Overnight Health Care — CDC won't change mask recommendation

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  • Rochelle Walensky
    American medical scientist
KN95 disposable medical respirator white mask medical equipment on blue background
KN95 disposable medical respirator white mask medical equipment on blue background


Welcome to Wednesday's Overnight Health Care, where we're following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

It's Justine's final day with us at The Hill, and her last time co-authoring this newsletter. We'll miss her! And wish her well in new endeavors.

In today's news, the CDC may be tweaking its "advice" about masks to recognize some are better than others, but director Rochelle Walensky said the agency's overall guidance is not going to change.

For The Hill, we're Peter Sullivan (psullivan@thehill.com), Nathaniel Weixel (nweixel@thehill.com) and Justine Coleman (jcoleman@thehill.com). Write to us with tips and feedback, and follow us on Twitter: @PeterSullivan4, @NateWeixel and @JustineColeman8.

Let's get started.

Walensky: Mask guidance not changing

Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Wednesday the agency does not plan to change its mask guidance to advise Americans to wear higher-quality masks amid the omicron surge.

The CDC director said during a White House briefing that her agency currently recommends that "any mask is better than no mask" to battle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The guidance does not advise Americans to wear a specific kind of mask, such as a medical-grade KN95 or N95 instead of a cloth mask, although Walensky said the CDC plans to update its website to help Americans choose their face covering.

"We do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID 19," she said. "And the recommendation is not going to change."

Walensky acknowledged that the CDC's website is "in need of updating right now" to include information on the "different levels of protection different masks provide," including the improved filtration of KN95 and N95 masks.

Boosting availability? There could still be other efforts on masks. At the same briefing, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said the White House is "strongly considering options" to improve accessibility to high-quality masks for all Americans.

Read more here.

Dems push bill to send N95s to all Americans

Congressional Democrats have called for more action on testing, and now there's a call for more on masks, too.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and more than 50 Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation to send high-quality masks to every American amid a push to get the public to wear better masks given the omicron surge.

The legislation would send every person in the country a package of three N95 masks, which provide significantly better protection than the cloth masks many people have been wearing.

It would appropriate $5 billion to boost manufacturing and distribution of the masks and use the U.S. Postal Service to distribute them, along with pickup locations at sites such as schools and public transit stations.

Some leading health experts have also been pushing the Biden administration to do more to make high-quality masks available to the public. The omicron variant is so transmissible that regular cloth masks are rendered much less effective.

Read more here.

OMICRON WILL INFECT 'JUST ABOUT EVERYBODY'

White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that "just about everybody" will eventually be infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

"Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will, ultimately, find just about everybody," Fauci told the Center for Strategic and International Studies during a "fireside chat."

"Those who have been vaccinated and vaccinated and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death," he added.

Fauci's comment follows a similar remark Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, made at a Senate hearing Tuesday, when she said "it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is most people are going to get COVID."

Important caveat: During a White House briefing Wednesday, Fauci added a major caveat: "Virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely get infected but if you're vaccinated and if you're boosted, the chances of you getting sick are very, very low."

Fauci's point underscores the calls from health officials urging inoculations for the people who remain unvaccinated by choice. It's not meant to be fatalistic, but realistic. Although individuals who are vaccinated or have been previously infected with COVID-19 can contract omicron, hospitalizations and deaths are significantly higher among those who are unvaccinated.

Read more here.

Schools to get more tests amid surge

The Biden administration on Wednesday announced plans to increase the COVID-19 tests available to schools by 10 million each month to help keep them physically open amid a new wave of cases fueled by the omicron variant.

The White House said the administration would send 5 million free, rapid tests to K-12 schools each month. The additional tests are designed to help support schools implement testing screening and "test to stay" programs, which involve using regular testing instead of quarantining for students who have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Additionally, the White House announced that the administration would make available 5 million lab-based PCR tests each month for schools to perform testing in classrooms. The tests would be funded by the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law.

Calls to stay open: President Biden has been adamant that schools can and should remain physically open in the U.S. during the current wave of COVID-19 cases, saying last week that they have the resources needed to keep students safe.

"Today the Biden-Harris Administration is doubling down on our commitment to keeping all schools safely open for full-time in-person learning by taking new action to increase access to COVID-19 testing in schools," reads a White House fact sheet announcing the new steps on Wednesday.

Despite Biden's push to keep schools open, some districts have temporarily moved to remote learning amid a spike in cases.

Under pressure: The Biden administration is under pressure to do more to increase availability of COVID-19 testing after the country experienced a shortage of tests and heightened demand over the holiday season.

Read more here.

STUDY: OMICRON PATIENTS AT 'SUBSTANTIALLY REDUCED RISK'

A preprint study released Tuesday estimated that patients infected with the omicron variant were at "substantially reduced risk" of severe outcomes than delta patients, aligning with earlier research suggesting omicron cases may cause less severe disease.

The study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, used modeling to determine that the omicron strain was about half as likely to send patients to California hospitals than the delta variant. Patients hospitalized with the omicron strain were also more likely to have shorter hospital stays than delta patients.

The study involved more than 52,000 omicron patients and almost 17,000 delta patients within the Kaiser Permanente Southern California health care system between Nov. 30 and Jan. 1, when both variants were spreading.

What Walensky said: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky called the study's results "consistent with what we are seeing from omicron in other countries, including South Africa and the U.K."

Still, Walensky warned that the high transmissibility of omicron has caused an exponential increase in COVID-19 cases, which regardless of its severity is putting pressure on hospitals.

"The sudden and steep rise in cases due to omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism and strains on our health care system," she continued.

Read more here.

WHAT WE'RE READING

  • Soaring COVID-19 cases renew US debate over mask mandates (The Associated Press)

  • COVID hospitalization numbers are as bad as they look (The Atlantic)

  • Omicron is creating a 'crisis, red-tier situation' in health care (NBC News)

  • Cruises are using quarantine ships to isolate coronavirus-positive crew members (Washington Post)

STATE BY STATE

  • Ohio to prioritize COVID testing supplies for schools, universities as demand remains high (Dayton Daily News)

  • Maine's front-line health care workers more strained than ever during omicron surge (The Portland Press Herald)

  • With hospitals reeling, California tells COVID-positive medical workers to stay on the job (Los Angeles Times)

  • Alaska reports daily COVID records as Anchorage hospitals feel pinch of omicron (Alaska Public Media)

OP-EDS IN THE HILL

That's it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill's health care page for the latest news and coverage. See you on Thursday.

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