Overnight Health Care: Johnson & Johnson delay prompts criticism of CDC panel | Pfizer CEO says third dose of COVID-19 vaccine 'likely' needed within one year | CDC finds less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people got COVID-19
Overnight Health Care: Experts warn US risks delaying 'normal' summer | Alabama GOP governor extends mask mandate | Senate votes to take up relief bill
Welcome to Thursday's Overnight Health Care, where unlike the Senate clerks we will not be reading aloud all 628 pages of the COVID-19 relief bill.
The country maybe will be getting back to normal sometime soon, GOP governors are split over lifting coronavirus restrictions, and the Senate voted to take up the $1.9 trillion relief bill.
Let's start with where we are on the state of the pandemic:
Experts warn US risks delaying 'normal' summer
President Biden's announcement that there will be enough vaccines for all adults by May is raising hopes the U.S. could soon return to a semblance of normalcy.
But the next few months in the pandemic are critical.
Concern is growing over moves by some states to lift restrictions even as new variants of the virus are on the rise in the U.S.
Health officials are calling for restrictions to remain in place for the final stretch, saying that it will not be much longer before the situation markedly improves. It doesn't make sense to lift the restrictions now, they say, when widespread vaccinations are almost within reach.
Thomas Tsai, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that by summer, "I think we can have a much more, I don't want to say normal, but at least a 'new normal' summer."
The near term is risky and uncertain: Experts warn that the return to normal could actually be delayed if restrictions are lifted too soon, causing a new spike in cases in the near term.
Tsai likened the current situation to the seventh inning stretch of a baseball game.
"Progress has been made; it's OK to take stock of that," he said. "How we play the next two innings determines if this is a single game or turns into a doubleheader."
Speaking of restrictions...not all southern GOP governors are following Texas and Mississippi's lead
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said Thursday she will extend her state's mask mandate for another month, a contrast with decisions from governors in Texas and Mississippi to lift orders.
Ivey noted that coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have fallen but said the time is not yet right to lift the mask order.
"Even with this positive news, Dr. Harris & I believe more Alabamians need to get their 1st shot before we take a step some other states have taken to remove the mask order altogether & lift all restrictions," she wrote on Twitter, referring to state health officer Scott Harris. "Folks, we're not there yet, but we're getting close."
Why it matters: The move sets up a split between Southern Republican governors on mask mandates and could be an indication more GOP governors will not follow Texas and Mississippi's leads right away.
Alabama's mask order will remain until April 9, after which Ivey said it would not be extended. She notably defended the effectiveness of the order.
"The bottom line is we have kept the mask mandate in place for more than a generous period of time because it has helped," she wrote. "And as a result of the people of our state doing their part, we have seen dramatic results & real progress being made."
Abbott not backing down, though, on Texas's move
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Thursday defended his decision to eliminate a statewide mask mandate amid an avalanche of criticism over the decision.
Abbott said in an interview with Fox News that officials in Austin are still advocating that Texans wear face coverings and that the state's residents are more aware now of how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"We are still strongly advocating that every Texan follow the best practice. Where we are today is completely different from where we were this time last year when Texans and Americans didn't know how to deal with this. For an entire year, Texans have learned the best practice, and that is to wear a mask, and we still strongly recommend that people do wear a mask," he said.
"The mask requirement being eliminated isn't going to make that big of a change in the state of Texas. Also, people in Texas will continue to wear a mask even though there's not a state mandate. We're just in a situation now where government mandates are not needed because Texans do know best practices," he added.
The remarks come as Democrats lambast Abbott over a move they say will produce more community transmission of the coronavirus as more infectious variants make their way across the U.S. and the globe.
Senate votes to take up COVID-19 relief bill
Senate Democrats voted on Thursday to take up a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill, teeing off what's expected to be a days-long sprint to pass the legislation.
The Senate voted 50-50 to proceed to the coronavirus relief legislation, with Vice President Harris breaking the tie to advance the bill.
"The Senate is going to move forward with the bill. No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill this week," Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said from the Senate floor on Thursday ahead of the vote.
Thursday's vote comes after a delay on getting the green light from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) ensuring that the Senate's bill, which largely reflects the House measure, complied with reconciliation rules, a budget process that is allowing them to bypass a 60-vote filibuster.
In an expected change, the Senate's version of the coronavirus bill strips out language increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour and lowers the cutoff for receiving stimulus checks to $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for couples.
A Senate Democratic aide said on Thursday that the bill also provides $510 million for FEMA homeless shelter providers, increases the total amount of Amtrak relief funding by $200 million and places "new guardrails" on the $350 billion for state and local governments.
No Republicans voted to take up the coronavirus bill.
On the world stage: US in talks with allies to counter China's vaccine diplomacy
The United States, India, Australia and Japan are in talks to provide coronavirus vaccines to Asian nations in an effort to battle both COVID-19 and a Chinese push to extend its global influence through vaccine diplomacy.
The discussions come as wealthy nations build stockpiles of the vaccine while low- and middle-income countries struggle to obtain shipments of their own. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with counterparts from the three other nations on Feb. 18, a State Department spokesperson said in an email Thursday.
"We are deeply focused on the issue of expanding global vaccination, manufacturing, and delivery, which will all be critical to end the pandemic. These are issues the United States is regularly discussing with allies and partners to encourage additional action and find areas of collaboration," the spokesperson said.
The talks were first reported by the Financial Times on Wednesday.
China is shipping millions of doses of vaccines its scientists have developed to nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, part of a concerted campaign to leverage soft power to win influence around the globe.
What we're reading
Navy says Johnson & Johnson's one-dose coronavirus vaccine is coming to bases in Japan (Stars and Stripes)
Congress questions drug companies on opioid settlement tax deductions (Washington Post)
In Palm Beach, Covid-19 vaccines intended for rural Black communities are instead going to wealthy white Floridians (Stat News)
State by state
100K United Center Vaccine Appointments Open in Illinois (NBC Chicago)
As federal coronavirus vaccine site opens in Tampa, some get Johnson & Johnson shots (Tampa Bay Times)
Hogan vows to increase Black vaccination rate, while D.C. leaves questions open about who gets priority (Washington Post)
The Hill op-eds