with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The past week has brought encouraging vaccine news, with the approval of a third shot and promises from the White House there will be enough doses for every American adult by this spring.

But there’s still a way to go in vaccinating seniors, a group that accounts for 81 percent of all coronavirus deaths in the United States.

About half of seniors have yet to receive a single shot of a coronavirus vaccine. 

The still-unvaccinated population includes 36 percent of people over age 75 and 54 percent of people ages 65 to 75, according to data shared yesterday by President Biden’s coronavirus task force. 

Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House coronavirus task force:

Seniors have certainly received shots at a far higher rate compared with the general U.S. population — of which about 16 percent have been inoculated with at least one dose — but there’s still significant work to be done to vaccinate the population most vulnerable to dying or becoming seriously ill from covid-19.

The White House task force is trying to speed things up with a new initiative to get vaccine doses to the most vulnerable seniors.

Health insurers have agreed to reach out to seniors in underserved communities — including those who are racial minorities or who live in low-income areas — to help answer their questions about the coronavirus vaccines, schedule them for appointments to get immunized and transport them to those appointments.

The initiative includes insurers that belong to America’s Health Insurance Plans, the national insurers trade association, and members of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, who will aim to get 2 million seniors who live in the most vulnerable communities vaccinated.

“We are committing our unique resources — our people, our data and our enduring community ties — to quickly and equitably bring life-saving vaccines to those who need them most,” said BCBSA President Kim Keck.

Along with using their own enrollee data, the insurers will identify seniors to target by using the government’s social vulnerability index, a metric used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that considers 15 socioeconomic factors including income, minority status and housing type.

“The aim is to help vulnerable seniors overcome three of the most challenging current barriers: questions about the vaccine, scheduling, and transportation,” Slavitt told reporters.

Nearly every state is prioritizing seniors for shots, but the task is enormous.

The pace of immunizations is rapidly increasing, nearing a rate of 2 million shots administered daily, and Biden promised this week that there will be enough vaccine doses for every American adult by May.

There’s been much debate over how to prioritize groups for getting the vaccines, but putting seniors first in line as they become available is the quickest way to stem the tide of coronavirus deaths. Fatalities still hover around a tragically high rate of 2,000 per day, even as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations decline.

Nearly two dozen states and D.C. have vaccinated at least two-thirds of adults over age 65, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in an analysis of the 33 states that report age data for vaccinations. Kaiser found that the share of seniors who have received at least one dose of the vaccine ranges from 49 percent in North Carolina to 27 percent in Pennsylvania (although we should note the report was released one week ago, and the share of those vaccinated probably has increased since then).

Just look at Cremona, Italy to see the pandemic’s toll on the elderly.

As the virus tore through the country around this time last year, it concentrated its blow on elderly Italians. Those 80 and older — a group that makes up 7 percent of Italy’s population — have accounted for 60 percent of the nation’s covid-19 deaths, my colleagues Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli report.

In Cremona, “the coronavirus blitzed through a generation in a matter of weeks,” they write. “It killed more than 100 of 400 residents in the local nursing home. It forced this city to rush-order eight refrigerated trailers to hold the corpses. It created a horrifying landscape of ambulances racing to the private homes of seniors, who were dying at a rate 400 percent above the norm.”

Other cataclysms of the past century – such as wars and the 1918 flu pandemic – levied heavy tolls among the young. Not so for covid-19.

“In many European countries, the median covid-19 victim has been older than 80,” Chico and Stefano write. “In Italy, the average is 83, and the dichotomy between generations is especially stark. Even with the virus raging, the 2020 death rate for Italians 50 and younger fell compared with previous years, with lockdown measures keeping people off the roads and indoors. But the country’s overall death rate nonetheless spiked some 15 percent.”

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: Biden slams “Neanderthal thinking” as states roll back pandemic restrictions.

“We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arms,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking, that, ‘In the meantime, everything’s fine. Take off your mask.’ ”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) separately announced on Tuesday that they would lift mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions in their states. Texas and Mississippi are still among the top 10 states with the highest deaths per capita.

