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Coronavirus Roundup: OSHA Issues Updated COVID Guidance; Vaccine Data System is ‘Plagued by Problems’ 

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

The Government Accountability Office published last week its fifth report on the federal government’s response to the pandemic and gave new 13 recommendations for improvement, in addition to 27 of the 31 previous ones that have not been implemented yet. For example, the Health and Human Services Department should “accurately report data in the federal procurement database system and provide information that would allow the public to distinguish between spending on other transaction agreements and procurement contracts.” Another recommendation is that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should “determine what additional data may be needed from employers or other sources to better target the agency’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

OSHA issued updated COVID workplace guidance on Friday. “OSHA is updating its guidance to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus and improve worker protections, so businesses can operate safely and employees can stay safe and working,” said Jim Frederick, OSHA principal deputy assistant secretary who is serving as acting head. 

So far, Biden has yet to revoke Trump’s executive order that required meat-processing plants to keep operating during the pandemic, by deeming them “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act, Politico reported on Sunday. OSHA officials told reporters that the order might be “over read” by the public. “It does not prohibit the shutdown of meatpacking plants. As many of you know, several were shut down even after that order was issued by local public health departments,” said Ann Rosenthal, an OSHA senior adviser. “We are looking at what we can do in the meatpacking situation but revoking the executive order is obviously outside our ability at OSHA.”

On Monday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, launched an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants. “Public reports indicate that under the Trump administration, OSHA failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths,” he wrote to OSHA. “It is imperative that the previous administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans.” Clyburn also sent letters to three of the nation’s largest meatpacking companies: Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA.

Peter Marks, a top career official at the Food and Drug Administration leading the coronavirus vaccine approval process, said the agency is working on a “streamlined” process for any updates to vaccines for new coronavirus variants, The Hill reported on Friday.

The vaccine data system for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Deloitte a no-bid contract in November is “plagued by problems and abandoned by most states,” according to the MIT Technology Review. “A lack of flexibility has become a block for many clinics trying to use the CDC system. This has led to confusion, and difficulty in keeping patients properly informed,” said the report. Also, “the explanation for how Deloitte could be the only approved source for a product like [the Vaccine Administration Management System,] despite having no direct experience in the field, comes down to onerous federal contracting requirements, [Hana Schank, director of strategy for public-interest technology at the think tank New America,] says. They often require a company to have a long history of federal contracts, which blocks smaller or newer companies that might be a better fit for the task.” 

The Defense Department said on Saturday it “paused” its plan to vaccinate detainees at Guantanamo Bay. This came “over an hour after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted that President Joe Biden ‘told us he would have a plan to defeat the virus on day 1. He just never told us that it would be to give the vaccine to terrorists before most Americans,’” NBC News reported. “It is not known how many people at Guantánamo have been infected with COVID-19. The Pentagon in March 2020 prohibited commanders from publicly reporting new coronavirus cases among their personnel as cases surged worldwide.” 

The CDC issued a new mandate, effective Monday, requiring mask wearing during interstate travel and at transit hubs. There is no specific end date. This follows the directive from one of Biden’s recent executive orders. 

The Defense Department and HHS issued a $230 million contract to the medical device company Ellume to scale-up manufacturing for their at-home coronavirus test, Andy Slavitt, White House senior coronavirus adviser, announced during a briefing on Monday. 

Last fall, top Trump administration officials tried to lobby Congress to deny states extra money for vaccine rollouts, Stat News reported on Sunday. “Paul Mango, the former deputy chief of staff for policy at [HHS]...argued, repeatedly, that states hadn’t demonstrated they needed additional funding because, at least as of last October, they hadn’t spent the $200 million that the [CDC] sent to states in September,” said the report. “It's true that the states hadn’t spent most of the money by October. State health departments, for their part, say there are several good reasons why. For one, they hadn’t begun vaccinating anyone yet. States were also drawing down other sources of funding that were set to expire. And they were reluctant to immediately spend the new funding because they were unsure when new funding would be appropriated by Congress.” 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 12:30 p.m.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about how prisons and jails have dealt with the pandemic, as they have been hit particularly hard.

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 newstips@govexec.com.