Coronavirus Roundup: Inspectors General Brief House Committee on Oversight Efforts; OSHA Has a 45-Year Low of Inspectors
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
As the number of novel coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 1 million on Tuesday, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed there were about 9,000 more deaths than previously recorded among Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and New Jersey from March 8 through April 11. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.
President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday declaring that meat-processing plants are critical infrastructure under the 1950 Defense Production Act and, thus, mandated they stay open. “Given the high volume of meat and poultry processed by many facilities, any unnecessary closures can quickly have a large effect on the food supply chain,” said the order. Read Government Executive’s coverage on the coronavirus outbreak among federal food inspectors, which forced some facilities to close, and how the Agriculture Department is relocating employees exposed to the outbreak in order to backfill other locations.
Trump also authorized the Homeland Security Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to make crisis counseling services and training available to states. This was a declaration under the 1988 Stafford Act for emergency assistance.
According to leaked documents obtained by Yahoo News, the Trump administration is planning a pilot program in New York for antibody testing. “Because the majority of those infected experience mild COVID-19 symptoms, or even no symptoms at all, the antibody tests could be a useful indicator of just how many people have contracted the disease,” Yahoo News reported. A FEMA spokesperson said more information is to come.
During the global pandemic, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has the lowest number of inspectors since 1975, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project published on Tuesday. “The agency tasked with protecting workers in the most dangerous jobs...has been seriously weakened by this administration,” wrote Deborah Berkowitz, NELP Worker Health and Safety Program director. “It is no surprise, then, that during the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA has completely abdicated its responsibility to ensure that employers keep workers safe on the job.”
The Labor Department said on Tuesday that Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers who lost their positions due to the pandemic are eligible for unemployment assistance from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. A bipartisan group of lawmakers had written to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on April 2 asking him to clarify this provision.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is now granting paid emergency leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the American Federation of Government Employees announced. “I am thankful that our members are being recognized for the risks they are taking to protect America,” said Shane Fausey, president of AFGE’s Council of Prison Locals, which represents over 30,000 BOP correctional officers and staff nationwide. “They are now being afforded the ability to rightfully protect themselves, their families and their co-workers by not being forced to work while sick or potentially carrying the COVID-19 virus.”
A federal judge rejected a bid from a group of advocates and immigration detainees to halt in-person hearings during the pandemic, Law360 reported on Tuesday. He said the plaintiffs did not establish how the federal court could overrule the Justice Department’s decision to keep the courts open.
The watchdog Project on Government Oversight said on Tuesday it’s launching a coronavirus relief-spending tracker. “While Congress created mechanisms for the federal government to track this spending in an effort to conduct oversight and increase transparency, POGO’s tracker will help keep a watchful eye on how those efforts are implemented,” said POGO. This is “in order to ensure that everyday Americans are the ones benefiting from the government’s actions.”
The Justice, Treasury and Small Business Administration inspectors general briefed the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday on their pandemic oversight efforts. The committee said the small businesses loan program, disbursement of CARES Act funds and BOP’s handling of the outbreak are among the things the IGs will review. Read the Democratic-led committee’s summary and reactions from the ranking members here.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said on Tuesday that FEMA and Health and Human Services Department officials acknowledged during briefings on April 21 and 28 that there are shortages of coronavirus testing equipment and supplies. This contradicts the president’s claims that states have enough supplies to start reopening the economy, she said. Read Maloney’s full statement and overview of the briefings here.
The State Department is looking “very carefully” at the “reestablishment of routine consular operations overseas,” Ian Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary for State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and department’s repatriation task force head, told reporters on Tuesday. “As we start to re-staff or staff up again these posts around the world, the first thing we’ll be trying to do is take care of U.S. citizens there,” he said. “We are still providing extraordinary visa services, in the sense that life and death cases and certain high priority cases are still being processed.”
The Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security departments released a joint statement on Tuesday about their “whole-of-government” response to the pandemic. “FEMA has coordinated shipments of more than 4.3 million various types of respirator masks, 1 million facial/surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and 14,000 face shields to VA facilities across the country. An additional 1 million facial/surgical masks are shipping this week,” they said. “Additionally, working in close partnership with FEMA, the VA has made 1,500 acute and intensive care hospital beds across the nation available to non-veteran patients, if necessary.”
Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin responded to the VA’s call for retired officials to help with the pandemic response. However, no one has called him back, Military Times reported on Tuesday. He told Military Times that staffing shortages may be "part of the reason VA employees are putting themselves at greater risk and getting infected because they are simply being asked to perform in an extraordinarily stressful environment." Shulkin was fired in 2018 following an inspector general report on his inappropriate spending on a trip in 2017 and acceptance of gifts. There were also disagreements within the administration over privatization of VA care.
The National Institutes of Health cut funding for a project studying how the coronavirus spreads from bats to people following reports that linked the work to a lab in Wuhan, China, which is at the center of conspiracy theories regarding the virus’s origin, Politico reported. “EcoHealth Alliance, the study’s sponsor for the past five years, [was told] that all future funding was cut,” according to the report. “The agency also demanded that the New York-based research nonprofit stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant. EcoHealth Alliance President Pete Daszak denied giving any money this year to the Wuhan lab, although researchers from the facility have collaborated with EcoHealth Alliance scientists on research supported by an earlier grant.”
“We are deeply troubled by the revocation of a peer-reviewed research grant for seemingly political reasons,” said Benjamin Cobb, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on Tuesday. “If news reports are true and the National Institutes of Health cut off funding that had been approved for the EcoHealth Alliance to study bat-borne illnesses, including coronaviruses, because of pressure from the White House, that sets a dangerous precedent and threatens the independence of the American scientific enterprise.”
The Trump administration directed the intelligence agencies to determine whether or not China and/or the World Health Organization initially hid what they knew about the coronavirus outbreak, NBC News reported on Wednesday. The president recently put a temporary halt on funding to the WHO while the administration assesses its handling of the virus. The CIA declined to comment and an Office of the Director of National Intelligence official said, "We are not aware of any such tasking from the White House."
Working around the clock on the coronavirus since mid-January is taking a toll on HHS staff, Politico reported. In addition to responding to the pandemic, they are dealing with leadership turmoil, watchdog investigations, the ousting of a career scientist and questions over the future of Secretary Alex Azar. “I don’t think people appreciate how tired the department is,” a former Trump HHS appointee told Politico. “Your effectiveness wears down after you’ve been in a fight—and for 100 days, HHS has been kicked in the teeth.”
The Small Business Administration, which is currently in its second round of giving out loans to businesses affected by the pandemic, has recurring cybersecurity issues, according to a Government Accountability Office report published on Tuesday. On Monday, its web portal to accept loan applications repeatedly crashed. It “wasn’t because of cybersecurity problems, but it highlights the agency’s technological challenges,” The Washington Post wrote.
The Internal Revenue Service is now offering facemasks for employees coming back into offices who can’t provide their own, Politico reported on Wednesday. The agency asked 10,000 employees to come work on a voluntary basis starting Monday and initially said it could not provide protective gear for all. Read Government Executive’s coverage.
On Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, gave an update on the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. “The COVID-19 pandemic will certainly affect how the committee marks up the FY21 NDAA and how the House considers it on the floor. We are discussing those details and consulting with the leadership of both parties,” they said. “At the same time, we remain committed to the principles that have guided the bill in the past–regular order through the committee, transparency and bipartisanship.”
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at how government and health officials can combat misinformation during the pandemic.
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.