Happy Thursday, everybody. Here's what we're reading this morning: The omicron surge may be close to its peak in the DMV, though hospitalizations would continue to climb for a week or so after. 

Meanwhile, today is a critical day for Biden's pick to lead the FDA, and the president is delivering a speech this morning on his response to the latest coronavirus surge. But first: 

For once, medical costs are growing slower than other sectors

Prices for critical goods and services increased at the fastest clip in four decades, rising 7 percent in December over the same time period a year ago.

But not for health care.

Americans are paying a fair bit more for food, gas and used cars, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released yesterday. But price increases for medical services have been relatively modest — at least so far. 

They rose about 2.5 percent in the past year, though that rate may pick up in the coming months as the omicron variant adds more stress to the system, our colleague Abha Bhattarai notes. If so, that could eventually mean a further squeeze on Americans’ pocketbooks.

This dynamic may be because prices for health-care services are on somewhat of a delay. Payments are typically set in stone for the year in advance, like through government regulations and contracts insurers negotiate with providers.

  • “Of course, looking into the future is hard. But what I would say is that — assuming that the same kind of pressures that are causing prices in the economy to go up maintain— there's no reason to think that those pressures wouldn't also exist for health care,” Corey Rhyan, a senior analyst at Altarum, a nonprofit health research and consulting group, told The Health 202.

Lawmakers have long struggled to curb the sky-high cost of care. The Affordable Care Act failed to drive down prices for many Americans, emblematic of the struggle to change the nation’s complex health-care system.

Abha Bhattarai, The Post's economics reporter:

The deal with inflation

At the start of the pandemic, prices fell economy-wide, and health-care prices rose slightly. That’s likely due to changes implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, like increases in how much the federal government reimbursed state Medicaid programs, per Rhyan. 

But health-care price growth has since slowed, while prices in other aspects of daily life climbed.

  • “Higher prices seeped into just about everything households and businesses buy, raising alarms for policymakers at the Federal Reserve and White House that inflation has spread throughout the economy,” The Post’s Rachel Siegel and Andrew Van Dam report.

That could (possibly) happen soon in the health-care space. Experts say the industry is experiencing similar trends, such as increased labor costs. For instance: Strapped health facilities have hired temporary workers for sometimes triple the price.

  • “There’s an enormous strain on the health-care system at every point — nurses are burned out, lots of people are showing up with covid in addition to other needs,” Laura Veldkamp, a research fellow for the National Bureau of Economic Research and a professor at Columbia Business School, told Abha. “That shows up as higher prices for everything.”

What that could mean for patients down the road? Potentially higher premiums or co-pays.

A note of caution: “It's hard to say how the pandemic will affect the long term prices in the country,” Krutika Amin, an associate director with the Kaiser Family Foundation said.  

The politics

Soaring inflation not only hinders the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic, but it puts President Biden in a tough spot. Republicans will likely hammer Democrats on the issue in the looming midterm elections, contending that the massive stimulus bills overheated the economy, Rachel and Andrew write.

  • Biden on the defense: In a statement, he pointed to slowing month-to-month growth as a sign of progress. 
  • “At the same time, this report underscores that we still have more work to do, with price increases still too high and squeezing family budgets,” he said.

And inflation has been a huge issue for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who for months has said it’s one of his primary reasons for holding out on Democrats’ massive economic package.

Manchin back in November:

On the Hill

On tap today: Senate committee weighs Califf’s nomination

The Senate HELP Committee will vote on Robert Califf to lead the Food and Drug Administration today, a critical first step to confirming Biden’s pick to lead the sprawling agency. It’s a role Califf has held before, helming the agency during the last year of the Obama administration. 

But he’ll need Republican support to get him there again. That’s because Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plan to vote no in today's committee vote.

  • Hassan has repeatedly criticized the FDA for not doing enough to prevent the opioid epidemic. In a statement Tuesday, she said it didn’t appear anything would change under Califf’s leadership.
  • Meanwhile, Sanders said he opposes Califf because of his ties to the drug industry. A spokesperson confirmed Sanders will vote against the nominee in committee.

