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Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, right, speaks at a news conference to discuss a settlement in an opioid trial Tuesday in Central Islip, N.Y. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is behind her.

STATE

COVID-19 derails Texas Democrats lobbying in Washington

AUSTIN (AP) — Texas lawmakers who hightailed it to the nation’s capital in a faceoff over voting rights said Tuesday that they’re pressing on with their mission to get Democrats in Washington, D.C., to bolster their cause, even as COVID-19 spreads through their ranks.

Six of the more than 50 Texas state representatives who decamped to Washington last week have since tested positive for the coronavirus, along with two Washington staffers associated with the group.

During a news conference Tuesday, the Texas Democrats said they remain optimistic about their cause, even after their Monday night town hall on MSNBC was scaled back because of the positive test results.

“I do believe we are being very innovative and we are rising to respond to these challenges,” Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds said.

Asked about the prospects of a meeting between President Joe Biden and the Texas delegation now that several members have become infected, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was unlikely.

“There has not been a meeting planned and there hasn’t been a change to that,” she said. Vice President Kamala Harris met with members of the delegation a few days before the positive cases were announced, but her office reiterated that she is fully vaccinated and didn’t have close enough contact with the legislators to require going into isolation.

State Rep. Donna Howard confirmed Tuesday that she tested positive for COVID-19. She said in a statement that she is fully vaccinated and “basically asymptomatic,” but that she is isolating to limit the spread of the virus.

“The delta variant seems to be much more contagious, even for those vaccinated, than initially thought,” Howard said. “Thankfully, I’m vaccinated and feeling well. But this variant is hitting the unvaccinated with severe illness and hospitalizations, particularly impacting those under 65. Vaccines work. Everyone, please get vaccinated and protect yourselves.”

It’s possible for people who are vaccinated to still catch COVID-19, although health experts say those “breakthrough” cases are usually mild. The latest numbers show the majority of hospitalized coronavirus patients have not been vaccinated.

One of the two Washington staffers who tested positive works in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, confirmed that a “fully vaccinated senior spokesperson in the Speaker’s Press Office tested positive for COVID after contact with members of the Texas state legislature last week.”

Hammill said the employee has had no contact with Pelosi since exposure and that much of Pelosi’s press staff was working remotely Tuesday, with the exception of those not exposed or who have recently tested negative.

A vaccinated White House staffer tested positive for the virus after interacting with the Pelosi aide, according to a White House official. The infected person has not been in close contact with Biden.

NATION

The yearslong effort by state and local governments in the U.S. to force the pharmaceutical industry to help pay to fix a nationwide opioid addiction and overdose crisis took a major step forward Tuesday when lawyers for local governments announced they were on the verge of a $26 billion settlement with the nation’s three biggest drug distribution companies and the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

Under the deal, Johnson & Johnson would not produce any opioids for at least a decade. And AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson share prescribing information under a new system intended to stop the avalanches of pills that arrived in some regions about a decade ago.

Lawyers for local governments said full details could be shared within days. That would not be the end of the deal though; each state would have 30 days to decide whether to join. And local governments will have five months after that to decide. If governments don’t opt in, the settlement total would go down.

“This is a nationwide crisis and it could have been and should have been addressed perhaps by other branches of government,” Paul Geller, one of the lead lawyers representing local governments across the U.S., said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “But this really is an example of the use of litigation for fixing a national problem.”

If approved, the settlement will likely be the biggest of many settlements to opioid litigation. While it means billions for lawyers who worked the cases, it is expected to bring more than $23 billion to abatement and mitigation efforts to help get treatment for people who are addicted along with other programs to address the crisis. The money would come in 18 annual payments, with the biggest amounts in the next several years.

The deal echoes one the companies have been pushing, sometimes in public, for two years.

Johnson & Johnson reiterated in a statement that it’s prepared to contribute up to $5 billion to the national settlement.

