Coronavirus Roundup: The Pandemic is a ‘Wild Card’ as Biden Plans His State of the Union Address

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

The Office of Management and Budget released an update on Thursday on the president’s management agenda, which was released in November and seeks to leverage lessons learned during the pandemic about the federal workforce in order to “make the federal government a more ideal and forward-thinking employer,” among other things. 

The update recaps progress made since November and said more updates will come in the weeks and months ahead on 

“Near-term updates will include implementation specifics drilling down into the [president’s management agenda] priorities and strategies, including the leaders and teams who will spearhead the work ahead and the action plans and measures that will guide our ambitious efforts across agencies,” said Jason Miller, OMB deputy director for management. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

During the briefing on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about reports that the Health and Human Services Department requested $30 billion in new COVID-19 aid during a congressional briefing this week. She said the briefing was part of the administration's normal talks with Congress about what it needs for the COVID response and “this is important because, while we continue to have sufficient funds to respond to the current Omicron surge in the coming weeks, our goal has always been to ensure that we are well prepared to stay ahead of the virus.”

Psaki added that more than 90% of funds from the American Rescue Plan have been obligated or allocated and 90% of that has gone to vaccine and therapeutics purchases and vaccine distribution efforts. “Resources from the Rescue Plan and prior COVID response bills have enabled us to respond forcefully to the Delta and Omicron surges,” said Psaki. “And what we're trying to do now is stay ahead and stay in contact with Congress about what those needs might look like.” 

According to Politico, “While the administration anticipates it has enough vaccines and therapeutics to ride out the surge, three people with knowledge of the matter said the government doesn’t currently have enough money to respond if another dangerous variant emerges.”

As of Wednesday, the Biden administration had shipped 50 million test kit orders to households nationwide (a total of 200 million individual tests), over 60% of which were delivered within 24 hours and 90% within 48 hours, Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 coordinator, said during a briefing on Wednesday. “I want to emphasize [that] the Postal Service is doing, really, an outstanding job here,” he said. The president’s goal is to send 500 million free tests to Americans. 

Members of Congress, including the chairman of the House Bureau of Prisons Reform Caucus, sent a letter to the attorney general on Wednesday asking that he seek congressional input in the selection process for the next director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a federal agency that has been hit particularly by the pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear numerous issues that have long persisted within the BOP, including a lack of communication with Congress, inadequate current staffing levels, poor inmate oversight and a need for a more efficient operational organization and response to immediate crises,” they wrote. “For years, BOP has consistently operated well below its authorized staffing levels, placing an undue burden on hard working correctional officers.” This contrasted with what the current director told lawmakers earlier this month

COVID-19 is a “wild card” as Biden prepares for his State of the Union address, which is scheduled for March 1, The Associated Press reported on Thursday. “Biden is hoping to use his upcoming State of the Union address to nudge the pandemic into the nation’s rear-view mirror. But it could turn into yet another disruptive display of national tensions and frustration over trying to move past COVID-19,” said the report. “The State of the Union setting — Capitol Hill — remains one of the most significantly disrupted workplaces in the country, something of a ground zero for culture wars over the lingering restrictions and security concerns from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.” 

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration will follow the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when asked during a press gaggle on Thursday if the president expects to deliver the State of the Union in a chamber where attendees don’t have to wear masks

The HHS inspector general announced this month a new review of HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which leads the country’s preparedness and response for disasters and public health emergencies. “For the last 10 years, [the office of inspector general] and other federal agencies have conducted reviews of HHS's coordination of response efforts to emergency events such as hurricanes, wildfires, and emerging infectious diseases, e.g., Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19,” said the work announcement. “These reviews identified deficiencies in HHS's ability to coordinate the federal government's response to a public health emergency.” So, this new review will look at “whether [the assistant secretary for preparedness and response] has implemented controls and mitigating strategies to address identified risks associated with coordinating the government's response to emergency events.” 

The Housing and Urban Development inspector general office announced on Thursday the release of its 2022-2026 strategic plan, which includes its workplace plans following maximum telework for the pandemic. “While we have effectively sustained our mission during prolonged periods of fully remote work, we do believe the lack of in person connection has had an impact on cohesion and momentum in our change initiatives,” said the report. “We will continue liberal telework practices while returning employees to work in person with an emphasis on collaboration, following the recommendation of our Workplace of the Future Task Force and consistent with best practices encouraged by the Office of Personnel Management. In addition, we will continue to employ our Employee Engagement Council in our efforts to ensure an inclusive, engaged, and collaborative workforce.” 

Dr. John Mascola will be retiring at the end of March as director of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Under Dr. Mascola’s exemplary scientific leadership, and through partnerships that he championed, the [center] has made extraordinary advances to combat some of the greatest public health threats of our time,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAD director, in a statement on Wednesday. “Most notably, he and his team at the VRC collaborated with Moderna to develop the mRNA-1273 COVID-19 vaccine that has now been administered to millions of people in the United States.” He also “led the [center’s] efforts to develop monoclonal antibodies for use in treating COVID-19.” 

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