Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, supply chain task force lead at FEMA, and Vice President Mike Pence speak about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Thursday.

Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, supply chain task force lead at FEMA, and Vice President Mike Pence speak about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Thursday. Alex Brandon / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Lawmakers Seek Protections for Military Families, National Service Participants 

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

According to the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report released Friday (which does not fully reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic), the unemployment rate rose from 3.5% in February to 4.4% in March, one of the largest increases since January 1975, according to The Wall Street Journal. Federal jobs did not follow this trend, however. Federal employment increased by 18,000 jobs in March—17,000 of which were positions related to the 2020 Census.

Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Direct payments from the economic stimulus bill won’t happen until at least April 13 and it could take 20 weeks for all checks to be mailed, according to a House Ways and Means Committee memo obtained by CNN that details what Trump administration officials told lawmakers. “According to the committee, the paper checks will be issued at a rate of about 5 million per week, and ... it could take up to 20 weeks to issue all the checks,” CNN reported. “Individuals with the lowest income, based on adjusted gross income, will receive their checks first.”

Forty bicameral lawmakers wrote to the Labor Department on Thursday to clarify that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program from the $2.2 trillion CARE Act applies to Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other similar national service organization participants. Many of them were suspended from service due to the pandemic. “Labor has previously determined that Peace Corps and AmeriCorps service does not constitute an employer-employee relationship for the purposes of regular [unemployment insurance], but that should not exclude these participants from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” they wrote. 

A similar group of lawmakers also wrote to Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders asking them to provide opportunities for participants to help with the coronavirus response. They asked for a briefing by April 16 on the feasibility and process to make this happen. 

Lawmakers from both parties and defense advocacy groups asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday to help military families facing financial difficulties and paying two rents because of the stop movement order, Federal News Network reported. “We strongly urge you to issue guidance allowing commanders to use the greatest possible breadth of relief options for these families and to further empower commanders to coordinate with traditional and non-traditional partners that may rapidly address the needs of these families,” they wrote. 

On Thursday, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fired the commander of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt who wrote a letter to the Defense Department asking for help as the number of coronavirus cases grew on his aircraft carrier. Modly told reporters that Capt. Brett Crozier “demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the midst of a crisis.” Read more from DefenseOne here

The Army said on Thursday it expects to open a 250-person field hospital at the CenturyLink Event Center in Seattle next week. The hospital will treat non-coronavirus patients. 

The Navy hospital ship that arrived in New York on Monday, which has 1,000 beds, only has 20 patients so far. This is due to “a tangle of military protocols and bureaucratic hurdles,” such as 49 medical conditions (in addition to the coronavirus) that exclude patients from entering the ship, The New York Times reported on Thursday.

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, has become a central figure in the White House’s coronavirus response; however, some officials say he’s just added to the “dysfunction,” according to The New York Times. For example, “Kushner’s team told FEMA to immediately deliver medical equipment to [Illinois and New Jersey] even though the career officials were concerned that would redirect valuable medical necessities away from where they were most needed.”

On Thursday, the president issued an order under the 1950 Defense Production Act to “more fully ensure that domestic manufacturers can produce ventilators needed to save American lives.” He said the order will help companies such as General Electric, Hill-Rom, Medtronic, ResMed, Royal Philips and Vyaire Medical obtain the supplies needed to build ventilators. 

In another order on Thursday, the president authorized the Health and Human Services Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to "use any and all authority available under the act to acquire" N95 respirators from the manufacturing company 3M. 

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to preserve records on its decision-making on testing protocols earlier this year, which reportedly had a series of missteps.  “Until the sequence of events in January and early February around COVID-19 testing are better understood, public confidence in the CDC and its ability to understand and mitigate this crisis—and any future emerging infectious diseases—will remain in doubt,” she wrote. 

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee said on Thursday night the Environmental Protection Agency will extend the public comment period on its controversial “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule due to coronavirus. Government Executive reported earlier on Thursday that the Trump administration is leaving it up to agencies to decide whether or not to extend comment periods during coronavirus. 

FEMA officials told House lawmakers on March 30 that the majority of the 100,000 ventilators Trump said the country would obtain before the end of June won’t be ready until that month "at the earliest," Politico reported on Thursday. “FEMA officials also acknowledged that they knew in mid-January that the supply of N95 respirator masks would fall short, according to the readout.”

Upon request from FEMA, the Defense Department will start helping coronavirus patients at the federal medical stations in New York City, New Orleans and Dallas, CNN reported on Friday.

The watchdog Project on Government Oversight analyzed the challenges and opportunities for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect medical whistleblowers during coronavirus. “Despite...shortcomings, OSHA and the Labor Department could prioritize investigating and litigating meritorious coronavirus-related retaliation cases when workers raise concerns that they are not being provided adequate personal protective equipment,” POGO wrote. “There’s precedent for this, as the Justice Department has announced it will prioritize ‘detecting, investigating and prosecuting wrongdoing related to the crisis.’”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters on a conference call on Thursday she wants to create a bipartisan House committee to study the federal government’s response to the pandemic. Roll Call reported that creation of such a committee could be difficult because it would require a House vote. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is opposed to it and members are currently out of town.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 136,023 travelers nationwide on April 1, compared to 2.3 million on March 1, WSVN 7 News reported on Thursday night. 

About two months before the coronavirus outbreak in China, the Trump administration ended a U.S. Agency for International Development program to detect pandemics, The Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday. The $200 million project established in 2009 trained scientists in China and around the world to detect and respond to such threats. “USAID granted an emergency extension to the program, issuing $2.26 million over the next six months to send experts who will help foreign labs squelch the pandemic,” the outlet reported. “But program leaders say the funding will do little to further the initiative’s original mission.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue outlined the efforts his workforce is making during coronavirus on his podcast, “The Sonnyside of the Farm.” Duties range from feeding children to securing the food supply chain. 

National Labor Relations Board elections will resume on April 6, after previously being suspended for coronavirus disruptions. Read the full statement from Chairman John Ring here. 

The Securities and Exchange Commission released a statement on Friday about the status of its operations during coronavirus and how it’s working to help investors and stakeholders with challenging economic situations during this time. 

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs said in an email on Thursday it is “fully operational” during the pandemic. Due to staff working remotely, it is offering phone, WebEx and Skype meetings for contractors as well as electronic applications and signature options. 

The General Services Administration is delaying the rollout of online acquisition platforms due to coronavirus disruptions. Originally, GSA hoped to have two platforms up and running this year. Read NextGov’s full coverage here. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode talks about the challenges and strategies for leaders pivoting to a virtual work environment.  

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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