Covid antiviral pills will become more available, the Biden administration pledges

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Today’s edition: A federal judge intends to block the Biden administration’s plans to lift pandemic-era border restrictions. Congress wants answers from the FDA on the timeline for vaccinating children under 5. But first…

The White House says it’s working to boost supplies of a gamechanging covid medication

On tap today: The Biden administration is announcing efforts to double the number of places dispensing covid-fighting pills and ramp up awareness about the lifesaving treatments.

Top Biden officials have referred to Pfizer’s oral antiviral as “a game changer” and have made the drug a pillar of their effort to start returning the country to normal. But months after the pills came online, patients are still facing hurdles — sometimes insurmountable — to get the medication.

Among the challenges: The treatment can reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by nearly 90% when given to high-risk patients within three to five days of symptom onset. But patients can’t always quickly find a doctor who will prescribe the pills. It can be difficult to find a nearby pharmacy that carries it. and there are inequities in who can easily get the drug based on a person’s access to medical care, our colleague Yasmeen Abutaleb notes.

The White House is scrambling to increase access to the medication, which it maintains is no longer in scarce supply. Senior administration officials — speaking on the condition of anonymity — previewed their plan with reporters yesterday. Here’s the quick digest:

1) Double the number of sites where patients can pick up the medication

Starting this week, more pharmacies will be allowed to order the antiviral treatments from the federal government for free. There are currently 20,000 locations across the country dispensing the pills, including pharmacies, community health centers, hospitals and more.

The administration projects that number will soon increase to more than 30,000 locations with the aim of expanding the pills to up to 40,000 sites “over the coming weeks,” according to a White House fact sheet.

2) Stand up new federally supported “test-to-treat” sites

There are roughly 2,200 of these one-stop shop locations, where patients can get a test and obtain the antivirals in the same place. Senior administration officials said they plan to work with states and jurisdictions to set up more locations with federal support.

This comes after Kaiser Health News reported that many Americans don’t have access to the program, which launched in early March. Forinstance: A federal map showed no sites in Wyoming or South Dakota other than military clinics, which don’t serve the public. Patients in dozens of areas would have to drive over 100 miles to reach the nearest clinic, Hannah Recht wrote earlier this month.

3) Provide more guidance to doctors

The White House wants to boost education to health providers, some of whom may be limiting prescriptions of the drugs because they’ve been “operating in a scarcity mindset,” a senior administration official said. This includes providing tool kits to help doctors assess whether a patient is eligible for the antivirals, and additional guidance to pharmacy chains and major medical associations about the treatment’s accessibility and prescribing considerations.

Top federal health officials have said the pills are “underutilized” in part because physicians aren’t prescribing enough of it.

“What we need to do a better job of is getting the practicing physician and health-care provider on the outside the knowledge and realization that this is an available intervention,” Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said on MSNBC earlier this month.

4) Ramp up public awareness

The administration is planning to increase communication to the public about the pills — a tacit acknowledgment that many Americans are still unaware of the drug’s benefits. The messaging will focus on how the medication must be taken within the first five days of symptoms and that it reduces hospitalization and death. However, senior officials didn’t provide details on what form the new educational efforts would take, though it will include working with stakeholder groups.

Messaging effective treatments to the public is key. Health experts have shared stories of their quests to get Paxlovid, and the stumbling blocks they encountered on the way — steps they were only able to take because they knew to ask for the treatment.

Farzad Mostashari, CEO of Aledade and former Obama official:

Court prepares to halt Biden plan phasing out border restrictions

A federal judge in Louisiana announced his intent to block the Biden administration’s plans to wind down Trump’s pandemic-era border restrictions, our Post colleagues report.

The pending order from Judge Robert R. Summerhays — a Trump appointee overseeing a lawsuit against the policy brought by a group of GOP-led states — is likely to stop the Biden administration from phasing out the restrictions ahead of a May 23 deadline.

  • “Such a ruling could amount to a political reprieve for Biden officials who have faced calls from within their own party to push the deadline and develop a more detailed plan to cope with the added border pressures they expect,” our colleagues note.

