Overnight Health Care: Trump backs off plans to wind down task force | Trump says ex-vaccine chief 'seems disgruntled' | Fauci's absence from hearing draws bipartisan rebuke

Overnight Health Care: Trump backs off plans to wind down task force | Trump says ex-vaccine chief 'seems disgruntled' | Fauci's absence from hearing draws bipartisan rebuke
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Welcome to Wednesday's Overnight Health Care.

There are more than 1.2 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. 

More than 72,600 people have died. 

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE says he is not dissolving the administration's coronavirus task force after all. But Trump still blocked Anthony FauciAnthony FauciCNN's Burnett presses Navarro on hydroxychloroquine in combative interview: 'You're an economist, not a scientist' Overnight Health Care: Fauci says family has faced threats | Moderna to charge to a dose for its vaccine | NYC adding checkpoints to enforce quarantine Fauci says family has faced threats, harassment amid pandemic MORE, a key member of the task force, from testifying at a House hearing Wednesday. Maryland's schools are closed for the rest of the year, but the state might begin to loosen virus mitigation restrictions next week.

We'll start at the White House:

Actually, maybe not….Trump backs off plans to wind down task force after backlash

President Trump on Wednesday said he backed off plans to dissolve the White House coronavirus task force after public outcry, saying he didn't realize how "popular" the group of medical experts and government leaders was.

"I thought we could wind it down sooner," Trump told reporters during an Oval Office event recognizing National Nurses Day. "But I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding down. ... It is appreciated by the public."

Trump said he received calls from "very respected people" who urged him to keep the task force intact.

New faces? Trump said he might add a few more members to the group, though he didn't mention any names, in a sign that the White House may still pivot the task force to focus on guiding the reopening of the economy.

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Read more here

Trump says former vaccine chief 'seems disgruntled'

Trump said he'd never met the latest whistleblower to file a complaint against his administration, but likened him to a "disgruntled employee." 

When asked by a reporter in the Oval Office about Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), Trump said he'd only just learned about him earlier in the day.

"I never met Dr. Bright. I don’t know who he is. I didn’t hear good things about him. I did not hear good things about him at all," Trump said. "And to me he seems like a disgruntled employee that’s trying to help the Democrats win an election."

Who is Rick Bright? Bright filed a formal whistleblower complaint on Tuesday with the Office of Special Counsel, alleging he was moved to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health because he promoted science over politics, especially in relation to chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine. 

Read more here

Related: Trump disagrees after nurse reports 'sporadic' supply of protective gear

Pompeo defends Wuhan lab claims in combative press conference

Fauci's absence from hearing draws bipartisan rebuke from House lawmakers

A key House panel held a hearing Wednesday on the country's response to the coronavirus pandemic but had to do so without testimony from any members of the Trump administration. 

The absences of key figures in the battle against COVID-19 — including Anthony Fauci, the administration's top infectious diseases expert — prompted frustration from members of both parties.

“I want the record to show I joined the chairman urging that Dr. Fauci be allowed to testify here,” Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 Multiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert House panel advances health bill with B in emergency COVID-19 funds MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations labor and health subcommittee, said during the hearing. 

“I think it would have been good testimony, useful to this committee and useful to this country. Frankly, I think going forward, this subcommittee, more than any other, is going to need administration input, expert input, as we make the important decisions in front of us.” 

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President Trump blocked Fauci, a leading member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, from testifying, telling reporters Tuesday the “House is a bunch of Trump haters."

Read more here

Reopenings move forward: Maryland could begin reopening next week

Maryland's coronavirus case numbers are trending in the right direction, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Wednesday, and the first phase of the state's plan to reopen could begin as soon as next week.

Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations have decreased slightly in the past week, and the number of intensive care admissions has plateaued for the past eight days, Hogan said. 

“If these trends continue into next week, we will be ready to lift the stay at home order" and begin the first tier of the reopening process, he said. 

Under the plan, businesses could begin curbside service, smaller retail stores would open, and limited activities such as outdoor gym classes and small outdoor religious gatherings would resume. Public schools plan to stay closed for the rest of the academic year.

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Hogan said no decisions have been made yet, and everything will depend on whether the current trends continue. But the state will begin lifting restrictions on outdoor recreation activities, and will open state parks and beaches.

