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The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Two senators have a bipartisan plan to tackle future pandemics

The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Welcome to Wednesday’s Health 202, where yesterday we learned from Vox how to get rich if we ever go viral. 

Today, CDC finds hospitalized omicron patients had shorter stays compared with patients with other variants and the White House and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fight over treatments that don’t work against omicron. But first: 

Sens. Burr and Murray try to bridge coronavirus partisanship

On the first day of the Biden administration, Rochelle Walensky tweeted that “better, healthier days lie ahead.”

President Biden had just been sworn into office. And Walensky had just assumed her role leading the embattled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unlike other leaders of prominent health agencies, she was able to start her new role immediately. 

But Walensky would have faced a perhaps long Senate confirmation process under a new, wide-ranging pandemic plan from two powerful senators. Yesterday, the leaders of the Senate HELP Committee — Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — released a bipartisan draft of their proposal to overhaul the country’s pandemic response, which includes requiring the Senate to confirm the CDC director. 

  • For months, the pair hashed out the plan, which includes measures to improve disease data collection, bolster oversight of health agencies and establish a government panel to probe the origins of the coronavirus and the resulting federal response, our colleague Dan Diamond reports.

It’s a rare bipartisan bright spot amid a pandemic that’s polarized the country and politicized everything from masks, to vaccines, to coronavirus treatments. But muscling through legislation during an election year is tough, especially since fewer bills move through Congress as campaign season gets underway. 

  • Two dynamics to bear in mind: Murray has a track record of passing bipartisan legislation crafted in the committee she leads. And Burr, who has a history of passing pandemic preparedness legislation, is retiring at the end of the year.

Drew Armstrong, Bloomberg News:

What's in it

The proposal, called the PREVENT Pandemics Act, is meant to fix issues plaguing the government’s coronavirus response, as well as address long-standing challenges hampering the public health system. 

  • “It really kind of resets the conversation around this and provides a bipartisan vehicle for making progress,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Here’s a snapshot of the discussion draft: 

Probing the federal response: The plan creates a task force, with members appointed by both parties, to assess the country’s response to the pandemic and examine the origins of the coronavirus. This comes as some lawmakers and outside experts have called for a 9/11-style commission to probe why the federal government struggled to effectively respond to the global outbreak in early 2020, Dan notes. 

More fixes to the CDC: The senators are calling for the CDC to develop an agency-wide strategic plan every four years and for a government watchdog to study its progress. This comes as the CDC has faced backlash from Congress and the public under both the Trump and Biden administrations. 

Getting better data: The proposal also includes measures to create public health data standards, expand genomic sequencing and modernize data systems. Throughout the pandemic, messy and incomplete data has hobbled the country’s response. 

Other measures include ensuring access to mental health and substance use disorder services during emergencies, modernizing clinical trials, and launching a pilot program for states to establish or expand their own strategic stockpiles.

What's next

Feedback on the discussion draft is due Feb. 4, and the committee plans to mark up a final bill “in the coming weeks.” In the meantime, the duo says they’ll work with other senators to add more provisions to the bill. 

  • This could include Biden’s request to create a new $6.5 billion agency to speed up research, called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H); improve lab safety and security; and establish “clear leadership” across the government for future pandemic responses.

One potential ask: In an interview yesterday, Anand Parekh, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, pointed to a recommendation the think tank made in it pandemic preparedness plan released this summer: to create a White House deputy national security adviser for pandemic and biothreats to strengthen federal leadership before and during an emergency.

Readers help us

Private insurers are now required to cover coronavirus tests. We want to hear from you how it’s going. 

Has the process been easy or cumbersome? Have you had to pay up front for the tests or did you get them free without paying first? How long is it taking to get reimbursed? Tell us all at rachel.roubein@washpost.com

White House prescriptions

What we learned about Ron Klain, health care edition. The Post’s Sean Sullivan and Tyler Pager chronicled Klain’s first year as Biden’s chief of staff, where he repeatedly bumped up against the challenges of governing in Washington. Many allies, and even some of his critics, say he was the best person for the job, but here are some of the complications: 

  • Within the party: Among Klain’s strongest criticism comes from Democrats who contend he’s forged an alliance with the party’s left.
  • In Congress: He at times drew the ire of two of Washington’s most powerful lawmakers: Sen. Joe Manchin (D.W.Va.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over legislative strategy and policy disputes, Sean and Tyler write.
  • Amid the pandemic response: Klain has “at times irked” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, pushing him and his team to move faster in ways they didn’t find productive. (The two deny any tension.)

From our reporters' notebook

Animal rights activists PETA mounted a protest inside HHS on Tuesday, triggering a cascade of safety alerts to staff (although many are working remotely, as several staffers pointed out to our colleague Dan Diamond). The protesters were arrested and removed, as captured on video; PETA told Dan that they were protesting an NIH scientist who has done years of research on live monkeys’ brains.

Coronavirus

DeSantis, White House spar over treatment that doesn’t work against omicron

White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s calls for monoclonal antibody therapies that have proved ineffective against the omicron variant. 

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration took the two therapies off the list of covid-19 treatments for now, and the federal government halted shipments of the drugs. It’s a move that led to an outcry from DeSantis, a Republican, and some others on the right. 

  • Psaki told reporters that the FDA has made it clear that those treatments “do not work against omicron and they have side effects.” She also said the administration has sent Florida other treatments effective against omicron, our colleagues Mariana Alfaro and Lori Rozsa report.
  • Per an analysis from The Post’s Aaron Blake: “Few things inspire as much passion in the Republican base these days as alternative and often-unproven coronavirus treatments — even as many in the party continue to shun the most proven-effective treatment: vaccination."

Democrats, public health experts urge the White House: Step up global vaccination campaign

They tell our colleague Dan that the omicron wave is the latest reminder of why we need to move faster, which would save lives abroad and tamp down the risk of future variants.

There’s “nothing more important” for U.S. foreign policy than prioritizing the global coronavirus response, said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), vice chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who said it's even more concerning than the fraught geopolitical situation in Ukraine.

One request from Hill Democrats is for Biden to set aside an additional $17 billion for global vaccination efforts, which officials say is sorely needed.

“USAID — the primary U.S. agency leading global vaccination efforts and the global COVID-19 response — is a little over a month away from running out of money,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other Democrats wrote in a letter sent to Biden on Tuesday and shared with The Post.

The White House told The Post that they′re sticking to the core strategy of donating vaccines, having already donated nearly 400 million doses. Administration officials like Atul Gawande also touted the rollout of a new global vaccination campaign led by USAID that’s helping improve vaccine distribution and infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries.

“This is a winnable fight,” said USAID’s Jeremy Konyndyk, pointing to recent vaccination spikes in countries like Ghana and Zambia.

In other health news

  • The Labor Department formally withdrew the Biden administration’s ambitious proposed vaccine-or-test emergency rule for large employers, while it continues a plan to make a permanent rule for such companies. But that process could take a year or more, The Post’s Eli Rosenberg reports.
  • Americans are less confident in Biden to handle the coronavirus response than they were nearly a year ago, according to a new Pew Research Center Poll. 
  • People hospitalized with the omicron variant had shorter stays and less frequent admissions to ICUs compared with those hospitalized with other variants, our colleague Lena H. Sun reports, citing a new CDC study.
  • An appeals court judge restored New York’s mask mandate a day after a judge in a lower court blocked it, Carolyn Thompson writes for The Associated Press.
  • On the move: Mandy Cohen — who led North Carolina’s pandemic response and was under consideration for the top job at CMS — will serve as CEO at Aledade Care Solutions.

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.

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