HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Democrats Dismiss Trump’s New Testing Plan

The federal government will continue to support state Covid-19 testing efforts, the White House signaled in a report submitted to Congress over the weekend that focused heavily on the successes of that system, Alex Ruoff reports.

The new report outlined how the federal government will maintain a system of “supporting and encouraging” states to boost their testing capabilities for cases of the virus that’s killed nearly 100,000 people in the U.S., but it doesn’t specifically lay out a nationwide testing goal. One section noted states need to submit this year a plan to test at least 2% of their population by May and June—12.9 million tests—and recommended investing in a technology accelerator program to help scale up testing.

As of April 21, the report said, U.S. states had tested a total of 4.1 million people. Now, states can perform more than 2 million tests per week, the report said. It also noted that the proportion of positive test results is decreasing, a sign that testing capacity is large enough to avoid missing many people who are positive but aren’t being tested as well as their contacts.

Democratic leaders, who first released the report and have pressed the Trump administration for a national strategy on tests that includes clear benchmarks, said yesterday the report shows the White House “still does not have a serious plan” for increasing coronavirus testing nationwide.

“This disappointing report confirms” that Trump’s national testing strategy is to “deny the truth that there aren’t enough tests and supplies, reject responsibility and dump the burden onto the states,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (N.J.), and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions top Democrat Patty Murray (Wash.) said in a joint statement.

The administration’s national testing strategy was required by the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act (Public Law 116-139), which Trump signed into law on April 24.

The number of new Covid-19 tests being performed in the U.S. has ranged from fewer than 300,000 on May 1 to more than 400,000 last week, according to the Covid Tracking Project, created by The Atlantic. The Trump administration expects the U.S. be capable of performing “at least 40-50 million tests per month” by September.

  • In addition to a nationwide testing plan, Pallone and Republican counterpart Greg Walden (R-Ore.) on the Energy and Commerce Committee in a letter Friday called on the administration to craft a “comprehensive Covid-19 vaccine plan” that also must “take into account the decisions that will be necessary related to the allocation of a vaccine.” They requested a briefing on vaccine development efforts by June 4, Greg Sullivan reports.

Also in Testing & the Path to Reopening

Protections for Nonprofit Hospitals Sought: Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) unveiled a measure on Friday that seeks to expand liability protections for nonprofit organizations as states begin to reopen their economies. Specifically, Hartzler’s bill would provide “churches, faith-based nonprofits, and all 501(c)(3) organizations with increased liability protections” for any harm that could arise from being exposed to or infected by the coronavirus, according to a statement. Some examples of nonprofit hospitals include Ascension Health, Trinity Health, and Kaiser Permanente. Read text of the bill here.

  • Meanwhile, attorneys say hospitals and health-care providers making use of federal aid during the crisis should prepare themselves for eventual audits, even as they grapple with how the funds may actually be tapped. Congress appropriated $175 billion under the CARES Act to help medical providers in fighting the virus. It permits use of the funds to cover health-care expenses and lost revenue attributable to Covid-19, but it provides little guidance as to how far those funds will spread. Christopher Brown has more.

Bipartisan Senators Introduce Strategic National Stockpile Plan: Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) introduced a bill that would authorize $500 million annually through fiscal year 2023 to rebuild the depleted Strategic National Stockpile and encourage domestic manufacturing of personal protective equipment and medical supplies, according to a press release.

Health Industry May Recuperate Relatively Fast: A poll of Americans by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates the health care industry could bounce back faster than other sectors of the economy this summer. A larger percentage of Americans (82%) surveyed said they that expect to visit a doctor or a dentist in person over the next three months than visit a barber or salon (56%), or eat in-person at a restaurant (53%). Despite a public health crisis, the nation’s health care sector has seen major job losses, as people stay away from hospitals and doctors’ offices. Read the study here.

New York Adds Two Regions to Reopening: New York City is set to be the only part of the state on lockdown after next week. Long Island and the Mid-Hudson regions are on a trajectory to reopen, provided they see their deaths continue to decline and hit contact-tracing targets, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in a briefing on Friday. In anticipation, construction preparation can begin in those two regions. With those areas, nine of 10 regions in the state will have started a phased-in reopening, after seven weeks on lockdown. Keshia Clukey has more.

D.C. Area Has Highest Positive Rate: The Washington D.C. metropolitan area has the highest rate of positive cases of the coronavirus, followed by Baltimore, Chicago, and Minneapolis, according to Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force. There is still “significant circulation” of the virus in the the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, she told reporters at the White House on Friday, Jennifer Jacobs and Jordan Fabian report.

