With Darius Tahir, Sarah Owermohle, Alice Miranda Ollstein and Susannah Luthi

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— Xavier Becerra will face the first of two Senate hearings on his nomination for HHS secretary.

— The U.S.’s Covid death toll has reached 500,000 and is still climbing, even amid signs of progress in the pandemic fight.

— Johnson & Johnson is promising to deliver 20 million Covid-19 vaccines by the end of March.

WELCOME TO TUESDAY PULSE — where there might not be much healthy about boxed mac and cheese, but at least Annie’s will soon be ortho-phthalates free.

PULSE is powered by Annie’s mac far too often and by your tips always — send them to [email protected].

BECERRA’s BIG WEEK — Joe Biden’s nominee for health secretary will stand before the Senate HELP Committee against the backdrop of a half-million Covid deaths and an administration racing to ramp up its pandemic response.

Across two days of hearings, Becerra is expected to make an urgent case for “strong federal leadership,” while playing up his past roles shaping Obamacare as a House lawmaker and pursuing opioid makers and hospital giants as California’s attorney general.

The 63-year-old — who would be the first Latino HHS chief — will also emphasize his upbringing, pointing to his family’s medical struggles as a formative experience, POLITICO’s Alice Miranda Ollstein reports.

THE TESTIMONY WILL SERVE as Becerra’s reintroduction for senators who may know the nominee primarily for his hundred-plus court challenges to former President Donald Trump’s policies over the past four years — a high-profile role that made him into the administration’s chief legal antagonist.

— But it’s also meant to head off GOP accusations he isn’t up to the job. Republicans in recent weeks have suggested Becerra’s thin on health policy experience and too far left, pointing in particular to his support for abortion rights, “Medicare for All” and health care for undocumented immigrants.

While it’s unlikely they’ll actually be able to tank his nomination, Republicans, newly emboldened by the likely derailing of OMB nominee Neera Tanden’s candidacy, are hoping to plant some lingering doubts. “Maybe we can get one or two people to think he’s a risk and not worth pushing through,” a top GOP aide told Alice.

BECERRA’s PLAN: KEEP AN EVEN KEEL. PULSE spoke with several Becerra friends and former aides on Monday, and every single one portrayed him as a pragmatic dealmaker far more interested in policymaking than political fights — a characterization he’ll embrace.

Becerra is also likely to resist getting dragged into ideological showdowns during the hearings, these people said, and could counter questions about his legal fights over abortion by contending he was doing no more than upholding the law.

— Democrats and outside supporters have been touting his credentials in the meantime. More than 150 public health experts signed onto a Monday letter backing Becerra’s candidacy, while pro-Obamacare group Protect Our Care has highlighted endorsements from 19 health care groups.

COVID DEATHS HIT A HALF-MILLIONThe White House marked the human cost of the pandemic with a candlelight vigil and an order for all U.S. flags on federal property to be flown at half-staff, POLITICO’s Benjamin Din reports.

The country hit the milestone nearly a year into the pandemic, and at a time where there is growing hope the crisis is closer to the than the beginning. New cases and deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. have fallen markedly from their January highs. And amid the promise of hundreds of millions of vaccine doses on the way, Biden in the last week has floated the possibility of “approaching normalcy” by the end of the year.

Yet Monday’s remembrance was held just a month after a similar event commemorating 400,000 Covid deaths — a sign of how quickly the virus is still spreading, even as health officials redouble their efforts to bring it under control. The emergence of new variants has also raised new concerns that the coronavirus could continue circulating, especially in hard-to-reach communities.

J&J PLEDGES MILLIONS OF VACCINES BY MARCH — Johnson & Johnson executive Richard Nettles is planning to tell a House panel this morning that if the company’s single-shot Covid-19 vaccine is authorized by the FDA, it can deliver 20 million doses by next month. And that authorization could come quickly; an FDA panel will meet Friday to discuss the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

The testimony is part of a broader oversight hearing featuring five major Covid vaccine manufacturers, giving lawmakers a chance to press the companies on their plans to ramp up vaccine production, POLITICO’s Sarah Owermohle reports.

— Johnson & Johnson in particular has faced growing scrutiny over its delivery timeline, after hitting production snags earlier this year. White House officials have since cautioned that its initial supplies will be limited, though they still expect the manufacturer to hit its 100 million-dose target by the end of June.

— Pfizer and Moderna executives will also be on hand. Pfizer Chief Business Officer John Young and Moderna President Stephen Hoge are slated to appear alongside Nettles. AstraZeneca’s biopharmaceuticals unit head, Ruud Dobber, and Novavax executive John Trizzino will testify as well.

VA STRUGGLING TO VACCINATE RURAL VETS The Department of Veterans Affairs is lagging behind in vaccinating rural veterans compared with the general population, it confirmed on Monday. While the department has vaccinated roughly 18 percent of enrolled, active and eligible patients, just 4.77 percent of rural veterans have gotten the shots.

The gap comes as the VA experiments with various strategies for getting doses to hard-to-reach communities, such as by flying vaccine-laden aircraft into short-runway airports, POLITICO’s Darius Tahir writes. The department is also conducting focus groups on hesitancy among rural populations and is doing targeted outreach, though the disparity is showing up across all veterans regardless of age.

BIDEN TO SCOTUS: DITCH MEDICAID WORK RULES CASE — The administration wants the Supreme Court to cancel a March hearing on Trump-era Medicaid work requirements now that Biden’s HHS has begun undoing them, POLITICO’s Susannah Luthi reports.

The request is the next step in Biden’s plan to eliminate the work rules central to Trump’s health care legacy — a process that the government began earlier this month, when it told states it will revoke waivers allowing them to tie Medicaid benefits to employment or school enrollment.

Medicaid work requirements are on hold in every state that had received approval for them. Arkansas, the only state that had previously implemented work rules, has already said it will find another path to incentivizing more poor residents to work.

OVERSEAS TELEHEALTH DOCTORS SUE OVER MEDICARE MONEY — A telehealth company made up of U.S. board-certified emergency doctors who live abroad is suing HHS over a policy that prevents Medicare from paying for their services — adding a new legal wrinkle to a health system being reshaped by the pandemic, POLITICO’s Susannah Luthi writes.

The lawsuit, filed by RICU LLC, alleged that the department’s Covid-driven expansion of telehealth coverage excludes work done by physicians who reside outside the U.S., even if they provide remote services to domestic hospitals. RICU does business with more than 250 hospitals in 35 states, it said in the filing, as part of an effort to target underserved areas facing emergency physician shortages.

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when private equity firms acquire nursing homes, patients start to die more often, Vox’s Dylan Scott writes.

Connecticut will begin prioritizing its vaccine recipients by age, in a break with the state’s initial rollout plan, the Connecticut Mirror’s Jenna Carlesso and Keith Phaneuf report.

Latin American government officials are accusing Pfizer of “bullying” them during vaccine negotiations and say it has demanded some countries put up sovereign assets as collateral for future legal costs, the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Madlen Davies, Ivan Ruiz, Jill Langois, and Rosa Furneaux report.

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