The United States on Tuesday passed 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, a stunning total that is only climbing as the crisis deepens.
The country is now averaging more than 3,000 coronavirus deaths every day, according to Johns Hopkins University data, more than the number of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the daily death toll has been rising. The effects of a surge in gatherings and travel over the holidays are now coming into focus.
The grim milestone of 400,000 deaths came on the last full day in office for President Trump, who has long rejected criticism of his handling of the pandemic.
The situation threatens to get even worse as a new, more contagious variant of the virus becomes more prevalent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned last week that one of the new variants, first discovered in the United Kingdom, could be the predominant strain in the U.S. by March.
Vaccines offer hope, but it is crucial for the inoculation campaign to progress as quickly as possible to get as many people protected before the new variant takes greater hold.
The U.S. vaccination campaign has started slowly, though there are signs it is beginning to pick up some speed. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged a more aggressive federal role in the vaccination effort, including using the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up more vaccination sites.
In the short term, however, the country is in for a bleak period.
“I think we still have some dark weeks ahead,” she said.
The country passed 300,000 deaths in mid-December.
At the end of March, as the crisis was beginning, Trump said that if deaths are limited to between 100,000 and 200,000 “we all, together, have done a very good job.” The country has long ago exceeded those numbers.
The U.S. has by far the most COVID-19 deaths of any country in the world. Brazil follows with around 210,000, and India and Mexico are around 150,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
More than 124,000 people are in the hospital with coronavirus in the U.S., according to the COVID Tracking Project, though the number is starting to decline somewhat from a peak of over 130,000 about a week ago.
The spread of the more contagious variant, however, threatens to send that number spiking again.
How Democratic wins in Georgia affect the odds on 3 health care policy proposals.
Their Senate majority will be slim as can be, and their margin for error in the House is also quite small. So it’s not going to be easy to get anything done. But it seems likely that the Biden White House and a Democratic Congress will try to pass legislation to expand health coverage.
Regarding what Democrats’ health care agenda would look like if the party enjoyed full control of Congress and the White House, a senior party official told reporters this fall: “If we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”
The question is how big they will go. A lengthy health care section will likely be part of any new Covid-19 relief and recovery bill. But will that be the end of it, or do Democrats want to try to pass another health care plan through budget reconciliation? Given Senate rules, that process is probably their best chance of passing a major bill.
Taking a cue from my Future Perfect colleagues and their 21 predictions for 2021, I thought I would lay out some of my expectations for the coming two years of health policy. These projections are based on my own reporting, but they are not meant to be definitive — and nothing is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s more like a list of issues I’ll be watching.
Democrats will expand eligibility for Obamacare subsidies: 85 percent chance
Democrats could attempt to take two bites at the health care apple: first as part of a Covid-19 relief bill, and second in a budget reconciliation package that can pass with a bare majority. I think there is a very strong chance both attempts would end up with provisions expanding eligibility for insurance tax subsidies.
The $2.4 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House, a likely starting point for Covid-19 negotiations between the House and the Senate, would have made anybody currently on unemployment insurance eligible for premium tax credits. That would help people who have lost their employer-sponsored coverage afford a new health care plan. A provision like that is likely to become part of whatever Covid-19 bill Congress comes up with.
A reconciliation bill could make that change permanent and universal. Back in spring 2020, Senate Democrats released a list of their health care priorities in response in response to Covid-19. At the top was a plan to raise the current cutoff for Obamacare subsidies, which stands at 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Under current law, anybody with an annual income above that threshold, which is about $51,000 for an individual or $87,000 for a family of three, is ineligible for any assistance. Democrats have introduced plans to expand eligibility, either by doubling the income cap to 800 percent of the federal poverty level (like in this bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) or by eliminating it entirely so that nobody pays more than a fixed percentage of their income on health insurance (as President-elect Joe Biden proposed). Democrats could also try to make low-income people in states that have not expanded Medicaid eligible for tax credits to buy private coverage.
