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The Health 202

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

Just a sliver of Americans have gotten the newest covid booster shot

The Health 202

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

Good Tuesday morning, and a special shoutout to everyone who sent their quirky animal pics. Send tips, compliments and complaints to

Today’s edition: A major antiabortion group is asking Congress to push for investigations into a covert network of abortion pills. Justice Samuel Alito reportedly told the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) that he respected Roe v. Wade’s legal precedent, a new book will say. But first … 

President Biden to Americans: Get the newest covid booster for a “safe and healthy” holiday

President Biden will get his updated booster this afternoon — a moment he’ll use to renew his call for Americans to get vaccinated amid sluggish uptake of the reformulated shots.

More than 19 million Americans have received the new boosters that became available to those 12 and over in September and to children as young as 5 earlier this month. That’s just a sliver of the population ahead of a potential coronavirus surge this winter. 

Here’s how Biden will frame the message: His remarks will focus on the importance of getting the shot so Americans can have a “safe and healthy” holiday season, a White House official said. The administration is also outlining plans to encourage vaccination, such as calling on every school district and university to host at least one vaccine clinic by Thanksgiving. The ideas essentially build on past actions, rather than represent a strategy shake-up.

This comes as the nation’s beleaguered public health system is grappling with virus threats on multiple fronts. Some infectious-disease experts fear coronavirus cases could increase as people spend more time indoors in the colder weather. Children’s hospitals are filling up as doctors care for a high number of kids infected with RSV. And flu season is off to an earlier-than-usual start.  

Covid outlook

Disease watchers still have their eyes on omicron. They’re not predicting an entirely new variant will emerge but are focused instead on several spinoffs of omicron that may be increasingly able to dodge immune defenses, our colleague Carolyn Y. Johnson noted last week. 

For some, the idea of new variants is sometimes overstated. David Rubin, who tracks coronavirus trends for PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he instead believes some of the key reasons for surges are environmental and behavioral, such as when people gather indoors during the winter and holiday season. 

  • “The most likely scenario is we're going to see a lesser impact in terms of the sheer magnitude [of the virus] this winter, but enough to cause significant impacts across some families, particularly older individuals or those with chronic health conditions,” he told The Health 202.
RSV cases

Children’s hospitals are under pressure amid a rapid onslaught in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common virus that typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms in young children. 

The surge began in late summer, which is earlier than its usual season from November to early spring. It’s the latest example of how the pandemic has altered the traditional pattern of seasonal respiratory illnesses, The Post’s Fenit Nirappil and Ariana Eunjung Cha report. 

One doctor affiliated with the American Academy of Pediatrics told our colleagues that “it’s very hard to find a bed in a children’s hospital.” At Seattle Children’s Hospital, some patients are doubling up on rooms usually reserved for one person, while others are staying in rooms that aren’t meant for overnight treatment, Surabhi Vora, an infectious-disease physician, told The Health 202. 

A glimmer of hope: There currently aren’t any vaccines to protect against RSV. But two vaccine candidates have recently been shown to protect older adults in large trials. And an injection of a monoclonal antibody may also offer long-lasting protection, Carolyn recently reported. 

The flu

The flu also seems to be cropping up earlier than normal this year after two relatively mild years during the pandemic. 

Early increases in cases have been reported in most of the United States and outpatient visits for flu-like symptoms are above the national baseline for this time of year. Nearly 1,700 patients were admitted to the hospital with the flu during the week ending on Oct. 15, according to the most recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But what’s unknown is whether the increase in the flu will remain throughout the fall and winter, or whether it just means flu season will end earlier than expected. 

  • “It is incredibly difficult to predict the sort of size and the exact timing of flu season at the best of times,” said Richard Webby, an influenza specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “Because things are so out of whack now with these respiratory viruses because of the coronavirus, that makes it even more challenging.”

Reproductive wars

Students for Life Action presses Congress to crack down on abortion pill network

New this a.m.: The antiabortion group Students for Life Action is pressing Congress to push the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI to investigate the dissemination of abortion pills in states where they are banned in a letter sent to Republican lawmakers this morning.

