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— Public health experts are furious about the slow pace of vaccinations, with the nation falling well short of the Trump administration’s stated goal.
— Halving doses could speed up vaccinations, Operation Warp Speed’s top science adviser suggested on Sunday.
— President Donald Trump continues to spread misinformation about the pandemic while claiming he doesn’t get “any credit for my work.”
IT’s 2021 PULSE — Where millions around the nation were gripped by Sunday’s scandal: why the Eagles threw the game against Washington last night.
Yet again, Beltway insiders benefitted while other Americans suffered. Send tapes and tips about other improprieties to [email protected] and [email protected].
WELCOME TO A NEW YEAR WITH THE SAME PROBLEMS — Covid is running rampant. Hospitals are swamped. The patchwork vaccination strategy is frayed. And the president is distracted with his democracy-shaking attempt to overthrow the election results.
All of 2020’s crises have chased us into 2021, with one more problem: the pandemic is only getting worse.
“We’re going to see the epidemic probably peak at some point this month,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb predicted on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, adding that the end of January is “when we’re likely to see the peak number of deaths on a daily basis as well.”
LET’S START WITH THE VAX ROLLOUT, WHICH IS… an outright failure, per Sen. Mitt Romney? Getting better, according to Surgeon General Jerome Adams?
Choose your spin, while noting that HHS is insistent that some claims of logistical failures are overblown. And Washington, D.C., has distributed about two-thirds of its allocated shots, according to this useful Bloomberg News tracker as of Sunday night.
But the reality is that the administration of doses has been confusing, with wild variation in how states are rolling out vaccination plans, even as local leaders complain about limited federal guidance and support. Only 4 million people got vaccinated in December, well below the repeated goal of 20 million.
You can hear the frustration from public health experts. “We’ve known for months that vaccines were coming,” writes Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s public health school. “The failure to vaccinate more quickly is tragic given that more than 3,000 Americans are dying of covid-19 every day.”
And the pain is echoed by patients on the ground, including in Florida, where some seniors have been told it’s first come, first serve. “You had at least six months to get ready,” a 71-year-old retired librarian tells the Washington Post, after 184 failed phone calls trying to get information on how to get vaccinated. “It shouldn’t be this hard.”
THEN THERE’s THE MUTANT STRAIN OF COVID, which in itself isn’t a surprise. Viruses evolve, and Covid-19 has mutated countless ways since its apparent introduction among humans in 2019.
And so far, it appears that Covid-19 vaccines should work against this new variant, B.1.1.7, which scientists don’t believe is more deadly — even if it appears to be significantly more transmissible.
But what B.1.1.7 portends is a disturbing reminder: the virus is changing, and the treatments developed last month may not work against the version of Covid-19 that’s circulating by next month. There’s some concern that the monoclonal antibody treatments developed to fight earlier versions of the virus might lose effectiveness against the variant.
AMID IT ALL, President Donald Trump has continued to spread misinformation about the virus, how it spreads and how many cases there are — in those rare moments when he weighs in on Covid-19, rather than continuing to complain about the election results.
“The number of cases and deaths of the China Virus is far exaggerated in the United States because of @CDCgov’s ridiculous method of determination compared to other countries, many of whom report, purposely, very inaccurately and low. ‘When in doubt, call it Covid.’ Fake News!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
The CDC has reported more than 20 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 350,000 deaths linked to the virus.
Appearing on CNN on Sunday, the surgeon general didn’t condemn Trump but defended the numbers.
“From a health perspective, I have no reason to doubt those numbers,” Adams said. “I don’t speak for the president. I speak for the office of the Surgeon General and the Public Health Service, and I’m focused on making sure people get the information they need and wash your hands and stay your distance and get the vaccine when it’s available.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
— “Covid, covid, covid“: In a sweeping story, the New York Times traced how Trump “missed his chance to show that he could rise to the moment in the final chapter of his presidency,” instead complaining about the virus submarining his re-election bid.
