Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul
Welcome to Tuesday’s Overnight Health Care, where we’re following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
It’s 36 degrees in D.C. today, but President Biden still made a stop at a local ice cream shop. “If it’s above freezing, then it’s ice cream weather,” he tweeted.
Two key senators released a bipartisan proposal to overhaul the U.S. response to pandemics.
Let’s get started.
Bipartisan pandemic plan released
The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday released a proposal for wide-ranging legislation aimed at improving the U.S. preparedness for pandemics after the many shortcomings in the response to COVID-19.
The discussion draft from Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) includes proposals on topics such as improving data collection, speeding up the development of vaccines and treatments, and improving public health communication.
One of the most prominent proposals is to create a task force modeled on the 9/11 Commission to examine the U.S. response to COVID-19 as well as the controversial subject of the origins of the pandemic, which some have said could have resulted from a lab leak in China. An interim report would be required within 180 days, and a final report would be required within a year.
“After everything our nation has been through these past two years, we owe it to everyone who worked so hard to get us through this crisis to take every step we can to make sure we are never in this situation again, and that’s what this bill will help us get done,” Murray said in a statement.
Money question: The measure would not directly provide new funding for pandemic preparedness, though it would authorize some programs that could be funded as part of the annual appropriations process.
- Creating an advisory committee on public health communication
- Authorizing grants for genomic sequencing
- Directing support for “manufacturing surge capacity” for vaccines and treatments
- Allowing the secretary of Health and Human Services to directly appoint up to 250 people during a public health emergency.
A new round of White House vs. DeSantis
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday dismissed criticism from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other Republicans who are demanding the Biden administration continue to allow states to use a COVID-19 treatment that doesn’t work against the omicron variant.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday said it is limiting the use of two monoclonal antibody therapies from Eli Lilly and Regeneron because they are ineffective at treating the omicron variant. As a result, Florida health officials closed the state’s antibody treatment centers.
DeSantis was quick to blast the move, saying in a statement that Biden “has forced trained medical professionals to choose between treating their patients or breaking the law.”
“Let’s just take a step back to realize how crazy this is,” Psaki said.
The treatments were highly effective at keeping out of the hospital people who were infected with the original strain of the coronavirus, as well as the delta variant, but studies in labs have shown they do not work against omicron.
Antibodies over masks: DeSantis has been one of the most outspoken proponents of antibody treatments, especially the cocktail from Regeneron that was given to former President Trump. But he’s embraced the anti-mask and vaccine hesitant elements of the Republican base, and refused to disclose whether he’s received a booster shot.
VACCINE-OR-TEST MANDATE OFFICIALLY WITHDRAWN
The Biden administration on Tuesday said it is withdrawing its vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees after the Supreme Court earlier this month blocked the requirement from being enforced, ruling that it was a federal overreach.
Given the Supreme Court’s decision, the Biden administration filed a motion on Tuesday to have the existing lawsuits that were filed against the employer vaccine mandate dismissed. Twenty-seven Republican-led states and a coalition of businesses had brought those legal challenges against the mandate.
“The federal government respectfully moves to dismiss the petitions challenging the Vaccination and Testing emergency temporary standard (Vaccination and Testing ETS) issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to address the grave danger of COVID-19 in the workplace,” the Biden administration said in a motion.
The Biden administration said that it would be withdrawing the mandate, effective on Wednesday, asking for the existing lawsuits against it to be considered moot.
The vaccine-or-test mandate, which was created by OSHA and published in early November, required businesses with at least 100 employees to mandate that employees get vaccinated or undergo regular testing and wear masks.
CDC study: Omicron appears less severe
The omicron variant is on average causing less severe disease than previous variants of the virus, a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found.
The ratio of hospital admissions to cases and the ratio of deaths to cases were lower during the omicron wave than during the delta variant peak last year or the winter of 2020-2021, the study found.
Still, omicron is placing a strain on hospitals, the study said, even if a smaller percentage of cases are severe.
“Despite Omicron seeing the highest reported numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during the pandemic, disease severity indicators, including length of stay, ICU admission, and death, were lower than during previous pandemic peaks,” the study stated.
“Although disease severity appears lower with the Omicron variant, the high volume of hospitalizations can strain local health care systems and the average daily number of deaths remains substantial,” it added.
The stats: The omicron variant caused 27 hospital admissions per 1,000 cases, the study found, lower than 68 per 1,000 cases in the winter of 2020-2021 or 78 per 1,000 during the delta wave.
Similarly, the nine deaths per 1,000 cases during omicron was less than the 16 per 1,000 cases last winter or the 13 per 1,000 during the delta surge.
PFIZER, BIONTECH TO TEST OMICRON-SPECIFIC VACCINE
Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Tuesday that the companies will start a human trial to evaluate the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of a vaccine specifically modified to target the omicron variant of COVID-19.
“Vaccines continue to offer strong protection against severe disease caused by Omicron. Yet, emerging data indicate vaccine-induced protection against infection and mild to moderate disease wanes more rapidly than was observed with prior strains,” Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, said in a statement.
The study will include 1,420 adults in several groups based on their vaccine status. The vaccine could be ready in March.
Health experts say the current booster shots work against omicron, and a study from the Centers for Disease Control and prevention found they provide up to a 90 percent reduction in severe disease and hospitalization.
The U.S. is also on the downslope of the omicron wave and it’s not clear what protection an omicron-specific shot would have against the next variant that emerges.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- As Pfizer and BioNTech begin clinical trial of Omicron-based vaccine, timeline to authorization is unclear (Stat)
- CDC travel warning flags 5 Caribbean destinations as ‘very high’ risk for covid (Washington Post)
- When COVID means not enough beds in a children’s hospital unit (The New Yorker)
STATE BY STATE
- Elton John postpones Dallas concerts after testing positive for Covid-19 (CNN)
- Maine hospitals see decline in number of COVID-19 patients (Portland Press-Herald)
- Washington state sees average of 800-850 new COVID cases among health care staff per day (King 5)
OP-EDS IN THE HILL
- The whole world is watching for Biden’s plan to protect abortion rights
- The unvaccinated owe a figurative debt to society that should be literal
- Proposed drug supply chain rule is mere table ante for broader ‘rebate’ reform
That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s health care page for the latest news and coverage. See you Wednesday.
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