Here in Washington, the conversation about politics is often framed as a spectrum, a straight line with poles at the end that are hard-wired opposites. Team Blue to the left and Team Red to the right. But in reality, the chatter might more accurately be framed as a loop, with the far ends bending back on themselves like a lasso. Eventually, the far-right voices and the far-left voices meet at the weird spot where Rand Paul supporters find common ground with The Squad.
It’s often at the knot between the two ends of that scale that we find some of the loudest voices on any given issue: foreign aid, vaccine mandates, the surveillance state. Right now, as Congress is considering a massive spending package on roads and bridges, pre-K and paid family leave, lawmakers have been debating a point on which political opponents agree: drug prices are too high.
Drug pricing is one of those rare sweet spots where it seems everyone in Washington can agree that consumers are getting a raw deal. The motives behind that sentiment differ, of course: liberals want to make medical care more accessible and to curb the power of big pharma, and conservatives see drug prices divorced from pure capitalism. But everyone can rally around the end goal. No one gets excited to tuck away pennies on the paycheck to control acid reflux or prevent migraines.
The package under consideration tries to fix drug costs by ending the ban on feds negotiating with pharmaceutical companies. In a deal hashed out among Democrats, Medicare would be allowed to negotiate directly with drug companies on the prices of the 10 most expensive drugs by 2025. That number would double to 20 drugs three years later. Only established drugs that have been on the market at least nine years in most cases would be eligible, giving pharmaceutical companies almost a decade of unrestricted profitability. (Start-up biotech companies would be exempted from the process under the guise of giving newcomer innovators a leg-up.)
For individuals on private insurance, their drug costs would be tied to inflation, meaning no spiking costs if a drug becomes popular. Seniors, meanwhile, would have a $2,000 cap on what they’d be responsible for at the pharmacy.
Democrats have been working for years to make drug companies the enemy. In the current environment of woke capitalism, they’re an easy target for lawmakers in Washington to come after. Drugs, after all, aren’t luxury goods. They’re necessary. And for the government to give them a pass in ways few other industries enjoy, that just seems wrong to the far-left wing of the Democratic Party that has flirted with elements of socialism.
It turns out, maybe that messaging isn’t working. New polling, provided exclusively to TIME from centrist think tank Third Way, suggests the way the conversation is framed matters more than you’d think. In a poll of 1,000 likely voters in September, costs were their biggest hangup about the healthcare system, regardless of political identity. Almost 40% of respondents cited healthcare costs as the biggest flaw in the system.
What didn’t seem to bother people much? Fairness. That’s right. The spot where the far-right and the far-left tines of the political fork meet is usually seen as an objection to a system rigged against the consumers. But a meager 18% of respondents to the Third Way poll say profits were what’s wrong with the system. Grievance isn’t the most grievous of problems.
And if you dig a little deeper, you find other reasons Democrats might want to reconsider how they talk about drug prices in the twin infrastructure plans parked in Congress. In fact, there’s a 12-point gap in two competing reasons to address healthcare; lowering costs draws the support of 72% of respondents while making things fair wins backing from 60%.
“This is kitchen table economics and it’s not a morality play,” says Jim Kessler, a co-founder of Third Way and its policy chief who is advising the Hill on messaging on the twin bills. “Those are winning messages, especially on healthcare. You’re going to keep the exact same system, but you’re going to get some help with costs.”
In other words, the chatter in the purple knot might feel most fulsome when talking about justice and weeding out the super-rich exploiters of capitalism. But, really, people just want to hold onto their cash. Protections against healthcare bankruptcy are super popular, suggesting the fear of losing everything to a hospital visit is real. Capitalism may well be exploitative but it’s tough to argue that a few extra bucks in the bank can make falling asleep easier at the end of the day.
So as Congress gets ready to move forward with drug prices in its infrastructure talks, lawmakers can find some comfort that the whole of the political spectrum agrees costs need to come down. And they don’t really care if it’s done in a fair way — as long as their savings doesn’t take a hit every 90 days.
An argument for humility in the face of pandemic forecasting unknown unknowns.
“Are we battling an unprecedented pandemic or panicking at a computer generated mirage?” I asked at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 18, 2020. Back then the Imperial College London epidemiological model’s baseline scenario projected that with no changes in individual behaviors and no public health interventions, more than 80 percent of Americans would eventually be infected with novel coronavirus and about 2.2 million would die of the disease. This implies that 0.8 percent of those infected would die of the disease. This is about 8-times worse than the mortality rate from seasonal flu outbreaks.
