With Ben Leonard
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— Nearly half of parents say they don’t want their kids masked, posing a potential challenge in a Covid surge.
— Meanwhile, the CDC just updated mask guidance to bolster recommendations for the safest gear, N95s.
— Senators introduced a health cybersecurity bill on the heels of a POLITICO report about emerging threats.
MANY PARENTS ARE MASK SKEPTICAL — Forty-six percent of parents said mask-wearing hurt their child’s social learning and interactions, and 39 percent told pollsters it affected their child’s mental and emotional health, according to a POLITICO-Harvard survey.
The poll’s findings come as the Biden administration monitors events in Europe, where BA.2, a subvariant of Omicron, is wreaking havoc, and White House officials warn that masks may be necessary if Covid-19 cases increase in the United States, POLITICO’s Dan Goldberg writes.
The challenges mount: Re-masking would be a tough sell to parents of school-aged children, according to the survey. More than 4 in 10 believe mask-wearing harmed their children’s overall scholastic experience, compared to 11 percent who said it helped. Nearly half of parents said masks made no difference.
“Even if I’m in a Democratic state or district, I’d pay attention because there are a substantial number of independent parents who think the policy is hurting their children,” said Robert Blendon, a professor emeritus of health policy and political analysis, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Variant risk also splits parents: The survey of 478 parents whose children attend school in person, conducted from March 1 to March 7, also found parents are split over whether a mask is needed to keep their children safe from Covid-19 and variants such as Omicron.
A slight majority of independents — 52 percent — said masks weren’t necessary to keep kids safe, a figure that Blendon said should alarm any politician considering re-implementing masks in schools if cases or hospitalizations spike.
Biden officials have warned that a new variant and subsequent surge could still be on the horizon, leading to re-masking and more booster shots.
CDC UPDATES MASK GUIDANCE AMID HOSPITAL CONFUSION — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday updated its guidance so people visiting health care facilities are allowed to wear highly protective masks such as N95s.
The change comes after a POLITICO report last week found that hospitals around the country routinely ask patients and visitors to wear a surgical mask instead of their own N95.
The nation’s public health agency now says on its website that people should “use the most protective form” of masks, POLITICO’s Rachael Levy writes. While facilities can continue to offer patients surgical masks, facilities “should allow the use of a clean mask or respirator with higher level protection by people who chose that option based on their individual preference.”
Background: Many hospitals around the country ask patients to remove their N95s and replace them with less protective surgical masks, Rachael reported previously. That story spurred U.S. health officials to consider notifying Americans how to report facilities they believe endanger them. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates hospitals, wants patients to report facilities that request they remove their masks and replace them with surgical ones.
Though public health experts have urged the Biden administration for more than a year to universally recommend N95s, the CDC hasn’t done so. The agency and the White House have argued that, even in hospitals, surgical masks provide sufficient protection in many situations. The CDC also says the public can wear cloth masks, which it found are the least effective in stopping Covid transmission.
The CDC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
NEW HEALTH CARE CYBER BILL — Citing a Wednesday POLITICO analysis, Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced legislation Thursday aimed at bolstering the health care industry’s cybersecurity, Ben reports.
The bill, dubbed the Healthcare Cybersecurity Act, calls on the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to work with HHS to improve health care and public health cybersecurity, pointing to an increase in data breaches and the threat of Russian cyberattacks. POLITICO reported that nearly 50 million Americans had their health data breached in 2021, more than triple the number in 2018.
“Health centers save lives and hold a lot of sensitive, personal information. This makes them a prime target for cyber-attacks,” Cassidy said in a release. “This bill protects patients’ data and public health by strengthening our resilience to cyber warfare.”
What it would do: The bill would mandate CISA and HHS “ente[r] an agreement” to boost cybersecurity in the sector and allow cyber training for health care–sector “asset owners and operators.” It would also mandate a CISA study on risks to the sector.
HHS EMBARKS ON MENTAL HEALTH INITIATIVE — The health agency is partnering with the Department of Education to expand school-based health services for kids, particularly mental health assistance.
On Thursday, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced a joint effort to boost funding and technical assistance for initiatives such as after-school programs and behavioral health support.
While the secretaries didn’t attach funding figures, the joint effort follows a Biden administration plan, launched this month, to boost mental health services for kids and target social media harms. Children’s and teens’ mental health — and the pandemic’s eroding effect on it — has also been a bipartisan rallying point in Congress.
The two agencies will host a webinar Wednesday to discuss school-based health programs.
FDA ALLOWS MORE E-CIGS — The Food and Drug Administration will allow several more tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products to remain on the market, the agency said Thursday.
What happened: The FDA authorized several tobacco-flavored vape pods and e-cigarette devices made by the e-cigarette brand Logic Technology Development.
Why it matters: Logic, owned by tobacco giant Japan Tobacco Inc., holds a large share of the e-cigarette market. The FDA, however, denied the company’s applications for flavored products. It’s still deciding the fate of Logic’s menthol-flavored offerings.
The FDA’s deadline to decide the fate of e-cigarettes came and went in September 2021, but the agency still has thousands of e-cigarette applications to wade through.
NY MAYOR DEFENDS VAX EXEMPTION AMID FIRESTORM — New York City Mayor Eric Adam on Thursday said he decided to waive a coronavirus vaccine requirement for local athletes and performers because it was putting them at a hometown disadvantage and hurting the city’s economy.
But he earned a swift rebuke from City Council leader Adrienne Adams, who said in a statement that the move could exacerbate confusion over the pandemic. Vaccines are still required among the city’s public workforce.
“I’m worried about the increasingly ambiguous messages that are being sent to New Yorkers about public health during this continuing pandemic,” Adrienne Adams said.
DRUG SUPPLY THREATENED BY WAR — Medicines for Europe warned this week that the flow of medicines into Ukraine and Russia is being jeopardized by the ongoing conflict and asked European Union leaders to take action, our colleagues in POLITICO Europe report.
“We … are deeply concerned about the lack of medicine for Ukrainians in the war-torn regions,” the generics drug lobby said. The group pressed leaders to use diplomatic channels with Russia to establish humanitarian corridors.
Russian sanctions have played a role despite medicine being exempted from the blocks, the lobby said, noting suppliers are navigating payments and logistics challenges.
Mary Smith has joined Consumers for Quality Care as a member of the board of directors. Smith is vice chair of health and data consultancy at the VENG Group and previously served as the head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama Administration.
ICU nurse Michael Odell wrote a stark warning about health workers’ eroding mental health early in the pandemic. This year, the young nurse died by an apparent suicide. Stat News’ Andrew Joseph takes us inside the human toll.
In the scramble to find resources for children with behavioral and substance abuse problems, Montana health officials have spent Medicaid funds to send kids to other states with lax oversight where advocates allege abuse and mismanagement run rampant, Kaiser Health News’ Cameron Evans reports.
An airport-based Covid-19 surveillance program may have detected the first known U.S. cases of the new BA.2 variant. Emily Anthes reports on a preliminary study and its implications for The New York Times.
Dozens of agents in a secret government training exercise got sick after a 1991 program at a nuclear site — and are still searching for answers, Buzzfeed’s Zahra Hijri reports.