Coronavirus Roundup: Justice Dept. ‘On the Lookout’ for Civil Liberties Violations; SBA Site Crashes During Second Rollout
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
The White House released a “blueprint” on Monday for future federal and state coronavirus testing. “Testing plans and rapid response programs will be federally supported, state managed, and locally executed,” said the document. A White House official told CNN that the administration’s goal is to help states test at least 2% of their residents, with a special focus on emergency workers and vulnerable populations.
In a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, Senate Democrats on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee criticized the agency for refusing “to provide regular and timely briefings to this committee regarding its work to support the federal workforce” during the pandemic. The Democrats asked for information on OPM’s guidance and implementation of telework, paid leave and protections for federal employees on the frontlines.
On Tuesday, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., along with more than 50 other members of Congress, sent congressional leadership their proposal for an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights.” It outlines protections for frontline workers they want to see included in the next relief package.
The Homeland Security Department is preparing to resume in-person operations at its Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers. “Over the past week, FLETC piloted new screening procedures whereby security contractors are conducting temperature checks and asking COVID-related screening questions of all people attempting to enter FLETC’s facilities,” said DHS’s weekly update. “It has also begun to clean and disinfect all venues in preparation for students’ return.” The agency did not give a specific timeframe for resuming operations.
A “secret group” of billionaires and top scientists are working on a Manhattan Project-style initiative for the coronavirus outbreak, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. The group “has acted as the go-between for pharmaceutical companies looking for a reputable link to Trump administration decision makers,” said the paper. “They are working remotely as an ad hoc review board for the flood of research on the coronavirus, weeding out flawed studies before they reach policy makers.” So far, the Food and Drug Administration and Veterans Affairs Department have accepted some of its recommendations and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins reportedly told people he agreed with most of the recommendations.
The Internal Revenue Service mailed out its first group of stimulus checks on April 24, according to a CNET report on Monday. Although the agency is encouraging individuals to utilize direct deposit, it plans to send out up to 5 million checks per week.
Attorney General William Barr directed U.S. attorneys and the assistant attorney general for civil rights to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.” He said this new directive is in addition to prioritizing coronavirus-related fraud.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider will oversee the effort and coordinate with state and local authorities. “If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court,” wrote Barr.
A new study projected the pandemic could have a “substantial impact” on immigration detainees and local health care facilities if Immigrations and Customs Enforcement does not decrease its detention population. The white paper by medical and university experts, released through the Government Accountability Project on Monday, said that in an “optimistic scenario” 72% of individuals in ICE facilities are expected to be infected by the virus within 90 days.
On Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called on ICE to consider supervised release of detainees who don’t pose a national security or public safety risk. “ICE detention facilities can be a dangerous breeding ground for COVID-19 because they require the shared use of common spaces and do not allow for social distancing,” she wrote to Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence. “Troubling whistleblower reports have also recently uncovered a pattern of medical mismanagement at ICE facilities.”
ICE launched a web page for “Operation Stolen Promise,” an initiative to combat coronavirus-related fraud and other criminal acts with the help of other federal, business and industry partners.
The Small Business Administration resumed accepting loan applications for coronavirus relief on Monday, but the website repeatedly crashed throughout the day, The New York Times reported. “In a message sent to lenders on Monday afternoon, the SBA wrote that ‘unprecedented demand’ was slowing the response time of E-Tran…[and] had twice as many people trying to access the system that day as it did during the first round of program lending,” the paper reported. “Despite the technical problems, the SBA said it had processed more than 100,000 loans under the program on Monday from 4,000 lenders,” the Times reported.
In January and February, intelligence agencies warned President Trump over a dozen times about the coronavirus in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of updates on various security issues, yet the president repeatedly downplayed the virus’s threat, The Washington Post reported on Monday evening. The administration denied the validity of the reporting. “President Trump rose to fight this crisis head-on by taking early, aggressive historic action to protect the health, wealth and well-being of the American people,” said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.
President Trump has been pushing his national security and military advisors to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan due to concerns about a coronavirus outbreak there, NBC News reported on Monday. The military is already working to pull out of Afghanistan and is expected to beat the initial deadline, defense officials told NBC.
The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act will include the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on military personnel and readiness. “COVID-19 will be built into it,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee chair, told Politico. “Recruitment, training, resources to deal with the changes that have occurred. Things that ... were to be done but are not done, that money will be put back into other purposes. All of that is taking place as we talk.” Also, “the research side of it will be amplified—medical research, so forth.”
Ten Senate Democrats wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday saying Defense civilian leadership “failed to act sufficiently quickly” to the coronavirus outbreak. They claimed service members were put at risk and morale was hindered as a result. Read more from Defense One here.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman refuted the statement on Monday night, Politico reported. The Democrats “cherry-picked false and repeatedly debunked assertions that do not reflect reality,” he said. “We are proud of the work we have done leading the fight against COVID-19—and the American people and members of Congress should be proud as well.”
The Navy said on Monday that 47 crewmembers on the USS Kidd have tested positive for coronavirus. It is the second Navy ship to experience a virus outbreak. The Seattle Times said on Tuesday that it incorrectly reported on Monday that the ship was heading back to its base in Everett, Washington. According to USNI News, the ship is heading to San Diego to offload infected crewmembers not medically evacuated already and disinfect the ship.
There are three bipartisan bills before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that would overhaul the strategic national stockpile, which has been depleted during the pandemic, Stat News reported on Tuesday. One bill would allow donations of money or supplies without approval from the Health and Human Services Department, a second would allow the stockpile to sell supplies it doesn’t need, so officials can re-invest the funds and a third would expand public-private partnerships and increase incentives for companies to help stock the stockpile.
With fewer people flying during the pandemic, Transportation Security Administration screeners are finding fewer guns in carry-on bags, however the ratio of guns to travelers has increased drastically, ABC News reported. From March 22 to April 22, TSA found 58 firearms at checkpoints, compared to 346 during the same time frame last year. “Adjusting for the 95% drop in travelers, that means TSA screeners found one gun for every 80,000 people screened—or 2.7 times the rate of a year ago, when they found one gun for every 216,200 people,” said the report.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to immediately begin oversight hearings on the administration’s response to the pandemic when the Senate comes back into session next week. Read the full statement here.
Eighty-five percent of the Energy Department’s workforce is teleworking, according to Meritalk. The agency “moved seamlessly to a maximum telework environment across our labs, sites, facilities, and federal offices,” in mid-March, an Energy official told Meritalk. Nine percent of its workforce must work at DOE sites and 6% are working “in-person outside of DOE offices.”
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., House Oversight and Reform Committee chairwoman, said on Monday she would support the Census Bureau’s request to extend the deadline for delivering redistricting data by 120 days, Roll Call reported. She said the House will consider a standalone bill or make it a provision of the next stimulus bill and “hinted” it “will come with more oversight strings attached.”
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode covers an array of recent issues such as Census operations, stimulus check updates, congressional oversight of pandemic relief bills and the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ handling of the virus at its 122 institutions.
Upcoming: President Trump will deliver remarks on the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses at 3 p.m.
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