HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Falling Cases Show How to Crush Covid-19

Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are dropping dramatically across the U.S., suggesting that measures to interrupt transmission are working, at least for now.

More than 27.6 million Americans have tested positive, likely giving them some degree of immunity. A rising number — 11.8% of the population — has now received at least one dose of a vaccine. And data gathered from mobile phones suggest people are being more cautious day-to-day. If cases keep falling, it could buy time for the vaccination effort to take hold in the warm summer months ahead, potentially underpinning a long-sought economic recovery.

Health experts, though, anticipate challenges. Inoculations need to outpace highly contagious variants from the U.K. and South Africa that are now in the U.S. And the upcoming holidays — Spring Break, Easter and Mother’s Day included — hold the threat of group gatherings that can swiftly boost the virus’s spread.

“The history of surges is they do come down,” said Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco. “They generally come down from some combination of changes in behavior, changes in government policy and the impact of immunity.”

Infectious disease experts agree it’s way too early to call an end to the pandemic. The declines follow a surge tied to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, and infection levels remain roughly on par with trends from last fall at around 91,000 new cases confirmed daily.

Rochelle Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Sunday rang a warning bell. “We are nowhere out of the woods,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” adding that “now is the time to double down” on mitigation efforts.

If those efforts are relaxed “with increasingly transmissible variants out there,” she said, “we could be in a much more difficult spot.”

Walensky’s warning comes as some states, including Iowa and Montana, ease mandates on mask wearing and as the CDC emphasizes that tamping down community spread is key to safely reopening schools — a priority of the Biden administration.

Early on, the country experienced regional surges in the northeast last spring, Sun Belt states in the summer and Midwest and Western states through the fall. However, the latest surge worsened nearly everywhere in January, producing the deadliest month so far. Read more from Jill R. Shah and Emma Court.

Happening on the Hill

House Panel Approves Medicaid Funds in Aid Measure: The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Friday approved a measure providing states billions of dollars to expand their Medicaid programs and let them demand higher rebates from drug makers. The measure would allow states to extend Medicaid to new mothers for a year, increase the federal share of Medicaid funding for states that expand their programs, and eliminate a cap on Medicaid drug rebates starting in 2023, Alex Ruoff reports.

  • House Democrats sent that package and their other coronavirus relief measures to the Budget Committee, as they prepare to move ahead with a bill that largely matches President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal, Jack Fitzpatrick reports. The House Budget Committee has yet to schedule a markup, which would mostly be a formality. The Senate Budget Committee doesn’t plan to hold a markup of the bill, instead sending it straight to the floor, a Senate Democratic aide said Friday.

Senate Appropriators’ New Chairs Unveiled: Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced the 12 subcommittee chairs responsible for discretionary spending. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) will lead the Agriculture-FDA panel. She was not the top Democrat in the 116th Congress. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who served as top Democrat on the Labor-HHS-Education panel, will reprise that role as its chair. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

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The Coronavirus Pandemic

U.S. Wary of Beijing’s Role in WHO’s Covid-19 Probe: The White House issued its strongest criticism yet of the World Health Organization’s handling of the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and China’s involvement in the probe’s findings. “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the Covid-19 investigation were communicated,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement Saturday. Jenny Leonard has more.

Don’t Let Down Guard on Virus, CDC Head Warns: A top Biden administration health official warned Americans not to get complacent about rapidly falling Covid-19 cases, as a potentially more infectious and lethal variant spreads in the U.S. The U.S. has seen over 1,000 cases of the strain first identified in the U.K., with infections across at least 39 states, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Alyza Sebenius.

CDC Sets Guidance for Schools to Reopen: Schools should use masks and social distancing to safely resume in-person learning as soon as possible, the CDC recommended Friday. The agency outlined five mitigation strategies that include the proper use of masks, social distancing of six feet where community transmission is high, strict cleaning of classrooms, and frequent testing and rapid contact tracing. Walensky also urged states to make vaccinating teachers a priority, though she did not call it a prerequisite for reopenings. Schools should also do all they can to improve ventilation, she said. Angelica LaVito has more.

Biden Rules Out Test Mandate for Flights: Biden has ruled out requiring Covid-19 tests for all passengers on domestic flights for now, saying that the scientific evidence doesn’t support implementing the measure. A White House statement Friday said the CDC isn’t recommending testing and that the president will follow their lead. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

Push for All-in-One Vaccines: Just weeks into the rollout of vaccines to battle the coronavirus, researchers are shifting their focus to a new class of potential shots to take on the threat posed by fast-spreading mutations. The dangerous variants identified in Africa, Europe, and South America are carpeting the globe, prodding scientists in the U.K. and elsewhere to target multiple versions of the pathogen in a single shot. Read more from James Paton and Suzi Ring.

Cuomo Aide Says Death Data Was Withheld: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) top aide told lawmakers she withheld nursing homes’ Covid-19 death toll for fears it would spark a federal investigation, according to stories in the New York Post and New York Times. Read more from Shelly Banjo.

  • Separately, a U.S. program to vaccinate nursing home residents and staff is moving slowly toward completion in the coming weeks, with the goal of wrapping up the effort by late next month, Drew Armstrong reports.

More Stories in the U.S.:

Global Virus Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Medicare Addiction Coverage Gaps Scrutinized: Access to affordable care is key to treating people with addiction, but adults over 65 may have a hard time getting Medicare to cover the treatment they need. Advocates for people with addiction claim the federal program is falling flat on covering some standard intermediary treatments recommended for substance abuse disorders and they’re hoping that Congress will be open to making some legislative changes to fix an issue made worse by the opioid crisis and the coronavirus. Read more from Lydia Wheeler and Tony Pugh.

Steps Taken to Undo Trump-Era Medicaid Work Rules: The Biden administration on Friday notified several states it was taking steps to withdraw moves from the Trump administration to preserve requirements that Medicaid beneficiaries work as a condition of having coverage. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services acting director Elizabeth Richter notified Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, Nebraska, Indiana, Arizona, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Utah. Christopher Brown has more.

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With assistance from Jack Fitzpatrick

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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