This comes as the White House has prepared to ramp up its defense of winding down the policy. Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Mayorcas will hold a private briefing with lawmakers on Title 42 today, and White House officials will also brief Senate chiefs of staff.

What we’re watching: Republicans on Capitol Hill have bashed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift the public health order next month, while some Democrats have also criticized the move. The issue has held up a bipartisan deal to authorize $10 billion in coronavirus aid — and the key question is if the judge’s decision will change the calculus in Congress.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt:

Congress presses FDA for answers on a vaccine for children under 5 years old

Federal regulators are facing growing pressure from lawmakers to provide a clearer picture of the timeline for authorizing a coronavirus vaccine for children under 5, the country’s only remaining demographic without access to a shot.

This morning: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) plans to press Food and Drug Administration officials on the timeline for a shot for young children at a Senate HELP Committee hearing, according to a committee aid.

Yesterday: Rep. James E Clyburn (DS.C.), chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, requested a briefing with FDA officials on the agency’s progress on authorizing a coronavirus vaccine for the age group. This comes amid reports that federal regulators may wait until as late as June to authorize the shot.

  • Moderna plans to file for emergency use authorization by the end of the month, meaning the two-dose shot could potentially be cleared for use in the coming weeks. But Pfizer may seek the greenlight for its three-shot regimen in June, Politico’s Adam Cancryn reports. The fear among some officials is that allowing children to get Moderna’s vaccine, but only for a more effective one to come online weeks later, may undermine public confidence in the shots.

First in The Health 202: Key Dems push leaders to close the Medicaid coverage gap

The lobbying on a scaled-back version of Democrats’ economic package has begun. A bicameral group of over 30 Democrats is pressing congressional leadership to include a permanent work-around to extend health coverage to the roughly 2.2 million poor adults living in states that have refused Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

The renewed push comes as Democrats are hoping to finish their work on a new version of their social spending bill by July 4.

“As a reconciliation package is being negotiated, we urge you to include provisions to close the Medicaid coverage gap and provide free and affordable health coverage to all those who would otherwise be eligible for this safety net program,” the group, led by Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) and vulnerable Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), wrote in a letter sent Monday.

Philips subpoenaed by DOJ over sleep apnea machine recall

the Department of Justice subpoenaed Royal Philips N.V. amid a sweeping recall of a sleep apnea device likely to affect millions of patientsthe Wall Street Journal reports.

The recall, which is expected to affect 5.5 million devices worldwide, was issued over concerns that foam used in certain breathing-aid machines made by the Dutch multinational health-care conglomerate could degrade and release harmful, possibly cancer-causing, particles.

Now, many patients are in limbo: Either continue to use a device that could cause them harm or forgo a treatment that helps prevent serious long-term health conditions associated with sleep apnea, like strokes and heart problems.

  • Philips has pledged to repair or replace more than 90% of affected devices by the end of the year. As of Monday, the company said it had produced 2.2 million fixed machines, less than half of the expected total.

Frans van HoutenPhilips CEO, said the company isn’t aware of any specific allegations by the DOJ but that “we just have to accept that” the department is preparing an investigation.

  • FDA fully approved Gilead Sciences’s coronavirus treatment remdesivir for children under 12 infected with the virus.
  • The American Federation of Government Employees, the country’s largest union representing federal employees, is calling on the Office of Personnel Management to address health and safety concerns of its members over returning to the office.
  • White House officials gave STAT reporter Rachel Cohrs one hour to review a 385-page binder of coronavirus spending details that White House press secretary Jen Psaki offered up to reporters in a bid to wart Republican accusations about how the Biden administration spent billions of dollars in pandemic aid.
  • On the move: Alicia Daugherty joined WoebotHealth, a company developing digital tools for behavioral health, as vice president of corporate strategy and development. Previously, she served as a managing director at advisory board, a health care research and consulting firm.

Thanks for reading! See y’all tomorrow.

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