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Coronavirus Roundup: Contracts for COVID Tests Awarded; Pentagon Heightens Restrictions 

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

Just a few days after the Supreme Court heard arguments on the matter, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began to enforce its vaccine-or-test rule for private businesses with 100 or more employees on Monday. However, employers won’t be cited before February 9 for not complying with the requirements as long as they made a good faith effort to try to do so. 

“Given the immediacy of OSHA’s enforcement efforts, it is doubtful the Supreme Court will take long to issue a final decision in this matter,” wrote members of the law firm Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, in a post. “While the justices raised the possibility of implementing a brief administrative stay to allow them to more fully consider the issue, it would be unsurprising in these time-pressured circumstances to see a decision from the Supreme Court in a matter of weeks.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed.

Top public health officials are testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday morning about addressing new coronavirus variants. President Biden will give a speech on Thursday to offer an update on the “whole-of-government COVID-19 surge response,” according to the White House schedule. 

Half a dozen former health policy officials, including some members of President Biden’s transition team, are calling on the administration to reset its pandemic policy after disruptions from the Omicron variant and message confusion on new public health guidance, NBC News reported on Monday. 

Federal agencies are preparing to enforce the vaccine mandate for federal employees, but because the compliance rate is high, agencies don’t expect mass disruptions, The Hill reported on Sunday. “The departments of Treasury, Transportation and Agriculture as well as the General Services Administration, Social Security Administration and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are all expected to begin suspending employees who are not complying with the mandate in the coming weeks,” said the report. “Agencies have not laid out specific time frames for notifying employees of the suspensions, but experts expect them to move relatively quickly given that four months have passed since Biden announced the rule.” So far, the Education Department and White House reached full compliance with the federal mandate; they are the first known to do so. 

The Health and Human Services Department is considering collecting more detailed data on pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19. “As the COVID-19 response continues to evolve, federal needs for data are also evolving,” said a notice published in the Federal Register on Tuesday. This addition “will help to better understand pediatric hospital surge[s] as well as inform epidemiologic surveillance to inform potential response actions,” the notice stated. There is a 30-day comment period on the proposal. 

The Biden administration announced on Monday its plan for private insurance companies and group health plans to cover the cost of COVID-19 tests in order to increase free access to tests after the surge of the Omicron variant led to vast testing shortages. This policy will start on Saturday and insurance companies and health plans will be required to cover eight over-the-counter, at-home tests per month.

Over the weekend, the Defense Department, in coordination with HHS, awarded contracts to two companies to purchase a total of 27 million over-the-counter COVID-19 test kits, which is part of Biden’s plan to deliver 500 million across the country. Two other contracts were awarded on January 7. “We expect to have all contracts awarded over the next two weeks, and then Americans will begin being able to order these tests online later this month,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during the briefing on Monday. “We also expect to have details on the website as well as a hotline later this week.”

Psaki was asked during the briefing if the White House can still rely on the Postal Service to deliver the tests after it said it would have staffing shortages as a result of the vaccine rule. “The Postal Service also delivered 99% of packages on time in advance of Christmas,” she replied. “Their leaders have also said they're eager to take on this challenge. So, we welcome that, and we're looking forward to working with them to get these tests out to the public.”

On Monday, the Pentagon officially moved to “Health Protection Condition Charlie,” the second most severe level, due to the rise in positive coronavirus cases, which was announced last week. ​​Under this level “employees can expect cancellation of in-person gatherings, a restricted ability to travel and severely restricted access to military installations,” said a press release from the Defense Department. Also, “a number of measures were put in place at the direction of Michael Donley, the director for administration and management at the Pentagon,” such as “organizations within the building are expected to maintain occupancy rates of less than 25% of what is considered normal.” 

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.

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