President Trump speaks about the coronavirus during an April 7 briefing.

President Trump speaks about the coronavirus during an April 7 briefing. Alex Brandon / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Federal Government Scrambles to Obtain and Distribute Supplies

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

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently predicted there could be a lower death toll from novel coronavirus than previously expected. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, said during an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that getting back to normal life will be a “gradual” process. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Various groups have filed a “wave of lawsuits” recently to release detainees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. “The agency has released 160 detainees in recent weeks, but that hasn't been nearly enough for detainees, politicians, doctors and human rights groups,” USA Today reported. Their lawsuits “have resulted in judges ordering the release of dozens of more detainees from California to Massachusetts to New Jersey.”

Immigration officials have deported about 7,000 migrants (377 of whom are children) along the United States-Mexico border in the last two weeks in attempts to limit the spread of coronavirus, Reuters reported. On March 21, the Trump administration implemented new rules that allow officials to “quickly remove people without standard immigration proceedings.”

On Tuesday, the National Treasury Employees Union criticized Customs and Border Protection’s decision to cancel weather and safety leave schedules for border agents. “CBP has not given us a valid reason for sending more frontline federal employees into harm’s way than is necessary,” NTEU President Tony Reardon wrote in a letter. “We are asking CBP leadership to reverse this short-sighted decision and restore the ports’ ability to protect the health and safety of CBP employees.”

Meanwhile, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned on Tuesday after audio leaked of him calling former Capt. Brett Crozier “too naive or too stupid” for his letter requesting help for his aircraft carrier stricken with coronavirus. Read DefenseOne’s coverage and timeline of events. 

During the briefing on Tuesday night, Trump said he had “no role” in Modly’s resignation.  The president added, “The whole thing was...very unfortunate—the captain should not have written a letter. He didn't have to be Ernest Hemingway.”

The White House’s supply chain task force must telework now because a "partner" of the group has coronavirus, NBC News reported on Tuesday. The task force, which is in charge of obtaining and distributing much-needed medical supplies, was previously working from a “war room” in a Federal Emergency Management Agency building. “At no time" did the person "or any other known to have contact with them, come within six feet of any other task force principal for a prolonged period of time," a FEMA spokesperson told NBC. 

The leaders of the House Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform committees wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday about supply chain issues in acquiring medical supplies. They referenced a recent inspector general report that found hospitals nationwide are facing severe shortages and questioned “the agency’s opaque and evolving processes.”

Experts are advocating for a more centralized approach on federal purchasing of medical supplies and equipment. With funding from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act “the entry of a dozen federal agencies into the market for protective equipment could amplify what some...are already describing as a ‘Lord of the Flies’ atmosphere between hospital executives, state officials and FEMA as they scramble for supplies,” Roll Call reported on Tuesday. “FEMA said last week that no single authority is overseeing all federal purchases.”

Over 100 companies responded to FEMA’s request to provide supplies needed during the coronavirus outbreak, but, “as of early Monday, only three companies had supplies the agency could actually buy,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. This is due to some companies asking for payments up front and others overselling their products. “Company offers can require hours of vetting by FEMA’s procurement staff, costing the agency precious time as the pandemic spreads,” WSJ reported. A spokesperson said, “The business community is a key partner. Although this process takes time, it is faster in the long run than having to recomplete failed projects.”

Hospitals and clinics in seven states said the federal government is “quietly seizing orders” of medical supplies without giving them an indication of where the items are going. A FEMA spokesperson said the federal government has a system for determining where supplies need to go, but wouldn’t detail how the decisions are made and why it’s seizing some orders and not others, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

FEMA posted an upcoming temporary rule in the Federal Register on Tuesday that says certain personal protective equipment may not be exported from the country without  “explicit approval” from the agency. The rule is exempt from a public comment period due to “urgent and compelling circumstances” and will “become effective upon display at the Federal Register.

The Health and Human Services Department said on Wednesday the $489.4 million contract with General Motors for 30,000 ventilators will be delivered to the national stockpile by the end of August. This was the first ventilator contract under the Defense Production Act. 

The Defense Acquisition University compiled a list of coronavirus-related acquisition resources. It includes federal agencies’ updates on modifying and speeding up procurement procedures during the pandemic. 

Federal agencies spent almost $1 billion on coronavirus-related contracts in the past week, which brings the total to $2.3 billion since February, Meritalk reported on Tuesday. 

The Office of Personnel Management is seeking to boost hiring and retention during the pandemic by increasing incentives and amending USAJobs.gov search features, The Washington Post reported. OPM said on Monday that agencies can offer up to a 50% higher salary for high demand positions (the previous figure was 25%). Also, applicants can now search for coronavirus-related positions on the government’s recruiting website. 

On Tuesday, following Trump’s ousting of  acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine who was slated to lead the pandemic oversight, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a rare public rebuke, Yahoo News reported. “Mr. Fine is a public servant in the finest tradition of honest, competent governance,” he told Yahoo News. “In my years of extensive engagement with him as our Department of Defense’s acting Inspector General, he proved to be a leader whose personal and managerial integrity were always of the highest order.”

Shortly after the news broke about Fine, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a staunch supporter for whistleblowers and transparency, tweeted: “I encourage Pres Trump [to view] IGs as helpers [to hold] bureaucracy accountable [and] draining swamp. We all work to solve problems [especially] in unprecedented pandemic, IG reports [should] be viewed as a TO DO list & not criticism. [The administration] is quickly fixing problems that existed going back to Obama/Bush.”

During the briefing Tuesday, Trump said there were “reports of bias” about Fine, but then said, “I don't know Fine. I don't think I ever met Fine.” He was also unsure if Fine (who has worked in the IG community since 1995) was from the Obama or Clinton era. 

Trump said there are 10 coronavirus drugs in “active trials,” with 15 more to follow soon. There are also two possible vaccine candidates in clinical trials so far.  See more from the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration

CDC removed the “highly unusual” guidance from its website on the drugs the president has been pushing for coronavirus use that lack significant scientific research, Reuters reported on Tuesday. This was three days after Reuters noted such guidance was published. “The CDC did not immediately respond to questions about the removal of the original guidance,” Reuters said. “It had originally told Reuters it had crafted the guidance for doctors at the request of a coronavirus task force, which urged prompt action.”

Vice President Mike Pence said by the end of Tuesday there would be 3,000 Defense and HHS medical personnel in the greater New York City area.  “Those people will be redeployed once that region of the country moves through the coronavirus epidemic in that area,” he said during the briefing. “We salute those extraordinary, patriotic Americans for stepping forward to bring real relief to our health care workers.”

The Pentagon is considering using its “stop loss” policy to retain service members during the pandemic as it is limiting arrivals of new troops, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night. The policy “can retain enlisted troops beyond their planned departure date, delay officers’ retirement and lengthen reserve troops’ active-duty service.”

ABC News has a deep dive on the intelligence reports dating back to November about a contagion sweeping through China. “Sources described repeated briefings through December for policy-makers and decision-makers across the federal government as well as the National Security Council at the White House.” Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday he was not aware of such briefings. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about agencies’ management challenges during the pandemic. 

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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