People Injured by the COVID-19 Vaccine Need More Help from the Federal Government

No vaccine is perfect, and unfortunately, COVID-19 vaccines have caused serious adverse side effects in a tiny percentage of people.   For those whose side effects are severe enough to put them out of work or generate high medical bills, the federal government can provide benefits via the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP).  This program is not to be confused with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), which does not address caused by COVID-19 vaccines.  Examples of serious side effects from COVID-19 vaccines can include blood clots, long-lasting shoulder pain, and swelling of the tongue. 

However, the CICP is not up to snuff, and the majority of claims are not being addressed.  As public health officials continue to encourage Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, how can the government better serve those who face rare yet serious consequences from doing the right thing and getting their shots?

The CIPC, explained.  Created in 2010, the CICP was created to provide compensation for injuries resulting from any vaccination, medication, or other device that’s recommended to treat against a declared pandemic, epidemic, or security threat such as Ebola, Zika, and anthrax. 

In March 2020, then-HHS Secretary Alex Azar issued a declaration to provide liability immunity for countermeasures like vaccines and treatments related to COVID-19.  He also directed the CICP to provide benefits to individuals who “sustain a serious physical injury or die” from a COVID-19 countermeasure. 

In terms of coverage, the CICP provides $50,000 a year to replace lost wages and reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses.  If a person dies, a next-of-kin can receive up to $370,376.  Those who are injured by a countermeasure can request compensation by filing a request and submitting medical records within one year from the date the countermeasure was administered.  CICP medical staff then process to review compensation claims, and those who feel their claims are unfairly rejected can review an appeal before an independent panel.   

Unfortunately, many claims are not being address.  As of October 2021, over 1,300 countermeasure claims linked to COVID-19 vaccines remain pending before the CICP independent panel.  Since its creation over a decade ago, the CICP has only compensated 29 claims – none of which stem from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of these unaddressed claims belongs to Cody Flint, an agricultural pilot from Mississippi who has been experiencing serious health issues after getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in February 2021.  Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) shared Flint’s story to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra in a May 4th congressional hearing, where she remarked that CICP has shown a lack of urgency and transparency in addressing claims

In response, Becerra didn’t provide any information on how CICP is addressing the backlog of claims.   Instead, he voiced agreement on the importance of providing transparency, and he explained he wants to make sure no one is “gaming the system” so that “those who really have medical issues to report are the ones who are receiving assistance.” 

However, Becerra did seemingly acknowledge that many claims aren’t being addressed, saying “we’ve heard this story before,” and he promised to put a member of his staff in touch with the senator to provide further details. 

Some lawmakers aren’t waiting around for the administration to take action on CICP claims, though.  Hyde-Smith is a cosponsor of the Countermeasure Injury Compensation Fund Amendment Act, which would update CICP’s adjudication framework and create a new commission to look at countermeasures specifically caused by COVID-19 vaccines.  Unfortunately, the backlog of CICP claims hasn’t captured the attention of many lawmakers so far.  The Senate bill has only garnered thee cosponsors as of this writing, and only one House bill has been introduced that would address CICP in some fashion.  Thus, it doesn’t seem like either measure has a shot at advancing in Congress anytime soon. 

While the number of countermeasures arising from COVID-19 vaccines remains incredibly small, people who’ve legitimately suffered from countermeasures deserve compensation.  Although the federal government seems aware of the fact that the CICP claims backlog is nothing short of outstanding, without any additional commentary from top HHS officials like Becerra, it remains unclear if and when the administration will take action to address the backlog.   In the meantime, the best course of action for people impacted by countermeasures is to continue to advocate for changes at CICP, with the hope that more lawmakers will take notice and put pressure on the administration to get the program in order.

Inside the New Suicide Hotline Set to Launch This Summer

Everyone knows to dial 911 in case of emergency.  Soon, people experiencing a mental health crisis and are at risk of suicide will be able to dial 988 and get connected to a behavioral health counselor.  With the number of Americans reporting signs of anxiety and depression at an all-time high, a new pathway for mental health care couldn’t come sooner.  However, concerns over the ability for states to respond to 988 calls and a lack of public awareness means the success of the new suicide hotline number isn’t guaranteed.

Background: The National Suicide Hotline Prevention Act established 988 as a universal telephone number for a national suicide prevention crisis hotline in October 2020.   Since states are tasked with fielding 988 calls, the law gives states the authority to impose and collect fees to operate 988 services. 

988 isn’t the first attempt at a national suicide hotline.  First launched in 2004, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is a 24/7 service that connects callers experiencing a suicidal crisis to one of 160 crisis centers to receive immediate counseling and referrals to behavioral health professionals.  The Lifeline is still active – more than 2.1 million callers dialed 800-273-8255 in 2020, and the Lifeline will continue to remain in effect alongside 988.  However, there are several reasons why 988 is needed as an additional pathway for crisis intervention.

