Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! Have you all settled on your preferred method of greeting people now that handshakes are verboden? Vice President Mike Pence apparently favors the forearm bump, but I particularly like the foot tap, which you should very much feel free to expand into funky dance moves at random.

Also, has anyone actually managed to stop touching your face? (She asks after 10 minutes of working with her hand on her face.) Most of the tips I’ve seen have been utterly useless (relax, you’re going to fail was actually one of them).

Anyway, brace yourself, friends. I have all the coronavirus news you could ever want. Here we go:

— President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending package aimed at fighting the outbreak that made it through Congress with stunning enough speed that most people felt compelled to mention it. Look, they can actually get stuff done. In the package: Each state gets at least $4 million and HHS gets $3.1 billion to spend on medical supplies, vaccine-making and ensuring health systems are up to handling the outbreak.

— This is good news because the United States sailed past 200 confirmed cases, and it’s just expected to skyrocket from there. Some of the states where there have been patients: California, Washington, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas.

— Speaking of confirmed cases, that might actually be hard to tally because, as Pence has admitted, there are not enough testing kits to meet the surge in demand now that restrictions beyond a doctor’s green light have been lifted. But the good news is both insurers and the government said they are covering the costs of the tests for patients who end up getting them.

So, should you get tested? No one wants to be the jerk who spreads the virus to a vulnerable population, but the already stressed health system shouldn’t have to bear the added strain of treating everyone with only a common cold or the flu. If you have symptoms you can manage at home, do so. If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, unremitting fever, weakness or lethargy, it’s time to call the doctor.

— President Donald Trump’s bombastic style and rosy promises are colliding with the somber tone set by his top health officials. Trump has repeatedly misstated the number of Americans who have tested positive for the virus and claimed it would “miraculously” disappear in the spring, given a false timeline for the development of a vaccine, publicly questioned whether vaccinations for the flu could be used to treat the virus and dismissed WHO’s death rate estimates. At a time when public faith in the government is critical to fighting panic and hysteria, experts worry the mixed messaging is doing anything but.

— Does that mean Trump is getting the administration he always wanted? He rallies the people, Pence governs them, as Gabby Orr and Anita Kumar say in Politico’s story. Whatever the case, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Pence, who is stepping into the spotlight after living most of the past years in Trump’s shadow.

— If the United States’ outbreak had an epicenter, it would likely be Washington state, where a nursing facility played host to a cluster of cases and was responsible for much of the death toll in the country (which stands at 14 at press time). Relatives of those in the nursing facility are livid that their loved ones are being kept essentially as “prisoners,” especially since the virus has proven to be particularly deadly for older patients. “It’s like we are waiting for them to be picked off, one by one,” said the son-in-law of one resident.

— In response to this Washington state cluster, CMS is intensifying its infection-control efforts for nursing homes, where safety and quality breaches have long been a problem.

— California has also been hit harder so far by the outbreak, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency so that health officials can be better prepared to handle the cases. Meanwhile, a cruise ship is being held off the coast of San Francisco after a previous passenger was the state’s first coronavirus death. Test kits were helicoptered out to the ship, but many are left worrying that it’s going to become a floating petri dish, just like the one held off the coast of Japan in the early days of the outbreak.

Globally, stock markets went tumbling as the number of confirmed cases surged past 100,000.

All right, that was the news you should know to keep yourself updated, but here are some of the more interesting stories of the week:

— It used to be a rule of thumb that there were about three pandemics per century. So far, 20 years in, we’ve had at least seven scares. What’s to blame? Urbanization, globalization and increased consumption of animal proteins.

— For a president who has built his brand on “America First,” a global epidemic poses a unique challenge. Responding to the crisis is entangling him with institutions he doesn’t like (such as WHO), undercutting his strong-border rhetoric as travel restrictions fail and forcing him into a financial reckoning as global markets plunge.

— In research that surprises no one, there’s a gender gap when it comes to bathroom hygiene habits. Want to guess which way it skews?

— You’ve read the stories about how, at least right now, the flu is far deadlier to Americans than is the coronavirus. So, why the hysteria? The fact that the coronavirus is new, foreign and we don’t have a vaccine or treatment for it means it’s hitting all our fear-based psychological hot buttons.

— So, how many people are actually infected? Some researchers think that only one-third of cases coming out of China have been observed.

Is there an end in sight? Maybe, but researchers don’t really know what it’s going to look like. Past pandemics give us clues, though. In general, it seems experts think it might burn out by summer but enter into the rotation of seasonal flus, which return every year.

— “I assumed it was all being paid for.

— And no matter how ready you are, it’s almost impossible to account for all the ways human error can throw a wrench in your response efforts.


Holy moly. If you’re interested in falling further down the rabbit hole, check out the Morning Briefings for (and I say this with zero exaggeration) literally hundreds of more stories. For now, let’s trudge onward to other news in the health sphere.

Highly anticipated oral arguments in a case involving abortion providers’ hospital admitting privileges finally played out. Eyes were mostly on swing-vote Chief Justice John Roberts, who asked pointed questions about whether the court was bound by a 2016 Supreme Court decision on a similar Texas law. In that case, the majority opinion found no evidence that Texas’ admitting-privileges requirement “would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment.” Roberts seemed to be questioning why that would change on a state-to-state basis.

Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans have seized on the idea of “sanctuary cities” as a way of walling themselves off from policies they find distasteful. For the left, it’s been used as a way to avoid cracking down on cities’ immigration population. For the right, it’s about abortion.


The Supreme Court delighted Democrats this week when it decided to take up a case on the health law. The decision won’t likely come until after 2020, but the oral arguments could be held in October, right before the election. That means health care — a topic in which Dems have the edge — will be top of mind in the contentious weeks right before voters go to the polls.


A federal judge dealt the latest blow to Medicaid work requirements when he blocked Michigan’s “community engagement” waiver. The judge cited a decision on similar rules in Arkansas. The opinion found that the waiver approval was not consistent with the primary objective of the Medicaid statute: furnishing medical coverage.


A new study found that for decades the VA unlawfully turned away thousands of veterans who have other-than-honorable discharges. The discharges — colloquially known as “bad papers” — make it less likely that veterans will qualify for services. But the agency is required by law to accept applications. That’s not what was happening, though.


That’s it from me! Remember, keep calm, wash your hands and don’t buy face masks. (Health professionals actually need them!) Have a good weekend.

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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