The people squeezed under Obamacare have been the ones ineligible for the law’s financial aid. Expanding eligibility could insure up to 4 million people, and it seems like the bare minimum Democrats would want to do on health care with their new power.
The public option won’t be part of a Democratic health care bill: 75 percent chance
Much like the 2009 debate over Obamacare, a new government insurance plan would probably be the most hotly debated proposal if Democrats try to approve a major health care bill. Biden embraced the public option in his campaign, but passing it won’t be easy — in fact, I think it’s more likely than not that it doesn’t happen.
One problem for a public option is budget reconciliation. Unless Democrats are willing to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster, they’ll have to use this special procedural tool in order to pass a bill with just 51 votes.
But budget reconciliation comes with limits on what provisions can be included, narrowly targeted to federal spending, and creating this new program may not qualify. Capital Alpha, a health care policy analysis group, thinks there is “virtually zero chance” a public option like that proposed by Biden during his campaign would be enacted because it likely doesn’t satisfy the reconciliation rules.
Progressives will push Democratic leadership to be as aggressive in pursuing a public option as possible, including in how they handle those procedural limits. But the moderate Senate Democrats who will ultimately dictate what the final package will look like have sounded ambivalent about the public option, and Democrats are wary of the party getting dragged into a messy health care fight.
Support for a public option would be substantial — about 70 percent of Americans say they’re for it, polls show — but so would the opposition. The health care industry will surely mobilize against the plan if Democrats look serious about pursuing it.
I suspect that, either because the moderates rule it out from the start or Democratic leaders balk at a drawn-out health care debate, politics will take the policy off the table.
Democrats will approve Medicare negotiations for prescription drugs: 55 percent chance
Democrats have campaigned for several election cycles now on a promise to give Medicare more power to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies. This promise was a part of the drug pricing bill that House Democrats passed in the last Congress, a plan that was estimated to cut federal spending by $456 billion over 10 years.
Savings are the reason the policy could be handy for Democrats in crafting a budget reconciliation plan. Democrats will need to include provisions that save the government money to help pay for the new provisions that cost money, like expanding eligibility for tax subsidies.
“We have long believed that pharma faces the greatest risk of drug pricing reforms in conjunction with Democrats’ efforts to expand coverage,” Capital Alpha wrote in a recent analysis.
Those twin incentives — delivering on a campaign promise and finding offsets — could help overcome what would surely be fierce industry opposition.
But the politics of drug pricing have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why I think there’s only a slightly better than even chance that Congress will approve Medicare negotiations. Pharma has delivered the Covid-19 vaccines in record time, improving the industry’s relationship with the public in the process. This, in turn, has lowered expectations among the experts for how aggressive Democrats will be on drug prices.
“I think now you don’t have all those stories about insulin and EpiPen, plus you have positive stories about vaccines and other drugs,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told me in December. “You don’t have as fertile an environment for more extreme drug measures.”
Thus, my feeling that the odds for Medicare negotiations are closer to 50/50.
More than six out of 10 Americans are hopeful about what 2021 has in store for the world, according to a new Axios/SurveyMonkey poll.
The big picture: After a year dominated by the pandemic and a seemingly endless presidential election, Americans are overwhelmingly hopeful that things will get better with the pandemic — and more narrowly hopeful about Joe Biden’s presidency.
By the numbers: 63% of poll respondents said they’re more hopeful than fearful about what 2021 holds in store for the world, while 36% said they’re more fearful.
- That’s a jump in optimism compared to the same poll heading into 2019, when just 51% said they were hopeful and 48% said they were fearful.
- The only group that wasn’t optimistic about 2021 was Republicans: 41% said they were more hopeful, while 58% said they were more fearful.
Between the lines: Americans were even more optimistic about the year ahead for them personally — mostly driven by the hopes of young adults, people of color and Democrats.
The coronavirus was the one issue that united most people in optimism. Overall, 76% were more hopeful than fearful about the pandemic next year — a view that held across most age groups, racial and ethnic groups, and parties.
- 82% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans, and 73% of independents said they were more hopeful than fearful.