First, the demand for mental health services is greater than ever.  Cases of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed during the pandemic, and suicide deaths in the US totaled more than 46,000 in 2020, justifying the need for more resources. 

Furthermore, the Lifeline was not adequately handling higher call volume spurred by the pandemic.   In 2021, callers abandoned about 17% of calls to the Lifeline before they received help due to extended wait times; additionally, 41% of text messages and 73% of online chats were also abandoned.  How well the Lifeline addressed higher call volume also varied by state.  In 2020, the state of Washington answered 74% of its calls, while Wyoming only answered 16% of its calls. 

Finally, 988 is a simple number that’s easy to remember – just like 911.  Having more people remember and dial 988 would allow more opportunities to connect people experiencing a mental health crisis with the care they need. 

988 is set to go live on July 16, 2022, and while the federal government won’t be operating the new hotline, agencies have been working to make sure states have the resources they need to start taking incoming calls on day one.  In December 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced $282 million to grants to support 988 efforts, including $177 million to strengthen and expand the existing Lifeline network operations (including a network for Spanish speakers) and $105 million to build up staffing in states’ local crisis call centers.  In April 2022, SAMHSA doled out another nearly $105 million in grants to help states shore up their telephone infrastructure ahead of 988’s launch.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance, states still may not have enough money to start fielding 988 calls once mid-July hits.  SAMHSA estimates that 988 could receive over 7.6 million calls in its first year, requiring $560 million in funding each year – which exceeds the amount of funding provided by federal agencies thus far.  While states do have the authority to fund hotline operations by imposing fees, only four states (Virginia, Nevada, Washington and Colorado) have passed legislation to do this, and many other states have been reluctant to impose fees on consumers amid widespread inflation.

On top of this, most people don’t even know about 988.  Public education on 988 has so far relied on states, which have done little to raise awareness.  A poll by the Trevor Project in April 2022 found that 69% of respondents were unaware of the forthcoming suicide hotline. 

988 has great potential to provide people undergoing a mental health crisis to get the care they need.  But without enough money and clear communication, there’s a chance the new hotline might not live up to its expectations and otherwise preventable deaths by suicide could still continue to occur. 

What Happened, What You Missed: April 18-22

DOJ Appeals Ruling on Transportation Mask Mandate

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an appeal to the US District Court ruling that overturned a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirement for masks to be worn on transit, airplanes, and other transportation-related settings.  After Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled on Monday that the CDC had exceeded its statutory authority on the travel mask mandate, the CDC asked the DOJ to file an appeal.  Of note, the DOJ declined to include a motion for stay in its appeal filing meaning the federal government will not be able to reinstate the travel mask mandate unless the ruling is overturned.   Since the court’s ruling on Monday, multiple airlines, public transit agencies, and transportation providers have announced that they will no longer require passengers to wear masks.

CMS Proposes New Policies on Health Equity, Maternal Health

In a proposed rule issued on Monday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) outlined new policies intended to improve health equity and maternal health.  The proposed rule calls for adding three health equity measures to the new Hospital Inpatient Quality Reporting (IQR) Program that focus on addressing social determinants of health and assessing how a hospital is advancing health equity through strategic planning and data collection.  To boost maternal health, the rule proposes creating a new birthing-friendly designation for hospitals and would add two maternal health-focused quality measures to the Hospital IQR Program.  Comments on the proposed rule are due on June 17, 2022.

Moderna: “Bivalent” Vaccine Booster Provides Stronger Protection

On Tuesday, Moderna announced that its modified COVID-19 vaccine booster generated strong protection against multiple COVID-19 variants.  The company modified its booster shot to be “bivalent,” meaning that it combines a formula targeted for the original COVID-19 strain and a formula focused on the Beta variant.  According to preliminary trial results, the bivalent vaccine shot demonstrated efficacy against the Omicron variant and other COVID-19 variants of concern.  Moderna is still testing another bivalent vaccine with a formula targeted to both original COVID-19 strain and the Omicron variant, and results on this version are expected later in the spring.  However, the trial results have yet to be reviewed independently by scientists. 

Cook Political Report Shifts 8 House Races Toward GOP

Eight Democratic-held seats in the House of Representatives are less likely to remain in control of Democrats after this fall’s midterm elections, according to the latest 2022 midterm ratings by The Cook Political Report.  The updated ratings bring the total of Democratic-held seats that are in the “toss up” category or trending Republican to 27, exacerbating Democrats’ fears of a brutal midterm election this November.  The ratings shift is welcome news for the Republicans, who only need to win five seats in this fall to regain control of the House.  The new ratings comes as President Joe Biden’s approval ratings hit the lowest level of his presidency, stoking more fear among Democrats’ regarding their electoral prospects this fall. 

