Overnight Healthcare

Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths | House panel advances Biden’s $1.9T COVID-19 aid bill | Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March

Welcome to Monday’s Overnight Health Care. It’s going to be a busy week, so make sure you’re properly caffeinated. Maybe try Wilkins Coffee.

Follow us on Twitter at @PeterSullivan4, @jessiehellmann and @nateweixel.

More than half a million people have died from COVID-19, even as vaccine distribution has been ramping up. Johnson & Johnson, which could get its vaccine authorized as early as this weekend, finally put a number on the doses it will have immediately available. And Republicans are ramping up criticism of President Biden’s nomination for HHS secretary, who has key hearings this week. 

We’ll start with the staggeringly large death toll.

A grim milestone in the pandemic: More than half a million dead of COVID-19 in US

The U.S. has surpassed 500,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus, even as case numbers trend downward and vaccination efforts proceed. 

The U.S. reached the half-million death milestone on Monday, the highest of any country, a little more than a year after the first American is believed to have died from the virus in Santa Clara County, Calif.  

For comparison sake: that’s essentially the entire population of Atlanta, dead, in about 12 months.

The true toll of the coronavirus pandemic, however, is likely far higher, as federal figures maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show excess mortality well above what might be otherwise assumed for a typical year. 

“It’s something that is stunning when you look at the numbers, almost unbelievable, but it’s true,” Anthony Fauci said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the day before the U.S. officially crossed the 500,000 threshold. “This is a devastating pandemic, and it’s historic. People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now.”

President Biden offered sympathy: “500,000 lives lost to COVID-19. It’s an unfathomable number, but each one represents a family that will never again be whole. To those who have lost loved ones: I know no words can numb the pain, but I hope you find some solace in knowing the nation grieves with you.”  

There is some good news in the trends, though: Some data is more hopeful, including cases dropping over 40 percent in the past two weeks and more than 70 percent since January, according to The New York Times. Daily positive tests are at their lowest rate since late October. Death rates are also beginning to slow.

Read more here

House panel advances Biden’s $1.9T COVID-19 aid bill

House Democrats are moving ahead with coronavirus relief. The House Budget Committee on Monday advanced President Biden‘s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on a 19-16 party-line vote.

The bill must be marked up by the House Rules Committee before consideration on the House floor, likely on Friday or Saturday. The legislation will then have to be taken up in the Senate, where it is expected to face considerable procedural and political challenges.

Democrats may struggle to pass certain portions of the bill in the Senate, where they hold a 50-50 majority with Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote.

The bill includes $1,400 stimulus checks, extensions to emergency unemployment benefits, funding for vaccinations and testing, $129 billion for schools, increases to child tax credits and earned income tax credits, and a plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.

But policies such as the $15 minimum wage may not pass muster under strict budget rules and have detractors among the Democratic caucus. Both Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) oppose including it.

Read more here.

More vaccine doses on the way? Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March

Johnson & Johnson said Monday that it plans to have enough doses of its vaccine for over 20 million Americans by the end of March if its vaccine is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

The company for the first time on Monday gave some specificity into the number of doses it will have immediately available. The vaccine, unlike those from Pfizer and Moderna, only requires one dose, so 20 million doses would completely vaccinate 20 million people.

More to come tomorrow: The news comes as part of prepared remarks posted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee for a hearing tomorrow morning with several vaccine manufacturers. 

Pfizer is also ramping up its supply. John Young, the company’s chief business officer, said in testimony posted by the committee that the company will be able to increase production to 13 million doses per week by the middle of March, up from 4 to 5 million per week at the beginning of February.

Read more here

FDA recommends shorter trials for updated coronavirus vaccines

Vaccine developers will not have to conduct lengthy clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness of shots tailored to fight new coronavirus variants, according to new guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

According to the guidance released Monday, developers will not need large randomized control trials comparing it to a placebo.