“There continues to be progress toward finalizing this agreement and we remain committed to providing certainty for involved parties and critical assistance for families and communities in need,” the company said. “The settlement is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, and the Company will continue to defend against any litigation that the final agreement does not resolve.”

But Cardinal Health declined to comment early Tuesday, and the other distribution companies did not respond to requests for comment.

An Associated Press tally finds there have been at least $40 billion in completed or proposed settlements, penalties and fines between governments and the toll of opioids since 2007, not including one between the federal government and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in which most of the $8.3 billion would be waived. Purdue is trying to reach a deal through bankruptcy court that could be worth $10 billion over time; a hearing on that plan is scheduled for August.

Other deals are possible. While a growing number of companies in the industry have struck deals, some manufacturers have not — and no pharmacy companies have struck nationwide settlements.

But the total amount in the settlements is far below estimates of the financial costs of the epidemic. The Society of Actuaries found that the cost of the crisis in the U.S. was $630 billion from 2015 through 2018, with most of the costs borne by the private sector. And the White House Council of Economic Advisers, when considering the economic impact of people who fatally overdosed, put the one-year cost at about $500 billion nationally.

Unlike with the tobacco settlements reached in the 1990s, governments have agreed to spend money they bring in from opioid-related settlements to deal with the opioid crisis.

In a joint statement, the attorneys general for Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee said the settlement talks with the four companies are “potentially nearing their completion,” and that, “we look forward to bringing much-needed dollars home to our states to help people recover from opioid addiction and to fundamentally change the opioid manufacturing and distributing industries so this never happens again.”

But they still have choices ahead on exactly how they do it.

“Is it a nice chunk of change?” asked Ryan Hampton, who is in recovery from an opioid addiction and is a Las Vegas-based advocate for policy to address the overdose crisis. “Sure it is. Will it go to where it needs to go? The jury’s still out on that.”

Even before the settlement plan was unveiled Tuesday, a group of public health advocates and experts began calling for any settlement money to be spent to address the opioid crisis.

“It’s money that can do a lot of good if it’s used well,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is spearheading the effort. “It’s really important to use it well to save lives because it’s coming at the peak of the overdose epidemic.”

Private lawyers on the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee representing local governments in opioid lawsuits across the country announced some details of the settlement Tuesday even before it was completed. The decision to do so was partly because the state of New York reached a settlement Tuesday with the three big distribution companies amid a trial playing out in a state court on Long Island.

New York’s deal, worth more than $1 billion, represents the share of the national deal it will receive from distributors if the national deal is finalized. New York also reached a similar deal last month with Johnson & Johnson worth $230 million.

“Today, we’re holding them accountable delivering more than $1 billion more into New York communities ravaged by opioids for treatment, recovery, and prevention efforts,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Tuesday.

The trial is expected to continue, but the settlement leaves only three drug manufacturers as defendants.

Other manufacturers, regional distribution companies and pharmacies will remain in the New York and other cases for now. Closing arguments in a West Virginia trial against the distributors are expected to proceed as scheduled next week. The attorney general there, Patrick Morrisey, said the state would probably not agree to the terms.

“I will keep fighting to protect West Virginia and will not allow larger states to dictate how we hold defendants accountable for their actions,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

The state and local governments say distribution companies did not have proper controls to flag or halt shipments to pharmacies that received outsized shares of powerful and addictive prescription painkillers. The companies have maintained they were filling orders of legal drugs placed by doctors — so they should not shoulder blame for the nation’s addiction and overdose crisis.

An Associated Press analysis of federal distribution data found that enough prescription opioids were shipped in 2012 for every person in the U.S. to have a 20-day supply.

And opioids — including both prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl — have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. The number of cases reached a record high in 2020.WORLD

France: Thousands protest against vaccination, COVID passes

PARIS (AP) — Over 100,000 people protested across France on Saturday against the government’s latest measures to push people to get vaccinated and curb rising infections by the delta variant of the coronavirus.