ICYMI: US Army Parachute Plane Prompts Evacuation of Capitol

On Wednesday night, the US Capitol Police (USCP) briefly issued, then withdrew, an evacuation alert for the US Capitol Complex after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allegedly failed to inform the USCP of an aircraft flying in the vicinity of the US Capitol.  The aircraft in question was a part of the US Army’s parachute team and was participating in a flyover at Nationals Stadium, which is less than one mile from the Capitol.  The following day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) slammed the FAA for not informing the Capitol Police of the flyover and committed to a congressional review of what went wrong.  Pelosi also noted that Capitol personnel are still reeling from the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

What Happened, What You Missed: April 11-15

Administration Extends PHE, Transportation Mask Mandate

On Tuesday, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra issued a 90-day renewal of the public health emergency that was initially set to expire on April 16.  The renewal ensures that Medicaid coverage protections, telehealth services, and other waivers tied to the PHE will continue through at least July 15, 2022.  While the administration has declined to say how long the PHE will continue, Secretary Becerra has repeatedly stated that HHS would give 60 days’ notice before ending the PHE.  On Wednesday, the administration also announced a 15-day extension of the transportation mask mandate through May 3, 2022.  According to a press release, the administration is keeping the mandate in place as it assesses the impact for rising COVID-19 case numbers on severe disease and hospitalization.  In recent weeks, the airline industry has been lobbying the administration to wind down the transportation mask mandate, citing advanced air filtration systems on board aircrafts.

Pfizer to Seek FDA Authorization for Booster in Kids Ages 5-11

Pfizer announced on Thursday that it will soon ask the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for a third “booster” dose of its COVID-19 vaccine for kids  five through 11.  The announcement comes after data from the phase 2/3 clinical trial, which revealed that a third dose administered six months after the initial two-dose regimen yielded enough antibodies to neutralize both the original COVID-19 strain and the Omicron variant.  While the results are welcoming news, scientists are concerned that Pfizer’s booster dose may only provide a few months of protection against infection.  For instance, antibodies generated from a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine in adults wane after about four months. However, Pfizer has yet to make the data available to outside scientists for review.

CMS Proposes Pay Cut for Nursing Homes

On Monday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced  a proposed rule that plans to decrease Medicare Part A payments to skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) by around $320 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023.  The payment cut is partially in response to a new payment system implemented in FY 2020 that ended up paying SNFs 5% more than initially anticipated.  The proposed rule also asked for feedback on how to code for residents in isolation, the quality reporting program, and how CMS should create minimum staffing requirements.  The deadline for stakeholders to submit feedback is June 10, 2022. 

House Appropriators to Begin Marking Up FY23 Spending Bills in June

The House Appropriations Committee is reportedly planning to begin marking up its FY 2023 spending bills in June, which means the bills could be up for consideration on the House floor by July.  Tentatively, subcommittees are planning to mark up their 12 spending bills from June 13-22, while the full committee would hold its markups June 22-30.  Appropriations committee leaders have voiced a desire to reach agreements on spending bills much quicker than they did for FY 2022, which wasn’t finalized until an omnibus was signed into law last month.  During a March 31 subcommittee hearing, Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro expressed a desire to pass all appropriations bills “on time” so they can be signed into law by September 30, 2022.

ICYMI: Rabid Fox Bites 9 around US Capitol Complex

Last week, a rabid fox bit nine people around the US Capitol Grounds, including Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA).  While foxes are common in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, last Wednesday’s incident marks the first time a fox has been spotted in the US Capitol Complex since 2014.  Out of an abundance of caution, Rep. Bera and the other individuals bitten went on to get rabies and tetanus shots.  The Humane Rescue Alliance eventually captured and euthanized the fox after it tested positive for the rabies virus.  

What Happened, What You Missed: March 14-18

Ashish Jha to Replace Jeff Zients as White House COVID-19 Task Force Chair

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients will step down from his post next month.  President Biden also announced that Zients’ replacement will be Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a practicing physician.  Jha has served as an outside advisor for administration officials over the past several months, particularly on the development of the new COVID-19 roadmap that was released earlier this month.  Zients’ departure comes at a time when case numbers have plummeted since the start of the Omicron wave and the administration forges ahead on a new strategy that focuses on living with the virus.

Pfizer, Moderna Seek EUA for Second COVID-19 Booster Shot

This week, both Pfizer and Moderna submitted applications to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an emergency use authorization (EUA) for a second booster dose of their respective COVID-19 vaccines.  While Pfizer is specifically seeking an EUA for adults over age 65, Moderna is requesting an EUA for anyone over 18 years of age.  However, Pfizer noted in press release that it’s currently conducting a clinical trial in Israel for health care workers aged 18 years or older who have already received three doses of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine.  The submission of both applications comes days after Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said a fourth vaccine dose will probably be needed for everyone.

