KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: Trump Twists on Virus Response

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President Donald Trump — who has spent the past six months trying to play down the coronavirus pandemic — seems to have pivoted. In back-to-back briefings on July 21 and 22, Trump cautioned that the U.S. is in a dangerous place vis-a-vis the pandemic. He urged the public to wear masks — although he has rarely worn one in public.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate are scrambling to put together a package for the next COVID-19 relief bill, facing a July 31 deadline, when some of the benefits passed in the spring expire. House Democrats passed their bill in May.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times and Tami Luhby of CNN.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Although Trump’s renewed emphasis on COVID-19 has surprised some of his critics, it may persuade his supporters to take actions promoted by public health officials. Trump’s emphasis on the importance of face coverings, perhaps coupled with the rising number of cases in parts of the country, could convince people who were otherwise dismissive of masks. People who do not necessarily trust public health officials may listen to Trump.
  • Republicans on Capitol Hill are in disarray on how to approach the next coronavirus relief bill. They are not in lockstep with the White House and are not supporting Trump’s call for a payroll tax cut.
  • One reason members of Congress are not eager to cut the payroll taxes is that the economic downturn has spurred concerns the Medicare and Social Security trust funds are being depleted faster than expected. However, analysts point out that when employment rises again, some of those concerns could dissipate.
  • A key sticking point in the economic relief package is whether to extend the bump in unemployment benefits that Congress approved in the spring. Lawmakers are facing a hard deadline on the issue because that money runs out next week, and the prohibition on evictions that was also part of an earlier COVID-19 relief bill ends even sooner. With rent, mortgages and other bills coming due Aug. 1, unemployed consumers could face a tough beginning of the month.
  • The Food and Drug Administration has approved limited use of pool testing for COVID-19. That allows approved labs to put together a small number of tests to run at once, thus conserving some of the materials needed for the process. If the pool tests positive, then those people whose results were pooled have to be tested again individually. The efforts have limited usefulness when rates of transmission are high in a community, but they may be helpful in specific settings, such as schools or workplaces.
  • New data shows that opioid addiction ticked back up in 2019, after a slight decline. Part of the problem is the growing use of the powerful — and dangerous — drug fentanyl. Economic woes also play a role. Addiction is often referred to as an epidemic of despair.
  • Although it’s unlikely the judicial system will overrule the administration’s efforts to bolster short-term insurance plans — which are generally less expensive but don’t offer as much protection for consumers as policies sold on the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces — they could be circumvented if Democrats take over the White House. Even still, Democrats would likely have to find a way to make ACA plans more affordable.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Pam Fessler of NPR about her new book, “Carville’s Cure.” It’s a history of the United States’ only federal leprosarium, on an abandoned sugar plantation along the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Keep an Eye on Your Coronavirus Budget,” by Leana Wen

Tami Luhby: The New York Times’ “This Hospital Cost $52 Million. It Treated 79 Virus Patients,” by Brian M. Rosenthal

Joanne Kenen: The Washington Post’s “Trump Keeps Boasting About Passing a Cognitive Test — But It Doesn’t Mean What He Thinks It Does,” by Ashley Parker and William Wan

Margot Sanger-Katz: The New York Times’ “During Coronavirus Lockdowns, Some Doctors Wondered: Where Are the Preemies?” by Elizabeth Preston

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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