Overnight Health Care — CDC to change guidance, including masking

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Welcome to Wednesday’s Overnight Health Care, where we’re following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. Subscribe here: 

Manatees facing starvation on the Florida coast have been fed 25 tons of lettuce so far, with as many as 800 fed in a day. 

The CDC could act soon on loosening mask mandates, as many states push ahead already.  

For The Hill, we’re Peter Sullivan ( and Nathaniel Weixel ( Write to us with tips and feedback, and follow us on Twitter: @PeterSullivan4 and @NateWeixel 

Let’s get started. 


CDC looks to update mask guidance soon 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is planning to update a range of guidance in the coming weeks, including on masks, to focus on hospitalizations rather than just infection numbers alone, agency director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday. 

“We recognize the importance of not just cases … but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations. We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” Walensky said during a White House briefing. 

Key message: The focus on hospitalizations is a signal the administration is shifting its messaging about the spread of the virus, and looking to give the public some positive news. The move would make it easier to justify lifting COVID-19 mitigation measures like mask and vaccine mandates.  

“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” Walensky said. 

According to the current CDC metric, which is based on case counts, 97 percent of counties in the country are experiencing high transmission.  

But mayors and governors across the country, especially in blue states like California and New York, have begun rolling back mask and vaccine requirements for businesses and schools. 

Walensky didn’t commit to a timeline during the briefing, but the moves by states are putting pressure on the Biden administration. 

The desire to move on from the current emergency was best illustrated by White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients: “We’re moving toward a time when covid isn’t a crisis but is something we can protect against and treat,” he said.  

Read more here. 


But even as the CDC indicates a change in federal guidance is coming, most Democratic voters say that it is too soon for states to end mandatory masking requirements, according to a Politico-Morning Consult poll released Wednesday. 

The poll comes as a number of Democratic leaders have begun to lift mask mandates in their areas. 

Of respondents who identified as Democrats, 68 percent said they think “it is too early for states to rescind mask mandates,” while 17 percent said that now is the right time to make the move. 

Less than half of independent and Republican respondents agreed, with 42 percent of independents saying it is too soon to end mask mandates and 21 percent of Republicans saying they feel it is the right time for the move. 

Republican respondents’ most likely response, at 28 percent, was that states never should have had mask mandates at all, followed by 25 percent who believe the mask mandates should have already been lifted. Twenty-two percent said that now is the right time for them to be lifted, and 20 percent said they think that it is too soon to lift the mandates. 

The poll showing the wide split between the two parties comes as a number of Democratic leaders have made moves to loosen restrictions. 

Read more here. 


CDC lowers cruise warning, still remains ‘high’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lowered the travel advisory for cruise ships, indicating the agency thinks conditions have slightly improved from late last year. 

The agency on Tuesday lowered its official travel health advisory from “very high” to “high,” recommending that people should be up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines. That means having both a primary shot and a booster, if eligible. 

The agency since Dec. 30 had recommended people avoid cruises completely. 

If you are not up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines, avoid cruise ship travel, CDC said. Even if you are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, if you are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, the agency still recommends not cruising. 

CDC does not require cruise passengers to wear masks, and some cruise lines, like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, have begun rolling back their own mask rules.  

Read more here.


BioNTech announced on Wednesday that it plans to create manufacturing facilities in Africa in order to bolster the company’s ability to provide more essential medicines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.    

“Today’s milestone brings us one step closer to our goal of improving healthcare by making our innovations accessible worldwide,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in the company’s statement on Wednesday. 

Pending approval from local regulators, BioNTech will aim to begin producing up to 50 million doses of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine that it made with Pfizer within the year in Africa. 

The first shipment of materials necessary to make the company’s vaccine will be sent to either Senegal or Rwanda. The company produced 1.2 billion doses in Marburg, Germany, last year, according to The Associated Press.   

But the company has garnered criticism, especially from advocates of vaccine equity in poorer countries, for refusing to suspend vaccine patents and allow more competitors to manufacture the vaccine, the AP reported.  

The company has cited the difficulty of making mRNA vaccines, saying that local partnerships are BioNTech’s preferred way to maintain the consistency and quality of their vaccines globally, according to the wire service. 

Read more here.  


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Dems urge investigation into Sackler family  

Pills in a box

A group of Senate Democrats is urging the Department of Justice to open an investigation into whether members of the Sackler family personally engaged in criminal conduct in connection with Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic.  

In a letter led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the Democrats have asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to consider possible criminal charges for Sackler family members on top of the department’s previously resolved civil and criminal investigations into Purdue. 

“Real justice in this case means holding individual lawbreakers criminally accountable,” the Democrats wrote. 

Flashback: Just two weeks before Election Day 2020, the Justice Department under former President Trump announced an $8 billion settlement with Purdue Pharma to resolve a federal probe of its marketing practices for opioids, though the company had already declared bankruptcy and was only required to pay the government $225 million. 

The Sacklers owned Purdue, which manufactured the powerful opioid OxyContin. The drug is widely seen as one of the spurs of an opioid epidemic that has killed more than 500,000 people in the United States. 

No charges were brought against members of the family, though Purdue pleaded guilty to three felonies for its sale and marketing of OxyContin. The senators noted that as part of the settlement, DOJ reserved the right to bring criminal charges against individuals. 

“To that end, we write to encourage the Department to review the information in its possession and investigate whether members of the Sackler family engaged in criminal conduct in connection with Purdue’s admitted criminal wrongdoing, before any relevant statutes of limitations expire,” the senators wrote. 

Read more here. 



  • This 16-year-old wanted to get the COVID vaccine. He had to hide it from his parents (NPR)  
  • Xi urges Hong Kong to get control as COVID-19 cases surge (Associated Press)  
  • Inside the tactical tug of war over the controversial Alzheimer’s drug (Kaiser Health News) 



  • As most California counties end COVID mask mandates, here’s why some are keeping them (Sacramento Bee)  
  • SD Senate rejects Medicaid expansion, leaving it to election (Associated Press)  
  • King County, Wash., will end COVID vaccine requirements at restaurants, bars, gyms (Seattle Times)  




That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s health care page for the latest news and coverage. See you Thursday.

Tags Donald Trump Jeff Zients Merrick Garland Rochelle Walensky
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