White House Urged Congress to Provide Additional COVID-19 Relief Funding

The Biden administration is pushing for Congress to pass legislation to provide more funding for COVID-19 after lawmakers nixed $15.6 billion in COVID-19 funding from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 omnibus appropriations bill due to disagreements over how the additional funds would be paid for.   Without additional funding, the administration warns that it will soon have to wind down federal subsidies that guarantee free COVID-19 treatments for patients like oral antivirals and monoclonal antibodies.  Additionally, administration officials are fearful that a lack of additional funding would mean the government may not be able to supply enough booster doses and antivirals in the event of another surge in cases.  The stalemate over COVID-19 funding comes as public health officials worry that an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Europe could indicate cases number may soon begin to rise again in the US.

Nashville, Milwaukee Are Finalists to Host the 2024 GOP Convention

The Republican National Committee (RNC) has narrowed down its list of possible locations for its 2024 convention to two cities: Milwaukee and Nashville.  Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City were initially in the running, although the latter was dropped because its main arena will be undergoing renovations in 2024.  If selected, Milwaukee would be the first city to host back-to-back conventions since New York City hosted the Democrats’ conventions in 1976 and 1980.  The Democratic National Committee held its virtual national convention in Milwaukee for 2020.  A final decision regarding the location of the Republicans’ 2024 convention is expected by August. 

ICYMI: Smithsonian Vetting Locations for Two New Museums The Smithsonian is currently considering 24 potential sites for two new museums that Congress approved in its FY 2021 omnibus appropriations bill: the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.  While the spending bill lists fours potential sites near that National Mall that could be used for either museum, the final decision on where to break ground will be up to the Smithsonian Board of Regents.   Consultants are working with the Smithsonian to find potential sites; however, a lack of available, empty land near the National Mall means other potential locations are in play, like the Corcoran Gallery of Art building, the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and L’Enfant Plaza.

What Happened, What You Missed: February 28-March 4

White House Unveils New COVID-19 Strategy

On Wednesday, the White House unveiled a new pandemic road map that’s centered around four main goals: (1) protecting and treating against COVID-19; (2) preparing for new variants; (3) preventing business and school shutdowns; and (4) helping to vaccinate the rest of the world.  A key feature of the new plan is a “test to treat” system to be deployed to hundreds of pharmacies that will allow high-risk individuals to be provided antiviral pills free-of-charge if they test positive for COVID-19.  The plan is part of a broader initiative that centered around returning to a new normal while preparing for the possibility of new variants.  However, implementing the road maps largely depends on funding from Congress, and it remains unclear if the White House can win the support of Republicans who have been demanding more transparency on existing COVID-19 aid.  

Senate Strikes Down Vaccine Mandate in Symbolic Vote

The Senate voted 49-44 on Wednesday in favor of a joint resolution to strike the administration’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.  Even though all Democratic senators, who were present for the vote, opposed the resolution there were too  many Democratic absences that Republicans were able to pass the measure by a party-line vote.  Many Republican lawmakers oppose the vaccine mandate because they say it is exacerbating the shortage of health care workers, especially in rural areas.  However, the resolution is almost certain to fail in the Democrat-controlled House, and the White House has already threatened to veto the measure.

Administration Announces New Nursing Home Safety Initiatives

On Monday, the White House announced new initiatives to make nursing homes safer, which included  minimum staffing levels, limits to the number of residents housed in a single room, and steps to improve inspections.  Additionally, the administration said it will increase fines at poorly operated nursing homes from $21,000 to $1 million.  Of note, the White House admonished private equity firms in its announcement for their alleged role in declining nursing home quality.  The announcement follows a difficult two-year period that exposed  the lack of safety measures in place for nursing homes and saw over 200,000 nursing home residents and staff die from COVID-19.  The administration will issue rulemaking over the coming months to carry out the initiatives, and it will ask Congress to provide nearly $500 million in new Medicare funding to boost inspections.

Inhofe to Retire Early Next Year

On February 28, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) announced he will retire from the US Senate on January 3, 2023, four years earlier than the end of his current term in 2027.  While the 87-year-old senator declined to provide a reason for his retirement, reports suggest his wife’s health may have been a factor.  Inhofe served as an Oklahoma state lawmaker and as Mayor of Tulsa before being elected to the US House of Representatives in 1986 and later the US Senate in 1994, where he went on to chair the committees on Armed Services and Environment and Public Works.   Inhofe is also an avid aviator and is the only member of Congress to have flown an airplane around the world.  Oklahomans will choose Inhofe’s successor in a special election this November.  Already, three Republicans have announced their intent to run in the deep-red state, including Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), former Inhofe chief of staff Luke Holland, whom Inhofe has endorsed; and Republican state Sen. Nathan Dahm.

