The view from Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Like most national parks, it is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The view from Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Like most national parks, it is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Katy Kain/NPS

Coronavirus Roundup: Massive Telework Expansion at EPA and USAID; Trump Seeks to Reopen National Parks

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

During the briefing on Wednesday evening, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said he was quoted accurately about a likely second waive of the coronavirus during a Washington Post  interview on Tuesday. This was after the president said otherwise. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, also said during the briefing the virus could return in the fall. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Wall Street Journal chronicled the “early missteps” by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that reportedly set back the administration’s pandemic response. “Many factors muddled the administration’s early response to the coronavirus,” said the paper. “But interviews with more than two dozen administration officials and others involved … show that Mr. Azar waited for weeks to brief the president on the threat, oversold his agency’s progress in the early days and didn’t coordinate effectively across the health-care divisions under his purview.” Defenders of Azar say he’s being blamed unfairly. 

The WSJ also reported that Trump supposedly threatened to fire the CDC’s immunization and respiratory disease director after she spoke to the media in February about the need for people and businesses to prepare for the virus to spread in America. Dr. Nancy Messonnier has been a public health official since 1995. 

The CDC has no specific contingency or emergency plan for the coronavirus outbreak and is “currently using the pandemic flu outbreak plan,” according to a Freedom of Information Act response to The Washington Post. The most recent plan was updated in 2017. 

Dr. Rick Bright, former head of the agency that is central to vaccine development, was pushed out of his job earlier this week because he questioned the merits of a drug the president has championed as a possible coronavirus treatment, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.  

In a statement sent by a law firm that will represent Bright in a whistleblower complaint, Bright blamed political interference for his ouster, CNN reported. “To this point, I have led the government's efforts to invest in the best science available to combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes with HHS political leadership, including criticism for my proactive efforts to invest early in vaccines and supplies critical to saving American lives. I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.”

On Thursday, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, asked the acting Health and Human Services inspector general to review Bright’s reassignment. “I have been particularly concerned by the Trump Administration’s politicization of public health agencies,” he wrote. “This most recent action, if true, further raises serious questions about the commitment of President Trump and his administration to science and the public good as the government and the nation work to combat an unprecedented global health pandemic.”

The White House has created a “culture in which public health officials find themselves scrambling to appease and placate Trump,” according to The Washington Post. The administration created an email account to receive input from “friends and family,” which are then sent to the relevant agencies. Some officials worry “that these missives receive priority and distract from more crucial scientific pursuits.” 

The House is expected to vote on Thursday afternoon on legislation that would create a subcommittee of the Oversight and Reform Committee to oversee the federal government’s pandemic response. If enacted, the panel would examine how agencies are spending and disbursing relief funds, the government’s preparations leading up to the outbreak, the virus’s impact on different communities and whistleblower protections, among other things. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime whistleblower and transparency advocate announced on Wednesday that he wrote to Trump asking him to reconsider his signing statement on the $2.2 trillion CARES Act objecting to some of the inspector general provisions. Grassley said he’s “concerned” it could  “negatively impact the ability of IGs to independently communicate with Congress.” Grassley also noted he raised similar concerns with President Obama in 2009. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on Wednesday she wouldn’t withdraw Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., as her pick for the coronavirus congressional oversight commission, Roll Call reported. The Miami Herald reported on Tuesday that Shalala did not disclose her stock transactions in 2019 as required by law for members of congress. 

There were “conflicting court rulings” on Wednesday regarding federal prison releases, Politico reported. A judge ordered the release or transfer of hundreds of elderly or vulnerable inmates from an Ohio federal prison due to the widespread coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, a judge in Louisiana rejected a similar request on behalf of prisons at a complex in Oakdale, La. This “came amid confusing edicts, actions and statements this week from federal prison officials and Justice Department headquarters about the effort to lower the federal prison population and protect at-risk inmates as well as staff,” according to Politico

The Justice Department announced on Wednesday it has reviewed over 3,600 complaints related to coronavirus-related scams as of Tuesday. Many of the situations involved websites offering fake vaccines, fraudulent charity drives or malware. In a press release, Justice Department officials reiterated their commitment to working with state and local law enforcement to combat all forms of fraud.  