Instead, the FDA said it recommended companies submit data from small trials comparing a person’s immune response to a vaccine that has already been authorized. 

Simply put: The new guidance recommendations would speed up the review process for booster shots or new vaccines, a welcome development as experts worry about how coronavirus mutations could impact vaccines.

Anticipating, not reacting: Janet Woodcock, the agency’s acting commissioner, said the guidance is not meant as an indication that new vaccines would be needed, but is about being prepared.

“I think we need to anticipate this and work on it, so that we have something in our back pocket before the threshold is upon us, so to speak,” Woodcock said.

Read more here.

11 GOP senators ask Biden to withdraw Becerra nomination

Eleven Senate Republicans announced their opposition to President Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary ahead of his confirmation hearings before two committees this week.

The senators, led by Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), urged Biden in a letter to withdraw the nomination of Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, arguing he is unqualified to lead the HHS.

The letter was also signed by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), James Risch (R-Idaho), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Why it matters: To state the obvious, Biden is highly unlikely to withdraw Becerra’s nomination, which will be considered this week by the Senate Finance and Health committees. Some of these Republicans were never going to support Becerra. 

To be confirmed by the Senate, he would need at least 51 votes, which Democrats will have if every single member of the caucus votes for him and Vice President Harris breaks a tie. What will be interesting is where swing votes like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) fall. 

Read more here.

Hearing preview: Becerra to highlight expanding coverage

In opening remarks shared with The Hill, Becerra will highlight his efforts to expand health coverage over his two decades in Congress and as California’s attorney general.

“I worked to ensure every family had the assurance of care that mine had. I helped expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program. I helped write the Affordable Care Act. From the Ways and Means Committee, I fought to strengthen and modernize Medicare and how we finance it,” Becerra plans to say.

He also plans to address COVID treatments, and will pledge to work across the aisle to work on reopening schools and businesses.

“I worked with colleagues in other states – both Republicans and Democrats – to make COVID treatments more readily available. I am ready to work with you, our state and local partners, and across government, to get this right,” Becerra will say. 

From the chairwoman: According to a committee aide, HELP Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will highlight how Becerra’s “legislative knowledge, health care policy background, and executive experience make him an excellent choice to head a Department that is absolutely critical to defeating COVID-19.”  

Supreme Court to hear challenge to Trump’s Title X changes

The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the Trump administration’s changes to a federally funded family planning program that pushed hundreds of providers to leave.

The court announced Monday it will hear a case brought by the American Medical Association (AMA), Planned Parenthood and others arguing that the Trump administration’s changes to the Title X family planning program that bans providers from referring patients for abortions violates federal law and harms patient care. 

Title X funds thousands of providers across the country offering contraception, cancer screenings and other services to millions of low-income women and men.

Context: After the rules took effect, about one-quarter of nearly 4,000 providers left the program, arguing they could not in good conscience agree not to provide patients with information about abortion. As a result, several states were left with no Title X  providers. 

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

What we’re reading

First real-world coronavirus vaccine data in Britain show decline in infections, hospitalizations after first dose (Washington Post

Biden to mourn 500,000 dead while balancing grief and hope (AP)

Countless homebound patients still wait for Covid vaccine despite seniors’ priority (Kaiser Health News) 

State by state

L.A. County continues to see decline in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths (LA Times

Leaders are frustrated with Baker’s decision to stop sending vaccinations to local sites (Boston Globe)

New single-payer bill intensifies Newsom’s political peril (Kaiser Health News)

Op-eds in The Hill

Questions the FDA must ask drug makers as it considers full COVID-19 vaccine approval

Testing international travelers for COVID-19 is a bad idea

New York’s deadly nursing home scandal: Politics overruled science 

Tags James Lankford Joe Biden Joe Manchin Marsha Blackburn Mike Lee Mike Rounds Patty Murray Roger Wicker Steve Daines Susan Collins Ted Cruz Tom Cotton Xavier Becerra

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