ICYMI: Landmarks Across DC Show Support for Ukraine

Since Russia began its unlawful invasion of Ukraine over a week ago, countless buildings and landmarks across the Washington, DC area have been shining blue and gold lights in support of Ukraine.  Some of the buildings and structures to feature the colors of the Ukrainian flag include the Basilica of the National Shrine, the National Cathedral, the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, the George Washington Masonic Temple, and the Kennedy Center.   Additionally, Ukrainian flags currently fly along Pennsylvania Avenue NW between the White House and the US Capitol.

What Happened, What You Missed: February 21-25

Future of ARPA-H In Doubt

The Biden administration’s plans to set up a new biomedical research agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) have become more uncertain since Eric Lander, the president’s chief science advisor, stepped down two weeks ago.  Former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins has temporarily stepped in to serve as science advisor, and he favors keeping the new agency within NIH – a departure from many Democratic lawmakers who prefer that ARPA-H remain a separate agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  Republicans in Congress who are critical of the NIH’s handling of the pandemic might be reluctant to provide funding for a new organization within NIH, even if it’s to support new research.  More so, the two top Republican Senators who support biomedical research, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), are retiring soon, which could further delay creating ARPA-H as the administration may run into trouble finding supporters in a possible GOP-controlled Senate next year.

CDC Endorses 8-Week Vaccine Interval

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its COVID-19 mRNA vaccine guidance to expand the recommended time between the two initial vaccine doses from 3-4 weeks to eight weeks.  The new timeline apples to people over the age of 12, although the CDC still recommends that people who are immunocompromised or over the age of 65 adhere to the usual 3–4-week dosing intervals.  According to the CDC, increasing the interval between the first two vaccine doses may reduce the risk of severe side effects like inflammation of the heart wall.  The CDC’s recommendation of waiting at least five months to receive a third “booster” dose remains unchanged.

HHS Distributes $560M from Provider Relief Fund

HHS announced on Thursday that it will distribute $560 million from the Provider Relief Fund to over 4,100 providers, leaving $5.5 billion remaining in the fund.  According to HHS, the current phase of distribution has focused on equity, including higher reimbursements for smaller providers and bonus payments for providers who serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.  HHS additionally commented that providers can use the funds to address workforce shortages and staff burnouts.  The latest release of funding comes as health care providers call on Congress to replenish the fund with at least $20 billion.

CMS Pulls the Plug on ACO Option for Rural Providers in CHART Model

On Tuesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it has removed the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) Transformation Track from the Community Health and Rural Transformation (CHART) Model, which provided an alternative payment model for rural providers to participate in.  According to the webpage for the CHART Model, CMS decided to remove the ACO track as part of a “broader effort” to develop a strategy to increase ACO adoption in rural areas. While CMS did not offer additional details on its decision to eliminate the track, the agency is currently looking to remove any duplicative payment models to ease the burden on providers.  The CHART model was created in 2020 to help Medicare beneficiaries living in rural communities get access to health care services.

ICYMI: There’s Now an App for Networking on the Hill

Congressional staffers haven’t had a lot of opportunities to network in person over the last two years.  Therefore, to create more opportunities for staffers to connect in-person, a digital director for a Republican congressman recently launched CNCT, a social and professional networking app.  Limited to individuals with a or email address, CNCT will connect staffers through coffee meetup and events and allow for groups to message one another.   The app is scheduled to launch on March 18.

What Happened, What You Missed: February 7-11

CDC Stands By Indoor Masking Guidelines…for Now

As blue states announce plans to roll back requirements on indoor masking, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said it’s still too soon to change the federal government’s current guidelines on masks due to high hospitalizations and deaths in some states.  However, Walensky did say her agency is currently working on new guidelines, which reports suggest could entail using data on hospitalization rates as a marker for public health interventions like masks instead of the currently used metric of daily case rates.  Over the past week, some Democratic governments and public health experts have been urging the administration to release new guidelines to help determine when it’s appropriate to lift mitigation measures and transition from a pandemic to an endemic phase.

Lawmakers Reach Tentative Budget Deal for FY 2022 Omnibus

After months of gridlock, congressional leaders reached an agreement on Wednesday on a framework for a Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 appropriations omnibus.  However, specific details of the agreement remain unknown to the public, including topline funding levels and whether earmarks will be included in the final spending bill.  Additionally, there is still a possibility that riders over controversial items like the Hyde Amendment could upend negotiations.  Until the FY 2022 appropriations omnibus can be finalized, Congress will need to advance a stopgap funding measure to ensure government funding continues beyond the current deadline of February 18.  Last week, the House approved a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through March 11, and the Senate is expected to vote on a CR next week.

