Coronavirus Roundup: A Case That Telework Has Made Some Feds More Productive During the Pandemic
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
States are continuing their efforts to lift some social distancing requirements put in place to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, even though some have failed to meet federally-recommended criteria for doing so, The Washington Post reports. The moves toward reopening also come as a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll shows most Americans favor keeping restrictions such as not dining in at restaurants. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and coronavirus task force member, said in an interview with CNN on Monday that he will continue to give members of the public accurate information “that I feel is necessary to make ... decisions that I think are prudent decisions," despite calls from some to fire him. “There are people that are going to be disagreeing with me,” he told CNN. “Some of them, rather violently in many respects, you know, telling me that I am crazy, fire Fauci, do this, do that. That is part of the game."
Here are some other recent headlines:
The White House is considering closing down the coronavirus task force soon, even though the crisis is unlikely to be over, The New York Times reports. The focus will now shift to reopening states and finding treatments and a vaccine for the virus, a Trump administration official told the Times.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Senate committee will consider the nomination of Brian Miller to be Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act established this position as one of the oversight provisions to ensure taxpayer dollars are not misspent during relief efforts.
Two years before the pandemic, Robert Kadlec, the top administration official for public health preparedness, prioritized stockpiling biodefense and chemical weapons. “His office ultimately made a deal to buy up to $2.8 billion of [a smallpox] vaccine from a company that once paid Kadlec as a consultant, a connection he did not disclose on a Senate questionnaire when he was nominated,” The Washington Post reported on Monday. “Kadlec scaled back a long-standing interagency process for spending billions of dollars on stockpile purchases, diminishing the role of government experts and restricting decision-making to himself and small circle of advisers.”
As of May 1, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had allocated over 50 million face coverings to states, tribes and territories with an emphasis on critical infrastructure sectors. It is also coordinating shipments of medical supplies to over 15,000 Medicaid-and-Medicare-certified nursing homes, according to the Homeland Security Department's weekly update.
FEMA is also working with HHS to distribute personal protective equipment to federal employees on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, Government Executive reported Monday. Many federal workers who are still required to work with the public or go to their offices had said their agencies were not supplying masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other gear needed to stay safe. FEMA will start making deliveries this week.
The Social Security Administration was slow to embrace telework for its employees at the beginning of the pandemic, and had been trying to scale back the practice before coronavirus spread, but some SSA employees working from home say they are now more productive. A union official told NPR that SSA is processing claims for new benefits and appeals of benefits denials faster. The backlog of pending cases is down 11% from March 23, when the agency instituted widespread telework in response to coronavirus, the official said, adding that he hopes the increased productivity will convince managers to continue allowing more telework after the pandemic is over.
The Government Accountability Office released two reports on Monday regarding improvements needed for FEMA’s emergency preparedness and workforce development. “FEMA uses several scenarios—including a pandemic influenza similar to COVID-19—to allow states and territories to assess their own emergency response and recovery capabilities,” said GAO in one of the reports. “States and territories have a good handle on their strengths and weaknesses, but FEMA hasn’t used the information to determine the full scope of national needs...[or] what resources the federal government would need to close the gaps—many of which are longstanding.”
GAO also reported that the Office of Management and Budget had 35 open priority recommendations as of April, which include establishing internal controls for disaster relief funding and increasing transparency of information on federal spending.
Meanwhile, the Census Bureau said on Monday it will begin a “phased restart” of field operations in certain areas this week. Staff will resume the “Update leave” operation, which happens in areas where most households don’t receive mail at their homes or there is missing mail delivery information. The bureau said it will provide personal protective gear for returning staff, and offer training on social distancing and other safety precautions.
The White House told congressional staff directors that coronavirus task force members cannot accept hearing initivations without the approval of Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows, according to an email obtained by The New York Times. “For primary response departments...no more than one COVID-related hearing should be agreed to with the department’s primary House and Senate authorizing committee and appropriations subcommittee in the month of May,” said the email. “All other departments, agencies and witnesses may accept hearing invitations; however, agency resources should still be prioritized toward the coronavirus response.”
In related news, The Hill reported that President Trump has said that Fauci will be allowed to testify before the Senate, but not the House. The lower chamber is “a bunch of Trump haters,” the president is said to have told reporters.
U.S. Postal Service employees are now operating under their own limitations when it comes to speaking with the press, according to a report in LINK, a daily news website for USPS workers. Postal employees have been instructed to contact their supervisor or manager if they hear from a reporter, and to also be careful when fielding questions from customers in general, as those customers could share information with the press. Employees can also direct reporters to the Postal Service’s media room for listings of spokespeople, LINK said. “It’s particularly important for employees to keep these guidelines in mind during the coronavirus pandemic,” LINK stated. “USPS is providing an essential public service during this crisis, and the organization wants to ensure customers have accurate information about its work.”
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at the U.S. Postal Service’s financial predicament and how the agency is handling the pandemic.
Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee, contractor or military member with information, concerns, etc. about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amelia Gruber contributed to this report.