Biden Says Pandemic Is Over, Angering Some Experts

Biden Says Pandemic Is Over, Angering Some Experts

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Monday, September 19, 2022

Welcome to what should be a busy news week.

President Joe Biden, back from London and the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, will be attending the United Nation General Assembly in New York, likely prompting more complaining about city traffic than we’ve heard in two years. Also, the Federal Reserve’s policymaking committee will hold a two-day meeting that’s expected to culminate Wednesday afternoon with the announcement of another big interest rate hike, likely a third straight increase of 75 basis points — though a full percentage point isn’t out of the question.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers must still fund the government past September 30, though the path forward there is clouded by lingering uncertainty over an energy permitting reform measure that could be attached to the stopgap funding bill. With 50 days to go until Election Day, lawmakers in both parties want to avoid government shutdown. We’ll likely learn this week how they plan to do it.

Government Funding Deadline Coming Up Fast

The deadline for passing a continuing resolution that would prevent the government from shutting down at the end of the month is approaching fast. Including today, the House is in session for just seven days before October 1, increasing the pressure to move quickly on the bill, which would maintain government funding at current levels.

As we told you last week, Democrats want the funding bill to last until December 16 or thereabouts, a timeline that could be problematic for some Republicans. They reportedly also want to include several other measures in the legislative package, including electoral vote reforms, reauthorization for an FDA user fee program, changes to the way energy projects receive permits and more money for Covid preparedness, monkeypox and Ukraine aid.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) confirmed over the weekend that he wants more money for Ukraine, a stance that seems likely to win bipartisan support — while bringing the total for U.S. aid to the eastern European country to more than $60 billion. “Ukraine has made significant advances against Russia in the war, the vicious war that Putin has waged against the Ukrainian people,” Schumer said, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin. “I will be pushing for at least $12 billion in aid for Ukraine in the budget so they can continue to win the war effort.”

Other parts of the package are proving to be less popular, not least the rule changes for energy project permitting. That measure is being considered because of an agreement between Democratic leadership and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to include it in the continuing resolution, as part of the effort to win the senator’s support for the Inflation Reduction Act. Manchin has long sought permitting reform in the energy sector, which is connected to his support for a gas pipeline project that would travel through his home state, as well as his support for the fossil fuel industry generally.

But lawmakers say the details of the agreement have been kept under wraps, making it hard for the measure to win support. “We don’t know what it is,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told The Hill. “They haven’t released the text, they don’t give us the detailed explanation. So, I don’t know how you could ask people to vote for something they don’t know what it is.”

Manchin said last week that he expects the text of the measure to be released at the same time as the continuing resolution, leaving little time for lawmakers to review the details. Capito, who has offered an alternative proposal for permitting reform, said the delay could be a bad sign. “There’s a reason they’re keeping it secret: It’s either still being negotiated or it’s so weak it has no meaning or it’s too strong for other people,” she told The Hill.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he wasn’t sure whether the permitting reforms would make it into the final package. “Republicans and a lot of Democrats [are] against it,” he said. “So, I don’t know where it goes yet.”

The bottom line: Lawmakers still have time to come to an agreement that would prevent the government from shutting down — and no one wants to see the lights go out so close to the midterm elections. So whatever form it takes, expect to see action on the continuing resolution in the next few days, with Schumer deciding whether to include the permitting measure or drop it in the face of opposition from both Republicans and liberal Democrats.

“If permitting reform is dropped, there’s an outside chance that the [continuing resolution] could be approved this week,” says Punchbowl’s John Bresnahan. “It’s pretty unlikely, but there’s a chance. Lawmakers in both chambers want to go home for the election.”

Biden Complicates the Covid Funding Question

President Biden says that the Covid-19 pandemic is “over” — a declaration that is prompting some pushback from public health experts and could further complicate his administration’s months-long effort to secure billions of dollars in additional pandemic funding.