Senate to Vote on Califf’s Confirmation Next Week

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) filed a motion to limit debate yesterday on Robert Califf’s nomination to lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which sets the stage for a confirmation vote next week that is all but certain to clear the Senate.  The motion comes after Califf’s nomination had been stalled for weeks due to concerns from Senators from both parties over Califf’s response to the opioid crisis when he served as FDA Commissioner in 2016-2017.  If confirmed, Califf would be the FDA’s first permanent commissioner in over a year. 

SFC Outlines Next Steps on Bipartisan Mental Health Bill

Earlier this week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) tapped subcommittee co-chairs with crafting bipartisan mental health legislation with hopes to introduce this summer.  Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John Thune (R-SD) will work together on a telehealth component, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) will focus on provisions related to youth behavioral health, Sens. Michael Bennet’s (D-CO) and Richard Burr’s (R-NC) will address parity between physical and behavioral health, and Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and John Cornyn (R-TX) will work on integrated care.

ICYMI: Super Bowl to Feature Several Athletes from the DC Area

This Sunday’s big game will feature nearly a dozen athletes who are either from or have ties to the Washington, DC metropolitan area.  To name a few on the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster, linebacker Keandre Jones went to high school in Olney, Maryland and played football at the University of Maryland, while right tackle Isaiah Prince grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland.  On the Los Angeles Rams roster, running back Jack Funk is a Gaithersburg, Maryland native and played college ball at the University of Maryland, while Fairfax County Virginia’s Nick Scott, who plays defensive back, is the last National Football League player to ever intercept the recently retired Tom Brady.

What Happened, What You Missed: January 31-February 4

Biden Reboots Cancer Moonshot with Ambitious New Goal

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that his administration is relaunching the Cancer Moonshot with the ambitious goal of halving the nation’s death rate from cancer over the next 25 years.  To accomplish this, the White House is forming a “Cancer Cabinet” consisting of representatives from several cabinet-level agencies and urging more Americans to get screened for cancer.  Biden also called on Congress to pass proposals that create and fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), which would drive innovation in biomedical research.  President Biden initially helmed the Cancer Moonshot when former President Barack Obama first formed the initiative back in 2016.

Pfizer Asks FDA to Authorize Vaccine for Kids under 5

On February 1, Pfizer formally requested that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issue an emergency use authorization (EUA) for its COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 6 months to 5 years old.   In an unprecedented move, the FDA urged Pfizer to request an EUA for its vaccine in order to address rising COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths among children under 5.  Pfizer is currently testing a third COVID-19 dose in its clinical trials after data showed a two-dose regimen did not produce sufficient antibody protection in children ages 2 to 5, although it did in children ages 6 months to age 2.  By issuing an EUA for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine before data on a third dose is available, the FDA hopes it can give parents a head start on vaccinating young children before a third dose can be approved.  If all goes well, children under 5 could start getting vaccinated by the end of the month.

CMS Emphasized Health Equity in 2023 MA, Part D Advance Notice

On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued its proposed Advance Notice for Medicare Advantage (MA) and Part D drug programs in 2023.  To promote equity, the notice includes a proposal for a new quality measure for its star ratings that assesses how often health plans screen for social determinants of health like transportation and food security.  Additionally, the notice seeks input on how MA payment impacts care provided to underserved populations in rural or urban areas.  Comments are due on March 4, and the final Advance Notice will be released no later than April 4.

CR Becomes More Likely as Government Funding Deadline Looms

Congress  failed to reach an agreement this week on a Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 omnibus appropriations agreement, increasing the likelihood that lawmakers will resort to a continuing resolution to keep federal agencies open beyond the February 18  funding deadline.  While lawmakers started the week with a sense of optimism that they could find a consensus on topline funding levels, policy riders over controversial issues like the Hyde Amendment and disagreements over parity between defense and non-defense spending increases kept both parties from reaching a deal.  Fortunately, however, the odds of a government shutdown later this month remain slim.

ICYMI: “Racing President” Is the Hottest Job Vacancy in Washington

The Washington Nationals, DC’s Major League Baseball team, posted a job announcement this week that’s calling on eager fans to be one of its Racing Presidents.  The team currently has six presidential mascots – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge – who race against one another halfway through the fourth inning.  To be considered, applicants must be between 5 foot 7 inches and 6 foot 6 inches tall and able to run about 200 years in a 50-pound costume.  The ideal candidate is also expected to “uphold team values” and hold a GED or high school diploma.

