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Students across the country are going back to school this week as the Omicron COVID variant surges. But many districts — like Atlanta, D.C. and Cleveland — have already delayed their in-person returns, as schools ramp up testing requirements.

  • Plus, many surprise out-of-network medical bills are now illegal.
  • And, how the extended freeze on federal student loan payments is affecting borrowers.

Guests: Dr. Celine Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University’s School of Medicine and the host of the Epidemic podcast, and Axios' Bob Herman.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Sabeena Singhani and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at podcasts@axios.com. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:

Transcript

INTRO

NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, January 3rd - 2022! Happy New Year! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: many surprise medical bills are now illegal. Plus, how the extended freeze on federal student loan payments affects borrowers.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: schools grapple with covid testing.

Students across the country are going back to school today as the Omicron COVID variant surges, but many districts like Atlanta, DC and Cleveland have already delayed in-person returns as districts ramp up testing requirements.

But as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on CBS's Face the Nation yesterday, schools might not have what they need to distribute more tests.

MIGUEL CARDONA: We are working with districts to set up systems that maybe were not set up when there was a dip in spread, but we're working really hard to make sure that they have access to tests and that they have resources to provide testing.

NIALA: Dr. Celine Gounder is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University’s school of medicine. She's also host of the Epidemic podcast and here now with the latest on what schools are doing to stay in person. Hi, Dr. Gounder.

DR. CELINE GOUNDER: It's great to be here.

NIALA: Some schools are implementing what's being called a “test-to-stay” strategy. Can you explain what that looks like?

DR. GOUNDER: So the idea here is if let's say you've been exposed to another student who has COVID, that instead of being asked to quarantine at home for a full 10 days after that exposure, that you can stay in the classroom, but that you test daily or close to daily and as long as you don't turn positive, you can continue to go to school.

NIALA: But the big question is where are these tests coming from? Do parents have to find that test themselves?

DR. GOUNDER: This is unfortunately a reflection of how we fund schools in this country. They are funded by property taxes which means that from school district to school district, you see really vast disparities in how much funding for educational teaching purposes, but also for responding to the COVID pandemic in schools and in the classroom.

Wealthier school districts, private schools have been much better able to implement testing in the classroom. Others, for example, the New York City public school system has been testing not every day, but very frequently - every week or two or three. That's not so much about “test-to-stay,” but rather surveillance for how much SARS-CoV-2 transmission is occurring in schools. And if there is SARS-CoV-2 transmission, what can be done to mitigate and reduce the risk?

NIALA: We just heard Secretary Cardona talking about how these systems aren't set up for this. How hard is something like this to implement?

DR. GOUNDER: Well, you really need to have a system of specimen collection, across students. So whether that's going to be a nasal swab or saliva, and then you need a system of laboratory testing and a way to pay for it. And that requires a lot of logistics, of planning, of funding and not every school district has access to all of those.

NIALA: Dr. Gounder, what should families, especially parents, be thinking about now?

DR. GOUNDER: As kids are returning back to school after the holidays. I think it's really important for parents to find out what the policies are for their school with respect to quarantine and isolation. The CDC has provided guidelines, but that can still be tailored at the school district, at the school, or even classroom-level and find out what is being asked of students who have been exposed, what is being asked of students who have had COVID.

NIALA: Dr. Celine Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at NYU’s school of medicine. Thanks Dr. Gounder.

DR. GOUNDER: My pleasure.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with the end of many surprise out-of-network medical bills.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. We talked last year on the podcast about the problem of surprise medical bills. Those are unexpected charges you might face after surgery or an ER visit because of out-of-network doctors. Well, as of January 1st, many of those bills are now illegal. Bob Herman is here with what this means for patients. Hi Bob. Bob, Happy New Year!

BOB HERMAN: Hey Niala, good to talk with you.

NIALA: Bob, what kind of bills are now banned?

