People gather on the beach for the Memorial Day weekend in Port Aransas, Texas, on May 23. Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, has said she is concerned about people not practicing social distancing.

People gather on the beach for the Memorial Day weekend in Port Aransas, Texas, on May 23. Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, has said she is concerned about people not practicing social distancing. Eric Gay / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: DHS Strengthens Cyber Protections for HHS and CDC; Federal Contract Spending on the Pandemic Passes $13 Billion

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

The number of coronavirus deaths in the United States reached almost 99,000 right after Memorial Day weekend. As reopening guidelines varied by state, people flocked to beaches, pool parties and other crowded events over the holiday weekend without masks or practicing social distancing. “I’m very concerned when people go out and don’t maintain social distancing,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, on Fox News on Sunday. “We now have excellent scientific evidence of how far droplets go when we speak or just simply talking to one another. We know it’s important for people to socially interact, but we also know it’s very important for people to have masks on when they speak … we have to maintain that six-feet difference.” Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Census Bureau said on Friday that more states would begin a phased restart of field operations during the week of May 25. See the list here

Five House Democrats wrote to President Trump on Friday with deep concerns that the administration is sending ventilators to Russia, “despite [the] urgent need for ventilators here in the United States.” They claimed this would cost taxpayers $5.6 million. “We are not suggesting that the United States is not, or could never be, in a position to contribute ventilators and other critical medical supplies to countries that are truly in need,” the lawmakers wrote. “But it does not appear that your administration has any policymaking process in place to determine whether these ventilators are going to the countries where they are needed most and whether their delivery will advance our national security and foreign policy interests.” 

Some doctors are questioning how the Food and Drug Administration is handling plasma treatments for coronavirus patients because of the lack of data on the treatment and emphasis on speed. “ ‘We don’t have any data to say that this approach will work or not,’ lamented one pathologist who is running a convalescent plasma trial of his own in a Southern California hospital,” Yahoo News reported on Friday. “Speaking under the condition that his name and affiliation remain undisclosed, the pathologist said that there was ‘tremendous pressure’ on the FDA to jury-rig what looked like an investigational trial so that blood plasma could be provided to ‘very sick patients for compassionate use.’ ” 

The FDA and Agriculture Department released recommendations on Friday on how the agriculture industry can address shortages of personal protective equipment, disinfectants and cleaning supplies. The current limitations are “causing concerns about the potential for interruptions in the food supply chain” as these “supplies are critical for worker safety, the continuity of the food supply, food safety, and employee/consumer confidence,” they said. 

The National Science Foundation inspector general said the agency’s spending plan for the $2.2 trillion CARES Act is “reasonable, prudent and consistent with the intent of the act’s funding objectives.” Read Government Executive’s recent interview with NSF Chief Human Capital Officer Wonzie Gardner that covers how the NSF is handling workforce operations during the pandemic. 

Last week, the U.S. Agency for International Development inspector general posted an advisory notice to inform the agency’s coronavirus response based on past lessons. The IG posed questions relating to: managing the United States’ humanitarian assistance during the pandemic, sustaining U.S.-funded development initiatives, maximizing coordination among stakeholders and strengthening core management functions. “USAID has the experience and expertise to drive an effective COVID-19 response while protecting the health and safety of its staff worldwide,” said the IG. “In doing so, USAID must take necessary steps to ensure that the funding entrusted to it by Congress and the American taxpayer is used effectively, efficiently and with appropriate oversight—while balancing the need to implement a timely and agile response to the pandemic across the globe.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and United States Marshals Service announced on Friday that they are going to begin moving about 6,800 new inmates who have been committed to BOP in recent months and have been staying at local detention facilities. “The bureau will process all newly-sentenced Bureau inmates through one of three quarantine sites—FCC Yazoo City, Miss.; FCC Victorville, Calif.; and FTC Oklahoma City, Okla.—or through a Bureau detention center/jail unit,” said the press release. “The bureau will test all inmates upon arrival at a bureau detention center/ jail unit or at one of the three quarantine sites. All inmates will be tested again before movement to their designated bureau facility.” The agency significantly decreased internal inmate movements to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus after much push back from lawmakers and union officials.

The Homeland Security Department’s cyber division is stepping up its protections for CDC and HHS due to increased hacking attempts by foreign governments to steal coronavirus research. “We pivoted our organization the first quarter of this year to really helping the nation with this COVID response,” Assistant Director for Cybersecurity at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Bryan Ware said. “There’s nowhere that said that pandemic response was within our job, but we realized very quickly that our adversaries…whether they’re state actors or criminal actors, that they could present great risks to [the United States],” Cyberscoop reported

More than 70 federal agencies and departments have signed almost 22,000 coronavirus-related contracts since February, totaling over $13 billion. HHS has been the biggest spender with over $7 billion in spending, Meritalk reported on Friday.  

Over the holiday weekend, President Trump continued his attacks on vote-by-mail, which many election experts and lawmakers are looking to expand due to the pandemic. In response, Dave Levinthal, editor-at-large for the Center for Public Integrity, noted on Tuesday that “other government business [is] done via mail” such as “[Census] forms and Trump-signed stimulus checks” for coronavirus relief. 

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump would donate his salary this quarter to HHS to help develop coronavirus therapies. The president has been donating his salary to various federal agencies since he took office in 2017. However, Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, tweeted on Tuesday: “Trump’s decision not to divest his businesses netted him $434 million in personal revenue in 2018 alone—the last year for which data is available. That’s a thousand times more than his presidential salary” of $400,000 annually. 

Following American University’s annual career fair hosted online due to the pandemic, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection recruiter accidentally released the personal information for more than 1,300 current and former students. The information was shared with all of the employer participants, including CBP, The Washington Post reported. The agency said it is investigating what happened. In an email to the students (viewed by the paper), a CBP supervisor said:  “I would like to assure you that this is not standard practice and we take the dissemination of this information very seriously.” 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he supports extending coronavirus deployments for the National Guard and National Guard Chief General Joseph Lengyel said he recommended extending the deadline until at least the end of July, Politico reported. This was following reports President Trump is looking to put a “hard stop” on the deployments on June 24, which could preclude some from receiving federal benefits. 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany will hold a briefing at 2 p.m.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about how misinformation and conspiracy theories can spread online about the pandemic and what governments and organizations can do about it. 

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