Coronavirus: The Hill and the Headlines, February 2021 # 15

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Your guide to the latest Hill developments, news narratives, and media headlines from Hogan Lovells Government Relations and Public Affairs practice.

In Washington:

  • The U.S. surpassed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Monday, in a pandemic that has lasted almost a year. The nation’s total virus toll is higher than in any other country globally, and it means that more Americans have died from Covid-19 than they did on the battlefields of World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined.  President Biden on Monday ordered flags on federal land to be lowered to half-staff for the next five days to mark the staggering milestone. Biden delivered remarks at a candle-lighting ceremony Monday saying,  “Let this not be a story of how far we fell, but how far we climbed back up," Biden said in brief but poignant remarks before a moment of silence for those who died from the virus.
  • The House Budget Committee met this afternoon to start marking up the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.  “We are in a race against time. Aggressive, bold action is needed before our nation is more deeply and permanently scarred by the human and economic costs of inaction,” Chairman John Yarmuth (D-KY) said in his opening statement, "We are going to pass this legislation and we are going to turn this pandemic and economic crisis around.” The committee aims for the House to have a floor vote to pass the legislation by Friday or Saturday.  
  • President Biden on Monday announced policy changes to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a business loan program established under the Trump administration when Congress passed the CARES Act last year.  The changes are meant to target coronavirus relief to the smallest businesses and minority-owned firms. The administration will:
    • through the Small Business Administration, institute a 14-day period beginning Wednesday and running through March 9 allowing only companies with fewer than 20 employees to apply for assistance through the PPP;
    • change the loan calculating formula for sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed individuals to more easily secure forgivable PPP loans;
    • eliminate restrictions preventing individuals with prior non-fraud felony convictions or those who are delinquent on their federal student loans from receiving funds through the PPP;
    • issue a new guidance clarifying that noncitizen small-business owners who hold green cards or are in the U.S. on a visa can obtain PPP loans; and
    • increase oversight of the program, inviting any inspector general with jurisdiction over the loans to review them and publicly report any inconsistencies with the policies the President laid out.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new guidance Monday for modifying COVID-19 vaccines and tests to target virus variants first discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.  The “Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines to Prevent COVID-19 Guidance for Industry” says that clinical trials for the booster shots on the variants can be narrower than the trials for the original vaccine.  However, it would have shown that the booster initiates an immune response.  The guidance did not include details such as the size of the trial and noted that "further discussions will be necessary" to decide whether the agency could at some point authorize modified Covid-19 vaccines "without the need for clinical studies."
  • Johnson & Johnson will testify tomorrow that it can deliver 20 million doses of its single-shot coronavirus vaccine to the U.S. government by the end of March as long as the company received the necessary regulatory approvals for its emergency use authorization.  The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will be holding a hearing on "Pathway to Protection: Expanding Availability of COVID-19 Vaccines" with officials from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Novavax testifying Tuesday.

In the News:

  • West Virginia boasts some of the best COVID-19 vaccination figures in the nation and the world. The state has administered almost 450,000 doses. Over 9 percent of West Virginians are now fully vaccinated. The state trades off with Alaska for first place among U.S. states on this metric. It also outranks nearly every country. West Virginia opted for a simple telephone hotline to book vaccine appointments instead of crash-prone websites. The state runs the hotline itself instead of outsourcing it, closely monitoring waiting times and usage. And the state’s efficiency-minded former National Guard commanding general heads up vaccine distribution.
  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a plan to relax his country's coronavirus restrictions in the months ahead on Monday. The plan calls for schools to reopen for in-person learning on March 8, with a slight reduction on restrictions governing outdoor gatherings on March 29.  Any surge in hospitalizations or the discovery of a dangerous new variant would delay the reopening. Roughly a third of British adults have been vaccinated. The U.K. has seen rates of new COVID-19 infections drop since December.
  • Six Flags Entertainment Corporation announced this week that it aims to reopen all of its 26 amusement parks for the 2021 season after it was forced to keep five closed in 2020 due to the pandemic. The company said in a statement it will reopen with capacity restrictions. All customers will have their temperatures taken, be required to make reservations, and must wear a mask, among other precautions. Some parks will reopen weeks from now.
  • Vaccine corruption is likely to become more prevalent in the coming months. The health ministers in Argentina and Peru both resigned in recent days over allegations that they allowed well-connected individuals to jump the line for vaccines.
  • Israel plans to allow people who have been fully vaccinated to download a certificate enabling them to attend sporting events, fly abroad and go to gyms.  Allowing parts of the population to return to regular activities based on vaccine status is likely to create questions and possible division among the public. 

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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