The U.S. may be in a silent covid surge

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Welcome to Thursday’s Health 202. Remember ‘pharma bro’? Scroll down for the latest. 

Today’s edition: Vice President Kamala Harris will virtually meet with abortion providers today. President Biden invokes the Defense Production Act to address the nationwide shortage of baby formula. But first …

Coronavirus cases are rising again – but many go undetected

Coronavirus cases are on the rise again. 

Top Biden officials warned of the increase in cases yesterday, as the country surpasses an average of 100,000 new infections per day. But that number is a massive undercount and could be anywhere from five to 10 times higher, experts say, since home tests typically aren’t included in official case counts.

One-third of Americans live in areas with rising levels of cases and hospitalizations, prompting officials to urge them to consider taking measures to protect themselves, such as wearing masks, my colleague Yasmeen Abutaleb notes. 

  • “If you do just look at those friends, colleagues, neighbors who are infected — confirmed by a home test or a PCR test — it is remarkable how many people are infected right now,” said Michael Osterholm, who leads the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and advised President Biden’s transition team.

Officials have stressed that the country is in a better position than the winter omicron surge, which stretched hospitals nearly to their breaking points. But the pandemic isn’t over, as the contagious omicron subvariants drive a spike in infections. 

Here are the three big challenges facing the administration in the coming weeks:

1. Convincing some communities to put their masks back on. 

This is the first major test of a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alert system adopted in February. The agency began incorporating the strain on the health-care system into its guidelines for mask-wearing, in addition to cases per 100,000 people. 

Over 32 percent of Americans live in areas with medium or high levels of the coronavirus. 

  • In communities where the virus level is medium, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said people should consider taking precautions, like masking, based on their own personal risk.
  • In communities where the virus level is high, everyone should be wearing a mask in public, indoor settings, she said.

Yet governors and local officials have been reluctant to impose mask mandates again. And a growing number of Americans would likely be hesitant to put their face coverings back on even if they did. 

2. Is a longer course of Paxlovid needed?

Some patients have reported coronavirus symptoms rebounding days after completing a treatment course of Pfizer’s antiviral medication, called Paxlovid. The regimen is currently five days, and the National Institutes of Health is in talks with the drugmaker to study whether the pills should be taken for longer.

  • “We’re going to be planning what studies we’re going to be doing relatively soon. Within the next few days, we’re going to meet,” Anthony S. Fauci, who serves as Biden’s chief medical adviser. 

A Pfizer spokesperson said the company is considering additional Paxlovid studies. In a previous study, a small number of participants exhibited higher viral loads 10 to 14 days after starting treatment vs. at the completion of the pills on Day 5. 

  • But this phenomenon occurred in both patients who took the antiviral medication and those who didn’t, suggesting that this situation is “both uncommon and not uniquely associated with treatment,” the spokesperson wrote.

3. More covid-19 funding is still very much stalled.

On the Hill yesterday: Two top White House officials — coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha and budget office director Shalanda Young — met with House Democratic leaders to discuss the need for billions more in pandemic relief.

Hours later, Jha publicly warned of the consequences of a lack of funding. The United States is falling further back in line to purchase new treatments and vaccines, if they’re developed soon. For instance: Without new funding from Congress, the administration wouldn’t be able to purchase enough next generation shots — which would be better equipped to fight off newer variants — for every American.

But Congress doesn’t appear any closer to forging a deal. The Senate brokered a bipartisan compromise back in April for $10 billion in aid, but it’s long been stalled in the chamber over backlash to the Biden administration’s decision to end pandemic restrictions at the U.S. border. 

On tap today: VP Harris to meet with abortion providers

Vice President Harris is slated to meet virtually with several abortion providers who work in states where the procedure is already limited or would be restricted if Roe v. Wade is overturned, according to a White House official. 

She’ll meet with at least four providers: Rebecca Taub, who practices in California, Oklahoma and Kansas; Bhavik Kumar, an OB/GYN with Planned Parenthood in Texas; Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of St. Louis; and Helen Weems, founder and director of All Families Healthcare in Montana.

Harris will deliver remarks thanking the providers for their work and emphasize that the administration will defend the rights to an abortion. But the White House has limited options if the Supreme Court does strike Roe’s decades-old protections.