“All you hear is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid,” Trump said at one campaign stop.
Among the anecdotes in the piece: HHS Secretary Alex Azar briefing the president on the effectiveness of masks, citing Japanese data, only to be rebuffed by Trump. Azar at White House Christmas parties also asked maskless guests to back away from him, the NYT reports.
— “How Trump warped HHS long before Covid-19″: The president and his deputies repeatedly clashed with career scientists and other experts dating back to 2017, POLITICO’s Dan Diamond writes. Those officials say now that some of those early battles, like ideological decisions to do away with programs focused on teen pregnancy prevention and Obamacare protections, caused deep divisions and predicted the 2020 crises to come.
And as a result, as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, his incoming team faces a massive repair job: a demoralized health department, filled with tens of thousands of career staff who have been fighting the pandemic for a year — and often fighting the Trump administration for nearly three years before that.
WHAT’S NEXT — Biden has tapped three senior officials to coordinate vaccine, testing and supply chain strategy, POLITICO scooped last week.
— BECHARA CHOUCAIR, a Kaiser Permanente executive, will be the nation’s Covid-19 vaccine coordinator.
— CAROLE JOHNSON, the commissioner of New Jersey’s human services department, will be the national testing coordinator.
— TIM MANNING, a longtime FEMA official during the Obama administration, will be the nation’s new Covid-19 supply coordinator.
Other familiar faces joining Biden’s Covid-19 team include former CDC official Cyrus Shahpar as the team’s data director; former HHS deputy chief of staff Sonya Bernstein as senior policy adviser; and Osaremen Okolo, a former health adviser for Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sen. Patty Murray, as policy adviser.
ONE POSSIBLE TACTIC: DOSE HALVING — The federal government is in talks with Moderna about giving half the recommended dose of the company’s Covid-19 shot to speed up immunization efforts, the head of the Trump administration’s vaccine rollout said on Sunday, POLITICO’s Brianna Ehley writes.
Operation Warp Speed chief adviser Moncef Slaoui said there is evidence that two half doses in people between the ages of 18 and 55 gives “identical immune response” to the recommended one hundred micorogram dose, but said the final decision will rest with the FDA.
“It will be based on facts and data to immunize more people,” Slaoui said on “Face the Nation,” adding, ”of course we continue to produce more vaccine doses.”
HOW 100,000 PACIFIC ISLANDERS GOT THEIR HEALTH CARE BACK —Tucked into Congress’ end-of-year spending package — beginning on page 4,724 of the 5,593-page bill that Trump signed into law last week — are a few paragraphs of legislative text that some health advocates hailed as a Christmas miracle.
“MEDICAID COVERAGE FOR CITIZENS OF FREELY ASSOCIATED STATES,” the text begins, promising to allow natives of the Marshall Islands and citizens of nearby island nations to get covered by the low-income health program.
For two decades, victims of U.S. nuclear bomb tests fought to obtain the Medicaid eligibility that was promised them. In the waning days of 2020, they won. POLITICO looks at how a two-decade effort by legislators, advocates and community members finally paid off.
MICHAEL ZONA heads to Bullpen Strategy Group. Zona, who most recently served as communications director for the Senate Finance Committee, is starting as a BSG vice president in the firm’s strategic communications and public affairs advisory practice. Zona, who served as comms director for Sen. Chuck Grassley during the Iowa Republican’s time as Finance and Judiciary chair, helped set messaging strategy around Grassley’s work on provider oversight, pharma industry probes and other health care priorities.
The British Medical Journal urged the New York Times to correct its well-read story asserting that “Britain Opts for Mix-and-Match Vaccinations.” (The headline was quietly changed, the Spectator writes.)
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recaps the disturbing, bizarre case of the pharmacist who deliberately destroyed more than 500 doses of Covid-19 vaccine.
Hospitals say the continued Covid-19 surge will require more relief than Congress included in its latest package after lawmakers scaled back health-care funding, WSJ’s Melanie Evans writes.