New Restrictions, Vaccine Requirements in Response to Delta Variant

President Joe Biden announced last week that all federal workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements, and travel restrictions. The order followed revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which advises all individuals to wear masks indoors in public in places where COVID-19 is rapidly spreading. According to a new internal CDC report, the latest Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox – and is more contagious than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, seasonal flu, and smallpox – and can be spread by vaccinated people just as easily as those who are unvaccinated. In an effort to increase the nation’s vaccination rate, the Treasury Department will expand tax credits for businesses that provide paid time off to employees getting vaccinated, recovering from vaccination, or helping family members to get the vaccine. President Biden is also encouraging state and local governments to offer $100 payments to newly vaccinated Americans.

Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) has become the second member of the House of Representatives in a week to test positive for coronavirus. It is the second time that Higgins has contracted the virus; he has not clarified whether or not he has received the vaccine. Several congressional staff members, including individuals who have already been fully vaccinated, have also tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. Congress’ attending physician is once again requiring mask-wearing for individuals in all House Office buildings, the Hall of the House, and House committee meetings to stem the spread of the Delta variant. Failure to wear a mask will result in fines. The White House is also requiring staff to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, amidst the increasing spread of the Delta variant. The attending physician’s recommendation to the Senate reiterates the importance of all individuals wearing a well-fitted mask, but stops short of requiring masks in the Senate chamber. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, however, did decide to postpone a hearing scheduled for last Wednesday because of the potential exposure of some of the panel’s members to COVID-19.

Major Health Care Orgs Push For Vaccine Requirements

More than 50 groups representing health care professionals, including the American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association (AMA), and American Nurses Association (ANA), released a joint statement last week endorsing a mandate for health care workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “Due to the recent COVID-19 surge and the availability of safe and effective vaccines, our health care organizations and societies advocate that all health care and long-term care employers require their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” the organizations state. “This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being.”

PPP Direct Forgiveness Portal Opens

Borrowers with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans of $150,000 or less will be able to apply directly to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for loan forgiveness, instead of going through their lender, as laid out in an interim final rule recently released by the agency. Lenders will be allowed to opt in to this alternative method for processing the loans in an effort to reduce the burden on lenders for servicing forgiveness applications.

Stakeholders Request Telehealth Flexibilities Be Made Permanent

Agroup of 430 health and technology organizations have sent a letter to congressional leadership urging lawmakers to extend telehealth flexibilities for Medicare beneficiaries beyond the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). The groups argue that the policies contained in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) recently proposed Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS), which would extend Medicare coverage of telehealth services through the end of 2023, do not do enough to maintain telehealth access. “Congress must act to ensure that the Secretary has the tools to transition following the end of the public health emergency and ensure telehealth is regulated the same as in- person services,” the letter states. It asks Congress to remove geographic restrictions on patients and providers, expand the types of services eligible for telehealth and how they are delivered, and remove a restriction requiring mental telehealth patients to receive an in-person visit every six months.

Lawmakers Press Facebook on COVID-19 Misinformation

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting that the company immediately release data about the spread of coronavirus vaccine-related misinformation on its social media platform. The letter cites reports that Facebook is not moving fast enough when it comes to removing vaccine misinformation, and details the company’s past failure “to provide straightforward answers to Congressional inquiries.” Menendez asks for details about how many users have viewed and were recommended vaccine misinformation, and how many accounts spreading misinformation have been removed, by August 10. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) sent a similar letter to Zuckerberg last week, calling on the company to publish the results of an internal study that reportedly examined that company’s role in the spread of COVID-19-related misinformation.

GAO Releases Report on MA Disenrollment

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report indicating that Americans are more likely to leave the Medicare Advantage (MA) program as they age. Medicare Advantage enrollees in their final year of life switched to Medicare fee-for-service more than twice as often as other MA beneficiaries. GAO suggests that the choice to switch may be due to “potential limitations accessing specialized care.” GAO noted that it excluded hospice payments from their comparison since hospice services for MA beneficiaries are provided under FFS. The agency recommends monitoring end-of-life MA disenrollments to identify and address potential quality of care concerns.

Burr Releases Latest White Paper on Pandemic Response

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has released a new report on improving existing public health programs and maintaining vigilance for the next public health treat. The white paper, Preparing for Future Health Threats: Improving and Sustaining Foundational Public Health Capabilities in Response to COVID-19, is the latest in a series of documents examining the federal government’s pandemic response. The report includes the following recommendations:

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Congress, collaborating with states, localities, and other stakeholders, should evaluate our ability to ensure public health programs are meeting the mark, and address silos that may exist within and between programs; and
  • A strategic focus on public health preparedness must be maintained by increasing the visibility of public health programs and better characterizing the impact they have on day-to-day public health to encourage continued support.

Debt Limit in Effect as of Aug. 1

Following a two-year suspension, the debt limit came back into effect on August 1, requiring the Treasury Department to take “extraordinary measures” to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that such extraordinary measures could be exhausted soon after Congress returns from its August recess, while the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that lawmakers will likely have until October or November to raise or suspend the debt limit. Republicans have expressed opposition to a clean debt increase or suspension, with some suggesting that any change be tied to spending cuts and entitlement reform.

Upcoming Congressional Hearings and Markups

Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies business meeting to markup an original bill making appropriations for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2022; 5:45 p.m.; August 2

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee markup of S.1486,Pregnant Workers Fairness Act; S.1543, Suicide Training and Awareness Nationally Delivered for Universal Prevention (STANDUP) Act; S.2425, Suicide Prevention Lifeline Improvement Act; and S.2401, 21st Century Assistive Technology Act; time TBD; August 3

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