President Trump speaks about the coronavirus pandemic from the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

President Trump speaks about the coronavirus pandemic from the Rose Garden on Tuesday. Alex Brandon / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Lawmakers and Attorneys Push to Protect Inspectors General From Political Retaliation

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 in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday that the May 1 target to reopen businesses is "a bit overly optimistic" for much of the country. He did not speak at the White House briefing later in the day in which President Trump discussed his efforts to restart the economy. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

On Tuesday, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Diana DeGette., D-Colo., called on the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department to protect the HHS inspector general’s independence following President Trump’s dismissal of the watchdog’s recent report on hospitals' equipment shortages. “Now more than ever, [IGs] must be permitted to conduct independent oversight—especially [the] HHS OIG, which oversees the federal agency principally responsible for protecting our nation’s public health during the coronavirus pandemic,” they wrote. “HHS OIG’s ongoing work, including its oversight of the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, must continue unimpeded by political interference or threats of reprisal.”

Similarly, whistleblower attorneys (including those who represented the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment investigation into President Trump) wrote in The Washington Post on Tuesday about the importance of IGs during this time. Trump’s removal of the acting Pentagon inspector general from his position, which stripped him of the ability to lead the committee overseeing the government’s pandemic response, “is of notable concern,” they wrote. “Much like Atkinson, [Glenn Fine] has established himself as independent and competent—and his ouster makes clear that Trump will act against anyone who is an independent thinker, particularly when that person contradicts something Trump has said or crosses a perceived line against his personal interests.”

Two Republican senators wrote to the president as well,  urging him to support IGs’ independence, work with and not against them, and fill vacant watchdog positions because of the critical need for oversight during this time. “[IGs] are tasked with ensuring that our government agencies are effective and efficient. This is always an important role, but especially so with the coronavirus pandemic,” wrote Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “Every dollar wasted or stolen is a dollar not going to save small businesses, protect our health care workers, or provide assistance to those who need it most.”

Fox News compiled a list of categories of people who are not expected to get stimulus checks from the coronavirus relief legislation. This includes: people listed as dependents on tax forms (such as children and elderly and/or disabled adults whose children claim them as dependents), certain immigrant visa holders and higher-income individuals. 

Senior Internal Revenue Service officials said there might be a delay in sending out the checks because the president wanted his signature to be included on them, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night. However, a Treasury Department spokesperson denied there would be a delay. This is an “unprecedented” move as “it is standard practice for a civil servant to sign checks issued by the Treasury Department to ensure that government payments are nonpartisan,” according to the report.

The IRS launched an online application for individuals to track the status of checks on Wednesday. However, The New York Post reported that many users experienced technical difficulties with it. Wednesday is April 15, which would be the tax filing season deadline under normal circumstances. The deadline has been extended to July 15 due to the pandemic. 

The U.S. intelligence community is considering the possibility that the coronavirus’ “route to human infection may have started in a lab in Wuhan,” China, even though they contend its “natural origin” was at a live animal market, Yahoo News reported on Tuesday. Defense officials have said intelligence personnel are looking into rumors about the origins of the virus and have not reached a conclusion. The “weight of evidence seems to indicate natural, but we do not know for sure,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, according to a report in Defense One

A Washington Post columnist reported on Tuesday that two years ago U.S. embassy officials visited a Wuhan research facility several times and sent warnings to the State Department about safety issues including “risky studies on coronaviruses from bats” that could lead to a pandemic. “No extra assistance to the labs was provided by the U.S. government in response to these cables,” according to the report. “The cables began to circulate again inside the administration over the past two months as officials debated whether the lab could be the origin of the pandemic and what the implications would be for the U.S. pandemic response and relations with China.”

When asked about the reporting, State Secretary Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday night on Fox News there is a lot we still don’t know and blamed the World Health Organization. “The Chinese Communist Party didn’t give Americans access when we needed it in that most timely point at the very beginning,” he said. “We need the World Health Organization to do its job, to perform its primary function, which is to make sure that the world has accurate, timely, effective, real information about what’s going on in the global health space.” 

On Tuesday night, Trump said the United States would be halting funding from the World Health Organization while it assesses the organization’s “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” A CBS reporter noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director said on Monday that WHO "has been a very important public health partner with the CDC” and CDC employees have been working "side-by-side" with the WHO.

The Wall Street reported on how the Federal Emergency Management Agency went into the pandemic with thousands of unfilled positions and its parent agency (the Homeland Security Department) focused predominantly on preventing illegal immigration.  FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow told the paper, “FEMA has all the resources we need at the moment,” for the pandemic that is of “unprecedented scale and scope.” However, current and former DHS and FEMA officials spoke about the management and recruiting challenges at the agency in the lead-up to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Dr. William Walters, State’s managing director of operational medicine, told reporters on Tuesday the department had its second domestic death from coronavirus. The person was a civil servant in Washington, D.C., which were the only details he could give. See the State Department’s online tracker for cases and deaths among the domestic and overseas personnel. 