White House prescriptions

Biden invokes Defense Production Act to ease formula shortage

In a major step toward potentially alleviating the country’s infant formula shortage, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up production nationwide and will launch an operation to ensure faster flights of imports, our colleague Tony Romm reports. 

  • Key context: The White House announcement comes as Biden faces mounting political pressure over a months-long domestic formula shortage caused by ongoing supply chain disruptions and made worse by the prolonged safety-related closure of a key plant in Michigan operated by Abbott Nutrition.

Under the act, Biden will require suppliers to direct key ingredients to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered those goods. Biden is also authorizing the use of Defense Department commercial planes to fly infant formula from abroad that meets federal standards to the United States, in what the White House is calling “Operation Fly Formula.”

Lawmakers have been urging the White House to invoke the act. 

Here’s Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass):

Meanwhile, lawmakers are moving to address the formula shortage on Capitol Hill

The House overwhelmingly approved a bill to expand access to formula for low-income Americans. And Democrats then drove the passage of $28 million in new funding for the Food and Drug Administration to enhance safety inspections, Tony writes.

On the other side of the Capitol … roughly 30 Senate Democrats are pressing the Biden administration to designate a formula coordinator within the White House to work with key manufacturers to address the national shortage. 

Led by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate HELP Committee, and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), lawmakers urged Biden to “immediately assign” an official that could also directly oversee the development and implementation of a national strategy to increase supply chain resiliency, boost communication with parents and prevent future shortages. 

In the meantime, the Senate Finance Committee launched a probe into the tax practices of Abbott Nutrition, the country’s largest infant formula manufacturer at the center of the nationwide shortage, chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced Wednesday. 

  • Vicky Assardo, a spokeswoman for Abbott, told Tony that the company is a “responsible and transparent taxpayer, paying all of its taxes owed in every country in which it operates.”

More from Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.):

Key lawmakers reach deal to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee announced a long-awaited agreement on legislation to expand health-care and disability benefits to millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service, The Post’s Lisa Rein reports. 

If successful, the legislation brought by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) would amount to a major bipartisan victory

It would also be a win for Biden, who has wondered publicly whether burn pits were connected to the brain cancer that killed his son, Iraq War veteran Beau Biden, and vowed to help other veterans exposed to the toxins. 

The details: The bill would extend coverage for up to 3.5 million veterans, and add 23 conditions related to burn pit exposure as automatic qualifiers for VA health benefits and monthly disability checks.

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs had for years cited a lack of evidence linking illnesses to pits the military used to dispose of garbage, equipment and human waste. The department had denied about 70 percent of claims related to burn pits, according to Moran.
  • The bill would also invest in claims processing and training for VA employees, as well as boost federal research on the issue.

HHS Secretary Becerra tests positive for the coronavirus

The head of the federal health department, Xavier Becerra, tested positive for the coronavirus yesterday morning while visiting Berlin for a Group of Seven health summit, the latest high-profile member of Biden’s Cabinet to be infected with the virus. 

Becerra returned a positive test shortly before meeting with other health leaders, HHS spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim said in a statement. Becerra, who is fully vaccinated and boosted, is experiencing mild symptoms. Becerra last visited the White House on Thursday and is not considered a close contact of the president.

Also yesterday … Ashley Biden, daughter of the president, tested positive for the coronavirus and will no longer join first lady Jill Biden on a trip to Central America this week. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president hadn’t seen his daughter in “several days.” 

  • Martin Shkreli, the former pharmaceutical executive who gained notoriety for hiking the cost of a lifesaving drug more than 4,000 percent, has been released early from prison and transferred to a halfway house, our colleague Aaron Gregg writes.
  • More than 75 percent of long covid patients were not sick enough to be hospitalized for their initial infection, according to a new analysis of tens of thousands of private insurance claims by the nonprofit organization FAIR Health.
  • Top health officials confirmed the first case of monkeypox in the United States this year, and said they are monitoring the possible spread of the rare but potentially serious virus, The Post’s Meryl Kornfield and Hannah Knowles write.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

Thanks for reading! See y’all tomorrow.

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