panel, replacing Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who tried to become the top Republican on the full committee. Subcommittee assignments were announced yesterday by Energy and Commerce ranking Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). Read more from Rebecca Kern and Alex Ruoff.

More Headlines:

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

Top