KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Good and Not-So-Good News on Covid

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There’s good news and bad news on covid-19 this week. On the one hand, several million doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine authorized by the FDA for emergency use are already going into the arms of people around the nation. And the Biden administration has brokered a deal with rival manufacturer Merck to produce even more doses of the J&J vaccine, which can be transported and administered more easily than the covid vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

But at the same time, the covid-19 caseload is starting to rise again, and public health experts worry that boost could be accelerated by the spread of more transmissible virus variants that might not be covered by the available vaccines. Nevertheless, Republican governors in several states, including Texas, are rolling back some public health precautions, including mask mandates, over the objections of federal health officials.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Food and Drug Administration’s authorization last week of a covid vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson could be a game changer for public health outreach efforts in some areas. In addition to being easier to store and transport, the J&J vaccine needs only one shot, instead of the two doses required by the two older varieties.
  • Some consumers have been put off by the efficacy numbers for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because they are not as high as the ones made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. But those numbers may be deceiving. The J&J version was tested later, when more covid variants were being transmitted, which could have affected the efficacy in the trials. Still, the J&J shot prevented 100% of hospitalizations and deaths, which are the major markers researchers are looking for.
  • President Joe Biden promised this week that by the end of May there would be enough vaccine for every adult in the United States. But he didn’t say each of those adults would be vaccinated. Public health officials will still likely be dealing with some hesitancy in certain groups of people by then. A major publicity campaign about the benefits of getting vaccinated is planned by the government once supply is sufficient.
  • Federal efforts against the coronavirus could be hampered by decisions in some states to begin reopening without maintaining safety protocols such as mandatory masking and limits on indoor capacities. One way to persuade states to keep such public health precautions in place might be to financially reward those that meet the recommendations from federal health officials.
  • California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to be the secretary of Health and Human Services, received a tied, party-line vote in the Finance Committee this week. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t get some Republican support when the nomination goes to the Senate floor for confirmation.
  • The Senate is poised to try to push out the president’s covid relief plan with an arduous process that would allow passage with only 51 votes. Already Democrats have been forced to give up provisions that would raise the minimum wage and have scaled back the stimulus checks to higher-income workers. So far, no Democrats have deserted the bill, but it is still a work in progress.
  • As the covid pandemic took hold in the country, one issue that has gotten short shrift is mental health. There was a 20% increase in overdose deaths in 2020 and many health experts are worried that children have suffered mental health repercussions from being home so long. The issue is likely to generate new concerns and strategies as the immediate threat from covid diminishes.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Jordan Rau, who wrote the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature — about an international college student whose mental health crisis was not helped by an unexpected hospital bill. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: Reveal/KHN’s “Into the COVID ICU,” by Jenny Gold

Joanne Kenen: Politico’s “A Complicating Factor in Combating Covid Hot Spots: Heat,” by Victoria Colliver and Nolan D. McCaskill

Mary Ellen McIntire: Stat’s “The Trump Administration Quietly Spent Billions in Hospital Funds on Operation Warp Speed,” by Rachel Cohrs

Sarah Karlin-Smith: The Atlantic’s “5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating,” by Zeynep Tufekci

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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