HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Fauci Says U.S. Plans to Step Up Testing

Top U.S. health officials said they haven’t been asked to slow down coronavirus testing and indicated they plan to ramp up screening for Covid-19 as infections surge in some of the most populous states.

The officials also told lawmakers that they haven’t discussed the Covid-19 pandemic with President Donald Trump for more than two weeks, a period in which cases have surged in some of the most populous states.

Trump has said he asked for virus testing to be cut back. But Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, and Robert Redfield, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief, both said they were never told to do that.

“It’s the opposite,” Fauci told the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a live-person hearing. “We’re going to be doing more testing, not less.” He noted a “disturbing surge” of infections in reopening states, and said “the next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges we’re seeing in Florida and Texas and Arizona.”

At the same time, he said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a Covid-19 vaccine will be ready by the end of the year. At least one vaccine is poised to go into its Phase 3 trials next month, and others would quickly follow, he said. His agency is preparing to begin large clinical trials of a vaccine that it’s co-developing with U.S.-based biotechnology firm Moderna next month.

The hearing comes as the U.S. has recorded over 2 million cases and more than 120,000 deaths, with rates of infection increasing across states in the South and West that were among the first to reopen. Read more from Anna Edney.

  • In the Senate, Democrats said Congress can’t turn its attention toward preparing for future disease outbreaks while Covid-19 continues to spread across the U.S. Democrats are signaling they can support proposals to spend more on research and public health surveillance—if Republicans agree to boost funds for coronavirus testing and take steps to ease access to a future Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said that “it’s clear we have a lot of work to do to prepare for the next pandemic,” but said “it’s even more clear that there’s a lot that needs to be done to respond to this one.” But Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) argued it’s crucial to make long-term investments in biodefense now. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Strategic Stockpile: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the role of the strategic national stockpile in pandemic response today.

  • Ranking member Gary Peters (D-Mich.) ahead of the hearing said delays to coronavirus relief to hospitals “have contributed to the health care industry’s financial crisis, which has forced at least 260 hospitals nationwide to temporarily furlough or permanently lay off health care workers.” Peters, in a new report, said that “of the $175 billion provided by Congress in relief funding, the Trump Administration has failed to provide approximately $72 billion to hospitals and other health care providers.”

Graham Virus Lawsuits: Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he’ll move forward with a plan to let Americans sue the Chinese government over the coronavirus pandemic by amending a law that protects foreign countries from lawsuits in U.S. courts. Read more from Daniel Flatley and Skylar Woodhouse.

Testing, Treatment & Research

States Urge Court to Open Insurance Exchanges: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s refusal to open a special enrollment period for people to buy health insurance on federally operated health exchanges during the Covid-19 pandemic is dangerous, 14 attorneys general told a federal court. The group, led by California, filed a brief Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia supporting Chicago in its lawsuit to force Azar to open the exchanges. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

  • Job losses related to the coronavirus have put 3.4 million more Americans on Medicaid and Obamacare’s individual marketplace, according to a new analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. As more people enter their state’s public insurance program for the poor or the Affordable Care Act market, the health law is more essential than ever, the group said in its analysis.

NIH Eyes Antibodies in Recovered Patients’ Blood: The NIH plans new clinical trials on whether hospitalized Covid-19 patients would benefit from the plasma or antibodies of people who recovered from the disease. The upcoming studies by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases come as Regeneron Pharmaceuticals has already started testing a new antibody cocktail. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Children’s Hospitals Say They Were Excluded From Aid: Children’s hospitals and behavioral health providers are sounding the alarm after HHS pushed out another round of coronavirus relief, claiming that they were yet again left out. HHS allocated $15 billion to Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program providers who haven’t received relief yet. Read more from Christopher Brown.

Texas Reports 5,000 New Cases as Houston ICUs Near Capacity: Texas reported a record 5,489 new cases, bringing the total to 120,370, according to the state health department. That represented a 4.8% increase, well above the 3.7% seven-day average. Hospitalizations, meanwhile, surged by more than 10% to 4,092. The 381 new admissions was the single biggest daily increase since the pandemic emerged. Read more.

ICE Facilities with Covid-19 Cases Doubled: The number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities that reported having detainees who tested positive for Covid-19 more than doubled in recent weeks from 23 to 52, according to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. As of May 26, more than 1,300 detainees were reported to have tested positive, up from 1 detainee on March 25, the watchdog said in a report.

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What Else to Know Today

Hospitals Lose Price Disclosure Battle: The Trump administration can keep its rule requiring hospitals to disclose prices they privately negotiate with insurance companies, the U.S. District Court for D.C. decided yesterday. The court rejected hospital industry coalition’ claims that HHS issued a rule that was arbitrary and capricious, exceeded its rulemaking authority and violated the First Amendment by mandating speech that fails to directly advance a major government interest. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

Employer Health Care Costs May Spike Next Year: Employers will face a spike in medical costs of between 4% and 10% for their employees in 2021, according to auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Employer health-care spending could fall in 2020 compared to 2019, before rebounding in 2021, PwC Health Research Institute said in its annual report released today. The PwC report is based on 23 interviews from February through May with health industry executives, benefits experts, and health plan actuaries. Read more from Sara Hansard.

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With assistance from Alex Ruoff

To contact the reporter on this story: 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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