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Vaccine, Treatment & Coordination Efforts

HHS Watchdog to Brief Panel: The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a video briefing today for members with Health and Human Services Department Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm. Lawmakers will question Grimm about her office’s April 6 report that spotlighted “severe” shortage of testing and equipment at hospitals during the pandemic, according to a press release. Trump has criticized the report and earlier this month announced his intent to nominate a permanent replacement to Grimm’s position. “IGs are more critical now than ever, as they work to ensure proper and effective use of the largest stimulus package in the history of our nation,” the committee said in a statement Friday.

Remdesivir Mainly Helped Healthier Patients: Gilead Sciences’ remdesivir, the first drug cleared for the treatment of Covid-19, mainly benefited healthier patients who weren’t dependent on ventilators or heart-lung bypass machines, according to published results of the study used to get the medicine to market. The medicine helped patients infected with the coronavirus heal faster, letting them return home after about 11 days, compared to 15 days for those given placebos, the study in the New England Journal of Medicine found.

There were also signs that the medicine increased their survival rate—7.1% of patients on remdesivir and 11.9% on a placebo died within two weeks. Still, the difference wasn’t statistically significant, meaning it could have stemmed from chance. Outside experts welcomed the results, saying they showed patients on remdesivir cut their recovery time by 27%. Read more from Michelle Fay Cortez.

Fauci Optimistic About Moderna Vaccine: Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease official, said he was optimistic about Moderna’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine. “Though there were only eight individuals, we saw neutralizing antibodies at a reasonable dose of the vaccine,” Fauci told CNN. Fauci told NPR that he expects the full results of a Phase 1 study of the biotech’s experimental Covid-19 vaccine within weeks, Cristin Flanagan and Phil Kuntz.

  • Meanwhile, an experimental vaccine developed by China’s CanSino Biologics was safe and generated an immunity response in an early study in humans. The experimental vaccine stimulated production of both antibodies that can stop infection along with immune T-cells, according to a report Friday in The Lancet medical journal.
  • At the same time, as the pandemic disrupts routine visits to doctors’ offices, more than 80 million children under age 1 are at risk of life-threatening diseases such as polio and measles, according to top global health agencies. Routine vaccinations of children have been substantially hindered in at least 68 nations, according to data from the World Health Organization; UNICEF; the Sabin Vaccine Institute; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

Coronavirus Adds to Health Risks of Ailing 9/11 Responders: Michael Hollander has prostate cancer, thymus cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and has had a piece of his heart removed — all linked to his emergency medical response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He’s among tens of thousands of emergency medical responders, police officers, and firefighters who breathed toxic dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center, and who now have an elevated risk from coronavirus, according to doctors who treat them. Hundreds of survivors have reported contracting the virus and several have died, reports Keshia Clukey.

Trump Chastised on Sending Ventilators to Russia: Democrats are criticizing Trump’s decision to send 200 ventilators to Russia at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $5.6 million, saying the equipment should be reserved for patients in the U.S. The ventilators should should stay in the U.S. due to the “urgent” need here, according to a letter sent to the White House by the chairmen of several House committees. The Trump administration notified Congress about the use of the use of the funds this week. Read more from Laura Davison.

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What Else to Know Today

Democrats Slam HHS Over ACA Protections: A group of 30 Senate Democrats demanded the Health and Human Services Department to immediately halt the administration’s intention to finalize a proposed rule implementing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, according to a statement Friday. The proposal would “roll back anti-discrimination protections for millions of American patients, even though these protections are especially critical” due to the nation’s coronavirus outbreak, they wrote. Section 1557 prohibits health-care programs that receive federal aid from discriminating against people based on attributes such as race, sex, or disability status. Read the letter here.

Health-Care Deals Drop in April: Health-care deals declined last month as the pandemic forced investors to delay or reconsider mergers and acquisitions. But transaction activity is expected to pick back up later this year as physicians and independent hospitals hard hit by canceled procedures look to partnering with larger health-care systems to help relaunch their businesses, some analysts say. Read more from Sara Hansard.

New Medicare Rule Saves $3.7 Billion: A new rule by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services should increase access to telehealth services, provide more coverage options for Medicare beneficiaries with kidney failure, and offer wider benefits for others with chronic diseases. The wide ranging rule released Friday is expected to save an estimated $3.65 billion over ten years, CMS said. The rule encourages private plans covering Medicare beneficiaries to increase telehealth offerings for those living in rural areas. Read more from Tony Pugh.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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