In Paris, separate protest marches by the far-right and the far-left wound through different parts of the city. Demonstrations were also held in Strasbourg in the east, Lille in the north, Montpellier in the south and elsewhere.

Thousands of people answered calls to take to the streets by Florian Philippot, a fringe far-right politician and former right hand of Marine Le Pen who announced earlier this month that he would run in the 2022 presidential election. Gathered a stone’s throw away from the Louvre Museum, protesters chanted “Macron, clear off!”, “Freedom,” and banged metal spoons on saucepans.

While Philippot has organized small but regular protests against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Saturday’s demonstration drew a larger and more diverse crowd of people broadly disaffected with politics: yellow vest activists angry over perceived economic injustice, far-right supporters, medical staff and royalists.

They denounced the government’s decision on Monday to make vaccines compulsory for all health care workers, and to require a “health pass” proving people are fully vaccinated, have recently tested negative or recovered from the virus in order to access restaurants and other public venues. President Emmanuel Macron’s government is presenting a draft law Monday to enshrine the measures.

“I will never get vaccinated,” Bruno Auquier, a 53-year-old town councilor who lives on the outskirts of Paris. “People need to wake up,” he said, questioning the safety of the vaccine.

While France already requires several vaccinations to enter public school, Auquier pledged to take his two children out of school if the coronavirus vaccine became mandatory. “These new measures are the last straw,” Auquier said.

The government warned of the continued spread of the delta variant, which authorities fear could again put pressure on hospitals if not enough people are vaccinated against the virus. The pandemic has cost France more than 111,000 lives and deeply damaged the economy.

During a visit to a pop-up vaccination center in the southwest, Prime Minister Jean Castex exhorted the French to stick together in order to overcome the crisis.

“There is only one solution: vaccination,” he said, stressing it “protects us, and will make us freer.”

At the Paris protest, a manual worker in his sixties expressed bitterness about jobs in his sector sent offshore. A 24-year-old royalist said he was there to demand “the return of God and the King.”

Lucien, a 28-year-old retail shop manager, said he wasn’t anti-vaccine, but thought that everyone should be able to do as they please with their own body. “The government is going too far,” he said. His 26-year-old friend Elise said, “I am vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and polio. But the COVID vaccine is just too experimental.”

While a majority of French health care workers have had at least one vaccine dose, some are resisting the government’s decision to make vaccination compulsory for all staff in medical facilities.

At Saturday’s Paris protest, a 39-year-old green party supporter and hospital laboratory worker said she might resort to buying a fake vaccination certificate to avoid losing her job. A health care worker dressed as the Statue of Liberty called it “act of violence” to force people to get vaccinated.

In Montpellier, more than 1,000 people marched to the train station, chanting “Liberty!” and carrying signs reading “Our kids aren’t Guinea pigs.” Security officials closed the main entrance to travelers and a dozen police officers took posts in front.

The Interior Ministry said 114,000 people took part in protests nationwide.

Overnight on Friday, vandals ransacked a vaccination center in the southeast. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin asked prefects and police chiefs to reinforce security for elected officials, after several complained they had received threats in recent days over the latest anti-COVID measures.

Vaccine hesitancy is considered widespread in France, though appears to have faded somewhat as 36 million French people have gotten coronavirus vaccine doses in recent months. Millions more have gotten injected or signed up for vaccinations since Monday’s announcement.

French health care workers have until Sept. 15 to get vaccinated. The requirement for COVID passes for all restaurants, bars, hospitals, shopping malls, trains, planes and other venues is being introduced in stages starting Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the French government announced tightened border controls starting Sunday, but also said it would allow in travelers from anywhere in the world who have been fully vaccinated.

That now includes people who received AstraZeneca’s Indian-manufactured vaccine. The move came after a global outcry over the fact that the European Union’s COVID-19 certificate only recognizes AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in Europe.

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