HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Pelosi Floats Virus Help in Spending Plan

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said there’s an “opportunity” to add federal coronavirus relief aid to a package of legislation funding the government as a February deadline looms.

“It is clear from the opportunity that is there and the challenge that is there,” Pelosi told CBS, noting that President Joe Biden’s administration “has not made a formal request for more funding.” Additional funding to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic could be added to a bill that’s needed to fund the government after a stopgap measure runs out on Feb. 18, she said.

“I believe that left to their own devices, the appropriators can get the job done,” Pelosi said. “Something like additional funding can be in there, can be fenced off for emergency, as would be Covid.”

Two lawmakers last week suggested that additional relief for U.S. restaurants and other service industries hurt by the surge of infections could be added to the spending bills. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and head of the Small Business Committee, and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said they are working to build support for the plan among their colleagues. Pelosi didn’t specify what any extra funding might be used for.

Pelosi told CBS that the virus’s “resilience” means it’s spreading faster than in earlier phases of the pandemic, underscoring the need for everyone “to get vaccinated, to be masked, to have spatial distancing and the rest. And to be tested, tested, tested.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) blasted the administration on the Senate floor last week, saying the problem wasn’t money but the administration’s lack of a strategy for getting a handle on the virus. Biden officials focused on vaccinations at the expense of additional testing capacity, he said. “For a full year, the administration has focused almost exclusively on one thing—and testing and treatments have not had the attention they should have had or now that they must have,” Blunt said. Read more from Daniel Flatley.

Related: White House Readies Therapeutic, Vaccine Funding Request (WaPo)

Also Happening on the Hill

Hearings on the Hill:

  • FDA Nominee Vote: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee plans to vote Wednesday on nominations including Robert Califf to be commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
  • Fauci, Walensky Testify: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, and acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock will appear before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee tomorrow for a hearing on Covid-19 variants and the federal response.

Democrats Ask HHS for Guardrails on Test Prices: Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sent a letter urging the White House “to ensure easy access to rapid COVID-19 tests,” according to a statement, saying the administration must consider guardrails to make sure the price of at-home tests don’t rise dramatically in the wake of Biden’s deal to make 500 million of them free to Americans. “As you work to draft guidance to allow Americans with private health insurance to be reimbursed,” they said, “we urge you to take steps to make this process as seamless as possible.”

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The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden Says Covid-19 Won’t Be ‘New Normal’ But Here to Stay: Biden said surging Covid-19 cases won’t be the “new normal,” though the virus is likely to endure and can be managed with newly developed tools. The president’s remarks on Friday came after several of his former health advisers published articles saying the strategy to fight the pandemic needs to be updated and that the virus would become the “new normal.” Biden said the U.S. is expanding testing capacity and treatments to diagnose Covid and blunt its impacts. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Jenny Leonard.

Justices Cast Doubt on Biden Workplace Shot Rule: The U.S. Supreme Court cast doubt on the linchpin of Biden’s vaccination efforts amid a Covid-19 surge, questioning whether the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had authority to require that 80 million workers get shots or frequent tests. In a special argument session Friday, the court’s conservative justices voiced skepticism over the rule, which business groups and Republican-led states say exceeds the workplace-safety agency’s authority.

Covid “sounds like the sort of thing that states will be responding to or should be, and that Congress should be responding to or should be, rather than agency by agency the federal government and the executive branch acting alone,” said Chief Justice John Roberts. The initiative represents the heart of Biden’s campaign to increase the country’s vaccination rate as the omicron variant propels a spike in cases.

The court is also considering a separate administration rule that would require shots for workers in nursing homes and other facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding from the federal government, a mandate that received a more receptive response from the court. Roberts suggested he saw a “close connection” between the shot and the goals of those health-care programs. Read more from Greg Stohr.

  • In Louisiana, the state’s highest court said hospitals may mandate Covid-19 vaccines for their workers. “No exception to this state’s at-will employment doctrine applies in this matter,” the court said in a unanimous verdict written by Chief Justice John Weimer. “This court finds Employer is entitled to terminate Employees for failure to comply with the vaccine mandate.” Private firms, including hospitals, aren’t bound by constitutional claims to privacy that might prevent agencies from making similar mandates, according to the opinion. Read more from Jennifer Kay.
  • Related: N.Y. to Require Covid Booster Shot for Health-Care Workers

Boosters Lag, Cases Rise Among Nursing Home Staff: The push to get booster shots for nursing home staff is proving a tough sell. While over 72 million Americans have received Covid-19 booster shots, including 62% of nursing home residents, only 27.6% of nursing home staff nationwide have received a booster shot, said Janell Routh, co-lead of the Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force at the CDC. Infected staff have been the main cause of virus transmission in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. At least 187,000 residents have died from Covid-19, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Read more from Tony Pugh.

FDA, CDC Shorten Interval for Moderna Booster: U.S. regulators amended the emergency authorization for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine to allow Americans to get a booster shot five months after receiving the initial first two doses. The move by the Food and Drug Administration echoes a similar decision it made last week to reduce the recommended interval between the second and third doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for all adults to five months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also added its recommendation to the timeline. Read more from Fiona Rutherford.

Teen Boosters Threaten to Worsen Pharmacy Strains: Clearance to boost younger Americans amid the omicron surge bumps up against a pharmacy system that’s already overwhelmed with vaccine appointments and staffing shortages, potentially leading to delays in accessing the additional shots. The CDC last week recommended adolescents ages 12 to 17 get booster shots at least five months after their second dose. But expanded eligibility puts further stress on pharmacies struggling to keep up, according to pharmacists and industry groups say. Read more from Celine Castronuovo and Jeannie Baumann.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Texas Law’s Next Stop Hotly Debated by Appeals Court: A Fifth Circuit oral argument over whether the Texas Supreme Court should weigh in on a Texas law barring most abortions became so heated Friday that one judge told another “this court doesn’t litigate on behalf of one side or the other.” The oral argument featured frequent sparring between the judges, who appeared to disagree on whether the Texas court should be asked to decide if professional licensing board members are proper defendants in a case challenging the six-week ban’s constitutionality. Mary Anne Pazanowski has more.

Delay Pushes Patent Eligibility Out of SCOTUS Term: Patent attorneys hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court would answer their questions about patent eligibility this term are likely to be disappointed. The court asked the federal government in May to weigh in on a case dealing with noisy driveshafts that deeply divided the the Federal Circuit on when an invention is patent-eligible. The Office of the Solicitor General didn’t file the brief by its informal deadline of December, which would have allowed justices time to consider the case during the current term expected to end in June. Perry Cooper and Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson have more.

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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