Spooked by these dire projections, President Donald Trump issued on March 16 his Coronavirus Guidelines for America that urged Americans to “listen to and follow the directions of STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.” Among other things, Trump’s guidelines pressed people to “work or engage in schooling FROM HOME whenever possible” and “AVOID SOCIAL GATHERINGS in groups of more than 10 people.” The guidelines exhorted Americans to “AVOID DISCRETIONARY TRAVEL, shopping trips and social visits,” and that “in states with evidence of community transmission, bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor venues where people congregate should be closed.”
Let’s take a moment to recognize just how blindly through the early stages of the pandemic we—definitely including our public health officials—were all flying at the time. The guidelines advised people to frequently wash their hands, disinfect surfaces, and avoid touching their faces. Basically, these were the sort of precautions typically recommended for influenza outbreaks. On July 9, 2020, an open letter from 239 researchers begged the World Health Organization and other public health authorities to recognize that COVID-19 was chiefly spread by airborne transmission rather than via droplets deposited on surfaces. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t update its guidance on COVID-19 airborne transmission until May 2021. And it turns out that touching surfaces is not a major mode of transmission for COVID-19.
The president’s guidelines also advised, “IF YOU FEEL SICK, stay home. Do not go to work.” This sensible advice, however, missed the fact that a huge proportion of COVID-19 viral transmission occurred from people without symptoms. That is, people who feel fine can still be infected and, unsuspectingly, pass along their virus to others. For example, one January 2021 study estimated that “59% of all transmission came from asymptomatic transmission, comprising 35% from presymptomatic individuals and 24% from individuals who never develop symptoms.”
The Imperial College London’s alarming projections did not go uncontested. A group of researchers led by Stanford University medical professor Jay Bhattacharya believed that COVID-19 infections were much more widespread than the reported cases indicated. If the Imperial College London’s hypothesis were true, Bhattacharya and his fellow researchers argued, that would mean that the mortality rate and projected deaths from the coronavirus would be much lower, making the pandemic much less menacing.
The researchers’ strategy was to blood test people in Santa Clara and Los Angeles Counties in California to see how many had already developed antibodies in response to coronavirus infections. Using those data, they then extrapolated what proportion of county residents had already been exposed to and recovered from the virus.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues preliminarily estimated that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had already been infected in Santa Clara County by early April, which would mean that COVID-19 infections were “50-85-fold more than the number of confirmed cases.” Based on these data the researchers calculated that toward the end of April “a hundred deaths out of 48,000-81,000 infections corresponds to an infection fatality rate of 0.12-0.2%.” As I optimistically reported at the time, that would imply that COVID-19’s lethality was not much different than for seasonal influenza.
Bhattacharya and his colleagues conducted a similar antibody survey in Los Angeles County. That study similarly asserted that COVID-19 infections were much more widespread than reported cases. The study estimated 2.8 to 5.6 percent of the residents of Los Angeles County had been infected by early April. That translates to approximately 221,000 to 442,000 adults in the county who have had the infection. “That estimate is 28 to 55 times higher than the 7,994 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported to the county by the time of the study in early April,” noted the accompanying press release. “The number of COVID-related deaths in the county has now surpassed 600.” These estimates would imply a relatively low infection fatality rate of between 0.14 and 0.27 percent.
Unfortunately, from the vantage of 14 months, those hopeful results have not been borne out. Santa Clara County public health officials report that there have been 119,712 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 so far. If infections were really being underreported by 50-fold, that would suggest that roughly 6 million Santa Clara residents would by now have been infected by the coronavirus. The population of the county is just under 2 million. Alternatively, extrapolating a 50-fold undercount would imply that when 40,000 diagnosed cases were reported on July 11, 2020, all 2 million people living in Santa Clara County had been infected by that date.
Los Angeles County reports 1,247,742 diagnosed COVID-19 cases cumulatively. Again, if infections were really being underreported 28-fold, that would imply that roughly 35 million Angelenos out of a population of just over 10 million would have been infected with the virus by now. Again turning the 28-fold estimate on its head, that would imply that all 10 million Angelenos would have been infected when 360,000 cases had been diagnosed on November 21, 2020.
COVID-19 cases are, of course, being undercounted. Data scientist Youyang Gu has been consistently more accurate than many of the other researchers parsing COVID-19 pandemic trends. Gu estimates that over the course of the pandemic, U.S. COVID-19 infections have roughly been 4-fold greater than diagnosed cases. Applying that factor to the number of reported COVID-19 cases would yield an estimate of 480,000 and 5,000,000 total infections in Santa Clara and Los Angeles respectively. If those are ballpark accurate, that would mean that the COVID-19 infection fatality rate in Santa Clara is 0.46 percent and is 0.49 percent in Los Angeles. Again, applying a 4-fold multiplier to take account of undercounted infections, those are both just about where the U.S. infection fatality rate of 0.45 percent is now.