What Happened, What You Missed: January 17-21

White House to Start Sending Out 400 Million N95 Masks Next Week

The Biden administration will begin distributing 400 million N95 masks from the National Strategic Stockpile to pharmacies and other locations starting next week.  The administration expects the program to be fully operational by early February and has plans for sending out high-quality masks to children in the future.  The announcement follows new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says N95 masks offer far better protection from COVID-19 than cloth masks, but stopped short of officially recommending that people opt for N95 masks.

Democrats’ Push for Voting Rights Reform Falters in the Senate

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ) joined all 50 Republican Senators in opposing a rules change to allow for voting rights legislation to pass with a simple majority, putting an end to Democrats’ efforts to bring about comprehensive voting rights reforms.  The late-night vote was unsurprising, as both Sinema and Machin have been forthright in their opposition to changing Senate rules, despite publicly backing some of the voting rights reforms included in the Democrats’ bill.  While President Joe Biden vowed to continue the fight for voting rights just hours before the Senate’s vote, it remains unclear if and how the Democrats will continue to pursue voting rights legislation.

Biden Speaks on BBB’s Uncertain Future

The Build Back Better (BBA) Act, Democrats’ sweeping social and climate spending package, isn’t completely dead, as President Biden conveyed during a two-hour press conference on Wednesday.  To keep Democrats’ policy agenda moving forward, Biden proposed breaking up the bill into smaller measures that could more easily pass.  Unfortunately for Democrats, this would involve sacrificing two of their key priorities – the expanded child tax credit and federally subsidized community college.  However, the path forward for BBB remains uncertain.  The day after Biden’s press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she would prefer passing a “skinny” BBB through the budget reconciliation process as opposed to “chunks” as Biden proposed.  Additionally, some worry an attempt to revive BBB in some fashion will jeopardize Democrats’ attempts to pass an omnibus appropriations bill by February 18.

HHS to Provide $103 Million for Health Care Workforce

On January 18, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the availability of $103 million in funding to address burnout and provide behavioral health services to the health care workforce.  The funding, which was provided through the American Rescue Plan, will come at a time when the nation’s health care workers face undue burden and stress as the Omicron variant pushes health care providers to the brink.  According to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the funding will be focused on rural and underserved areas, whose health care systems have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.   

ICYMI: Get Ready for Donald, Melania Trump Portraits at National Portrait Gallery

A spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC confirmed that the museum has commissioned for the  portraits of former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump, but declined to offer a timeline or additional details.  Since the 1990s, the museum has worked with the White House to commission a portrait near the end of a president’s term.  Typically, portraits of former presidents appear in the National Portrait Gallery a year or two after leaving office.  A photograph of Trump will remain on display at the museum until the official portrait is finally completed.

What Happened, What You Missed: January 3-7

CDC Shortens Pfizer Booster Shot Waiting Period to 5 Months

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Tuesday that people who received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine should receive a booster shot after five months, rather than six.  The same day, the CDC authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as a booster in children ages 12 to 15 and recommended that moderately or severely immunocompromised 5- to 11-year-olds receive an additional vaccine dose 28 days after their second dose.  The updated recommendations for children come as pediatric COVID-19 cases skyrocketed nationwide.  While the CDC’s booster interval recommendation for Johnson and Johnson recipients remained unchanged at two months, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday updated Moderna’s booster authorization to shorten the interval from six to five months similar to Pfizer.

Senate Democrats Renew Push of Voting Rights Legislation

After 2021 ended with a stalemate on the Democrats’ $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act, Senate Democrats are starting 2022 with a renewed focus on passing voting rights legislation.  Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other top Democrats have tied the latest push on voting rights with the one-year anniversary of the January 6th Capitol riot, underscoring a need to defend democracy and protect voting rights.  To pass the legislation and avert a likely filibuster from Republicans, Schumer has been pushing for a specific exemption to allow the voting rights bill to pass with a simple majority and return to the “talking filibuster.”  However, just like with Build Back Better, Democrats are facing opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-VW), who has repeatedly expressed concerns over changes to Senate rules.  Schumer has said he will give Democrats and Republicans in the Senate until January 17th to drop their opposition and allow Senators to begin debating the voting rights bill before he moves to change Senate filibuster rules.

