Welcome to Wednesday’s Overnight Health Care.
Coronavirus cases are trending downward, but are still extremely high, especially compared to the summer. The CDC director said vaccinating teachers should not be a prerequisite for school reopening, but the White House is saying more funding is needed first. Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has some promising data on its COVID vaccine.
But we’ll start with some news on COVID relief:
Biden commits to $1,400 checks, but open to eligibility limits
President Biden said during a call with House Democrats on Wednesday that he is committed to boosting stimulus checks to $2,000 by giving most Americans another $1,400 in direct payments in a new round of coronavirus relief.
However, Biden did crack the door open to tightening income restrictions on which Americans are eligible to receive the checks. Under the relief package passed by Congress late last year, individuals making less than $75,000 and couples making less than $150,000 received the full $600 payment.
“We can’t walk away from an additional $1,400 in direct checks that we proposed because the people need them,” Biden told Democrats, according to a source on the call.
“We can better target them,” he said, “but I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified later Wednesday that Biden is open to further limiting the income level of who receives a stimulus check, not the total amount of the check.
“Further targeting means not the size of the check, it means the income level of people who receive the check and that’s something that has been under discussion. There hasn’t been a conclusion but certainly he’s open to having that discussion,” Psaki told reporters at an afternoon briefing.
Related: Schumer vows Democrats ‘united’ after Biden meeting on coronavirus
New in the battle over school reopening: More reassurance from the CDC director.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky emphasized Wednesday that vaccinating teachers is not required for safely reopening schools.
“Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Walensky said during a press briefing.
She added that while a CDC advisory committee has put teachers in the “1B” category for getting vaccines – the second priority group for vaccination – “I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that … safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”
The comments come as a fierce debate plays out over returning students to in-person learning.
Some teachers unions are calling for teachers to be vaccinated before they return to school.
The politics: Republicans have seized on the issue to argue the Biden administration is not following the science, and is instead caving to their political allies, by not urging an immediate return to in-person classes.
“Apparently Big Labor’s talking points have already displaced Dr. Fauci as the White House’s go-to source,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
CDC director: Coronavirus infections, hospitalizations falling
The numbers are trending in the right direction, but in the big picture, they’re still much, much higher than they should be.
New coronavirus cases in the U.S. have fallen to pre-Thanksgiving levels, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Wednesday, and infection rates are continuing to decline.
“We now appear to be in a consistent downward trajectory” for both cases and hospital admissions, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters during a White House COVID-19 briefing.
The numbers: Cases have declined since hitting a peak on Jan. 8, dropping 13.4 percent to an average of nearly 144,000 per day from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1, Walensky said.
Deaths are continuing to increase, but the pace is slowing.
Implication: Infection numbers are still twice as high as the peak number of cases over the summer, and the U.S. is still averaging more than 3,000 deaths a day. Plus, more contagious variants continue to multiply.
Some encouraging news from the AstraZeneca vaccine: It might slow virus transmission, researchers say
Initial testing of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, developed in partnership with Oxford University, shows that it might slow virus transmission in addition to protecting recipients, researchers announced on Tuesday.
Their study, which has not been peer-reviewed, indicated that the AstraZeneca vaccine has the potential to reduce the number of infected individuals in the community, which researchers argued is slowing transmission.
The research is the first to suggest that a vaccine could cut down on coronavirus spread.
Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, celebrated the initial research on Wednesday, telling the BBC that a vaccine that decreases transmission “will help us all get out of this pandemic.”
The data analysis also determined that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine cut positive test results by 76 percent within 90 days after it was administered. However, two doses only reduced positive tests by 49.5 percent.
The caveat in the US: This vaccine has not been authorized yet. The company is waiting for its US trial to be completed before applying to the FDA, which could come in “the next month or two,” the company said.
In non-pandemic news …
Planned Parenthood files emergency lawsuit to stay in Texas Medicaid program
Planned Parenthood filed an emergency lawsuit Wednesday asking courts to block Texas officials from kicking its clinics out of the state’s Medicaid program.
State officials had sent a notice to Planned Parenthood providers in January saying they would be terminated from Medicaid, the state-federal health program for the poor, beginning Thursday.
“For now, if courts don’t immediately step in to block [Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott’s harmful order, 8,000 Texans with low incomes could lose access to critical, life-saving health care, including cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, and birth control,” Planned Parenthood said in a statement.
The termination of the relationship between Texas’s Medicaid program and Planned Parenthood is the culmination of a years-long battle between the health care provider and anti-abortion politicians.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last year sided with Texas in its efforts to “defund” Planned Parenthood, ending a lengthy legal battle in the state that began under former Gov. Rick Perry (R).
The Hill Virtual Event Announcement:
Tuesday 2/9 at 1:00 PM ET–Complex Generics & The Prescription Drug Landscape
Nearly 60 million Americans have difficulty affording their prescription drug medicines even with insurance, putting their health and financial priorities at odds. Complex generics have the potential to generate significant savings for patients and the health care system. But market dynamics and regulatory complexities are seen as significant hurdles. Reps. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY), FDA’s Dr. Sally Choe and more join The Hill’s Steve Clemons to discuss how complex generic medical alternatives can impact and potentially enhance the American healthcare system. RSVP today. (LINK: https://complexgenerics.splashthat.com/)
What we’re reading
Burned by low reimbursements, some doctors stop testing for Covid (New York Times)
Fewer Americans are getting COVID-19 tests (The Atlantic)
With a seductive number, AstraZeneca study fueled hopes that eclipsed its data (Stat)
State by state
Nearly two-thirds of Florida nursing home staffers decline coronavirus vaccine in first round (Tampa Bay Times)
State calls for audit after 1,000 vaccine doses spoil in Palm Beach County (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)=
Texas prisons have doled out thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses – but none have gone to prisoners, who get the virus at high rates (Texas Tribune)
The Hill op-eds
We need comprehensive long-term care reform, and we need it now
When will normal life return? Maybe by summer – with luck and the right steps