Oct 30, 2020

Axios Vitals

Good morning.

Today's word count is 1,229, or a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Coronavirus surge threatens to shut schools down again

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The nationwide surge in coronavirus cases is forcing many school districts to pull back from in-person instruction, Axios' Marisa Fernandez reports.

Why it matters: Remote learning is a burden on parents, teachers and students. But the wave of new infections, and its strain on some hospitals' capacity, makes all forms of reopening harder to justify.

Where it stands: Over 60% of U.S. public school students will be attending schools with in-person options, up 20% from Labor Day, Education Dive reports. But some of those districts are pulling back.

  • Spikes in COVID-19 cases are forcing two Salt Lake County high schools to close their doors and switch to online-only instruction — in a district where half the high schools were already closed, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.
  • Both Boston and Chicago's public school districts shut down in-person learning as health officials investigate outbreaks in nearby suburbs.
  • Nineteen Minnesota counties are on the verge of closing their K-12 schools for the foreseeable future because of rising coronavirus cases, the Pioneer Press reports.
  • A high school in Milwaukee had to close after six staff members had to quarantine this week.

The other side: Early evidence suggests that in-person school reopenings have been safe — and fears that they'd become hotspots haven't come to pass.

  • Some experts say local governments trying to contain their outbreaks should close bars and restaurants first, shutting down schools only as a last resort.
  • That's the approach Germany took this week. The government will allow schools and day cares to remain open while paying bars and restaurants to shut down, in an effort to curb the rise in cases.

The bottom line: School districts are in a tough spot as they try to juggle the safety of their staff, frustrated parents and the needs of their students.

2. The good and bad news about antibody therapies

Antibody treatments are showing promise as an important tool against the coronavirus, but there aren't going to be a lot of them at first and they could also come with hefty price tags.

Driving the news: Regeneron announced on Wednesday that its antibody cocktail reduced infected patients’ need to visit the doctor or go to the hospital by 57% — but there are only 50,000 doses available right now, Stat reports.

  • The treatment is given early on in the course of the disease, meaning that it can't be rationed for only the sickest patients.
  • The company is ramping up production and expects to be able to produce 300,000 doses in the coming months.
  • Eli Lilly has said that it could ship 100,000 doses of its single antibody if it's cleared by regulators, and could produce up to a million doses by the end of the year.

Between the lines: Lilly has agreed to provide 300,000 doses of its antibody to the federal government, which plans to distribute them at no cost.

  • However, the therapy is given by intravenous infusion, which can cost well over $1,000, NPR reports. Insured patients could end up on the hook for hundreds of dollars in out-of-pocket costs.
  • That means that infected patients — of which only a small percentage require hospitalization — will have to decide whether it's worth getting the treatment, and possibly an expensive bill, in order to reduce the risk of future hospitalization from the virus.
3. The latest in the U.S.
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Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Note: Does not include probable deaths from New York City; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The United States reported 88,452 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, setting a single-day record, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

Operation Warp Speed has an Achilles' heel: States need billions to distribute vaccines — and many say they don't have the cash.

In September, Health and Human Services spokesperson Michael Caputo privately pitched one branch of the agency's $250 million coronavirus ad campaign with the theme: "Helping the President will Help the Country," according to documents released by House Democrats on the oversight committee on Thursday.

The U.S. economy grew at a 33.1% annualized pace in the third quarter, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. The record growth follows the easing of the coronavirus-driven lockdowns that pushed the economy to the worst-ever contraction — but GDP still remains well below its pre-pandemic level.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the state of global vaccine development — including why the U.S. and China seem to be going at it alone — with medicinal chemist and biotech blogger Derek Lowe.

4. The latest worldwide
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Facing record-high coronavirus cases, France and Germany are both closing bars and restaurants nationwide while keeping schools open — a reversal of the approach taken by many parts of the U.S., Axios' Dave Lawler writes.

  • German hospitalizations have doubled in the last 10 days.
  • Dutch hospitals "have reached their limits" and they're sending patients to Germany, Reuters reports.
  • Belgium has the highest coronavirus infection rate in the EU but has struggled to coalesce around a strong national response, AP reports.
  • Russia says hospital beds are at 90% of capacity in 16 of its regions. The country imposed a mask mandate Tuesday.
5. Norms around science and politics are cracking

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Crafting successful public health measures depends on the ability of top scientists to gather data and report their findings unrestricted to policymakers, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

But concern has spiked among health experts and physicians over what they see as an assault on key science protections, particularly during a raging pandemic. And a move last week by President Trump, via an executive order, is triggering even more worries.

What's happening: If implemented, the order creates a "Schedule F" class of federal employees who are policymakers from certain agencies who would no longer have protection against being easily fired — and would likely include some veteran civil service scientists who offer key guidance to Congress and the White House.

  • Those agencies might handle the order differently, and it is unclear how many positions could fall under Schedule F — but some say possibly thousands.
  • "This much-needed reform will increase accountability in essential policymaking positions within the government," OMB director Russ Vought tells Axios in a statement.

What they're saying: Several medical associations, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America, strongly condemned the action, and Democrats on the House oversight panel demanded the administration "immediately cease" implementation.

  • "If you take how it's written at face value, it has the potential to turn every government employee into a political appointee, who can be hired and fired at the whim of a political appointee or even the president," says University of Colorado Boulder's Roger Pielke Jr.

Go deeper.

6. Dog(s) of the week!
Wendy and Harley. Photo: Marianne (or Bill?) Owens

This is the last one of these before Election Day, which calls for some good ole' nepotism.

Meet Wendy and Harley — aka my parents' dogs — who have been begging to be dog(s) of the week since this started.

  • Wendy's interests include following her human family members, cuddling with said family members and sunbathing. I like to say that she has the face of a lab and the body of a hotdog. She was rescued from a local shelter in Tampa shortly after having puppies and seems to be happier with her new home every time I visit!
  • Harley is also a rescue and has had quite an adventurous life. She was rescued from the streets by my sister, who took her to college with her only to send her to my parents' house shortly thereafter. She once got scared and ran into the woods, and survived in the wild for several days before she was found. But all of that is behind her, and today she spends her time playing with her ball, thinking about toys that she'd just tear up, wishing Wendy would play with her and hiding in my mom's closet whenever it storms.

Why it matters: My mom texted these words of wisdom this morning: "Remember who loves you when it seems no one else does, remember who forgives you the quickest when you get mad at them and remember who gives you joy on the bad days."

And because I can't resist...here is "The Pack" over the summer.

Piper, Wendy and Harley. Photo: Carlye Owens