THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, Feb. 24th – Friday, Feb. 28th

February 28, 2020 by B. Cameron Webb, MD, JD

THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, February 24th – Friday, February 28th

February is coming to an end, leap day is just around the corner, and it was a busy week replete with religious significance for some of our subscribers. For those observing, Lent may have started on Wednesday, but we sure hope you didn’t decide to give up health policy…

As of the time of this post, the House of Representatives is preparing to vote on the long-discussed bill to ban flavored tobacco. In recent days, the bill has seen some resistance from a few Democratic leaders over worries that the bill’s inclusion of menthol could lead to an unequal criminal justice presence in African-American communities. Notable amongst the bill’s potential skeptics is House Majority Whip, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who “expressed some concerns” in comments on Thursday. While some proponents of the bill worry that skepticism from the Majority Whip could lead to less Democrat votes, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) have signaled that they hope the bill will pass, and have been trying to drum up support in the House Democratic caucus.

On Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to uphold a rule from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which forbids abortion referrals by family planning clinics funded by Title X. Initially issued last year, the ban faced backlash from critics—such as the Planned Parenthood Federation—which painted it as a “dangerous gag rule” capable of “causing immense harm across the country.” Proponents of the ban referenced the Supreme Court’s support of similar restrictions during the Reagan administration. In spite of the recent ruling, leaders from both Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union have indicated the possibility of a future appeal.

The debate over women’s reproductive rights came to a front in the Senate this week after Democrats blocked two Republican backed anti-abortion bills. Despite Republican control of the Senate, neither bill was able to pass the sixty-vote threshold. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) denounced Democratic opposition of the bills, stating that, “The radical demands of the far left will drown out common sense and the views of most Americans.”

Across the U.S., localities and the nation at large are upping their fight against Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). On Wednesday, President Trump announced that Vice President Pence will lead the Trump administration’s coronavirus response. Pence began assembling his task force and named Debbie Birx—a long-time expert and coordinator for the U.S. response to the spread of HIV/AIDS—as the response coordinator.

The Trump administration is considering invoking special powers to ramp up manufacturing of protective clothing in preparation for combating the virus. It also requested $2.5 billion from Congress for general virus response, although House Democrats have fought back. Democrats as well as multiple Republicans believe that $2.5 billion would not be enough. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) submitted a request for $8.5 billion, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bill yesterday that would transfer $10 billion from the border wall fund. Members from both congressional houses and sides of the aisle are coming together and building their proposals as well, with bipartisan plans likely to be in the $6 – $8 billion range.

While congress figures out their funding packages, HHS has already decided to divert $136 million from other health programs to fund response efforts, including funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

On Wednesday, a top U.S. health official said that a coronavirus vaccine will take at least a year and a half. This comes as the CDC announced that an outbreak in the U.S. is inevitable, bringing with it concerns that the country is not equipped to detect the spreading virus. Due to an issue with the CDC’s testing kits, as of Wednesday, only 12 labs in 6 states had the ability to diagnose COVID-19, causing apprehension about the virus spreading unknowingly. However, federal officials have announced that they have fixed the issue with testing, and that starting next week, 93 labs will be able use the modified test. This brings widespread relief about our ability to limit undiagnosed cases and to stay ahead of the ever-growing virus.

Fear is spreading as the first case of a COVID-19 infected individual unlinked to international travel or contact with a known case occurred in Northern California. The case is within 10 miles of Travis Air Force Base, the current quarantine location for Diamond Princess Cruise ship passengers, but no connection has been found. In response, San Francisco and Orange County declared a state of emergency.

The transfer of quarantine patients from Travis Air Force Base to Fairview Developmental Center, a state-owned facility in the California city Costa Mesa, was blocked this week. The city was granted a restraining order by a Federal judge, and pointed to Alabama’s similar actions. Alabama was supposed to host patients at the FEMA Center for Domestic Preparedness, but state Republicans successfully pressured the Trump Administration to reconsider.

Before we let you go this week, check out this guide from the CDC on the best styles of facial hair for the effective wearing of antiviral masks! (For our beard-endowed readers, fair warning… you may not like what you see.)

We hope you enjoy your weekend and your extra day – especially since you’re all caught up on health policy news!


This Week’s Viewpoints Writing Team:
Avery Bullock, Carina Clawson, Annie Duncan, Jo McClain, Steven Moore and Nana Owusu