Overnight Healthcare

Overnight Health Care: Biden officials announce funding to track virus variants | Senate Dems unveil public option proposal | White House: Teacher vaccinations not required for schools to reopen

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Welcome to Wednesday’s Overnight Health Care, where we are excited to see the sun for the first time in days. 

The Biden administration announced today millions of dollars would be invested in improving the country’s genomic sequencing of the coronavirus. Two Democratic senators introduced their public option proposal, and the debate over school openings rages on. Let’s start with the virus: 

Worried about virus variants? It helps to be able to know where they are spreading. Biden officials announced funding to boost tracking.

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it is investing roughly $200 million in an effort to triple the country’s genomic sequencing, the process crucial to tracking the spread of new, more contagious variants of the virus.

Another two actions, related to testing:

  • The administration will invest $650 million to help improve testing for K-8 schools as well as other gathering places like homeless shelters. 
  • Another $815 million will go toward ramping up domestic manufacturing of testing supplies.

Why sequencing matters: Experts say greatly expanding the current capability is crucial to understanding how widely the concerning coronavirus variants are spreading, and identifying new possible variants.

Carole Johnson, the White House testing coordinator, said the new funds will allow a threefold increase in genomic sequencing, up to 25,000 samples a week, though she did not provide a timeline for when that threshold will be met.

Read more here

Senate Democrats unveil health care proposal with public option

Two Democratic senators released their version of a public option health care plan Wednesday, setting the stage for this year’s debate over how best to expand coverage to the millions of people who are uninsured.

The proposal from Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Tim Kaine (Va.) would create a government-run health care plan on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges to compete with plans offered by private insurers with the hope of driving down costs. 

Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate could complicate any major health care reform, though Kaine said he will push for the proposal to be passed via reconciliation, which avoids the filibuster and requires only 51 votes 

The upper chamber is split 50-50 between the two parties, with Vice President Harris serving as a tie-breaker. 

That means that with no GOP converts, every single Democrat would need to get on board with the plan, which Kaine and Bennet argue is closest to what President Biden ran on. 

“I think we are in the spot where Joe Biden was during the campaign, and that suggests to me that this could be a consensus position for Democrats going forward,” Bennet told reporters Wednesday.

Looking ahead: Other public option and single-payer proposals are likely to be reintroduced soon, reigniting the debate over how best to expand access to health care that inflamed tensions during the Democratic presidential primary.

Read more here

White House says teacher vaccinations not required for schools to reopen

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that vaccinating teachers is not a requirement for reopening schools for in-person learning.

“Neither the president nor the vice president believe that it is a requirement,” Psaki said at a briefing when asked whether teachers need to be vaccinated before they return to school.

Psaki said that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines issued on Friday “included a range of mitigation steps, including vaccinations, as recommendations, but the mitigation steps also included steps like social distancing, smaller class sizes, the need for sanitation.”

“At the same time, the president and vice president also believe that teachers should be prioritized,” Psaki continued. “That’s up to states to determine.”

Why it matters: The White House has been careful about wading into the debate around vaccines and reopening schools, as teachers’ unions demand access to vaccines before returning to work.

Read more here

DeSantis threatens to divert vaccines from communities criticizing distribution

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday threatened to divert coronavirus vaccines from communities that criticize his distribution efforts. 

DeSantis made the remarks at a news conference amid criticism that he arranged for seniors in two wealthy neighborhoods to be given priority vaccine access, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said. “We’re totally happy to do that.”

The governor said that local officials should be grateful to receive extra doses and that otherwise he could send them elsewhere.

“If there’s going to be folks that are going to complain about getting more vaccines, you know, I’ll tell you what, I mean, I wouldn’t be complaining, I’d be thankful that we’re able to do it because, you know what, we didn’t need to do this at all,” DeSantis said.

Read more here

And in other governor news…NY state legislator claims Cuomo threatened him: ‘He can destroy me’

New York Assemblyman Ron Kim (D) told CNN on Wednesday that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) had threatened him over the phone after he criticized the governor over a pause in the release of data on coronavirus deaths in state nursing homes.

“Gov. Cuomo called me directly on Thursday to threaten my career if I did not cover up for Melissa [DeRosa] and what she said. He tried to pressure me to issue a statement, and it was a very traumatizing experience,” Kim told CNN.

“We’re in this business together and we don’t cross certain lines,” Kim said the governor told him. He also said Cuomo told him that he “hadn’t seen his wrath and that he can destroy me.”

Top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa told state lawmakers during a virtual meeting that the Cuomo administration “froze” releasing information on long-term care facility deaths out of concern that the Department of Justice (DOJ) under former President Trump would launch a federal investigation.

“No man has ever spoken to me like that in my entire life,” Kim said of the phone call with Cuomo.

Read more here

Coming soon from our colleague: “Lucky,” by No. 1 New York Times bestselling authors Jonathan Allen and The Hill’s Amie Parnes, explores Joe Biden’s road to the presidency, including the pandemic lockdown that kept him off the campaign trail. Pre-order here for the March release: prh.com/lucky

Virtual Event Announcement: Thursday 2/18 at 1:00 PM ET–Prioritizing the Patient

As we struggle to control a raging pandemic, it is clear that the current healthcare system does not serve all patients equally. How can we address inequities in the access and delivery of healthcare? Can there be bipartisan agreement around expanding access to affordable health insurance, lowering out of pocket costs, and addressing surprise medical billing? Join The Hill’s Steve Clemons for discussions with Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN), APHA’s Georges Benjamin, Donna Christensen and more.  RSVP today

What we’re reading

The Covid-19 relief bill is also an Obamacare expansion bill (Vox.com

Health officials say the coronavirus will likely become endemic in the next several years. What does that mean? (USA Today)

J&J’s first COVID-19 vaccine supply to US will be smaller than expected, Fauci says (Wall Street Journal)

State by state

After Biden nixes work requirements, Arkansas explores new path forward for Medicaid expansion (Arkansas Nonprofit News Network)

Why Biden has a chance to cut deals with red state holdouts on Medicaid (Kaiser Health News

Vaccination mandates? Some state lawmakers want to block vaccination requirements. (NBC News

The Hill op-eds

A proposal to balance science and society: Create a ‘Vaccine Vanguard’

Joe Biden should declare a food and nutrition war

The one-two punch to knock out high drug prices

Tags Andrew Cuomo Donald Trump Donna Christensen Jen Psaki Joe Biden Larry Bucshon Michael Bennet Robin Kelly Ron DeSantis Tim Kaine

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