Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

What the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan means for the pandemic.

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

The House of Representatives approved the nearly $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan this afternoon — a landmark moment for President Biden. The plan, which passed without any Republican votes, will send direct payments of up to $1,400 to many Americans, expand a child tax credit and extend a $300 weekly unemployment supplement. Mr. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law on Friday.

While the stimulus checks will be a boon to many struggling families, the package is also geared toward strengthening efforts to bring an end to the pandemic. To better understand how, I spoke to my colleague Abby Goodnough, a national heath care correspondent.

Abby told me that one big piece of the new package is money.

It provides $14 billion for vaccine distribution and another $48 billion for testing and contact tracing. There’s also close to $8 billion for state and local public health departments to help them beef up their public health work force and infrastructure.

“Long before the pandemic, state and especially local health departments were way underfunded,” Abby said. “We saw the effects of that over the past year. Local health departments are going to have so much work to continue doing, moving forward, to prevent flare-ups of the virus and keep this kind of thing from happening again.”

Community health centers, which Abby said act as primary care clinics for low-income Americans or for those who don’t have health insurance, will get nearly $8 billion. Around $200 million will go to nursing homes, and while Abby said that was not a lot of money, it will be used to keep infection out of these facilities, which were savaged by the virus.

The plan also includes a number of mostly temporary, but important changes to certain health insurance programs that are vital to addressing the pandemic.

  • It requires Medicaid to cover vaccines and Covid treatments for free.

  • It will pay the full premiums for Cobra coverage, the insurance program offered to people who lose their job, through Sept. 30.

  • People who receive subsidies for Affordable Care Act coverage will get more money, and people with higher incomes will now qualify for those subsidies. Regardless of their income, people with Obamacare will also not have to pay more than 8.5 percent of their income toward health insurance.

  • It will allow women who have given birth to stay on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, for a full year after delivery, instead of two months.

  • The plan also attempts to get more states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. For states that do, the federal government will pay a larger percentage of their other Medicaid costs.

Despite the infusion of cash, the country still faces huge challenges to building up its public health system, while also trying to deal with the pandemic and its aftereffects, Abby said.

“I think it’s going to take a lot more time and money over a number of years to get the kind of infrastructure in place that can respond rapidly to the kind of crisis we’ve been in over the past year,” she said. “But this is a good start.”

Since the vaccine rollout began, some vaccination sites like pharmacies and certain grocery store chains have scrambled to avoid throwing out vaccines before the doses are set to expire and the shops close.

The experience has had a certain randomness to it, with doses doled out to drugstore customers buying late-night snacks, people who are friends with nurses, and those who loiter at pharmacies around closing time. But now, a New York based start-up known as Dr. B is trying to add some order to the rush for leftover doses.

The free service requires users to enter basic biographical information — such as their date of birth, address, underlying health conditions and the type of work they do — and matches them to nearby providers who have extra doses. The company’s database sorts people by local priority rules — like putting older Americans first — giving providers better odds of administering their leftover shots to those in the greatest need.

If there’s a match, users are notified via text message and have 15 minutes to respond. Then they must be willing to hightail it to the vaccination site.

Despite some grumbling about younger, healthier people snapping up leftover doses, public health experts say the most important thing is that the vaccines don’t go to waste. So far, more than 500,000 people have signed up for Dr. B, and if it scales up the way some hope that it will, it could serve as a model for a better, more equitable way of scheduling vaccinations than simply giving a dose to whoever is closest.

  • Black and Hispanic communities in the U.S. are confronting vaccine conspiracy theories, rumors and misleading news reports on social media.

  • The European Union has exported millions doses of vaccines produced in its territory last month, slowing down vaccination efforts and stoking a major political crisis at home.

  • Kenya and Morocco have approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, according to a Russian sovereign wealth fund, Reuters reported.

  • A British medical journal reported that Covaxin, a vaccine made in India that was rolled out before some questions about it had been fully answered, appeared to be safe to use.

  • In Spain, some of the country’s largest regions are pressing the central government to speed up vaccinations, in particular by increasing access for older people.

I’m lonely. Like, super lonely. I want my friends. I want my family. I’m sitting in a chair eight hours a day. All my friends are going out and doing things, and I know I’m doing the smart and safe thing by staying home, but there’s only so much you can take at this point. My dog Lola has become my impromptu therapist. She’s a very good listener.

— Jack Morgan, Herndon, Va.

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Jonathan Wolfe