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Coronavirus Roundup: IRS Adds Phone Operators for Stimulus Check Questions; Congressional Commission Releases its First Report

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

President Trump said on Monday he’s been taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for about a week and a half to ward off contracting the coronavirus. His doctor released a statement on Monday night saying the “potential benefit” outweighed the “relative risks” for the drug that has sparked much controversy among politicians and public health experts. The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health have issued warnings about hydroxychloroquine use, as it is not a proven coronavirus treatment. 

The congressional commission established in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to oversee the federal government’s pandemic spending published its first report on Monday. The report outlines the commission’s duties and presents a long list of questions for the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department on how they will design and implement $500 billion in lending programs and ensure they comply with the law. To date, the Treasury Department has only spent $37.5 billion of the relief funds, according to the report.  

The commission is supposed to have five members, but it currently has four. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., must appoint a chair together. 

The Railroad Retirement Board inspector general released a CARES Act oversight plan, which details how it will collect data on spending, interview agency officials, track milestones, review contractors’ work and more.

Immigration courts are in “chaos” due to the confusion from the Justice Department on how they’re operating during the pandemic, according to a report. “The scattershot communications make it difficult to prepare for if and when the hearings are held, immigrants say. And it’s worse for those who have no lawyer who can help navigate the changes,” The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Monday. “With postponements happening on short notice, most immigrants fighting deportation feel they must prepare for court even if pandemic-caused delays seem likely. But doing so can force them to revisit the terrifying situations they say they came to the U.S. to escape.”

The National Labor Relations Board will resume hearings for unfair practice labor complaints on June 1. Read more about the process for rescheduling here

On Monday, an alliance of over 160 small business, labor, consumer, scientific, research, faith, good government, community, health, environmental and public interest groups, launched a tracker on the Trump administration's deregulatory actions during the pandemic. “This administration appears eager to take advantage of the crisis and ram through deregulatory policies while the rest of the country is distracted...despite guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget directing agencies to prioritize their resources on contributing to the administration’s pandemic response,” said the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards. “Stronger safeguards are key to promoting public confidence and participation in normal, daily economic activity.” 

The federal government is collecting data to study the impact of the coronavirus outbreak in nursing homes. Officials are gathering data on a weekly basis and will publish it online by the end of the month, The Washington Post reported

The Food and Drug Administration said on Tuesday it’s partnering with Aetion, a health care technology company, to do advanced analytical work to answer research questions on the coronavirus outbreak. “We believe that this work has the potential to contribute to the scientific evaluation of potential diagnostics and interventions for COVID-19,” said the agency.

The Health and Human Services Department is using discretion on how it fines community-based testing sites if they expose personal information, according to a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday. “The HHS Office for Civil Rights will not impose penalties for noncompliance with the regulatory requirements under the [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] Rules against covered health care providers or their business associates in connection with the good faith participation in the operation of a COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site” during the pandemic, said the agency. It also encourages the use of “reasonable safeguards” to protect individuals’ privacy. Read NextGov’s full coverage here

On Monday, the Internal Revenue Service began the process to add 3,500 telephone representatives to answer individuals’ questions about stimulus payments. The agency said service will be limited as it has been updating its website frequently with the necessary information. 

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit on Saturday on behalf of federal inmates at two California facilities (Lompoc and Terminal Island) arguing that the Federal Bureau of Prisons “failed to take preventive measures” to curb the spread of coronavirus, “while the rest of California took extraordinary measures to stop” it, The Los Angeles Times reported. The low-security correctional institution in Lompoc has the most inmate cases among BOP’s 122 locations and the Terminal Island location has the sixth most inmate cases, according to the agency’s tracker.  

A Labor Department spokesperson responded to AFL-CIO’s lawsuit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday to compel it to create an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from the coronavirus. “The department is committed to protecting American workers during the pandemic, and OSHA has been working around the clock to that end,” a spokesperson told Government Executive. “The department is confident it will prevail in this counterproductive lawsuit.” 

The Trump administration is expected to announce on Tuesday that it signed a four-year,  $354 million contract with a new company in Richmond, Va., to produce coronavirus drugs in the United States that are currently made predominantly in China and India. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority awarded the contract to Phlow Corp., which is one of its largest contracts ever, The New York Times reported on Monday. 

On June 24, the Trump administration is ordering a “hard stop” on the deployments of over 40,000 National Guard members who are helping states with their coronavirus responses. That is one day shy of many of them becoming eligible for federal benefits, Politico reported on Monday.  “In a statement, [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] acknowledged that President Donald Trump’s current order for the federal government to fund the troops expires on June 24,” Politico said. “But a National Guard spokesperson said a decision to extend the deployments could still be made in the coming weeks.”

The Pentagon is considering two options for lifting travel restrictions due to the pandemic. While Defense Secretary Mark Esper “wants a department-wide agreement” on the conditions for resuming normal operations, “armed services and four-star regional commanders are pushing for more flexibility to lift travel restrictions on their own timelines,” Politico reported on Monday. The stop movement order is set to expire on June 30, but some say it could be lifted earlier, said Politico

A group of bipartisan lawmakers wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Monday asking for clarification on how the administration is distributing coronavirus resources to U.S. territories. They also urged the department to “consider the vulnerable economic and public health infrastructure in the territories when determining the criteria for prioritizing the distribution of COVID-19 resources to ensure these jurisdictions receive sufficient test kits, protective equipment and other lifesaving supplies to respond to this pandemic.” The lawmakers gave HHS a list of questions they would like answered by May 22. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about the recent shakeups in the State and Transportation department inspectors general offices and how this fits into the administration’s overall approach to oversight. 

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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