HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Health Officials Warn of Virus at Protests

Nationwide protests triggered by George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police officers are confronting public health officials with two major problems: slowing the spread of the coronavirus while remedying inequities in African Americans’ health care.

The demonstrations in just about every state and major city in the U.S. follow months of lockdowns meant to halt the spread of coronavirus. Fear of the disease didn’t deter thousands from packing streets and squares to protest how blacks are treated in the U.S.

“These injustices and racism are urgent public health threats,” Bruce Siegel, president of America’s Essential Hospitals and an African American man, said in a statement Friday. “It is incumbent upon health care professionals and systems to confront these threats” and “to overcome the inequities that afflict racial and ethnic minorities.”

For now, some health-care officials hope they can avoid new Covid-19 outbreaks with free masks and signs of solidarity. Many state and local health departments say they’ve responded with messages of support and advice on gathering safely.

“People are going to protest and from a strictly public health standpoint that’s a risky thing to do in terms of spreading the virus,” said David Persse, who serves as health authority for Houston’s Health Department. “I would never say people shouldn’t, but there’s things you can do to minimize risk.”

The city has offered to outfit groups with masks, and Persse and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) have advised demonstrators to wear them and to keep as much as distance as possible during the demonstrations. Afterward, protesters should get a Covid-19 test, said Scott Packard, a spokesman for the city’s health department.

Federal health officials say they are concerned that the protests, spurred by the the May 25 death of Floyd, will lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases, although it will likely to take weeks for data to reflect it. “I do worry,” Deborah Birx, the top coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said last week. “I worry terribly about the peaceful protests.” Read more from Alex Ruoff.

FDA Sees No Link Between Reopening, Cases: Meanwhile, President Donald Trump‘s virus task force has yet to see a clear relationship between states’ reopening efforts and growing Covid-19 cases, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said. “I do worry about the protests and the lack of masks,” Hahn said on an HHS podcast this weekend. Hahn said the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” to create a vaccine can become a pathway to “expediting medical product development” for other diseases. Read more from Shira Stein.

Related: Fewer Americans Worry About Getting Covid-19, New Poll Shows

Aid, Reopening Efforts & Coordination

Trump Says He’ll Ask Congress for Additional Stimulus: Trump said Friday he will ask Congress to pass more economic stimulus. House Democrats passed an additional $3.5 trillion stimulus last month, aimed largely at aiding beleaguered states and hospitals battered by the lockdowns of the coronavirus outbreak. But Senate Republicans plan to wait until late July before considering any new relief. Read more from Mario Parker, Erik Wasson and Saleha Mohsin.

Hospital Financial Woes Persist: Hospitals and nursing homes lost 66,000 jobs in May, even as other struggling parts of the health-care industry bounced back, restoring hundreds of thousands of positions lost during the spread of the virus, according to federal data released Friday. The continued financial strains for the hospital industry has prompted concerns that some of the poorest areas in the U.S. might have hit a ceiling in expansion of Covid-19 testing sites as community health centers close their doors. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

  • Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 41 senators led by Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said on Friday they are seeking additional assistance for community health centers in the next aid package. Read the letter here.

This Week’s Hearings:

  • Procurement, Distribution: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds a hearing tomorrow on the government’s procurement and distribution strategies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Returning to School: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday will discuss students returning to school safely while contending with Covid-19.
  • Essential Workers: The House Oversight and Reform Committee plans a hearing Wednesday on supporting essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • VA Virus Response: The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will assess the VA’s response to Covid-19 on Thursday.
  • Indian Health Service Virus Response: The House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee holds a hearing Thursday on the Indian Health Service’s Covid-19 response. Indian Health Service Director Michael D. Weahkee, National Indian Health Board CEO Stacey Bohlen, and National Council of Urban Indian Health Executive Director Francys Crevier will testify.

Vaccine Research, Testing & Treatment

AstraZeneca Drug Shows Early Signs of Promise: A small study in 19 patients suggested that a drug from AstraZeneca’s arsenal of cancer treatments may be repurposed to help Covid-19 patients experiencing extreme immune reactions. Many patients with Covid-19 suffer from an inflammatory condition, sometimes called cytokine storm, when the immune system overreacts to the virus. Astra’s drug Calquence belongs to a class known as BTK inhibitors that target a protein that affects inflammation and may help quell the complication. Cristin Flanagan and Suzi Ring have more.

WHO Calls for Wider Use of Masks: The World Health Organization called for broader use of medical masks, including by doctors who aren’t treating known Covid-19 patients and for at-risk groups. Those over age 60 and those with pre-existing conditions should wear face masks wherever physical distancing is not possible, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. The WHO also sharpened its recommendation on fabric masks used by people in stores, on public transport, or in other places where it’s impossible to stay apart from others. Read more.

CDC Finds People Bleaching Food: A startling number of Americans are using bleach on their food or misusing household cleaners apparently with hopes to protect themselves from the virus, according to a new poll published today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An internet panel of 500 people found over a third of respondents “engaging in nonrecommended high-risk practices,” such as applying the cleaners to their skin or inhaling or ingesting them. Read more.

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What Else to Know Today

AstraZeneca Said Considering Merger With Gilead: AstraZeneca has made a preliminary approach to rival drugmaker Gilead Sciences about the potential of a merger, according to people familiar with the matter. It would be the biggest health-care deal on record. The U.K.-based firm informally contacted Gilead last month to gauge its interest in a potential merger, the people said. AstraZeneca didn’t specify terms for any transaction, they said. While Gilead has discussed it with advisers, no decisions have been made on how to proceed, the people say.

Valued at $140 billion, AstraZeneca is Britain’s biggest drug company by market capitalization and has developed treatments for conditions from cardiovascular diseases to cancer. Gilead, worth $96 billion at Friday’s close, is the creator of a drug that’s received U.S. approval for use with coronavirus patients. Gilead isn’t currently interested in selling to or merging with another major pharmaceutical firm, preferring to focus its strategy on smaller acquisitions or partnerships, the people said. Read more from Ed Hammond, Aaron Kirtchfeld, and Dinesh Nair.

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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: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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