KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Vaccines Coming Soon but COVID Relief Bill Still Stalled

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The first vaccine to protect against COVID-19 could be approved in the U.S. within days, but legislation to help fund its distribution remains mired in Congress.

And President-elect Joe Biden has tapped California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his secretary of Health and Human Services. The choice of Becerra, who served 12 terms in the House of Representatives, is being criticized by Republicans for his support of single-payer health care.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider and Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Despite indications that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are eager to push out a new COVID relief bill, they are having trouble finding common ground on the issue of liability protections for employers whose workers or customers may get sick. And the party leaders, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have not tipped their hands on whether they will go along with the effort.
  • Complicating the COVID relief bill talks is Congress’ inability thus far to come to terms on a spending bill for the government for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
  • Some of the delay in getting deals on spending and COVID relief is linked to the uncertainty over which party will control the Senate after the January special elections in Georgia, which will determine two Senate seats. Although many observers expect the Republicans to win at least one, if not both, of those races, McConnell can’t be sure. He likely aims to use what political muscle he has now with the majority and an ally in the White House to get deals favorable to his causes.
  • Despite the grumbling by some Republican senators over Becerra’s nomination, it is still too early to suggest that he won’t win approval. The outcome may also depend on whether McConnell remains majority leader and whether Republicans determine that this is a nomination they want to take a stand on — or whether they save the gunpowder for another nominee.
  • Dr. Vivek Murthy, chosen by Biden to be the next surgeon general, is likely to have a broader portfolio than that office typically has because of his strong relationship with Biden.
  • An advisory committee for the Food and Drug Administration is meeting to consider an application for Pfizer’s COVID vaccine. If the request is approved, consumers should still anticipate there could be glitches in distribution and some unforeseen issues with the vaccine, such as the side effects noted in Britain this week in people with strong allergies. Nevertheless, this vaccine and others can be expected to make significant progress in the battle against the coronavirus. 
  • The clinical trials for the COVID vaccine have shown it reduces the severity of the disease, but it’s not clear whether the vaccine will stop disease transmission.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Michael Mackert, director of the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas-Austin and a professor both at the Dell Medical School and the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations.

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

Julie Rovner: Politico’s “How Biden Aims to Covid-Proof His Administration,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein and Daniel Lippman

Kimberly Leonard: Business Insider’s “Here’s How the GSA Plans to Disinfect the White House Between Trump’s Departure and Biden’s Arrival,” by Robin Bravender and Kimberly Leonard

Mary Ellen McIntire: The Atlantic’s “The Danger of Assuming That Family Time Is Dispensable,” by Julia Marcus

Joanne Kenen: The New Yorker’s “How Will We Tell the Story of the Coronavirus?” by Andrew Dickson

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