CDC Stands by Updated COVID Isolation and Quarantine Guidelines

On Tuesday, the CDC recommitted to guidelines issued on December 29 that said individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and whose symptoms have resolved only need to isolate for five days instead of the originally required 10 days.  Shortly after the guidelines were initially updated, some public health officials criticized the agency for not requiring people to test negative for COVID-19 before leaving isolation.  However, the CDC updated its guidelines on January 4 with data to show that people are less likely to spread COVID-19 after five days.  The following day, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement criticizing the CDC’s updated guidelines for not requiring a negative test to leave isolation.  AMA also pointed to CDC data that said 31% of people remain infectious five days after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Rush, Lawrence Announce Retirements from Congress

On January 4, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) announced that he will not be seeking reelection for a 16th term in Congress.  A longtime civil rights activist, Rush first won his election to the House of Representatives in 1992, where his committee assignments have included the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Agriculture Committee.  While Rush cited a desire to spend more time with family as his primary reason for stepping down, he has vowed to continue to fight for racial injustice and equity and make his “voice heard in the public realm.”  The following day, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) announced that she will also not be running for reelection this year.  A former US Postal Service employee, Lawrence first became involved in local Detroit-area politics in 1997 before finally being elected to Congress in 2012.  Rush and Lawrence are respectively the 24th and 25th House Democrats to announce their retirement at the conclusion of the 117th Congress.

ICYMI: Snowstorm Leaves US Senator Stranded for 27 Hours

Countless motorists were stuck on I-95 between Washington, DC and Richmond, VA on Monday after a mix of snow and ice caused a roughly 50-mile traffic jam.  Among the motorists stranded was Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who said his trip to Washington took 27 hours.  According to state transportation officials, the logjam began when rapidly accumulating snow caused some vehicles near Fredericksburg, VA to crash, creating a chain reaction that backed up traffic for miles.  Shortly after arriving in Washington, Sen. Kaine went to Red Hen, a popular Italian restaurant in the District, to celebrate his son’s birthday. 

Why Aren’t Rapid COVID-19 Tests More Readily Available in the US?

“Should we just send one to every American?”  That’s what White House Press Secretary said on December 7 when asked during a press briefing why more Americans don’t have access to rapid antigen tests. Psaki’s response – which many deemed sarcastic – sparked a wave of backlash from members of the medical community who think that’s exactly what the Biden administration should do and make tests available to everyone at no cost.  So why isn’t the administration doing it?

Rapid tests are seen as an important public health tool for reducing the spread of COVID-19 because they can be used at home by an individual and provide results in as little as 15 minutes.  While not as accurate as PCR tests, rapid tests are available over- the-counter, which makes it easier and more convenient for people to get access tests.  And more people taking rapid tests would mean identifying more COVID-19 cases than would otherwise be possible with only PCR testing. Having an increase in access to rapid tests could also make forthcoming COVID-19 antiviral pills more useful, since their effectiveness depends on being taken within the first five days of illness.  Due to the convenience of rapid tests and their potential to stop the spread of COVID-19, some public health experts have pointed to over-the-counter tests as a way to potentially control the pandemic and return to “normal life.”

Currently, the availability of rapid tests in the US pales in comparison to other wealthy nations, where people can readily access tests at little or no cost.  In Germany, rapid tests are available in grocery stores for less than $1, while people in the United Kingdom can request mail-order rapid tests free-of-charge.

Here are some of the reasons why Americans can’t get rapid tests as easily as Germans or the British.

  • Regulatory issues.  Some manufacturers say the regulatory framework on rapid tests is too stringent because it requires test performance benchmarks to be at the same level of PCR tests, which test developers say is too high.  Additionally, US standards for approval are higher compared to some other peer nations, including the UK.
  • Supply chain problems.  There has been a consistent shortage of raw materials used to manufacture the diagnostic components of at-home tests.  Additionally, low COVID-19 case numbers during the summer caused some manufacturers like Abbott to pull-back on test production, leaving the company unable to keep up with increased demand for tests once case numbers began to jump in July 2021.
  • Lack of federal investment.  While the US government has invested billions of dollars into the development of vaccines, much less has been put towards the development and purchase of rapid tests.  In contrast, countries like the UK and Germany invested billions in both vaccines and at-home tests.   

Fortunately, rapid tests are a part of the Biden administration’s plans to combat COVID-19.  On December 2, President Joe Biden announced that insurance companies will soon reimburse individuals who buy over-the-counter rapid tests.  Other recent actions the administration has taken include investing $650 million to strengthen manufacturing capacity for rapid tests and a $70 million investment to develop an accelerated pathway within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate rapid tests.

But…rapid tests might not make a huge difference, anyway.  While rapid tests were frequently lauded by public health officials as a way to curb the pandemic, real-world evidence in countries where rapid tests are readily available suggests otherwise. In Germany, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have increased dramatically since October, while the UK has seen COVID-19 case numbers grow since restrictions were fully lifted in July (although hospitalizations and deaths remain low). 

And even though Biden recently committed to new investments in testing, which could result in 300 million new rapid tests per month, it would still amount to less than one test per month per person in the US. 

While convenience of rapid tests is undeniable, a boost in the availability of tests might accomplish little in the US, where most of the country is already grappling with a surge of new cases.