Coronavirus: The Hill and the Headlines, January 2021 # 5

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[co-author: Shelley Castle]

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

In Washington:

  • The White House Coronavirus Task Force is warning that there may be a new fast-spreading U.S.A. variant of the coronavirus. "This fall/winter surge has been at nearly twice the rate of rise of cases as the spring and summer surges. This acceleration suggests there may be a USA variant that has evolved here, in addition to the UK variant that is already spreading in our communities and may be 50% more transmissible." the Jan. 3 report to the states said. The White House calls for "aggressive mitigation ... to match a much more aggressive virus."
  • Eight Democratic governors are demanding that Health and Human Services release more COVID-19 vaccine doses that are currently being held back to ensure people who got their first dose can get their second. The governors are concerned that the more transmissible coronavirus strain will increase the burdens on administering vaccinations. A statement from Operation Warp Speed indicated they are unlikely to fulfill the Governor’s requests. But today, President-elect Joe Biden announced that he plans to release nearly all available vaccine doses, instead of holding second shots back, in an attempt to speed delivery.
  • Health and Human Services (HHS) official Elinore McCance-Katz, who heads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, resigned late Thursday citing the administration’s role in the Capitol riot. McCance-Katz is known for her defense of President Trump's push to reopen the economy within a few months into the pandemic. Trump's top health appointees seem resolved to stick out the final 12 days. HHS Secretary Alex Azar tweeted Thursday “We at @HHSGov remain committed to a peaceful and orderly transition of power."
  • Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is the second cabinet secretary to resign following Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol. DeVos joins Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who resigned last week.
  • The federal government had shipped more than 21.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines as of Thursday morning, according to data from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC). But only 5.9 million people have been vaccinated with the first dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, although public health experts have cautioned that vaccination data reporting may be lagging.
  • Now that Democrats will have a Senate majority, President-elect Biden is confident that he can usher two packages through Congress. One would send to individuals the full $2,000 coronavirus stimulus payment and the other would consist of a $3 trillion tax and infrastructure package. Biden has been adamant that stimulus legislation needs to pass early in order to reverse the pandemic, boost the economy, and enable the rest of his term’s agenda. Biden is expected to reveal his new infrastructure plan soon, but to push for the additional $1,400 relief payments first, then in the spring push for his second package under budget reconciliation rules. Reconciliation would enable Senate passage with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority under a filibuster.
  • The CDC is contracting private laboratories to help with the genome sequencing of coronavirus samples in hopes of tracking new variants like the strain recently found in the U.K. The program aims to double the number of samples sequenced per week, amid warnings that cases of the U.K. variant could begin to pop up in the U.S. over the next several weeks. LabCorp and at least one other private laboratory have signed contracts with the CDC to work on the project. Genome sequencing company Illumina and testing firm Helix are also partnering to improve surveillance of the new strains of Covid-19.

In the News:

  • Flaws in a new state database are raising fears that Texas’ data on who is getting vaccinated may be unreliable, POLITICO’s Darius Tahir reports. The problem prompted the state’s health department to instruct several providers to report their vaccine data to various other systems until it can fix the issue. The glitch stems from a vaccine tracking system that Texas created without ensuring provider identities matched their IDs in older systems, meaning a single provider could have an identification number of 111 in one system and 999 in another. The state also failed to educate providers about the vaccine tracking effort, a lobbyist briefed on the issue said, creating additional confusion that could mean many more shots have been given out than officials know about.
  • The U.S. lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first drop in employment since April, as the economy began to backslide amid a resurgent pandemic. Many forecasters expect more weak economic data for January and February.
  • Doctors and health workers not associated with a hospital system are struggling to get access to COVID-19 vaccines in order to get inoculated, The Wall Street Journal’s Julie Wernau reports. Many say they lack information about how or when they might acquire the vaccine. Others have spent hours calling public-health authorities, hospitals and colleagues, sharing information on Facebook and even tweeting at medical associations in search of answers.
  • Sarah Zhang warns in The Atlantic that as rough as the vaccine deployment has been so far, it’s the next stage that’s the hard one. In the coming months, state and local health departments will have to stand up mass-vaccination clinics that can handle hundreds or even thousands of people a day in the middle of a pandemic, when crowds are dangerous. Thousands of doctors’ offices and pharmacies across the country will also need to learn how to handle and administer unusually fragile vaccines. And eventually, as the pool of people eager to get a vaccine is exhausted, public-health officials will need to persuade the uninterested, the reluctant, and even the skeptical to get vaccinated.
  • At least 10 percent of the citizens of the small Alaskan village of Kivalina have tested positive for Covid-19, the Anchorage Daily News’ Zaz Hollander reports. The village of just over 450 sits on a skinny barrier island along the Chukchi Sea, high above the Arctic Circle. In Kivalina, whose population is heavily Alaska Native, finding space for COVID-positive cases to isolate outside their homes is proving impossible, tribal administrator Millie Hawley said.

[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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