The removal of restrictions led to “mask required” signs coming down from business windows across both states. It has alarmed public health experts, who have warned that it is too early to loosen up precautions.

Biden’s comments came during a bipartisan summit on cancer legislation that probably will preview a central aim of his post-pandemic health agenda. 

Biden's son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015. The then-vice president was in charge of the Obama administration's “Cancer Moonshot” initiative launched in 2016. 

OOF: The Senate Finance Committee deadlocked on advancing Xavier Becerra for health and human services secretary.

The 14-to-14 vote along party lines means that it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to advance Becerra’s nomination to the full Senate, The Post’s Dan Diamond reports.

“Bottom line, this country is in the middle of a public health nightmare, and the American people need to have a Senate-confirmed leader running HHS as soon as possible,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the committee’s chairman. “HHS is right at the center of the effort to save lives and end the pandemic.”

“Becerra — who has served as California attorney general since 2019 and as a longtime Democratic congressman before that — has been widely attacked by conservatives, criticizing his past support of Medicare-for-all and his efforts to sue the Trump administration over its health-care policies,” Dan writes.

The conservative group Heritage Action for America released opposition ads urging moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.) to vote no on Becerra’s nomination.

OUCH: Former White House physician Ronny Jackson was accused of bullying staff and making sexual remarks.

Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.), a former White House physician to Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, belittled and disparaged his staff at the White House Medical Unit, according to a Defense Department inspector general report, The Post’s Alex Horton reports.

The report also found that Jackson made sexual remarks about a female subordinate during a presidential trip to the Philippines in 2014. Out of 60 people interviewed about Jackson’s impact on the medical unit’s climate, only 13 had positive comments, according to the report. 

Jackson retired as a Navy rear admiral in 2019 and was elected to represent a Texas congressional district in November. He has denied misconduct and described the report as a partisan attack motivated by his support for Trump.

Coronavirus latest

The drug industry is asking Biden to punish countries that flout intellectual property rules.

Lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry asked the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative take measures to enforce traditional intellectual property rights amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The drug industry has sharply criticized any attempt to share vaccine patents or the technological knowledge needed to manufacture them, despite global need,” the Intercept’s Lee Fang reports.

Global estimates suggest that wealthy countries may have already monopolized more than half of the world’s coronavirus vaccine contracts.

Letters from BIO and PhRMA, which represent some of the largest drug companies in the world, appear to be an attempt to influence the Biden administration’s Special 301 report, an annual report that determines the countries targeted by the United States. for World Trade Organization settlement dispute.

Elsewhere in health care

More than 200,000 Americans have signed up for Obamacare plans during a special enrollment period.

The sign-ups occurred during the first two weeks of an extended enrollment period ordered by Biden. 

“Figures released Wednesday by federal health officials show the number of consumers who chose coverage through HealthCare.gov from Feb. 15 to Feb. 28 — 206,236 — was nearly three times higher than during the same period last year and roughly 3½ times greater than in 2019,” The Post’s Amy Goldstein reports.

“But the demand for ACA health plans during this early phase of the unprecedented three-month enrollment extension was a fraction of the enrollment during the first two weeks of the most recent regular enrollment time, when 1.6 million Americans signed up during the first half of November,” Amy writes.

Ordinarily, the federal Affordable Care Act marketplace is open during a limited period near the end of the year. The rest of the year, consumers can only sign up if they have a major change in life circumstance, such as a job change or the birth of a child.

Majorities of Americans support expanding tax credits to make health plans on the ACA marketplace more affordable.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 69 percent of the public is in favor of expanding marketplace subsidies, while nearly three-quarters of respondents, including half of Republicans, support providing financial incentives to states to expand Medicaid.

The poll also documented the impact of the pandemic on daily life, finding that more than a third of Americans say that they have struggled to pay living expenses since December.

Sugar rush