HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Candidate Shuffling Slows Biden’s HHS Hunt

Joe Biden’s search for a Health and Human Services secretary is poised for a reset after one governor publicly took herself out of the running and another is reportedly testing the patience of the president-elect’s advisers.

The flurry of developments yesterday left no apparent frontrunner for the position, which will carry particular weight for Biden as he pledges to curb the raging coronavirus pandemic and smoothly distribute a vaccine.

The main candidates to lead the Health and Human Services Department were said to have included New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, and Vivek Murthy, co-chairman of Biden’s pandemic advisory board. Biden is, instead, looking to name Murthy to his surgeon general, a role he held under President Barack Obama, according to people familiar with the process.

  • Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases expert in the U.S., will continue at the National Institutes of Health under Biden’s administration, he told CBS in an interview. Biden said he also asked Fauci to be a chief medical adviser in his administration as well as a part of his coronavirus response team, CNN reports. Read more.

Lujan Grisham was offered the role of Interior secretary but turned it down and said she was more passionate about leading HHS, a person close to the transition said. Biden’s team read that, paired with a lack of Latina candidates for other cabinet-level posts, as an effort to force their hand and soured on her candidacy, the person said.

Meanwhile, Democratic governors voted yesterday to elect Lujan Grisham to serve as the new chair of the Democratic Governors Association, although it’s unclear if that closes the door on any cabinet role because she had been vice chair this year and was already in line for the post.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus met virtually with three top advisers to Biden—incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and transition co-chairmen Ted Kaufman and Jeff Zients—for discussions on their broader hopes for the Biden administration. The members offered their endorsement of Grisham as HHS chief, a person on the call said. Josh Wingrove, Jennifer Epstein and Alex Ruoff have more.

Biden Says He’ll Ask for Mask-Wearing for 100 Days: Biden said he would ask all Americans to wear a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus for the first 100 days as president, as well as issue a “standing order” requiring face coverings in federal buildings and on interstate transportation. He said he would order masks “where the federal government has authority.” Read more from Gregory Korte and Jordan Fabian.

Biden’s Medicaid Push to Make States Get Creative: Food security, affordable housing, and other social needs could become a focus of the Biden administration as it works with states to shore up health coverage for low-income people. The new HHS will likely encourage states to expand Medicaid eligibility, while also using the program to offer non-medical benefits aimed at improving enrollees’ overall health, according to policy analysts. Christopher Brown has more.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Pfizer Scaled Back Vaccine Output Targets: Pfizer scaled back its vaccine production targets earlier this year, after the drugmaker ran into difficulties securing all the materials it needs to produce the shots at a large scale. In news releases through September, Pfizer had said that it aimed to manufacture as up to 100 million doses in 2020. But in several releases in November, the company, which is producing the vaccine candidate with Germany’s BioNTech, cut that to an estimate of up to 50 million doses.

A Pfizer spokesperson said in a statement yesterday that multiple factors slowed the company down, including the time it took to source large quantities of raw materials needed to produce the shots. But the company said it has finished bringing its manufacturing up to scale and it is now producing vaccines at a faster pace. “Scaling up a vaccine at this pace is unprecedented,” company spokeswoman Amy Rose said. But “we have made significant progress.” Read more from Robert Langreth.

  • With Covid-19 vaccines coming soon, the countries likely to pull ahead in protecting their populations aren’t a big surprise. Britain has become the first Western country to clear a shot, and after plowing as much as $18 billion into Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. is in a prime position as well. But the European Union is forecast to trail its peers in immunizing tens of millions of residents, leaving the bloc vulnerable to the coronavirus and buoy U.K. efforts to demonstrate the country is better off following Brexit. Read more James Paton.
  • Still, Fauci criticized the U.K.’s drug regulator, saying it rushed to clear the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech. “They just took the data from the Pfizer company, and instead of scrutinizing it really, really carefully, they said, ‘OK, let’s approve it.’” Fauci said on CBS about the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. He later walked the remark back in an interview with the BBC. John Lauerman and Alex Morales have more.

More on the Vaccine Race:

Trump Mum on Virus Despite Record Hospitalizations: President Donald Trump is keeping largely silent as a surge in U.S. coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths over the last week continues to worsen, instead focusing his public remarks on unfounded claims that his loss to Biden was unfair. A record 2,836 people died from the virus yesterday, data compiled by Bloomberg show, and the 205,000 recorded new cases of Covid-19 nearly matched the record set just five days earlier. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

  • The latest surge of coronavirus has inundated the Sun Belt, adding pressure on tourism-dependent cities brutalized by infections and deaths in late summer. Over the last week, Florida’s Miami-Dade County posted a daily average of 71 new cases per 100,000 people, the third most in the U.S. among counties of at least 1 million residents. It’s just behind Salt Lake County in Utah and Cuyahoga County in Ohio. Jonathan Levin has more.

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Happening on the Hill

How Bipartisan Stimulus, McConnell Plans Stack Up: The bipartisan $908 billion stimulus proposal increasingly backed by both Democrats and Republicans as a basis for discussions on the next relief measure differs from a smaller-scale GOP plan in ways going beyond size. Neither has been released in its entirety, but their draft outlines show the bipartisan version offers $35 billion for hospital aid, while McConnell’s offering provides none. McConnell’s bill however dedicates more for vaccines, at $31 billion compared with the bipartisan package’s $16 billion. Read a full breakdown by Erik Wasson.

Appropriations Panel to Hold Hearing on Abortion: The House Appropriations Committee’s Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee scheduled for Tuesday a hearing on womens’ abortion access, featuring reproductive health experts. The panel in a statement cites the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that bars federal funds to pay for abortions in most cases, as having “devastating” effects. The hearing could offer a signal about House Democrats’ commitment to rolling back the Hyde Amendment in the next Congress. Read the subcommittee statement here.

  • Meanwhile, Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was formally named to succeed retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) as the chairwoman of the full House Appropriations Committee.
  • DeLauro plans to continue to serve as chairwoman of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, spokeswoman Katelynn Thorpe said, Jack Fitzpatrick reports.
  • House Republicans yesterday named Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) to replace retiring Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, likely leaving Michael Burgess (R-Texas) as the ranking member of its subcommittee on health.

What Else to Know

HHS Reins In Guidance Use After High Court Decision: All guidance documents from HHS will no longer impose binding legal obligations without a notice-and-comment period, a rule made final yesterday. HHS can still publish legally binding “significant” guidance, but it would have to do so through a notice-and-comment period. A guidance would be viewed as significant if it has an annual effect of at least $100 million on the economy, a senior agency official told reporters. Read more from Shira Stein.

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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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