The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency’s new guidelines for those working on toxic cleanups is confusing for employees. “EPA’s translation of this CDC guidance remains somewhat opaque” on what sites to avoid, who should not go into the field and what protective equipment is needed and who will provide it.”  

House Oversight and Reform Committee chairs said on Wednesday the General Services Administration should “finally stand up to the president and grant no rent reductions for the Trump Hotel.” This came after the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which leases space in the historic Old Post Office Pavilion building managed by GSA, requested a break on its lease payments due to the pandemic, as The New York Times reported on Tuesday. 

The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to adjust the hours for approximately 100 air traffic control towers nationwide, Politico reported on Thursday. “The agency isn’t ready to give out more details about what hours would change and which towers would be affected,” said Politico. “But its press release on the subject hints at evening and night changes, noting that air traffic has slowed particularly at night and that many of the towers close then anyway.”

At a tree planting ceremony for Earth Day on Wednesday, Trump said he wants to reopen the national parks soon. “Thanks to our significant progress against the invisible enemy, I am pleased to announce that, in line with my administration’s ‘Guidelines for Opening Up America Again’, we will begin to reopen our national parks and public lands for the American people to enjoy,” he said. The White House did not give a timeline for openings. 

In response, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks Chairman Phil Francis said in a statement to the press that his organization is also “eager to reopen our national parks,” but “parks should not open before the safety of National Park Service employees, concessionaires, volunteers and other partners, including those in gateway communities, can be ensured.” He also said parks should not open “before we have the necessary capacity to protect our resources” such as “adequate staff, personal protective equipment, and employee training.”

The Defense Department announced on Wednesday it has a new tiered system to expand coronavirus testing for the military community that will prioritize those in high-risk forces. “Tier 1 is testing for those involved in critical national capabilities such as strategic deterrence or nuclear deterrence,” said department officials. “Tier 2 will test fielded forces around the world. Tier 3 encompasses forces being forward deployed or those redeploying, and Tier 4 is for all other forces.” 

The Election Assistance Commission said it awarded its 56 CARES Act grants on April 6 and, as of Wednesday, 49 states and territories have requested disbursement of their funds and submitted descriptions of how they expect to spend them. See more from the nation’s bipartisan and independent elections clearinghouse here

On Wednesday, the National Indian Health Board congratulated Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee on his confirmation on Tuesday to be Indian Health Service director. “Weahkee has been instrumental in getting coronavirus relief funding to tribes as quickly as possible and is in regular communications with tribal leaders,” said NIHB Chair Victoria Kitcheyan, also a Tribal Council Member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Weahkee has been at the agency since 2007 and was most recently its principal deputy director. 

Ninety-six percent of EPA’s workforce is teleworking, according to Meritalk. “EPA’s dedicated operations and support teams across the agency went above and beyond to quickly augment infrastructure, develop communications and collaborate in assisting and supporting our workforce in the transition,” an agency spokesperson told Meritalk

Similarly, the United States Agency for International Development has made a massive shift to telework, Meritalk reported on Wednesday. “By April 16, just 1% of the domestic workforce logged in at USAID facilities while 85% of the staff in the United States logged in remotely,” said Meritalk.  “[USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala] credits the agency’s successful telework transition to updating IT systems.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to resume judicial confirmations in May following a “10-week confirmation drought brought on by the coronavirus pandemic,” Law360 reported.  

The Peace Corps is giving financial aid to those sent home due to pandemic disruptions. It will provide a $1,500 wellness stipend to 7,000 volunteers and trainees, Federal News Network reported

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode explores how Veterans Affairs employees nationwide feel their agency is not providing them with adequate support or equipment while treating those with the coronavirus.

Upcoming: The White House coronavirus task force will have a briefing at 5 p.m. 

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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