HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra: ‘We’re not done with COVID’ | HLTH Conference

While he said the virus isn’t the destructive force it was even a year ago, too many are dying from the virus. He also discussed long Covid and the federal government’s newest research agency.

Las Vegas - If a plane crashed every day, claiming 300 lives on a daily basis, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Americans would be demanding changes in the airline industry.

At the same time, 300-400 people each day are dying from COVID-19 each day. Becerra said most of those are unvaccinated or aren’t up to date with their vaccines.

But speaking at the HLTH Conference Tuesday, Becerra said the fact remains that the virus is still claiming far too many lives. “We’re losing a jumbo jet liner of Americans every day with COVID,” he said.

“We’re not done with COVID,” Becerra said.

President Biden received sharp criticism from physicians when he said, “The pandemic is over,” during an interview on “60 Minutes.” Becerra said the virus isn’t the destructive force it was even a year ago, due to the COVID-19 vaccines. While Becerra said he couldn’t see too much of the audience, he said he suspected that most in the audience weren’t wearing masks. And he was correct.

For now, Becerra said the health department would continue to encourage Americans to keep up with their vaccines, and to get the latest bivalent booster shot for greater protection.

In a conversation with Ezekiel J. Emanuel, vice provost of global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, Becerra was quizzed about the status of research in long COVID. Some researchers have complained about the pace of studies in long COVID. U.S. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote a letter to the National Institutes of Health, part of HHS, to express their dissatisfaction about progress in studies of long-term symptoms of COVID-19. Emanuel said he was irritated that research wasn’t proceeding more quickly.

Becerra said the pace is slower than he would like, but he said the NIH is working to make sure that studies of long Covid are incorporating a diverse mix of participants and that people aren’t being left out.

The health secretary also faulted Congress for not providing more money for long COVID research. Emanuel pointed out that Congress gave the NIH a little more than $1 billion in late 2020.

In response, Becerra said, “That was a long time ago. We don’t have the money to do long Covid the way we should.”

Emanuel also asked Becerra about the development of the federal government’s newest research agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, dubbed ARPA-H. Biden pushed for the creation of the agency to produce novel treatments to find cures for cancer and other diseases.

When asked how the agency would function, given that the federal government tends to be risk-averse, Becerra pledged that ARPA-H would engage in “radical research” and operate differently than other federal research agencies.

“ARPA-H’s DNA is to take risks, it’s to go for the fences,” Becerra said.

The agency isn’t simply going to continue funding avenues that may be underfunded. ARPA-H will partner with the private sector and attempt to seed new ideas.

“Not everything will succeed,” Becerra said. “We’re looking to get some good stuff out of it, and then we’ll build on that.”

Becerra said with a divided Congress emerging from last week’s elections, he didn’t expect to see too many new initiatives or mandates. Democrats have retained control of the U.S. Senate, while Republicans appear to be on track to capture the majority of the House of Representatives, albeit by a slim margin.

In the absence of new mandates, Becerra said, “We can concentrate on trying to execute everything congress gave us to do.”

In addition to battling COVID-19, the health department will also continue to work to address the country’s growing mental health crisis. Becerra touted the Biden administration helping more Americans get insurance than ever before, with the uninsured rate dropping to 8%.

When asked why the department hasn’t pushed more aggressively on payment reform, Becerra said he thinks the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has done more than people realize. He said reforms typically face both litigation and pushback from Congress.

Becerra cited battles over the “No Surprises Act,” which is supposed to protect Americans from receiving unexpected medical bills when they’re treated in hospitals.

“That’s taken a while to implement because we’ve been taken to court,” Becerra said.