With Rachel Roubein and David Lim
— AstraZeneca has published new data on the effectiveness of its coronavirus vaccine after federal scientists questioned its results.
— The Biden administration has announced a nearly $10 billion infusion to expand access to Covid vaccines and reduce hesitancy.
— The White House wants to make regular Covid testing the norm in schools and offices.
WELCOME TO THURSDAY PULSE — where impressionist Dana Carvey is the closest one yet to nailing the ever-elusive President Joe Biden. But his Anthony Fauci could use a little work. Classic SNL clips and news tips to [email protected].
ASTRAZENECA’s VACCINE RESULTS, TAKE 2 — The drugmaker is now saying its vaccine is 76 percent effective against symptomatic Covid-19 infection, slightly lower than the figure it first released earlier this week, POLITICO’s Sarah Owermohle reports.
The new estimate comes two days after the Data and Safety Monitoring Board, an independent group overseeing vaccine trials, accused AstraZeneca of using stale data to promote the vaccine. AstraZeneca’s initial release had relied on information from a mid-February interim analysis, the board said.
— The new data still represents good news for the company’s vaccine. Its effectiveness is well above the bar set for FDA authorization, and the shots’ estimated efficacy for people older than 65 actually rose slightly from Monday’s figures, from 80 percent to 85 percent.
— But AstraZeneca may still struggle to restore the public’s trust in its shot. The confusion comes less than a week after unsubstantiated fears about the vaccine’s safety swept across Europe. AstraZeneca said it’s planning to seek authorization from the FDA by mid-April.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine manufacturing capability is getting a much-needed boost. Catalent, a contract manufacturer helping produce Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, has started delivering millions of doses after receiving FDA clearance late Tuesday. J&J’s other partner, Emergent BioSolutions, is still awaiting its own FDA authorization.
BIDEN TOUTS NEW TRANCHE OF FUNDING FOR VACCINATION CAMPAIGN — A surge of funding from Democrats’ Covid aid package will soon land at HHS, much of it to be spent on efforts to ramp up vaccinations in hard-hit and underserved communities, POLITICO’s Rachel Roubein reports. Where the money will go:
— Community health centers will receive $6 billion to fund services like Covid-19 vaccinations, testing and preventative care;
— States, territories and large cities will get $3 billion to aid vaccine confidence campaigns and help increase access in the hardest-hit communities;
— And $330 million will go to jurisdictions to assist community health workers and improve coronavirus prevention and control efforts.
The White House is also urging health centers that provide vaccinations to expand eligibility for the shots to all essential workers and people with high-risk medical conditions, and it plans to create a new program that will send vaccines directly to dialysis centers.
— The backdrop: Biden has long promised equitable distribution of Covid shots, but CDC data still shows stark disparities in who’s getting vaccinated – with Black and Hispanic communities lagging far behind white Americans.
HOW BIDEN PLANS TO OVERHAUL COVID TESTING — The White House is shifting the nation’s testing strategy from diagnosing people who suspect they’re infected to regularly screening millions of Americans at school and work, POLITICO’s David Lim reports.
Widespread and consistent testing will be vital to reopening classrooms and nonessential businesses, and as demand for Covid tests across the country has finally begun to dip, routinely testing schoolchildren is now possible without getting in the way of testing elsewhere. Last week the administration announced a $10 billion effort to amp up screening programs for K-12 students, and it’s also trying to speed up the manufacturing of rapid Covid tests for in-home use.
— Regular screenings will become even more important as the vaccination rate increases, by helping to catch new pockets of the virus. As the overall caseload drops, contact tracing will become easier, health experts said.
RACHEL LEVINE MAKES HISTORY — The new HHS assistant secretary for health is the first openly transgender government official to be confirmed by the Senate, POLITICO’s Alice Miranda Ollstein reports.
Levine’s nomination cleared the chamber Wednesday in a 52-48 vote, with GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski joining all Democrats and independents. The former head of Pennsylvania’s health department, Levine emphasized her work on opioid addiction, maternal mortality and rural health care.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed the milestone ahead of the vote, calling Levine’s emergence as a national figure critical to “break[ing] down barriers of ignorance and fear.”
— Happening today: Vivek Murthy’s swearing in. He’ll officially become surgeon general in a ceremony set for 9 a.m. ET.
TODAY: BIDEN’s FIRST FORMAL PRESSER — The president is slated for his first solo news conference this afternoon, where he’ll likely be pressed on his handling of the surge of unaccompanied immigrant children. During a Wednesday meeting with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and other officials, Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to be his point person on the crisis.
Biden will also likely face scrutiny on a pair of other health policy questions: his new vaccination goal, which he promised earlier this week to soon unveil; and whether he wants Congress to pursue drug pricing measures or a public insurance option as part of its next stimulus bill.
FIRST IN PULSE: WHITE HOUSE BULKS UP ITS COVID COMMS — Biden’s Covid response team has added former Obama HHS official Subhan Cheema as a strategic communications adviser. Cheema worked on the Biden campaign in North Carolina, and prior to that did stints as communications director for Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
WYOMING’s GOP-LED HOUSE PASSES MEDICAID EXPANSION — The Republican-controlled chamber approved legislation expanding Medicaid on Wednesday, marking the first time it’s ever agreed to expand coverage, Rachel reports.
Weeks after the passage of Biden’s Covid aid bill, which offered the nation’s remaining holdout states new incentives to expand their Medicaid programs, roughly 24,000 of Wyoming’s poorest residents are a step closer to having access to health coverage.
— But the expansion effort still faces a difficult path. The Senate, which can now consider the bill, let similar legislation die earlier this week. And GOP Gov. Mark Gordon hasn’t committed to signing an expansion bill if one lands on his desk.
A spokesperson for Gordon told Rachel earlier this week that he’ll “continue to monitor this bill but remains concerned about what the state’s future financial obligations could be under expansion.”
— PULSE thought bubble: Even if it ultimately falls short, the bill’s initial passage is notable given the GOP dominance in the Wyoming state House — of 60 lawmakers, 51 are Republicans. It’s the latest expansion of how the politics of Medicaid expansion have shifted in the 11 years since Obamacare’s passage.
ROCKEFELLER DEBUTS INDUSTRY-BACKED SCHOOL TESTING PLAN — The Rockefeller Foundation is out this morning with a blueprint for implementing Covid screening programs in schools that would return results within a day or less, David writes.
The initiative – dubbed the National Testing Action Program – was developed alongside 21 health companies, including Abbott, Quest Diagnostics, UnitedHealth Group and Color.
FIRST IN PULSE: ROSEN, COLLINS BILL WOULD FREE UP MOBILE CLINIC FUNDING — Collins and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said today they are introducing legislation that would make health centers and part-time mobile clinics — both of which Biden has promoted as key to getting members of underserved communities vaccinated — eligible for funding under an HHS grant program key to reaching underserved communities.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s family members got priority access to Covid testing early on in the pandemic, the Albany Times Union’s Brendan Lyons reports.
Covid hospitalizations in Michigan among people 40 to 49 years old surged 800 percent in March, the Detroit Free Press’ Christina Hall and Kristen Jordan Shamus report.
A top executive of Chicago’s Loretto Hospital resigned after giving early vaccinations to people at three businesses he had close ties to, Block Club’s Kelly Bauer reports.