with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Conservatives have been broadcasting their outrage at President Biden’s selection of Xavier Becerra as health secretary.

But if Republicans were actually trying to torpedo Becerra, they didn’t do a great job of it yesterday.

Instead, the California attorney general’s pathway to becoming the next health and human services secretary appears smoother — or at least less bumpy — after yesterday’s confirmation hearing, in which several moderate Republicans seemed receptive to him.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) steered clear of attacks levied by some of their more-conservative colleagues, who say Becerra lacks the experience and bipartisanship needed to lead one of the nation’s largest agencies amid a pandemic. 

Instead, they asked him policy-oriented questions about rural health care, reopening schools and Medicare’s financial insolvency during the 2½-hour hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Support from the moderate GOP trio may be critical since all Democrats would likely need support from all 50 senators plus a tie-breaking vote to Vice President Harris to get Becerra through – and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who may have torpedoed Neera Tanden’s nomination to lead the Office of Management and Budget, said earlier this week that he’s undecided on whether to vote for Becerra.  

At one point, Murkowski sounded as if she assumed Becerra would become secretary.

“You’re going to be making some pretty key decisions with regards to funding allocations for provider relief or for testing for vaccine distribution,” she told Becerra.

Collins quizzed Becerra on whether recommending six feet of spacing between students in schools is science-based — something health experts have disputed.

Romney did bring up the fraught topic of abortion — a particularly sore point for conservatives, who are frustrated by Becerra’s record on issues related to pregnancy and birth control. He asked Becerra why he voted against the 2003 federal ban on partial-birth abortion while he was a member of the House.

“I understand that people have different deeply held beliefs on this issue,” Becerra responded.

Today brings round two for Becerra.

He’ll sit before the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon for a second confirmation hearing. Unlike in the Health Committee, Finance Committee members will at some point vote on whether to confirm Becerra — although that vote isn’t expected until later on, possibly next week.

It has taken longer for Biden to get a health secretary confirmed than it took his predecessor, Donald Trump. Tom Price, Trump’s first (but short-tenured) health secretary, was confirmed on Feb. 10, 2017. 

But delays aren’t unprecedented, either. Barack Obama’s first pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Daschle, withdrew from the confirmation process on Feb. 3, 2009. It wasn’t until April 28 that the Senate confirmed Kathleen Sebelius.

Becerra is presenting himself as a champion of Biden's health policy goals.

Becerra made clear he would adhere to Biden’s goal of expanding health coverage through existing law, jettisoning his own prior enthusiasm for a government-paid health-care system, my colleague Amy Goldstein writes. Becerra sought to dispel the characterization of him as anything but a loyal foot soldier to the president, she notes.

“The mission of HHS to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans is core to who I am,” Becerra told the senators. “We must build on what we’ve had with the Affordable Care Act to make it stronger, to provide better-quality care at more-affordable prices.”

“During a 2½ -hour hearing, the only person who mentioned Medicare-for-all, a single-payer system that would replace private insurance, was the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who noted that Becerra had supported such proposals during more than 20 years as a congressman from Los Angeles,” Amy writes.

Becerra didn't refer to that history when it was his turn to speak. “I will look for common cause,” he said, “and I will work with you to improve the health and dignity of the American people.”

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: Drug companies are predicting a major increase in vaccine doses.

Moderna and Pfizer told lawmakers that they could supply 140 million additional vaccine doses over the next five weeks, The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker and Christopher Rowland report. In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, executives from the companies touted their efforts to solve manufacturing challenges that hampered the early rollout of the vaccine.

“But achieving a surge on that scale remains daunting,” Isaac and Chris write. The companies “will need to increase their combined deliveries to date of 75 million doses to reach their promised target of 220 million shots by March 31. That’s a goal of 28 million doses each week on average, far greater than their performance so far.”

Pfizer, partnering with BioNTech, and Moderna have created promising vaccines that scientists hope will lead to more medical breakthroughs using mRNA. (Joshua Carroll, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Pfizer has been putting money into doubling batch sizes, making its own supply of crucial raw materials and adding manufacturing suites. Moderna, meanwhile, has asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow it to add up to five more doses in each vial, in an effort to lessen bottlenecks around the final stage of producing and releasing filled vials.

New vaccines could also provide a boost to the nation’s supply. Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine is expected to be authorized for emergency use as soon as this weekend. While federal officials say that only 2 million doses will be immediately available, the company said in prepared testimony that it is projected to deliver nearly 60 million doses by the end of April. AstraZeneca said it could have 50 million vaccines available by the end of April if it wins authorization in the United States. The vaccine has been approved in the United Kingdom and the European Union. 

OOF: A variant first discovered in California may be more contagious, according to two new studies.

