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Overnight Health Care: Trump HHS official to take 'leave of absence' amid uproar | Federal officials unveil plan to provide free coronavirus vaccine | CDC director says masks more guaranteed to work than a vaccine

Overnight Health Care: Trump HHS official to take 'leave of absence' amid uproar | Federal officials unveil plan to provide free coronavirus vaccine | CDC director says masks more guaranteed to work than a vaccine
© AP/Pool

Welcome to Wednesday’s Overnight Health Care. 

Top health officials testified before Congress and were grilled on the government's COVID-19 response. HHS announced top official Michael Caputo would take a leave of absence after an outburst attacking CDC scientists. And federal officials unveiled a plan to provide free COVID-19 vaccines, while Joe BidenJoe BidenNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter Trump narrows Biden's lead in Pennsylvania: poll Florida breaks first-day early voting record with 350K ballots cast MORE said he trusts scientists on the issue, not Trump. 

We'll start with Caputo:

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Trump HHS official to take 'leave of absence' amid uproar

The top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be taking a medical "leave of absence," the agency announced Wednesday.

Michael Caputo will be focusing on "his health and the well-being of his family" for the next 60 days, HHS said. That means he will be gone until after the Nov. 3 election.

Backstory: A longtime Trump associate, Caputo was installed to manage communications at HHS in April after a series of critical reports about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Caputo has been under fire for comments he made attacking career scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for being anti-Trump. He claimed without evidence that the CDC was harboring a “resistance unit” opposing President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE and accused government scientists of “sedition.” 

In the same video, he also warned Trump's followers to prepare for an armed insurrection if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden loses the election and refuses to concede.

Also leaving: Caputo's top adviser, Paul Alexander, will be leaving the department entirely.

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Alexander has come under scrutiny for trying to exert control over CDC's coronavirus messaging, including the content of the agency's weekly scientific reports on the pandemic, to make them conform to President's Trump's comments that the pandemic is under control. 

Read more here.

Federal officials unveil plan to provide free coronavirus vaccine

The Trump administration on Wednesday outlined a strategy to deliver safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine doses to the American people as quickly as possible, for free.

In a report to Congress and a separate "playbook" for states, the Department of Health and Human Services, in conjunction with the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out detailed vaccination distribution plans for states, tribal, territorial and local public health programs.

State plans for distribution are due by Oct. 16. 

Limited supply: Supply will be very limited at first, and officials advised states to prepare for that. They said to assume limited vaccine doses may be available by early November 2020 if a vaccine is authorized or licensed by the FDA, but the supply may increase substantially in 2021. 

Info campaign: An information campaign led by HHS public affairs “will focus on vaccine safety and efficacy, and target key populations and communities to ensure maximum vaccine acceptance.” 

Many, many unknowns: The key to the plan is flexibility. No vaccine has been authorized, so nobody knows what kinds of infrastructure will be needed. Variables like appropriate populations, distribution, storage and dosage requirements are all unknown.

Read more here.

Biden says to trust scientists on COVID vaccine, not Trump

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden weighed in on vaccine distribution.

During a press conference, Biden said a COVID-19 vaccine must be developed and distributed transparently by scientists and not politicians.

Biden accused President Trump of politicizing the vaccine approval process.

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"I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don't trust Donald Trump," Biden said. "At this moment the American people can't either."

Biden said the White House needs to give the American people "honest answers" about the vaccine development process, including who determines safety and effectiveness, and how the government will ensure distribution of the vaccine will be fair.

Trump attack: Administration health officials are working hard to convince the public that vaccine development and authorization will be insulated from political pressure. Republicans, including Trump, have even gone so far as to attack Biden for being anti-science and anti-vaccine.

But really: Trump held a briefing on Wednesday and immediately undercut everything his health officials said earlier in the day, giving credence to Biden's argument that he is meddling in science for political purposes. Trump said he called CDC director Robert Redfield after his Senate testimony and asked him why he said a vaccine won’t be ready for wide distribution until middle of next year. He also questioned why Redfield said a mask could be more effective than a vaccine.

Read more here.

Which brings us to...

CDC director says masks more guaranteed to work than a vaccine

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Yes, you read that right.

It was a busy day on Capitol Hill, as three top health officials testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Among the more noteworthy comments: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said that wearing a mask is likely more guaranteed to protect someone from the coronavirus than taking a vaccine.

The explanation: An eventual vaccine is not expected to work in 100 percent of people. FDA's standard for giving a vaccine the green light is only 50 percent efficacy, which is about on par with a seasonal flu shot. A mask is guaranteed to offer at least some protection for all wearers, though it is far from total protection.

"We have clear scientific evidence they work, I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, because the immunogenicity may be 70 percent and if I don't get an immune response, the vaccine's not going to protect me, this face mask will," Redfield said.

That’s obviously a different tune on masks than President Trump has struck. 

Read more here

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Back to Caputo….Redfield also pushed back on his claim of a ‘resistance unit’ at CDC

Redfield addressed Caputo’s extraordinary claims about a “resistance unit” at CDC.

I want to make a comment that not only is it not true, it deeply saddened me when I read those comments, because as I said in my statement, CDC is made up of thousands of dedicated men and women, highly competent, it is the premier public health agency in the world," Redfield said.

Politico also reported last week that Caputo and his communications team have sought to edit some of CDC's premier scientific reports, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWR).

Redfield, speaking generally, said: "At no time has the scientific integrity of the MMWR been compromised and I can say that under my watch it will not be compromised."

Read more here

Watchdog report finds brokers offered false info on coverage for pre-existing conditions

Some health insurance brokers provided misleading or false information to potential customers about whether their plans covered preexisting conditions, according to an undercover audit completed by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. 

The audit, requested by Senate Democrats, sought to determine whether companies selling health plans exempt from Affordable Care Act coverage requirements were being honest about the limitations of the plans, which tend to be cheaper but aren’t comprehensive and typically don’t cover preexisting conditions like cancer or diabetes.

In 31 “undercover phone calls” in which employees of the GAO posed as customers looking for health insurance that covered their preexisting conditions, eight of the sales representatives “engaged in potentially deceptive marketing practices,”  the agency concluded.

In those instances, representatives sold GAO employees limited benefit plans that don’t cover preexisting conditions, including memberships to health care discount programs that don’t actually qualify as insurance. 

Why it matters: These types of plans have proliferated in recent years. Democrats blame the Trump administration, which has embraced similar ACA-exempt plans. They worry people could be suckered into buying these plans and not know until they get sick that it doesn’t offer certain benefits. 

Read more here 

What we’re reading

'Tell the public the truth' — Bob Woodward tells Shepard Smith that Trump failed to rally U.S. around coronavirus fight (CNBC)

Eli Lilly reports a reduced rate of hospitalization for coronavirus patients using its antibody treatment (CNBC

As controversies swirl, CDC director is seen as allowing agency to buckle to political influence (Stat

State by state

Maine wedding ‘superspreader’ event is now linked to seven deaths. None of those people attended. (Washington Post)

Many states keep patchy data or don't release results from antigen COVID tests, review shows (Kaiser Health News

N.Y.C. is opening its own virus testing lab to address shortages (New York Times

Experts worry as state and local officials roll back virus restrictions (PBS)

Op-eds in The Hill 

In defense of Trump's efforts to quell pandemic panic