The upshot is that, so far, we have ended up about half-way between the best case and worst case scenarios sketched out at the beginning of the pandemic.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky finds herself in a delicate position as she seeks to balance the optimism of increasing vaccinations with the reality that the U.S. is still very much in the grip of a deadly pandemic.
Walensky started the CDC job with a reputation as a savvy communicator, tasked with salvaging the reputation of an agency that took a beating under the Trump administration.
“When I first started at CDC about two months ago, I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth, even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” Walensky told reporters recently.
Walensky’s expertise is in HIV research, like her predecessor Robert Redfield, and before being appointed to lead the CDC, she was head of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
While former colleagues say Walensky is the perfect fit for the CDC post, her skills are now being put to the test as she faces criticism for being both too negative and too hopeful.
“She is quite a compelling and clear communicator, but it’s a challenging set of messages to try and get out there,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Public health messaging during a global pandemic is complicated enough, but experts say this particular moment is especially difficult.
After weeks of decline and then stagnation, the rate of coronavirus infections has once again started to climb across much of the country. Cases are up about 12 percent nationally compared with the previous week, averaging around 62,000 cases per day, according to the CDC.
At the same time, nearly 100 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Many states are expanding vaccine eligibility, in some instances to all adults, and federal health officials say there will be enough supply for everyone to be vaccinated by the end of May.
Walensky tried to emphasize both aspects this week when she issued an emotional appeal to the public.
“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope. But right now I’m scared,” Walensky said, adding that she had a “sense of impending doom” if people continued to ignore public health precautions.
Yet almost in the next breath, she talked about a “tremendously encouraging” new study showing that vaccinated people were 90 percent protected from infection, meaning they pose an extremely low risk of spreading the virus.
While that may come across as mixed messaging, experts say it accurately reflects not only where things stand right now but also how the country has been reacting to the virus for the past year.
“Whiplash is a true reflection of how we’re all experiencing the epidemic and the response to it. So I’d rather she be honest about that and others be honest about that than give people something that they want … to make them feel better,” said Judith Auerbach, a professor in the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Auerbach, who previously worked with Walensky on HIV research, praised the director’s openness, which she said had been missing from agency leadership during the Trump administration.
“She’s being really honest about her own emotions. That’s hard for a fed to do and get away with,” Auerbach said. “The science that says we all still need to be, in fact, quite scared because we’re in this race between the vaccines … versus the emergence of these variants, and she felt it at a visceral level, and she conveyed that in a way that I thought was quite telling.”
Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia and a former CDC media relations director, said Walensky’s candor helps establish credibility.
“She has embraced the fact that credibility comes from being transparent and honest and genuine about your fears and your concerns,” Nowak said.
The CDC declined to make Walensky available for an interview, but in a statement to The Hill, an agency spokesman said every communication reflects the latest science and epidemiology.
“At times, moments must balance hope that we will move out of the pandemic with the reality that we are not out of it yet,” the spokesman said.
“We acknowledge the challenge of conveying such hope and promise that vaccines offer with the reality that cases and deaths are rising. While we are sending the critical message that people cannot and should not let up on their prevention measures, we do remain very optimistic about what the future of a fully vaccinated public will offer,” the spokesman added.
On Friday, Walensky again came under criticism for her messaging. In updated guidance, the CDC said it is safe for people who have been fully vaccinated to travel.
But Walensky struck a cautionary tone by saying the CDC still recommends anyone, vaccinated or not, avoid nonessential travel because infection numbers are so high.
“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases,” Walensky said during a White House briefing. “I would advocate against general travel overall. Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel. Our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so.”
Nowak said part of what makes public health messaging so difficult is the fact that science doesn’t always deal in absolutes and that the public overall doesn’t do well with nuance.
“Often people don’t want to listen to the nuance; they want advice and guidance to be stable. They get frustrated with the changes or when it seems to be contradictory. They also get frustrated if it doesn’t match their everyday living experiences,” Nowak said.
With the travel guidance, Walensky attempted to spell out the balance she was trying to strike and asked the public for patience and understanding.
“I want to acknowledge today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic and its changing science is complex,” Walensky said.
“The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it’s important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of rising cases. At the same time, we must balance the science with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rising cases,” she said.
Jen Kates, director for global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has known Walensky for decades, said she thinks the CDC director is aware that she can’t escape criticism, especially when so many people have pandemic fatigue.
If the CDC is too strict and refuses to endorse relatively normal behavior, especially after people get vaccinated, it could risk others refusing to get the shot, Kates said.
But if the agency paints too rosy a picture, more people could act like the pandemic is over and risk further spread of the virus.
“It behooves public officials to always be cognizant that their words are being listened to and can be taken out of context or may be hard for people to grasp,” Kates said. “So I think Dr. Walensky is a great communicator, but that doesn’t mean that this is always easy to do and the balance is always straightforward.”