Thomas Von Essen, Regional Administrator of FEMA Region II, discusses support to New York City in late March.

Thomas Von Essen, Regional Administrator of FEMA Region II, discusses support to New York City in late March. Kathy Willens/AP

Coronavirus Roundup: FEMA Prepares for Hurricane Season During a Pandemic; Whistleblower Cases Spike

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

During a town hall on Fox News on Sunday evening, President Trump said he is “very confident” there will be a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, despite warnings by experts that it is impossible to predict when, or even if, a vaccine eventually will be developed. Trump also said the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 could reach 90,000. Here are some other recent headlines from over the weekend and today you might have missed. 

According to the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, 31 coronavirus-related whistleblower cases have been filed with the Office of Special Counsel and 15 whistleblowers have filed relation complaints. “Far more federal employees than previously known have blown the whistle with coronavirus-related concerns as the government has raced to initially contain and more recently mitigate the spread of the virus,” said POGO. “It is unknown how much overlap there is between the individuals filing these disclosures and those filing retaliation complaints.”

The National Institutes of Health said on Monday it is enrolling participants in a study to determine the rate of coronavirus infection in children and their families. The “study team will rapidly enroll 6,000 people from 2,000 U.S. families already participating in NIH-funded pediatric research studies in 11 cities,” said a press release. 

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued emergency authorization for a possible coronavirus treatment. “Based on evaluation of the emergency use authorization criteria and the scientific evidence available, it was determined that it is reasonable to believe that remdesivir may be effective in treating COVID-19,” said the FDA. “Given there are no adequate, approved, or available alternative treatments, the known and potential benefits to treat this serious or life-threatening virus currently outweigh the known and potential risks.” 

The FDA is imposing stricter rules on coronavirus antibody tests following a House investigation. “Manufacturers of antibody tests must now apply for emergency use authorization within 10 business days after their products hit the market, under a policy announced Monday,” Politico reported.” If a test does not meet the FDA's specificity and sensitivity criteria, its manufacturer must suspend distribution.”

Reps. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called on Trump on Friday night to approve funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for burial costs for coronavirus victims. They noted the agency has done so in previous disasters. 

On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would mobilize the federal government to increase production of medical equipment. “The Trump administration has failed to utilize the full powers of the federal government, including special authorities like the Defense Production Act to respond to the urgent needs of states and communities to save lives,” said the press release. Their legislation would provide $75 billion for the administration to manufacture or purchase ventilators, testing equipment, personal protective gear, approved vaccines and more. 

The White House is blocking Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, from testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. “While the Trump Administration continues its whole-of-government response to COVID-19, including safely opening up America again and expediting vaccine development, it is counterproductive to have the very individuals involved in those efforts appearing at congressional hearings,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere. “We are committed to working with Congress to offer testimony at the appropriate time,” The Washington Post reported on Friday evening. 

However, Fauci is expected to testify before the Republican-led Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee on May 12. “Chairman [Lamar] Alexander looks forward to hearing from Dr. Fauci and other administration officials at the Senate health committee’s second hearing back,” said a spokesperson for the Tennessee senator, ABC News reported

NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are hosting a virtual hackathon at the end of the month to come up with coronavirus solutions using Earth’s observational data. Read more from NextGov’s full coverage

Even the Supreme Court is working from home during the pandemic. Starting today, justices will hear oral arguments remotely and for the first time the public can listen live. Read here how you can tune in. 

The General Services Administration has been using its time in telework to recruit more technology staff and reduce its office space, Federal News Networked reported. “The government has really shifted on a dime in how we’re interacting with each other,” said Dominic Sale, assistant commissioner of solutions at GSA’s Technology Transformation Services. “If anyone knows anything about [the] government, it does sometimes take a crisis to make us move quickly, and then it’s really hard to change after that.” 

Axios profiled how FEMA is getting ready for a “coronavirus infected” hurricane season, which starts on June 1. “The agency has taken over vacant office space in downtown Washington, D.C., and set up an additional command center—called a “surge” National Response Coordination Center—for staff across the government to handle the non-COVID catastrophes threatening America this summer,” Axios reported.

“We're doing a lot of things that are not necessarily in any playbook that has existed,” FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told Axios. “This pandemic, it is historic, it is unprecedented in many ways for FEMA.”

Nearly 30% of the crew on the USS Kidd, the second coronavirus-stricken warship, has tested positive for the virus, CNN reported on Friday. The infection rate is higher than the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had about a 24% infection rate. 

The Election Assistance Commission confirmed states could use their grants from the CARES Act for Internet voting initiatives. Three states are planning to let some individuals vote online in upcoming primaries and caucuses (two of which added the option due to the pandemic). Some election security experts pushed back on the decision because of the security risks, Politico reported

On Friday and Saturday protesters in California and West Virginia, respectively, sought to draw attention to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ response to the coronavirus outbreak. In San Pedro, California, prisoners’ family members rallied against the living conditions at a low-security correctional institution. In Morgantown, West Virginia, correctional officers union members called on the BOP to stop transferring inmates to the state in order to prevent further spread of the virus. 

“We have no positive cases from staff or inmates at [Federal Correctional Complex] Hazelton and our three states Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia want to keep it that way (staff live in all three). Our representatives have done an outstanding job voicing their concerns to the director and attorney general,” Justin Tarovisky, AFGE Local 420 Executive Vice President told Government Executive. “Senator [Joe] Manchin, Senator [Shelley Moore] Capito, Congressman [David] McKinley and Governor [Jim] Justice have all heard our voices, and do not want the transfer of these inmates to FCC Hazleton.”

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., introduced legislation on Friday that would require the BOP director to receive Senate confirmation. “After years of out of control spending and actions that run counter to institutional safety, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is abundantly clear that increased oversight of the BOP is long overdue,” said Keller. “Making the position of BOP Director Senate confirmable will ensure that the American people have a say in this important role and that the BOP will remain responsive to their representatives in Congress. The American public expects their government to be accountable to them.” Keller has been calling on the agency to suspend all inmate transfers during the pandemic. 

Former National Park Service employees outlined their desired requirements for reopening national parks. See the full list from the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks here

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at political influence on science performed by career civil servants and other scientists following the demotion of Dr. Rick Bright from head of the agency that is central to vaccine development.

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