This comes after The Post’s Caroline Kitchener reported on the emerging covert cross-border network delivering tens of thousands of abortion pills across states that have restricted access to the procedure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade

What they’re saying: Supporting abortion access is “no excuse for allowing networks to form intent on selling drugs illegal or regulated in some states,” Kristan Hawkins, the group's president, wrote in the letter. Hawkins is calling on lawmakers to prioritize the issue upon their return to Congress in January, “rather than settling for show votes on easily agreed upon legislation.”

The pipeline: People involved in the network told Caroline that the underground operation typically starts in Mexico, where activist suppliers funded largely by private donors secure pills free as in-kind donations or from international pharmacies. U.S. volunteers then receive the pills through the mail and distribute them to pregnant patients, though often without the safeguards of medical oversight. The new network has made the illegal abortions of today “simpler and safer than those of the pre-Roe era, remembered for its back alleys and coat hangers,” Caroline writes. 

More from Hawkins:

In other abortion news …

At a Maine gubernatorial debate last night, Republican Paul LePage said he would not change the state’s abortion laws, our colleague Dylan Wells reports. 

At a debate earlier this month, the former governor who has previously said “we should not have abortion” struggled to say how he would respond if the state legislature introduced additional restrictions on the procedure. Eventually, he said he’d veto a bill banning abortions at 15 weeks. He went further yesterday, saying “I would never change the law, it’s a good compromise.” 

Maine allows abortions up until the point of fetal viability typically viewed as around 22 to 24 weeks. After that, the procedure may be performed only when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the patient.

LePage is seeking to unseat Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

More from Mills: 

In the courts

Justice Alito assured Ted Kennedy that he would respect Roe’s precedent, new book says

When Justice Samuel Alito was seeking Senate confirmation for his nomination to the Supreme Court in 2005, he assured the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) that he considered Roe v. Wade to be “settled” law, John A. Farrell, an American historian and author, writes in the New York Times. 

Alito would go on to pen the majority opinion that overturned nearly 50 years of legal precedent and the federal right to abortion nationwide nearly 17 years later. 

“I am a believer in precedents,” the conservative Alito told Kennedy, a longtime supporter of abortion rights who detailed their conversation in his diary. “People would find I adhere to that.” (A spokeswoman for Alito told Farrell that the justice had no comment on the conversation.)

Kennedy’s skepticism partly stemmed from a memo Alito had written as a lawyer in the Reagan administration in 1985, in which he noted his opposition to Roe. Alito reportedly brushed off the letter, telling Kennedy that he had been seeking a promotion and wrote what he thought his bosses wanted to hear, according to Farrell, author of “Ted Kennedy: A Life, a book out this morning that makes portions of the senator’s private diary public for the first time. Kennedy ultimately voted against Alito’s confirmation. 

Zooming out: The interaction between the two men echoes a situation between Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who supports abortion rights, and Supreme Court Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch. After the high court overturned the landmark decision, Collins said she felt misled by the justices, who, in seeking her support as court nominees, said they would respect Roe’s precedent but later voted against the ruling, The Post’s Amy B Wang reported over the summer. 

In other health news

  • Schools across the country were given $122 billion in federal pandemic relief aid last year to reopen buildings, address mental health needs and combat historic student learning loss, but less than 15 percent of the federal funding has been spent, our colleagues Lauren Lumpkin and Sahana Jayaraman report.
  • Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, launched a $1 million TV ad buy yesterday aimed at painting Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D) and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) as extremists on abortion rights.
  • On the other side … Politico reports that VoteVets, a Democratic political action committee that advocates for former service members, is spending $10 million on ads in battleground states that frame many Republicans as a danger to abortion access.

Health reads

On the campaign trail, Republicans ramp up anti-science, anti-Covid, often anti-Fauci messaging (By Sarah Owermohle| Stat)

Abortion ruling means more and riskier births in Mississippi (By Michael Goldberg | The Associated Press)

Drivers in Decline: A Shortage of Volunteers Complicates Access to Care in Rural America (By Christina Saint Louis | Kaiser Health News)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.