BOB: So many bills are officially banned, there's specific scenarios. One of the most important being emergency care. So if you go to a hospital ER, a freestanding ER, an urgent care center, if you need care in one of those settings, you should not get any out-of-network bill from any physician who might not be in your insurance network. And then a couple others include, for example, going to an in-network hospital, maybe you're getting a surgery, but one of the anesthesiologists or assistant surgeons is out-of-network, you will get no bill from any of those out-of-network doctors. And then the last one is air ambulances. Um, so if you get severely hurt and an air ambulance lifts you to a hospital, you should get no out-of-network bill from that air ambulance period. There are some caveats here too. So while a lot of people will be spared potentially financially ruinous medical bills. There is an exception here and that's ground ambulances. Three out of four insured people who get an ambulance ride are still at risk of getting a surprise bill from it, ground ambulance. So I think that's worth noting as well.

NIALA: And how did this come to be illegal all across the country?

BOB: Congress had been working on this for several years. And finally got it done at the end of 2020. And then they spent most of this past year writing the rules and regulations. And as of Saturday, everything is into effect.

NIALA: So what kind of impact do you think this will have on Americans? Do we know how many people are getting, or were getting these surprise bills?

BOB: It's a huge deal. Some studies say as many as 20% of insured Americans got some kind of surprise out-of-network bill. That's a lot of people. The unfortunate thing though, is this bill still doesn't protect the uninsured and there are still millions and millions of uninsured folks across America. So unfortunate for them this bill doesn't really have any consequence for them. But overall, this will have a very large impact. It sets a huge consumer protection and gives everyone such a large peace of mind. It's absolutely a massive, massive deal.

NIALA: Bob Herman covers healthcare business for Axios. Thanks Bob.

BOB: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: Federal student loan payments have been paused due to the financial hardships of the pandemic – and were scheduled to resume this February, after several extensions. But on December 22, Biden announced that the pause will continue through May. And that move affects 10s of millions of people.

We asked you what it has meant for your life to have loans paused during the pandemic — here's some of what you told us:

BRIAN MOORE: Hi, Niala. My wife's student loans were deferred during the pandemic, which gave us the breathing room to reassess, and we decided to consolidate with a private lender to get a much lower rate.

TESSA AVIS WEGENKE: As someone who has been working to break the cycle of poverty in my family, the student loan pause has meant that I could breathe. I was also able to show up for those who may not have had access to means during this really troubling time.

STEPHEN JOCHEM: The pause for my federal student loans has been a benefit to me during the pandemic. The restart will mean I will have $400, maybe less than that, to feed my twin boys that were born earlier this year. The restart, without any student loan forgiveness, will put us right back in the place where we were before the pandemic.

NIALA: We'll keep watching this story, and as always, let us know what questions you have about the future of student loans: text me anytime at (202) 918-4893.

One more thing before we go today:

Wildfires that began last week in Boulder County, Colorado have scorched more than 6200 acres, destroying close to a thousand homes and entire subdivisions.

JARED POLIS: I know for many it seems like a surreal experience. Just a few days ago, you were celebrating Christmas at home and hanging your stockings. And now home and hearth have been destroyed and it’s a shock.

That was Colorado governor Jared Polis speaking yesterday.

The fires are the most destructive in Colorado’s history and likely made worse by long stretches of record warm and dry weather in recent months, along with other factors related to climate change.

A big new year’s eve snowfall has helped put out some of the fires, which are now about 60% contained – but that same weather has also made it harder to assess the damage, and to help people trying to get back home.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper

Jan 15, 2022 - Health

Students across U.S. walkout of classes to demand safer COVID protocols

Public school students protest outside of the Chicago Public Schools headquarters after walking out of their classrooms on Jan. 14 in Chicago. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Students in Boston and Chicago walked out of classes on Friday in protest, demanding a return to remote learning as the Omicron variant surges across the country.

Driving the news: The walkouts come two days after 340,000 Chicago students returned to the classroom after a five-day work stoppage due to the Chicago Teachers Union asking for tougher COVID-19 restrictions.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Credit: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine Thursday night, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

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