Coronavirus Roundup: FEMA Now Leads the Federal Response
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
Here’s a roundup of recent developments you may have missed.
The U.S. Census Bureau said late Wednesday it is suspending nationwide field operations until April 1 to protect census workers and the public from potentially spreading or contracting the virus. Read the full statement from Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham here.
Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday the Federal Emergency Management Agency will now lead the national response to the coronavirus. Previously the Health and Human Services Department was in charge.
Seven senators on Thursday asked the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to publicly post agencies and departments’ coronavirus contingency plans for employees and contractors. This “is key to ensuring that our constituents understand what services are continuing in the midst of the uncertainty and disruption caused by COVID-19,” they wrote. Read GovExec's story here.
A new Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention report found that while the elderly population still has the greatest likelihood of dying from the coronavirus, young adults were a considerable portion of the patients hospitalized. CDC found that among the 508 patients hospitalized in the first 2,500 recorded cases in the United States, 38% were between ages 20 and 54. Also, about half of the 121 patients in the intensive care units were under 65.
National parks are starting to close in response to the coronavirus. The Interior Department directed national parks on Wednesday to “shut down facilities as they saw fit to comply with local, state and federal directives aimed at limiting human interactions,” The San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Travelers said there was a “disturbing” lack of screening for the coronavirus at the Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle, which has one of the highest concentrations of the outbreak in the country, the Seattle Times reported.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf sent a thank you message to the department’s 240,000+ employees on Thursday, many of whom are on the frontlines of combating the coronavirus. “It is at these critical times that I am in awe of the men and women who stand watch to secure our homeland,” he said in the video.
Meanwhile, Politico reported on Wednesday that about 500 DHS employees are in quarantine because of the coronavirus with at least 13 confirmed cases. Politico obtained DHS documentation that showed these previously undisclosed numbers.
The 500 million respirator masks the president said the government ordered could take up to 18 months to be delivered according to the grant application, Bloomberg Law reported. There has been a mass shortage of masks among health care workers.
On Wednesday, congressional members in the Washington metro region asked President Trump to make the area a priority location for federally supported coronavirus testing because of the “hundreds of thousands of military and civilian [workers] serving the Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Defense and other mission critical agencies.” The D.C. mayor and Virginia and Maryland governors previously requested this.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Wednesday it will alter operations to prevent the spread of the outbreak. ICE said in a statement its “highest priorities are to promote lifesaving and public safety activities,” so it “will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities … except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” and “individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”
On Thursday morning, Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli issued a “clarification” tweet thread following ICE’s announcement. “ICE will continue to prioritize arresting and removing criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a threat to public safety, just as it always has during President Trump’s administration,” he said.
A bipartisan group of 24 senators called on the Agriculture and Interior Departments and Federal Emergency Management Agency to mobilize their “thousands of federal civil servants” in rural areas with “the relevant experience to assist with emergency response” for rural and tribal regions. Read the full letter here.
Late Wednesday, President Trump qualified his earlier announcement that he is invokving the 1950 Defense Production Act that makes it easier for the government to obtain medical supplies and equipment from contractors. “I only signed the [act] to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!” he tweeted.
In response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a press release on Thursday that the president must “immediately” use the law to “mass produce and coordinate distribution of these critical supplies, before the need worsens and the shortages become even more dire.”
The military hospital ship being deployed to New York will be ready in “a couple weeks-plus,” because it’s in maintenance currently, said Defense Secretary Mark Esper on CNN. Meanwhile, the ship going to the West Coast should be ready in “days not weeks,” Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Jonathan Rath Hoffman said on Wednesday.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has its first two cases of coronavirus among staff, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. One staff member works at a correctional facility in Berlin, New Hampshire, and the other works in an office in Grand Prairie, Texas. There are still no confirmed cases among the inmates.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., House Natural Resources Committee chair, wrote to the Indian Health Service, a division of HHS, with concerns about how the administration is responding to the coronavirus in tribal locations. He asked for answers to a list of questions regarding pandemic training, testing and equipment for IHS by March 27.
At 2 p.m. on Thursday, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees will conduct a “tweetstorm” on Twitter to “amplify the resource and policy needs to fight COVID-19, and the important role of public employees in this crisis.” Participates should use the hashtags: #1u, #coronavirus and/or #COVID19.
The Navy relaxed guidelines on hair length to increase social distancing. According to the announcement Wednesday night, commanding officers have discretion to “temporarily relax grooming standards for men’s and women’s hair length” to reduce personal contact between service members and their barbers or hair stylists. The New York Times said it isn’t clear yet if other branches of the military will also follow suit.
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at how the federal government is handling telework during coronavirus and the challenges agencies and employees are facing.
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.