Also opposed: On the Republican side, Sens. Roger Marshall (Kan.) and Mike Braun (Ind.) are also planning to vote no, their offices confirmed. Other offices of GOP members on the panel either didn't respond to a question on how they'd vote yesterday or declined to say.

In favor: Califf — who was confirmed by the Senate in 2016 in an 89-to-4 vote — is expected to pick up some GOP support, such as from the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.). Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed her support during the confirmation hearing last month. 

White House prescriptions

Stay tuned: Biden will deliver another speech on the government's pandemic response today, as omicron surges across the country. 

Here's what we're watching:

  • Will he detail his plan to send 500 million at-home rapid tests to Americans?
  • Does he strike the same tone as Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the FDA, and Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser — both who recently said many Americans will get covid?
  • Will he make any recommendations regarding which masks Americans should wear?
  • Will he talk about what the administration can do to ensure the country is better protected against future variants?

More details: The speech will take place at 10:30 a.m. and will be attended by the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.

Moves to watch: The White House is officially appointing epidemiologist Tom Inglesby to serve as its new coronavirus testing coordinator. The decision comes amid soaring demand for tests as the omicron variant sweeps the country. Inglesby is on leave from his post as director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, The Post’s Amy Wang reports. 


Omicron may be plateauing in some major East Coast cities

There are some very early signs that the wave of cases driven by the more contagious variant could be hitting a plateau — at least in some major cities, The Post's Fenit Nirappil and Hannah Knowles report.

  • In New York City, the early epicenter of the omicron variant, rates of tests returning positive appear to be going down.
  • In Boston, coronavirus levels in wastewater are falling.
  • The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has seen the rate of teachers testing positive as part of asymptomatic screening plunge from 25 percent in the week between Christmas and New Year's to 2 percent in recent days.
  • And in the District and Maryland, infections appear to be slowing, although hospitals continue to be under severe strain.

Both London and South Africa saw cases rocket up when the omicron variant hit, only to fall sharply. Some experts are cautiously hoping that the United States will follow.

The bottom line: “Experts caution these are still early data points for predicting the trajectory of a virus that has repeatedly shown to be unpredictable. … Cases remain alarmingly high, like a reckless driver slowing from 110 mph to 90 mph,” our colleagues write.

Here's what else you need to know:

  • Fauci reiterated the stark assessment made by Woodcock that most Americans will probably get covid-19. Though if you’re vaccinated and boosted, the chances of severe illness are low, he said.
Top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci said on Jan. 12 that "virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely infected." (The Washington Post)
  • West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said he is feeling “extremely unwell” after testing positive for the coronavirus and will be postponing his State of the State address. In a statement, he said he was thankful to be vaccinated and boosted. He's isolating at home and is being given a monoclonal antibody treatment prescribed by his physicians, The Post’s Timothy Bella reports.
  • The United States will buy an additional 500 million doses of a covid-19 treatment developed by AstraZeneca. The treatment — an antibody cocktail currently under emergency use authorization — is designed to help prevent covid-19 in immunocompromised people. It’s authorized for those at high risk of illness or who have a history of severe adverse reactions to the coronavirus vaccines or their components, The Post’s Brittany Shammas reports.
  • One top Democrat has an idea for the GOP lawmakers who continue to flout the House’s mask mandate, despite racking up fines. Assistant Speaker of the House Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) suggested that they be cordoned off in “isolation boxes.” In a letter to the House sergeant-at-arms, Clark suggested that unmasked members be separated in a plexiglass-enclosed section of the House gallery, The Post’s Jaclyn Peiser reports.
  • It's easy to get tests – if you work for some of the country's biggest companies. “Workers at corporate giants such as Google and JPMorgan Chase can request tests be sent to them free. At Google, employees can receive as many as 20 tests per month, even if they’re not going into the office. Delta Air Lines allows its flight staff and corporate employees to order sets of six antigen tests every three weeks,” Gerrit De Vynck and Jacob Bogage report.

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.