HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Covid-19 Skeptic Bets He Can Keep Seat

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Sen. Ron Johnson has stood out among colleagues for his skepticism of public health measures to combat Covid-19, as well as his advocacy for unproven treatments for the virus.

As he braces for one of this year’s most competitive Senate races that could determine control of the chamber, the combative Republican isn’t backing away from his controversial stands that often diverge from scientific consensus. “I’m actually pretty proud of what I’ve done,” Johnson (R-Wis.) said in an interview with Bloomberg Government.

Some Democrats have seized on his positions about the pandemic, believing they will add to the arsenal of attacks on the incumbent running for a third term. The race against Johnson will test whether attacking the senator’s unorthodox positions on Covid-19 can make inroads with voters—even as Democrats face political headwinds from President Joe Biden’s low popularity and economic troubles including inflation.

Tom Nelson, the county executive of Wisconsin’s Outagamie County and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat, said Johnson’s attempts to “legitimize quack science and conspiracy theories,” and his opposition to last year’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package (Public Law 117-2), have made it harder for local officials to like him. “A lot of people got sick and lot of people died because of Ron Johnson,” Nelson said in an interview.

Maddie Twomey, a spokesperson for Democratic-aligned Protect Our Care, says her group is already using press events to highlight Wisconsinites hit by the pandemic, and blame GOP officials in Madison and Washington for shortcomings. She said that message could extend to a bus tour and paid media such as print, digital, radio, and billboards. “There is not a Covid-19 conspiracy that he’s not engaged in, and there’s a cost to that,” said Joe Zepecki, Wisconsin state director at Protect Our Care.

In the interview, Johnson touted his advocacy for unproven treatments for people who contract Covid-19—namely zinc and ivermectin—and for highlighting people with rare injuries from vaccines for the coronavirus. He dismissed any Democratic complaints as political theatrics. Read more from Zach C. Cohen and Alex Ruoff.

Happening on the Hill

Warren Urges U.S. to Seize Patents on Pfizer’s Cancer Drug: Pfizer‘s prostate cancer medicine Xtandi is in the crosshairs of a growing campaign for the government to seize patent rights to bolster competition. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and two other lawmakers—Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas)—are pushing the Biden administration to take unilateral action to lower the price of the drug, pointing to a decades-old law that lets the federal government leverage “march-in rights” to license patents on certain medicines to outside manufacturers.

“We urge you to use existing executive authority to deliver meaningful relief to consumers,” Warren wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. Doing so “will dramatically lower the price of this life-saving drug for millions of Americans.” Read more from Ian Lopez.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Unproven Covid-19 Drug Use Tracked Party Lines: Use of two unproven Covid-19 treatments tracked closely along U.S. party lines in 2020, suggesting a strong political influence on patients and physicians in medical decision-making, a study found. Prescribing volume for the antiparasitic ivermectin was more than 10-fold greater in counties with the highest GOP vote shares compared to those with the lowest shares in late 2020, according to the study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine also rose sharply in red-leaning counties, even after its authorization was pulled, it found, Janice Kew and Daniel Zuidijik report.

Unmasking Comes Too Soon for Some Still Wary of Covid-19: States and cities are pulling masking requirements. Federal officials say Covid-19 is moving out of the crisis phase. But many Americans across the country say that for them, the emergency continues. California became the first state to announce it would treat Covid-19 as endemic, and Washington state said it would nix its mask rules. In the past two weeks, Illinois, New York and D.C., announced similar plans. But scarred by earlier surges, epidemiologists and the immunocompromised are playing it safe, no matter what their governments say. Sarah Holder has more.

  • Meanwhile, retailers caught between conflicting local and federal guidance on when masks should be worn are worried OSHA will cite employers who don’t follow the stricter federal Covid-19 recommendations. The Retail Leaders Industry Association is raising the concern as state and local public health departments drop recommendations for masks to be always worn inside stores while tougher federal guidance is unchanged. Read more from Bruce Rolfsen.

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What Else to Know Today

Curbs on Insurers, Private Equity Sought for Medicare Pay Plan: Health industry officials hope a palette of possible fixes will help save a disputed Medicare pilot program that faces overhaul or elimination by the Biden administration as early as this week. The suggested changes range from limiting the role of private equity and health insurers in the program to revamping how spending targets for care are set. The professional and global direct contracting model was designed to help move traditional Medicare away from fee-for-service care and toward value-based care, in which provider reimbursements are based on patient outcomes and cost efficiency. Read more from Tony Pugh.

Rhode Island’s Lifespan Health-Care Merger Paused by Court: A federal court blocked Rhode Island’s two largest health-care systems from merging just hours after the FTC filed suit to stop the allegedly anticompetitive deal. A temporary restraining order granted Friday by the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island halts the proposed merger between Lifespan Corp. and Care New England Health System. Absent that order, the providers would have been free to complete their transaction by Feb. 22, the court said. The Federal Trade Commission filed an administrative complaint over the proposed deal, and a trial on the merits will begin July 20, the agency said. Read more from Alexis Kramer.

Biden Officials to Back Trans Student in Florida Bathroom Fight: A Florida high school’s policy that barred a transgender student from using the boys’ bathroom violated federal law because he was a boy “socially, physically, medically, and on legal documents,” the Justice Department will argue today. The St. John’s County School Board’s policy restricting bathroom use by “biological sex” is only valid under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution if it serves an important governmental interest, the DOJ said in a brief in advance of oral argument before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Read more from Patrick Dorrian.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at; Giuseppe Macri at; Brandon Lee at

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