“In one of the new studies, researchers found that the variant has spread rapidly in a San Francisco neighborhood in the past couple of months. The other report confirmed that the variant has surged across the state, and revealed that it produces twice as many viral particles inside a person’s body as other variants do. That study also hinted that the variant may be better than others at evading the immune system — and vaccines,” the New York Times’s Carl Zimmer reports.

Neither study has been published in a scientific journal, and researchers are unsure how the threat posed by this new variant compares with that of other variants spreading in the United States, including B.1.1.7, which arrived from Britain. 

“I’m increasingly convinced that this one is transmitting more than others locally,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the New York Times. “But there’s not evidence to suggest that it’s in the same ballpark as B.1.1.7.” Hanage points out that B.1.1.7 has taken off quickly in almost every country where it has shown up, but the variant in California, known as B.1.427/B.1.429, has been slow to gain dominance. It has shown up in 45 states but has only really taken off in California. 

OUCH: New York City’s maps on coronavirus cases and vaccinations seem dissonant at first glance.

Some wealthy areas relatively unaffected by the virus are much further along in receiving vaccinations, according to data from the state. But “those maps don’t tell the whole story,” The Post’s Philip Bump reports.

The strongest correlation with high rates of vaccinations comes from educational attainment.

“Places with a high density of professional school degrees (like an MD) have higher rates of vaccination. Two Zip codes in the Financial District (meaning around Wall Street) have lots of degrees but relatively few vaccinations: They are not medical degrees. The Lenox Hill area on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is home to a large hospital — and lots of doctors,” Bump writes. 

The two most vaccinated Zip codes in the city — 11004 and 11697, areas in Queens and Brooklyn — are home to relatively large hospitals and long-term care populations. 

“The idea is that the city wanted not necessarily to halt the spread of the virus in places where it had spread the most but, instead, to protect those most likely to contract it or who would be most likely to die should they do so. Perhaps that prioritization wasn’t the best way to approach the vaccine rollout (other places prioritized differently) but it does explain the maps above,” Bump writes.

Children and the coronavirus

Experts are urging more genomic sequencing of coronavirus infection in children.

Kids are far less likely than adults to suffer severe illness as a result of the coronavirus: Of the 500,000 deaths from covid-19 in the United States, only about 270 have been children. But some doctors are calling for more attention to the spread of new variants of the virus among children, suggesting that infections in kids — who are generally more resilient — could act as harbingers for more-infectious strains, The Post’s Ariana Eunjung Cha reports.  

One recent case stands out: At Children’s National Hospital in D.C., a newborn who became very sick with a novel coronavirus variant had a viral load 51,418 times the median of other pediatric patients. 

Experts caution that as long as genomic sequencing efforts are almost exclusively focused on adults, “findings like the one from Children’s National remain single puzzle pieces that may be important in determining the direction of the pandemic — or merely transient scientific curiosities,” Ariana writes.

There’s no evidence that new variants of the coronavirus are more dangerous for children, but health officials in the United Kingdom and Italy have monitored puzzling increases in infections among children. Doctors at Children’s National have noted that they have seen an uptick in children with MIS-C — a rare but potentially fatal post-viral syndrome associated with covid-19 — who need intensive treatment, although other major U.S. hospitals report no changes in the severity of their pediatric MIS-C cases

More in coronavirus

  • Congressional leaders held a moment of silence on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to commemorate the 500,000 lives lost to the coronavirus, The Post reports.
     
  • Biden will visit Houston on Friday in the wake of a bitter cold spell that killed 50 people in Texas and surrounding states, The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports. He will also visit a health center where vaccine doses are being distributed.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Feb. 23 President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will travel to Houston following the deadly winter storm. (The Washington Post)
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s approval ratings slipped in a recent Marist poll showing that 4 in 10 New York voters found his handling of nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic to be unethical, The Post’s Paulina Firozi reports.
     
  • The number of coronavirus cases in nursing homes has drastically declined in the last two months as residents and workers are vaccinated, Axios reports.

Criminal justice and health

A grand jury declined to indict officers in the death of Daniel Prude, a case that has fueled scrutiny of police response to mental health crises.

The case sparked protests in Rochester, N.Y., after Prude’s family released graphic footage showing Prude handcuffed, hooded and pinned to the ground.

“Prude’s death in March — and officials’ attempts to keep footage from the public eye — fueled already intense scrutiny of police officers’ treatment of Black Americans and their handling of mental health calls. A medical examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused by ‘complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,’ and experts say officers neglected to use known tactics for helping people in crisis while arresting the 41-year-old man,” The Post’s Hannah Knowles and Marisa Iati report.

“However, experts found no evidence of trauma from a blocking of Prude’s windpipe or a blood vessel, according to a detailed report released Tuesday by James’s office. One concluded that PCP in Prude’s system made him vulnerable to cardiac arrest, which cut off oxygen to his brain. Another expert assessed officers’ pinning techniques as reasonable,” Hannah and Marisa write.

Sugar rush