May 16, 2023 - Podcasts

The unsettled debate over masking in hospitals

The COVID-19 public health emergency is officially over, but masking in health care settings like hospitals is still a topic of debate.

  • Plus, how the IRS could soon disrupt the tax preparation industry.
  • And, China sentences a U.S. citizen to life in prison for espionage.

Guests: Axios' Tina Reed and Han Chen; and The Washington Post's Jacob Bogage.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Robin Linn, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning, welcome to Axios Today! It’s Tuesday, May 16th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today on the show: how the IRS could soon disrupt the tax preparation industry. Plus, China sentences a U.S. citizen to life in prison for espionage. But first, the unsettled debate over requiring masking in hospitals. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

The debate over masking in hospitals and doctor's offices

NIALA: The COVID-19 public health emergency is officially over, but masking in healthcare settings like hospitals remains a topic of debate. Axios’ healthcare editor Tina Reed has been reporting on this. Hi Tina.

TINA REED: Hi, Niala.

NIALA: So most states don't have mask mandates anymore. How are healthcare providers responding? Are masks still required in hospitals and doctor's offices, for example?

TINA: So since most states no longer require masking and medical facilities, it's really up to each individual facility. And so we see in some hospitals they're strongly recommended, but they are no longer required. In other places, they are still required and, and they're actually given out still.

NIALA: Can you remind us the benefits of continuing to mask in a healthcare setting, even apart from COVID-19?

TINA: So we found during COVID-19 that high quality masks were very effective at slowing the spread of transmission of infectious diseases. So like we all saw a very low flu season because people were wearing masks. It's an important infection control tool. There was actually a commentary in the Annals of Internal Medicine that came out yesterday where researchers were arguing that we should keep masks in healthcare settings because it protects both the healthcare workers and the patients no matter what the disease, but in particular, when we think about COVID.

NIALA: But Tina, there are some trade offs and things that are lost when it comes to wearing masks in healthcare settings?

TINA: There are some trade-offs because you think about people who are elderly or hard of hearing, this can be really hard for them to communicate. And one thing that I heard during the pandemic over and over again was, even among people who really thought mask were necessary, they wanted to keep them, there was a sense of a loss of communication with their patients, a lack of a sense of empathy between the doctor and the patient.

NIALA: And you're just reminding me, like one of my doctors, she actually had a pin on, so you could see what her face looked like because she had the mask on. So I get that. How are patients reacting to all of this?

TINA: So I went to an event yesterday on Capitol Hill with long COVID patients who were absolutely, dumbstruck by the idea that healthcare settings wouldn't have masks anymore. For them, they're very much still very stuck in the pandemic and are at risk of potentially getting reinfected, which could make their long COVID symptoms worse. And so the idea that those precautions would not be there is just really upsetting.

NIALA: So I guess it's hard to say if COVID has permanently changed the way things work in healthcare, at least when it comes to masking or whether we're back to the pre-pandemic way of operating.

TINA: So in a lot of ways we are back to normal, but even when I've been in healthcare settings as a patient myself, I still see a lot of doctors choosing to wear masks. I see a lot of patients still choosing to wear masks, a lot of people using hand sanitizer. So at least for the time being, people are still taking precautions on their own. It's just a question of whether or not they're mandated, and for now they're not.

NIALA: Tina Reed is an Axios healthcare editor. Thanks, Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: In a moment: the IRS takes on the tax prep giants.

How the IRS could soon disrupt the tax prep industry

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodho.

The IRS is preparing to test a free tax e-filing system that could compete with big companies like Intuit TurboTax. The company settled a lawsuit last year claiming it deceived low-income Americans for $141 million.

The IRS currently refers people to other free filing options, but out of the 70% of taxpayers who qualify for these, fewer than 3% use them. That's according to a government accountability office report.

The Washington Post Jacob Bogage has been covering all of this and is here with the big picture. Welcome to Axios Today, Jacob.

JACOB BOGAGE: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: So in 2022, the IRS reported that about nine out of 10 individual tax returns were filed digitally, and we just noted that people aren't using these free services. Why not? Why are people paying for TurboTax or H&R Block?

JACOB: Well, there's two big reasons. Taxes in the United States compared to the rest of the world are incredibly complicated. And so a lot of people want some help, whether that is literally an accountant, or just guided software that asks you questions. Answer number two is the IRS does not do a very good job of telling people about these pre-filing options. To get to the specific products that are free, you have to go through the IRS website to get to the private company's website, that's tricky. And filing or taxes is confusing and the net result is that a lot of people just choose to pay someone or choose to use a guided software product.

NIALA: So, New York Attorney General Letitia James this month announced the distribution of checks from a $141 million TurboTax settlement from last year. That was for allegations of misleading millions of Americans into paying for services that should have been free. How has that happened?

JACOB: What we saw with TurboTax specifically is they offer a free version of their product, but if you needed to do something slightly more complicated, then you had to go to their premium version, this kind of premium style product, and that's where they ran into legal trouble.

NIALA: And so what exactly is this new free filing government system that is being tested out here?

JACOB: We don't know yet cause we haven't really seen the prototype, but we do know that the IRS has built this prototype that it is going to roll it out in January of 2024 for very simple returns, and we still haven't gotten exact detail yet about who can qualify to use it right away. But the point being this is free, it's online, it's mobile friendly, it will allow you to file your taxes, in a much more streamlined way than having to go through a private software company.

NIALA: So what's the aim of the government here then? Is it to simplify this process even if they're not doing that with the tax code?

JACOB: Yeah, I think that's the exact aim of the government here. And frankly, I think it's an ideological one, which is we shouldn't be forcing American citizens to pay for their right to pay their government taxes. But I also think it speaks to broader aims of the Biden administration. We heard the president and the State of the Union talk about getting rid of junk fees on all, I mean, and I don't think he mentioned it in the State of the Union, but spam phone calls and all sorts of like very populist consumer rights issues. I would interpret this kind of program in a very similar vein.

NIALA: Jacob Bogage is a business reporter for The Washington Post. Thanks, Jacob.

JACOB: Thanks Niala.

China sentences a U.S. citizen to life in prison for spying

NIALA: Yesterday, China sentenced a U.S. citizen to life in prison on spying charges. John Shing-Wan Leung is 78-years-old and is a permanent resident of Hong Kong…and his sentencing could further complicate diplomatic ties between China and the U.S. Here’s Axios’ Han Chen with the story.

HAN CHEN: A Chinese Corps released a brief statement on Monday saying it had just convicted U.S. citizen, John Shing-Wan Leung, of espionage. The statement didn't really get into the details of his alleged crimes except to say that he was arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2021 and has been sentenced for life in prison.

So according to some Chinese language sources, Mr. Leung was born in Hong Kong and later became a business person in the U.S., and he has even taken pictures with many senior Chinese officials. A U.S. State Department spokesperson said on Monday that they're aware of the case, but couldn't comment further for privacy reasons. He also said that Washington is doing everything possible to assist American citizens who have been detained abroad, including by providing consular visits. But he did not say whether the U.S. is determined that Mr. Leung was arbitrarily detained.

Being convicted of espionage in China can mean life in prison or the death penalty, but most people receive anywhere between a few years to about a decade. Mr. Leung’s sentence seems pretty harsh in recent memory.

In a broader picture, China's leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly underscored the importance of national security, and we've also seen in offices of several foreign consulting and due diligence firms raided across China, allegedly for undermining China's national security. So I'd expect similar tough sentences for espionage going forward.

NIALA: That’s Axios’ Han Chen.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening. Stay safe, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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