THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, Mar. 23rd – Friday, Mar. 27th

March 27, 2020 by B. Cameron Webb, MD, JD

THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, March 23rd – Friday, March 27th

“I want America to understand this week it’s going to get bad.” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams’ words certainly rang true this week as the country saw the death toll from COVID-19 surpass 1,000. With more than 83,000 cases, the United States now has more cases than any other country. But it appears help is on the way…

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. On Wednesday, in a 96-0 vote, the Senate passed a $2 trillion relief package to stimulate the economy and fight COVID-19. The package includes $153.5 billion for public health spending. Hospitals will get $100 billion, $16 billion will go to the Strategic National Stockpile for equipment, and $11 billion will be invested in diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines. Representatives returned to D.C. to ensure a vote (it was touch-and-go for a second there) and the bill passed in the House Friday afternoon, after which President Trump signed it into law.

On the executive end, President Trump began the week by signing an executive order to curb hoarding and price gouging of needed supplies during this outbreak. The order, as Attorney General William Barr outlined on Monday, gives the Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS), Alex Azar, the power to define supplies as critical, which would authorize potential criminal action against those who hoard or price-gouge. No supplies have been given the “critical’ designation just yet.

 President Trump indicated Tuesday that he would “love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” This April 12th goal was met with skepticism and concern from public health officials, state governors, members of Congress, and economists, who indicate that loosening social distancing guidelines too soon would undermine efforts to slow the virus. Advisors to the president, such as White House National Economic Council (NEC) Director Larry Kudlow, have gone on to say that the Easter goal was “aspirational” and not a “hard and fast rule or target.” The president himself clarified in a briefing on Tuesday that he was committed to “carefully and responsibly reopening the country.”

U.S. cities being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic are dealing with medical supply shortages and uncertainty of whether or not they will receive the supplies they need. Due to the short supply, device manufacturing companies have asked the Trump Administration to help with the distribution of life-saving devices like ventilators. The companies are looking for federal guidance to prioritize what states and hospitals receive supplies. On Friday, after many calls from the healthcare industry, lawmakers, and national security professionals, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) for the first time to require General Motors to produce ventilators. The DPA allows for executive oversight over medical supplies distribution, and allows the President to order manufacturing and boost production.  

Many companies are stepping up to help with the national shortages. On Wednesday, Apple announced a donation of 10 million medical masks to healthcare workers around the country. In a similar manner, Tesla purchased 1,000 ventilators from China to bring to California. Ford Motor Company will use its facilities to manufacture masks and ventilators as well as help healthcare companies increase their manufacturing capacity. Other car companies are stepping in with Fiat Chrysler making face shields and General Motors helping with ventilators.

Lastly, Major League Baseball (MLB) and Fanatics have joined to use their manufacturing center to make hospital gowns and masks from jersey fabric. Even though we couldn’t enjoy baseball’s opening day, those pinstripes will still be out working hard, protecting healthcare workers across our country.

To reduce pressure on providers, hospitals, and post-acute care programs, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) is cutting back many of its Medicare quality reporting requirements. Deadlines are being pushed back and in some cases made optional, allowing clinicians and administration to focus on treating COVID-19. CMS is also giving several states more leeway in determining Medicaid service requirements by approving several Medicaid Section 1135 waivers.

These changes come at an important moment. If they aren’t already, hospitals are expected to become overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients by early April. Several cities and states are reporting nearing or having already met capacity, and some are responding by building temporary hospitals. Yet, while the nationwide demand for hospital care grows, some rural hospitals may face closure now that fewer people are undergoing more profitable elective procedures. Some states are preparing for the worst-case scenario by even considering rationing care for patients who aren’t young and healthy.

It’s clear that hospitals are facing an uphill battle. According to recent polls, Americans do seem to be getting better at this whole social distancing thing and we have to keep up the good work. However, not everyone is doing their part. For some reason, some grown adults have decided to cough on grocery store workers, thousands of dollars worth of food, and even senior citizens. With support from the Justice Department, law enforcement has begun to issue terrorism-related charges for those trying to intentionally infect others. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes, folks! 

As hospitals and clinics have sought to curb the number of elective medical procedures in order to free up beds and supplies for those affected by COVID-19, a number of states have also made moves to further restrict access to abortions. On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) prohibited nonessential surgical abortions in the state, arguing that elective abortion care was not classified as an “essential medical service.” Similar constraints on abortion services were also implemented in Ohio and Mississippi earlier this month. In response to Texas’s statewide ban, a group of abortion providers filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, claiming that the government was using the COVID-19 crisis to block access to essential, time-sensitive abortion procedures.The group is currently seeking a temporary restraining order against the ban.  

And in the midst of this pandemic, the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) 10th birthday quietly passed this week. So happy birthday, ACA. Sorry your party’s so lame. 

 


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