The Biden presidency was more divisive. Overall, 56% were more hopeful about his presidency, while 42% were more fearful.
- Not surprisingly, Republicans are the most pessimistic: 82% said they’re more fearful than hopeful about his presidency.
- By contrast, 59% of independents said they’re more hopeful about it — and 92% of Democrats said the same.
And while Republicans are ready for President Trump to take on a big leadership role in the Republican Party after his presidency ends, that’s not true of everyone else.
- 75% of Republicans said they’re more concerned that Trump will play too small a role in the future of the GOP rather than too big a role — while 51% of all respondents said they’re more concerned that he’ll play too big a role.
- And more than half of Republicans (52%) said they believe Trump will have a major role in the Republican Party, while 30% said they think he’ll have a minor role.
- By contrast, just 34% of all respondents expect him to play a major role, while 32% think he’ll have a minor role and 31% think he’ll have no role at all.
But first, we have a difficult period to get through. This week again saw record-breaking numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19, with Thursday alone bringing more than 238,000 new cases—and a staggering 3,293 fatalities.
Nearly 115,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID, a rise of 16 percent from just two weeks ago, and in many places a precarious capacity situation has turned perilous. Conditions have worsened precipitously in California, with only Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island registering more daily COVID cases per 100,000 population than the Golden State, although cases are still on the rise across 80 percent of states and territories.
Intensive care availability in Southern California hit zero, with ICU volume there expected to double or triple by this time next month. The same stresses are playing out in dozens of markets across the country, leading to a staffing sustainability crisis that can’t be solved through paying overtime, cancelling vacations or looking to travel nurses to fill the gaps in a now nationwide crisis. With the Christmas and New Year’s holidays still ahead, experts predict COVID cases won’t peak until sometime in mid-January, with a peak in hospitalizations and deaths following several weeks after.
Several states and cities tightened restrictions on gatherings and issued new stay-at-home orders, in an effort to keep new cases at a level that allows hospitals to manage through the next several weeks and maintain care quality and access for COVID and non-COVID patients alike. The coming weeks will require every American to take greater precautions than at any time during the course of this pandemic.
Applications for jobless benefits resumed their upward march last week as the worsening pandemic continued to take a toll on the economy.
More than 947,000 workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That was up nearly 229,000 from the week before, reversing a one-week dip that many economists attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. Applications have now risen three times in the last four weeks, and are up nearly a quarter-million since the first week of November.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, the week’s figure was 853,000, an increase of 137,000.
Nearly 428,000 applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular state benefits.
Unemployment filings have fallen greatly since last spring, when as many as six million people a week applied for state benefits. But progress had stalled even before the recent increases, and with Covid-19 cases soaring and states reimposing restrictions on consumers and businesses, economists fear that layoffs could surge again.
“It’s very clear the third wave of the pandemic is causing businesses to have to lay people off and consumers to cut back spending,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for the career site Glassdoor. “It seems like we’re in for a rough winter economically.”
Jobless claims rose in nearly every state last week. In California, where the state has imposed strict new limits on many businesses, applications jumped by 47,000, more than reversing the state’s Thanksgiving-week decline.
The monthly jobs report released on Friday showed that hiring slowed sharply in early November and that some of the sectors most exposed to the pandemic, like restaurants and retailers, cut jobs for the first time since the spring. More up-to-date data from private sources suggests that the slowdown has continued or deepened since the November survey was conducted.
“Every month, we’re just seeing the pace of the recovery get slower and slower,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist with the job site Indeed. Now, she said, the question is, “Are we actually going to see it slide backward?”
Many economists say the recovery will continue to slow if the government does not provide more aid to households and businesses. After months of gridlock in Washington, prospects for a new round of federal help have grown in recent days, with congressional leaders from both parties signaling their openness to a compromise and the White House proposing its own $916 billion spending plan on Tuesday. But the two sides remain far apart on key issues.
The stakes are particularly high for jobless workers depending on federal programs that have expanded and extended unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Those programs expire later this month, potentially leaving millions of families with no income during what epidemiologists warn could be some of the pandemic’s worst months.