What Biden said: In an interview that was recorded last week and aired Sunday night, Biden strolled through the Detroit Auto Show with Scott Pelley of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” who asked whether the pandemic is over.

“The pandemic is over,” Biden replied. “We still have a problem with Covid. We're still doing a lot of work on it. It's -- but the pandemic is over.”

What his administration says: Those comments reportedly surprised some administration officials and come less than two weeks after the White House’s own Covid-19 response coordinator told reporters that “the pandemic isn’t over” as he laid out plans for a fall campaign to have Americans get updated vaccines and discussed annual shots going forward.

“We will remain vigilant, and of course, we continue to look for and prepare for unforeseen twists and turns,” Dr. Ashish Jha said at a press briefing on September 6. “But this week marks an important shift in our fight against the virus. It marks our ability to make COVID vaccines a more routine part of our lives as we continue to drive down serious illness and deaths and protect Americans heading into the fall and winter.”

A Biden administration said that the president’s comments do not represent a change in policy and that there are no plans to lift the public health emergency in place since January 2020, CNN’s Betsy Klein reports. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra told Yahoo Finance that Biden is correct and was reflecting what many Americans feel, adding that vaccines are still needed.

What the numbers say: The seven-day average of new cases has fallen by nearly 30% over the past two weeks, dropping to the lowest level since early May, according to data from The New York Times — yet there are still nearly 62,000 new cases being reported daily, and that official number massively undercounts the true number of new infections because it does not include people who are testing at home. More than 450 people are still dying from Covid-19 each day, or about 3,000 people a week.

What public health experts say: Biden apparently impromptu comments raised some alarms among public health experts.

“Wish this was true,” tweeted Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “What's over is @POTUS’s and our government's will to get ahead of it, with magical thinking on the new bivalent boosters.” And Dr. Kavita Patel wrote: “There is a fine line between injecting a sense of optimism/hope and telling people the truth that with 400-500 deaths/day plus a very unpredictable winter ahead it’s far from over.”

Why it matters: Besides the public health implications of Biden’s comments, which could be significant, the White House this month also requested another $22.4 billion in funding for Covid-19 testing, research and preparation — money it said is “vital to our ability to protect and build on the progress we’ve made.” Republicans have opposed any additional Covid-19 funding, arguing that the administration should find the money it needs from previously authorized spending.

“Republicans on Sunday night raised questions about why the administration would renew its ongoing public health emergency if the pandemic is over,” The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond reports, noting that as many as 15.8 million Americans could lose Medicaid coverage once the emergency ends, according to estimates from the Urban Institute.

While new Covid-19 funding reportedly is unlikely to make it into the stopgap spending bill Congress needs to take up before the end of the month, the president’s comments could also make it harder to secure additional money down the line. “The administration is currently taking some steps to move pieces of the pandemic response toward the commercial market, efforts that are likely to be accelerated in the absence of federal funding,” CNN notes.

The bottom line: Go get your Covid boosters.

Quote of the Day: The Pitfalls of Private Health Insurance

"Private insurance is a defective product. You pay for it and then when you get sick, there's co-payments, there's deductibles, there's out-of-network fees, there's things that aren't covered at all."

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a public health professor at Hunter College, as quoted by Axios about a new study she co-authored that found that medical debt is common, even among the insured.

“One in 11 American men, 1 in 8 women, and nearly 1 in 5 households carry medical debt,” says the report, published at JAMA Network Open. “US residents with middle-class or low incomes bear the brunt of this debt burden; only the highest-income and most educated segments of society are relatively spared.”

The study’s authors write that their findings “suggest that incurring medical debt leaves many unable to pay for utilities, and worsens housing and food security.” They add that unaffordable medical bills may be a heath risk in their own right, contributing to “a downward spiral of ill-health and financial precarity.”

Woolhandler also noted that medical debt is inherently political. “The idea that we have medical debt, those are all policy decisions,” she told Axios.

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