Coronavirus Roundup: IRS Will Automatically Send Checks to Social Security Recipients
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
As more businesses are hindered by coronavirus disruptions, the Labor Department said on Thursday morning a record 6.6 million people filed new unemployment claims in the past week, compared to 3.3 million in the prior week. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.
Social Security recipients will automatically receive their stimulus checks, the Treasury Department announced on Wednesday night. Previously, the Internal Revenue Service said these individuals would have to fill out a “simple tax return,” which many Democratic senators and others objected to because many low-income recipients do not otherwise have to file returns.
On Thursday, the IRS warned taxpayers of phishing scams related to the coronavirus and stimulus payments. “The IRS isn't going to call you asking to verify or provide your financial information so you can get an economic impact payment or your refund faster,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig in a statement. “That also applies to surprise emails that appear to be coming from the IRS.”
The Washington Post on Thursday depicted technology glitches that could hinder the IRS’s processing of checks. Although the agency has experience in distributing stimulus checks from previous relief efforts, it is relying more on online and electronic resources this time around.
About 300 Homeland Security Department employees have coronavirus and over 8,500 are under quarantine because of possible exposure, according to a report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Employees include those at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all of which are on the front lines of the government’s response to the pandemic.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Wednesday he will soon introduce a bill that would establish an independent and bipartisan “coronavirus commission” to examine the country’s preparedness and response. If enacted, the commission will be modeled after the one created after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
During the White House briefing on Wednesday night, President Trump announced “enhanced” measures to combat drug cartels in the Western Hemisphere with the Defense and Justice Departments and National Security Council. “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," he said.
Trump also said the military is looking to build or renovate two new hospital ships because the other ships deployed to support hospitals “have really worked out well.”
Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that the Army is sending 540 more troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to respond to the spread of coronavirus. Currently, there are about 5,200 service members at the border (2,500 National Guard and 2,700 active duty troops) helping Customs and Border Protection agents, Star and Stripes reported.
The Nation has an exclusive report on how in 2017 the military anticipated a novel influenza disease as "the most likely and significant threat" that would lead to a shortage of medical supplies, according to a leaked Pentagon plan.
Defense Department labs still have not begun processing COVID-19 tests, despite Secretary Mark Esper offering up the labs to support civilian testing efforts over two weeks ago, CNN reported on Wednesday. This comes as Quest Diagnostics, one of the largest commercial testing companies, is facing an increasing backlog of tests, CNN also reported on Wednesday.
The Defense Department tweeted on Thursday the Army Corps of Engineers is hiring contractors to clean and disinfect equipment and help supply vendors during the pandemic. More information is here.
Listen here to the call between Esper and Trump that the Pentagon invited military members and their families to listen in on Wednesday. The audio is provided by Task and Purpose.
The Justice Department said on Wednesday it’s making $850 million available for state, local and tribal governments for help with public safety agencies involved in coronavirus response. The funds are from the $2.2 trillion stimulus package enacted last week. Read more about the program here.
The Justice Department authorized the Health and Human Services Department to provide security detail for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Fauci has been receiving an increasing number of threats, The Washington Post reported.
Justice and HHS announced on Thursday they would distribute about 192,000 N95 respirator masks confiscated from hoarders to New York and New Jersey. The move was part of the administration’s effort to combat coronavirus-related fraud, price gouging and hoarding.
The State Department said on a call with reporters on Wednesday that it is following the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on telework. It asked bureaus to make sure only mission-critical employees are in the office. While noting the determination can be tricky for those who work with classified information, “we expect those instances to be limited” and “we ask them to exercise good social distancing,” said Dr. Charles Rosenfarb, State medical director and coronavirus global response coordinator.
Each State coronavirus case is brought before the 24-hour task force within the Medical Services Bureau, which works with the relevant local health department to conduct contact tracing. The task force then works with the Office of the Legal Adviser to inform coworkers who might have been exposed. “We’re acting very aggressively at the sort of impacted workspace and building level to make sure that appropriate cleaning and disinfection takes place before people go back to work,” said Dr. William Walters, State’s managing director of operational medicine on the call.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., asked the Office of Management and Budget on Thursday to clarify the relief for national security contractors outlined in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. I fear that agencies and their contracting officers will take disparate approaches, leading to uncertainty and instability in the contractor industrial base, if not a permanent loss of capability” he wrote in a letter to OMB.
Despite assurances from the president that the country has enough ventilators in its national stockpile, about 2,109 are inoperable and not available for use. The problem stems from a contracting dispute last summer, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. “It is not known whether problems with the ventilators predated the contract lapse, but maintenance of the machines did halt. That delay may become a potentially deadly lapse.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent investigative agency, has halted travel to some accident sites because of the coronavirus. “The agency has had to forego travel to the scenes of seven accidents and “serious incidents” since mid-March, including a plane crash in Texas and a helicopter crash in Iowa,” according to Politico. “The agency is determining the need for travel on a ‘case-by-case basis.’”
Transportation Acting Inspector General Mitchell Behm was added to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is overseeing the government’s implementation of the $2 trillion CARES Act, Politico reported on Thursday.
FEMA is bracing for hurricane season amid its response to the coronavirus. The agency is “considering setting up a second National Response Coordination Center to handle disasters unrelated to the global outbreak” and “is also looking to rehire retirees to build out its ranks,” Politico reported on Wednesday.
Grand Canyon National Park closed on Wednesday after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, Fox News reported. Some national parks remain open, despite repeated calls for nationwide closures.
The CDC is looking to hire a chief data officer, Andrew Nicklin, leader of Johns Hopkins University’s Centers for Civic Impact, pointed out on Twitter.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, has assembled “an ‘all-of-private-sector’ operation in contrast to Vice President Mike Pence’s ‘all-of-government’ task force, Politico reported. However, there is reportedly duplication of federal efforts, lack of centralized operations, and limited vetting of officials on Kushner’s team.
The National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1431, which represents about 760 medical professionals at the East Orange Veterans Affairs Hospital in New Jersey is concerned members don’t have sufficient personal protective equipment. “We appreciate that this pandemic presents a unique set of challenges for this VA and hospitals throughout the country, but our members, who are bravely fighting to protect and care for our veterans cannot continue to put their lives at risk without even the most basic safety precautions,” said the executive board.
Upcoming: The White House coronavirus task force will have a briefing at 5 p.m.
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about the shortage of medical equipment and coordination between the federal government and states to obtain much needed masks, gloves, shields and ventilators.
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.