Overnight Health Care: Biden commits to $1,400 checks, but open to eligibility limits | CDC director: Teacher vaccination 'not a prerequisite' for safe school reopening | Coronavirus infections, hospitalizations falling

Overnight Health Care: Biden commits to $1,400 checks, but open to eligibility limits | CDC director: Teacher vaccination 'not a prerequisite' for safe school reopening | Coronavirus infections, hospitalizations falling
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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:

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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 PsakiJen PsakiBiden walks fine line with Fox News White House on Cleveland Indians' name change: 'We certainly support their change of name' US delegation departs Haiti after reports of gunshots at ex-president's funeral MORE 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. 

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Read more here.

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 WalenskyRochelle WalenskyArkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Unvaccinated nursing instructor urges COVID-19 shot from hospital bed after infection Large majority of unvaccinated say they don't intend to get the shot: poll MORE 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. FauciAnthony FauciDemocrats question GOP shift on vaccines GOP Rep. Cawthorn says he wants to 'prosecute' Fauci The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel MORE as the White House’s go-to source,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines Has Trump beaten the system? MORE (Ky.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Read more here

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.

Read more here.

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.

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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. 

Read more here.

In non-pandemic news ...

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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 PerryRick PerryFormer Texas Supreme Court justice jumps into state's AG Republican primary race Texas governor signs 'fetal heartbeat' abortion bill Tomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021 MORE (R). 

Read more here.

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 WelchPeter Francis WelchShakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' Democrats debate shape of new Jan. 6 probe On the Money: Tech giants face rising pressure from shareholder activists | House Democrats urge IRS to reverse Trump-era rule reducing donor disclosure | Sen. Warren, Jamie Dimon spar over overdraft fees at Senate hearing MORE (D-VT) and Brett GuthrieSteven (Brett) Brett GuthrieHillicon Valley: US, UK authorities say Russian hackers exploited Microsoft vulnerabilities | Lawmakers push for more cyber funds in annual appropriations | Google child care workers ask for transportation stipend Lawmakers push for increased cybersecurity funds in annual appropriations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - House GOP drama intensifies; BIden sets new vax goal MORE (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