Context: Hogan is seen as one of the GOP governors taking a more measured and careful approach to the virus, so his reopening plans will be closely watched. 

Read more here

Related: Supreme Court declines to lift Pennsylvania COVID-19 health order

Michigan GOP lawmakers sue governor for extending state of emergency

Texas governor announces hair salons, barber shops will reopen after GOP lawmakers get banned haircuts

New discoveries shift coronavirus timeline by months 

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The coronavirus that has exploded into a pandemic has almost certainly been circulating for several months longer than public health experts first suspected, masked by asymptomatic cases or illnesses incorrectly diagnosed.

Scientists believe the first known case of a patient contracting the coronavirus happened in mid-November, in a 55-year-old resident of China's Hubei province. That was six weeks before the World Health Organization's (WHO) surveillance network picked up reports of a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the province's largest city.

There are increasing signs that the virus had begun its global spread long before it was identified. French scientists on Monday published the results of a study that found coronavirus present in samples given by a resident of a Paris suburb who was tested Dec. 27, four days before the Wuhan cluster was identified.

The French patient, a 42-year-old fishmonger, had not traveled outside of the country since visiting his native Algeria in August, a potential sign that the virus came to France in someone else even earlier. One of the man's children had symptoms of a flu-like illness, raising the prospect that the child infected the father — and further back-dating the point at which the virus had spread to Europe.

Read more here. 

In non-COVID news… 

White House sticks with Republican attorneys general fighting to overturn ObamaCare

Remember the ObamaCare lawsuit? President Trump said Wednesday his administration will continue seeking to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) after reports indicated U.S. Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump administration awarding M in housing grants to human trafficking survivors Trump stokes conspiracy about Epstein death, stands by wishes for Ghislaine Maxwell Democrats' silence on our summer of violence is a tactical blunder MORE wanted to modify the Justice Department’s stance on the lawsuit. 

“We’re staying with Texas and the group,” Trump told reporters, referring to the coalition of GOP attorneys general, led by Texas, who argue the law is now unconstitutional because Congress repealed the penalty on individuals who don’t have health insurance in 2017.

“ObamaCare is a disaster but we’ve made it barely acceptable,” Trump added. 

CNN reported this week that Barr had pushed to modify the administration’s stance on the lawsuit to preserve parts of the law rather than fully repealing it. Filings are due Wednesday for the Supreme Court case, which is expected to be heard in the next term. 

The administration’s position on the lawsuit has changed several times since it was filed in 2018. The Justice Department said last year the entire law should be struck down after initially saying some protections should be preserved. 

Read more here. 

Justices split over religious exemptions for ObamaCare birth control mandate

The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared sharply divided over the Trump administration's move to broaden religious exemptions for companies that object to covering birth control for their female employees.

The latest challenge to the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) saw the justices air divergent views about the expanded carve-outs for employers who oppose contraception, but are required by law to offer health plans to workers.

The case stems from a highly litigated question that arose roughly a decade ago in the early days of ObamaCare: Do employers who oppose contraception need to pay for workers’ birth control?

Under former President Obama, HHS and other federal agencies responsible for implementing the law chose to exempt religious nonprofits from having to pay for birth control. When an employer claimed religious exemption, the federal government would step in to encourage the company’s third-party health insurer to cover workers’ contraceptive costs directly, freeing the employer of the burden.

The Trump administration broadened the birth control exemption to encompass nearly all for-profit and nonprofit employers who objected on religious or moral grounds, and made the accommodation optional.

Read more here

What we’re reading: 

Minorities have higher chances for ‘bad outcomes’ as country reopens: Former acting CDC director (ABC News)

Mounting promises on COVID-19 vaccines are fueling false expectations (STAT

Trump’s virus drug whim costs millions, even as the mania wanes (Bloomberg)

Hoping llamas will become coronavirus heroes (New York Times)

State by state

How large “superspreader” events turned into coronavirus hot spots in Louisiana and Massachusetts (Vox.com)

Inspection reports show past problems at nursing homes hit hardest by coronavirus (The News & Observer)

Too few employees, tests and masks: How covid-19 spread through Maryland nursing homes (Washington Post)

The Hill op-eds 

Families contribute to health inequalities during COVID-19

COVID-19 fear syndrome