HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Medical Workers Get Nod for First Vaccines

Health-care workers and residents at long-term care centers should be first in line for Covid-19 vaccines, key government advisers urged yesterday, citing a high risk for infection within the two groups and the positive effects on hospital care.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices includes public health experts that advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccine use. Their recommendation comes as regulators are set to rule in weeks on the emergency approval of a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, followed quickly by a decision on a Moderna shot.

Kathleen Dooling, a CDC epidemiologist, cited a “multiplier effect” in vaccinating health-care workers first, noting that they provide care in high-risk settings and keep hospitals open and working. She said this group includes low-wage earners, as well as racial and ethnic minority groups hit hard by the virus.

Most jurisdictions “believe that they can vaccinate all of their health-care workers within three weeks,” according to Nancy Messonnier, head of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. About 5 million to 10 million vaccine doses are expected to be made available every week after a shot gets authorization, said Sara Oliver, a public health expert at the CDC. That makes it likely that hospitals and others will have to prioritize certain subgroups among those allowed earliest access to the shots.

The ACIP recommendation is one of the final remaining hurdles before vaccinations begin. If the Food and Drug Administration authorizes the shots this month as expected, at least some portion of the country’s 21 million health-care workers and 3 million nursing home residents could get their first immunization doses within weeks. Read more from Anna Edney, Angelica LaVito, and John Tozzi.

Trump to Host Vaccine Summit Next Week: President Donald Trump plans to host a Covid-19 vaccine summit next week as his administration weighs emergency authorization for shots that could curb the pandemic. White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern said in a statement that leaders from state governments, the military, and the scientific community will attend the Dec. 8 gathering, as the administration “prepares to deliver this historic, life-saving vaccine to every zip code in the United States within 24 hours of an FDA approval.” Read more from Justin Sink.

Happening on the Hill

Bipartisan Group Offers $908 Billion Stimulus Bill: A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate unveiled a $908 billion stimulus proposal yesterday in an effort to break a months-long impasse. But Neither Republican nor Democratic leaders have signed on to the plan so far, leaving it facing the same long odds as the bipartisan House proposal that failed before Election Day. Read more from Steven T. Dennis, Erik Wasson, and Laura Litvan.

  • The bipartisan framework would give the government $16 billion for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing and contact tracing efforts. The bill would also add $35 billion to the provider relief fund, offering the health industry another funding boost. That’s lower than what Democrats have sought and is likely not sufficient to fully fund President-elect Joe Biden’s proposal for a new, massive testing and tracing program.

Meanwhile, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began circulating their own plans yesterday among fellow party members. McConnell’s measure, which he said has Trump’s support, carries $16 billion for coronavirus testing and contact tracing efforts, as well as $31 billion for vaccine distribution and to bolster medical equipment stockpiles, according to a summary of the legislation, Alex Ruoff reports. Litvan, Wasson, and Dennis have more on the dueling bills.

Biden, Congress to Face Fresh Fights—BGOV OnPoint: The Biden administration and 117th Congress will kick off the new year with a number of new policy priorities while also having to confront an unending pandemic. Most major legislation next year will hinge on who holds the Senate, which will be decided in a pair of Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoff elections. The outcome will determine how ambitious Democrats can be on issues such as health care, taxes, and the environment, and how much policymaking will be done through executive action. Read more.

Democrats Probe Outbreaks at Mental Health Centers: Three Democrats published results from an investigation into coronavirus outbreaks at U.S. behavioral health centers. The report found 14% of mental health and addition treatment facilities “had Covid-19 outbreaks of 10 or more cases,” according to the report, putting the infection rate in these facilities “comparable to the infection rate of the general population.” The report from House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and others warned “that residential treatment facilities have limited testing capabilities.” Read the report here.

Hearings on the Hill:

  • The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations scheduled a hearing on Covid-19 vaccine safety and distribution.
  • The House Financial Services Committee plans a hearing on the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve’s virus response programs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will testify.

More on the Pandemic

Biden Closes In on Top Health Leaders as Pandemic Ravages U.S.: Biden’s front-runner for secretary of Health and Human Services is New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and he may announce several of his administration’s health leaders as soon as next week, according to people familiar with the matter. The position of HHS secretary is down to two possibilities, the people said, between Lujan Grisham and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, a co-chair of the coronavirus advisory board Biden appointed shortly after he was elected.

Biden’s health team will assume office with the U.S. still suffering from the pandemic, as virus cases and hospitalizations soared over the past month. His health secretary is expected to have input on filling other top health posts, such as FDA commissioner and the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the people said, so those appointments may not be announced until later. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Shira Stein and Alexander Ruoff.

New Virus Guidelines Would Shorten Quarantine: The CDC told Trump’s coronavirus task force yesterday that its new guidance would reduce quarantine time for individuals exposed to the virus by up to half, two people familiar with the matter said. The new recommended self-quarantine timeline would be seven days for people who test negative after exposure, and 10 days for those who don’t take a test, they said. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

Dry Ice Rules for Massive Vaccine Cargo Push Approved: Rules allowing the rapid shipment of Covid-19 vaccines by cargo jets have been approved by U.S. regulators. The Transportation Department developed new safety requirements for moving the potentially dangerous dry ice needed to keep some vaccines stable, the agency said in a press release. It also set standards for carrying flammable batteries needed in the airlift and eased restrictions on how long flight crews involved in the effort can work. Read more from Alan Levin.

More on the Vaccine Race:

Covid-19 Unknowns Stir Life Insurance Fears: Millions of people who survived Covid-19 are expected to be dealing with health issues including heart, kidney, and lung damage long after the pandemic subsides. But the longer-term effects on mortality are unknown, even for those who have mild, or even asymptomatic, cases. That’s leaving life insurers without the risk data they rely upon in deciding who to cover, meaning Covid-19 survivors could have a harder time getting coverage—or have to pay more for skimpier plans. Lydia Wheeler has more.

More on the Pandemic:

What Else to Know Today

Medicare Hikes Payments for Some Doctors: Primary care doctors and specialists who rely on office and outpatient visits to evaluate and manage their patients will see solid pay bumps from Medicare next year. But physicians with fewer office billings will see reimbursements in the program fall significantly, Trump’s administration announced. The rate reductions in the final 2021 Medicare physician fee schedule are because of budget neutrality provisions in the Medicare Act that mandate program payment increases to be offset by reductions elsewhere. Read more from Tony Pugh.

More Headlines:

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

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