The summer months have seen a downturn in the spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States, with 56.1% of the total population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 48.6% fully vaccinated. The count of new cases even dipped to less than 15,000 per day in mid-June but have increased again (to above 25,000 per day) in recent weeks. The majority of the new cases and deaths occur in unvaccinated people—illustrating the urgency of efforts to ensure this remaining portion of the United States population gets vaccinated.
Below, we have compiled additional recent policy and legislative developments from June and July related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
US Vaccination Campaign Enters Next Phases
By July 4th, 2021, 67% of the U.S. population had received at least one vaccine dose, falling short of the Biden administration’s goal of 70%. After peaking at over 3 million doses administered per day in April, the U.S. has seen vaccination rates stagnate over the last month; the seven-day average of administered doses has now fallen below 0.5 million.
Given that the U.S. has an ample supply of COVID-19 vaccines, and that these vaccines have proven remarkably effective in preventing COVID-19 cases and deaths, the Biden administration has continued to emphasize that vaccination is the best and quickest way to end the threat caused by the virus. Despite this, many people are resistant to getting vaccinated for COVID-19. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published this month, 29% of Americans say they are not likely to get vaccinated, which include 20% who say they will definitely not do so. This leaves the Biden administration with the mission of finding ways to change the minds of this group in order to better protect the American population from the virus.
To that end, with the urgency of mass vaccination increasing due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the Biden administration announced the next phase of federal vaccination outreach: a door-to-door campaign in areas with lower vaccination rates. This process will focus on individual outreach to those who have resisted vaccination thus far, while concurrently winding down existing mass vaccination sites. The campaign will also deliver vaccines to primary care providers, employers, and pediatricians’ offices to provide people with the opportunity to receive the vaccine from a local and trusted source.
States Loosen Restrictions, But Surges Threaten to Reinstate Them
The month of June saw the beginnings of a return to pre-pandemic life in the U.S., as many states reopened institutions that had been closed since the beginning of the public health emergency—such as bars and sporting arenas—and rescinded their mask mandates in both indoor and outdoor spaces. The decline in COVID-19 cases and increase in vaccination rate throughout the country seemed to indicate that the pandemic was in retreat. However, the stalled vaccination rate and July’s uptick in COVID-19 cases is causing states and municipalities to consider reinstating these restrictions.Los Angeles County was one of the first counties in the nation to reinstitute a mask mandate due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. This decision was met with both support and opposition from residents. Supporters of the mandate say it is a reasonable response that allows businesses to operate while still taking precautions until community transmission can be lowered; opponents say that the county’s deviation from state and federal laws will only cause confusion at the local level.
Although Los Angeles County is the first municipality to bring back a mask mandate, other cities and states seem prepared to follow suit. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy encouraged his residents to get vaccinated, warning that if cases keep rising, he will be forced to reinstate mask mandates. Additionally, the U.S.’s worsening COVID-19 conditions have intensified the debate over whether to allow in-person schooling, as schools prepare for the upcoming academic year with a largely unvaccinated population of young children. Each of these debates illustrates the consequences that the country’s current lack of herd immunity herd immunity could have for the reemergence of government restrictions.
United States Sends Extra Vaccine Doses Abroad
As the U.S.’s need for the vaccine began to outstrip its supply, the Biden administration committed to sending the country’s accumulated surplus of vaccines abroad. In June, the Biden administration publicly pledged to allocate and donate 80 million vaccine doses to other countries in need.
The 80 million doses were distributed to Latin American, Asian and African countries, as well as neighboring countries and U.S. allies, and the majority were targeted toward countries still dealing with COVID-19 surges and rampant outbreaks. 75% of the donations were made through COVAX, a worldwide initiative focused on equitable vaccine distribution.
In addition to its June donation, the U.S. has plans for continued donations in the coming months—specifically, purchasing 500 million Pfizer vaccines to share through COVAX and the African Union throughout the next year.
CMS Implements New Rules to Assist With COVID-19 Recovery
Throughout June and July, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) proposed and issued a series of new rules aimed at providing flexibilities in care delivery, closing gaps in healthcare coverage, and addressing the growing health equity gap. Taken as a whole, the rules reflect the Biden administration’s healthcare priorities going forward; each of the regulations is designed to strengthen future responses to crises such, as the COVID-19 pandemic, using information learned during the last year.
- The Medicare Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System and Ambulatory Surgical Center Payment System Proposed Rule requests information about how healthcare providers are utilizing pandemic-related flexibilities, in order to learn how these flexibilities are benefiting providers and which should be maintained going forward.
- The Updating Payment Parameters, Section 1332 Waiver Implementing Regulations, and Improving Health Insurance Markets for 2022 and Beyond Rule creates a special enrollment period for low income consumers to access the new Marketplace coverage options created by the American Rescue Plan’s Affordable Care Act expansion. In doing so, the administration hopes to raise consumer awareness of these new insurance options.
- Lastly, the CY 2022 Physician Fee Schedule and Quality Payment Program removes statutory restrictions on behavioral health telemedicine services. The passage of this rule allows patients in any location to access this type of care remotely, as well as for eligible practitioners to be paid when they provide behavioral health services via audio-only phone calls, pending the fulfillment of certain conditions. This increases the availability of telehealth to consumers, building on one of the main care delivery innovations of the pandemic.