Coronavirus Roundup: Democrats Ask IG for Health Disparities Review; NIH Launches ‘Shark-Tank style’ Testing Competition

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

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, said Wednesday the early results of a clinical trial for a potential coronavirus therapy are “quite good news.” At the same White House event, President Trump said the federal guidelines for social distancing, set to expire on Thursday as the U.S. death toll for COVID-19 passed 60,000, will be “fading out” as the administration shifts the responsibility for flattening the transmission curve to the states. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to remove itself as the lead coronavirus response coordinator, according to Bloomberg News. FEMA is working on a transition plan and some responsibilities and staff will most likely return to the Health and Human Services Department. “FEMA officials say they are also concerned about their staff being ready for hurricane season, which starts in June,” Bloomberg reported. “They still plan to keep some staff in the field for Covid-19 response, but believe the current infrastructure is no longer necessary.” 

FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow tweeted, “This is inaccurate. Our job is not done,” following the report’s publication. “As we have told @BLaw, @FEMA will lead operational coordination of #COVID19 response until directed differently by @POTUS and the #WHTaskforce.” 

Peter Marks, a senior Food and Drug Administration official, has become the “unofficial vaccine czar,” following the demotion of Dr. Rick Bright from his position as Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority director, Politico reported. “Current and former officials said that Marks is not advising BARDA specifically, but consulting with a range of government agencies—including the National Institutes of Health, at work on its own potential vaccine—about the most promising candidates.” 

White House Domestic Policy Council head Joe Grogan, who’s been very involved in the administration’s coronavirus response, is leaving his post on May 24, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday night. Grogan told the paper he’s on good terms with the president and stayed in his position longer than planned. He also said the decision has “nothing to do with [HHS Secretary Alex] Azar,” whom he’s battled with in the past, according to Politico

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and the committee's Democrats called on the acting HHSinspector general to review the healthcare disparities during the pandemic. “Despite the thorough reporting and awareness within HHS and amongst federal health officials of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic healthcare disparities, these disparities continue to plague our country’s healthcare system,” they wrote. “Our country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic further exposes this problem.”

Attorney General William Barr will conduct a “Twitter chat” on Friday afternoon to answer questions about how the Justice Department is combating coronavirus-related fraud and other ways it's protecting public safety during the pandemic. 

The president signed an executive order on Thursday morning authorizing Defense Secretary Mark Esper to order members of the selected reserve to active duty to support counter-narcotics efforts in the Western Hemisphere. The order does not mention the pandemic, but Trump said during a briefing on April 1, “As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there's a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain, and we must not let that happen.” 

Navy year-over-year contract spending increased by 30% in April, Federal News Network reported on Wednesday, attributing the increase in part to the coronavirus outbreak. James Geurts, assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition, told reporters that another factor contributing to the jump is improvements the service has made to its acquisition processes over the past two and a half years. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the Defense Department does not need an increase in funds in the next coronavirus relief package. "I don't think that we should, in a stimulus package, put money in for [the Defense Department] at this point, in terms of the basic $740 billion budget," he told reporters. "I don't see a need right now, of all the needs that we face in this country, to spend more money on [Defense]to go buy more planes, or ships or boats or anything like that,” Politico reported

Matthew Donovan, Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, on Wednesday described how the military has adjusted its personnel policies due to the coronavirus outbreak. To follow public health guidance, the military has reduced the number of troops it sends to basic training and offered voluntary extensions on retirement and re-enlistments to compensate for the loss. Read more here

On Wednesday, the acting Navy secretary asked for an additional investigation into the coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt that led to its commander’s removal. This will delay the decision on whether or not to reinstate Capt. Brett Crozier. Read DefenseOne’s full coverage here

The Navy will no longer officially release information on the number of coronaviruses cases on the USS Kidd or USS Theodore Roosevelt. This is a “sudden policy change that was made with no notice and no official explanation,” CNN’s Ryan Browne reported on Wednesday night.   

The American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Wednesday seeking information on what the Federal Bureau of Prisons, governors and state prisons knew about the impact of the coronavirus in prisons systems at its onset. “Bringing to light what federal and state governments knew about the impacts of COVID should motivate bolder action immediately across the country to avoid more preventable deaths in prisons,” said Taylor Pendergrass, ACLU senior campaign strategist. “And [it] will be the foundation upon which we hold these leaders accountable for any inaction in the months and years to come.” 

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced seven Democrats who will serve on the new House select committee to oversee the coronavirus response, The Hill reported. According to the resolution that passed last week, Pelosi is authorized to pick seven and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., can pick five. Read Government Executive’s coverage of the new panel here.  

Following Pelosi’s announcement, McCarthy’s spokesperson said this is a “partisan and unnecessary committee,” which is “impeachment 2.0,” WUSA reported. McCarthy and some other Republicans have argued the new panel is unnecessary because there are several other investigative bodies tasked with pandemic oversight. 

Documents obtained by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight show problems with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s care of detainees during the first year and half of the Trump administration, which the organization says questions how the agency is handling the pandemic. For example, “two of the deaths where there was the clearest evidence of medical neglect occurred at immigration jails that are now suffering COVID-19 outbreaks.” The deaths were at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey, and the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana.

Top House Oversight and Reform Committee Democrats are seeking documents from the General Services Administration following reports that the Trump Organization is asking for a break on its hotel payments due to the pandemic. The Trump International Hotel in Washington is in a federal building leased by GSA. The Democrats called the situation a “disturbing conflict of interest.” disturbing conflicts of interest

On Wednesday, NIH announced a “Shark Tank-style” competition to accelerate coronavirus testing, Stat News reported. This is a $1.5 billion initiative with the hopes of ultimately deploying millions of tests per week by the late summer or early fall. 

New York entered into a contract to obtain ventilators with an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley, with no background in medical supplies, at the recommendation of the White House, but the supplies never arrived, according to BuzzFeed News. The engineer tweeted at the president on March 27 and then “three days later, New York state paid Oren-Pines $69.1 million...for 1,450 ventilators—at an astonishing $47,656 per ventilator, at least triple the standard retail price of high-end models.” New York terminated the contract and is attempting to recover the money it paid. 

The Intelligence Community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not man made or genetically modified,” said a statement published on Thursday. “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” 

A national vote-by-mail effort during the pandemic could be hampered if the U.S. Postal Service runs out of funding, as projected, according to HuffPost on Wednesday. The Postal Service asked for $75 billion in emergency funds so it does not run out of cash by the fall, Government Executive reported earlier this month. As the presidential election coincides with the pandemic, many states have adopted vote-by-mail for their primaries and caucuses and support is growing among election officials to expand such efforts for the general election in November. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode examines how the Treasury Department could distribute stimulus checks from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act more effectively and creatively. 

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.