Walters also asserted that overseas embassies and consulates have sufficient amounts of personal protective gear. “As part of our ongoing preparedness well in advance of this pandemic, the Bureau of Medical Services has small stockpiles of PPE and other countermeasures at each post,” he said. “We have supplemented that, again, well in advance of the crush on the supply chain that’s occurred.” Walters repeated that the only U.S. posts that closed are the ones in Wuhan, China, and Vladivostok, Russia. 

Ian Brownlee, State Department principal deputy secretary in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, thanked employees for all their hard work during the pandemic. “I would also like to take a moment to recognize our dedicated foreign service officers and locally employed staff abroad; our countless civil service and other domestic staff coordinate – coordinating efforts domestically; our private partners at the airlines running the charter and commercial flights; our foreign diplomatic counterparts; and the U.S. citizens who have shown tremendous resilience and flexibility under difficult conditions,” he said on the call.  “It is truly an extraordinary team effort.” 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a temporary enforcement plan to help field offices handle coronavirus-related workplace incidents, Law 360 reported on Tuesday night. According to OHSA, compliance offices have “flexibility and discretion” to ensure that workers are protected during the pandemic. 

Seven crew members on the Navy hospital ship docked in Los Angeles tested positive for coronavirus and were moved ashore to be isolated. “This has not changed our ability to perform our mission or to help the people of Los Angeles,” Lt. Andrew Bertucci, a Navy spokesman on the U.S.N.S. Mercy, told The New York Times. “We are still able to serve as the relief valve for state and local health care providers.”

According to a document obtained by The Washington Post, FEMA and CDC have a plan to reopen the country in the coming weeks that guides states and local officials on easing restrictions. “The plans to reopen the country are close to being finalized,” Trump said during the coronavirus briefing on Tuesday night.

The number of coronavirus tests analyzed by commercial labs each day has plummeted by over 30% in the last week. This could be due to the CDC’s narrowing testing criteria last month to focus on those particularly vulnerable to the disease due to shortages of swabs needed, Politico reported on Tuesday. “It’s not clear whether demand has peaked among the groups on the CDC’s priority list,” according to Politico. “But after being overwhelmed for weeks, commercial labs say they are now sitting with unused testing capacity waiting for samples to arrive.”

On Tuesday, Milley defended continued haircut requirements for the military, despite social distancing concerns. Read more from Defense One here

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday the department would extend its ban on domestic and international travel for military service members past its initial May 11 deadline, Federal News Network reported. “We are still finalizing the dates and will come out with those in the next couple days,” Esper said. The “stop movement” order includes recreational travel and station relocation. 

On Tuesday, a second sailor on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, whose captain was ousted last week after he asked for help for his pandemic stricken ship, was admitted to the intensive care unit due to coronavirus, The Hill reported

The Transportation Security Administration is granting temporary exemptiona to some transportation worker identification credentials due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, according to a document published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. “Social distancing practices in response to the COVID-19 crisis make gathering at enrollment centers unwise or prohibited,” said the notice. “Approximately one-third of TSA's...enrollment centers have been forced to close because they are collocated with commercial or government offices that are closed as a result of COVID-19.” This exemption is effective from April 10 to July 31.

According to another notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, DHS is waving certain regulations to speed up construction in Starr County, Texas, for the border wall, which the president has said he believes will help prevent coronavirus spread. Read more from Government Executive on how the administration is continuing construction despite calls from lawmakers and public health and environmental experts to temporarily suspend the project. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said pilots who have taken the drugs chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, which the president has championed as possible coronavirus cures, must wait 48 hours before flying a plane, CNN reported on Tuesday. The FAA’s guidance said there is "no satisfactory scientific evidence that use of these medications decreases the severity of the virus" and "there is no standardized protocol," on how much or how frequently to take the drugs.

The White House published a list on Tuesday night of former government officials and executives and companies from the banking, technology, defense, agriculture, financial services, energy, transportation, sports and health care industries who will be advising him on reviving the American economy. 

In his endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday, former President Barack Obama said the coronavirus “crisis has reminded us that government matters. It has reminded us that good government matters.” He also spoke about how Biden led the implementation of the Recovery Act in 2009 in response to the recession and “helped me manage H1N1 and prevent the Ebola epidemic from becoming the type of pandemic we are seeing now.” Obama referred to Republicans in the White House and Senate, but did not name Trump specifically. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about how teachers and students have shifted to remote learning 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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