Nurses and medical workers react as police officers and pedestrians cheer them outside Lenox Hill Hospital Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in New York.

Nurses and medical workers react as police officers and pedestrians cheer them outside Lenox Hill Hospital Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in New York. Frank Franklin II/AP

Coronavirus Roundup: IRS Issues Stimulus Payment Deadline Reminder, Watchdog Has Advice for HHS and IRS

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’s federal guidelines on social distancing expired on Thursday, shifting more responsibility to the states. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, issued words of caution on CNN on Thursday night. “The concern that I have is that there are some states, some cities, or what have you, who are looking at that and kind of leapfrogging over the first checkpoint," he said. "And I mean obviously you could get away with that, but you are taking a really significant risk." Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Office of Special Counsel published guidance on how federal employees must continue to follow the Hatch Act limiting partisan political activity on the job even while they are teleworking. The guidance covers what is considered “on duty,” video conferencing and social media use. 

Also of potential interest to those working remotely, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency launched a telework best practices guide. “As many businesses and organizations have rapidly shifted to a maximum telework environment, CISA is providing a one-stop shop of cybersecurity and resources to protect networks in this new landscape,”  CISA Director Christopher Krebs said. “We are working with our federal and private sector partners to understand the threat landscape and provide a central point of the latest and most up-to-date information for organizations to keep their networks and employees safe.” 

The General Services Administration went from 50% to “majority” telework by the end of April. GSA Deputy Chief Information Officer Beth Killoran said the agency already had several telework policies in place, so the only thing it had to adjust was its internet policy in order to provide Wi-Fi or other connection devices to employees in rural areas, Meritalk reported

On Thursday, the National Institutes of Health put out a call for papers on challenges, opportunities and lessons learned during the pandemic. If selected, papers will be published in the Public Health Reports, a peer reviewed journal on public health research and practice, which is the official journal of the U.S. Surgeon General and U.S. Public Health Service. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a national initiative on Thursday to speed up research on the spread of the coronavirus. It will bring together at least 75 public health, academic and commercial institutions, The New York Times reported

A coalition of organizations led by the Business Coalition for Fair Competition called on Attorney General William Barr to temporarily cease operations by Federal Prison Industries, a prison labor program that has been manufacturing personal protective equipment. "With our economy in a spiral and law abiding, taxpaying Americans wanting and needing to work to support their families, it makes no sense for federal agencies to be buying products and services from inmates,” BCFC President John Palatiello said. “Our tax dollars should be used to support our economy, our small businesses, working Americans and their families.”

The Government Accountability Office said on Thursday that the Health and Human Services Department has 55 priority open recommendations as of April. These include: oversight of public health programs, information security, the Indian Health Service, and Medicare’s policy and design. “We recognize that HHS and its component agencies are focused on the nation’s efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the report. “As HHS is able to refocus its efforts, addressing the high priority recommendations identified below has the potential to substantially improve HHS’s operations.” 

GAO also reported that the Internal Revenue Service has 24 open priority recommendations as of April. For example, “two recommendations are aimed at helping IRS systematically identify and recruit the workforce it needs and develop a strategy to identify and close skills gaps.” The IRS is in the process of distributing stimulus checks from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, dealing with an extended tax filing season and managing teleworkers.

The Treasury Department not yet released a plan on how it will handle the stimulus payments that went to deceased people. A few days ago Secretary Steven Mnuchin said families should send the money back, but didn’t say what the department will actually do, according to Politico

On Friday, the IRS reminded Veterans Affairs and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries with dependents to act by May 5 to get the full amount of the stimulus payments. The individuals will automatically receive their checks, but they must provide information online for their children. 

The Veterans Affairs secretary defended the agency’s use of the controversial anti-malaria drug championed by President Trump as a potential coronavirus vaccine, The Hill reported on Thursday. "VA is adhering to .... guidelines, only using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 in cases where veteran patients and their providers determine it is medically necessary,” Secretary Robert Wilkie wrote to veterans organizations. He said a recent analysis, which found no benefit and, rather, more death among veterans who took it, “led to misinformation about what did and did not happen at VA.” 

The VA ordered about $300,000 worth of body bags in April. “The contract did not say how many body bags the department was buying, and it is unclear whether the VA bought them because it expects a spike in patient deaths or because it plans to redistribute them to others who might need them,” according to Politico

The Justice Department is looking into a doctor who has been in touch with the White House to tout hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug, The Washington Post reported on Thursday night. “The examination of Vladimir 'Zev' Zelenko’s records began when an associate, conservative commentator Jerome Corsi, accidentally sent an email intended for Zelenko to another 'Z' name in his address book,” said the paper. It was “federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who as a member of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team had spent months scrutinizing Corsi’s activities during the 2016 presidential election.” (Correction: This item was updated to remove an incorrect reference to the doctor's relationship with Fox News, following a correction issued by the Washington Post.)

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote to four Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractors on Thursday asking for information on how they’re stopping the spread of coronavirus in their facilities. “Recent news reports indicate that these corporations are not doing enough—and may be preventing personnel and detainees from wearing masks,” said a press email. “Additionally, neither ICE nor these corporations are reporting the number of personnel who test positive for coronavirus at contracted facilities. As of April 29, of the 425 detainee coronavirus cases ICE has reported, 332 have been from 21 facilities run by these four corporations.” 

The Homeland Security Department and Executive Office for Immigration Review announced on Thursday they are extending the temporary postponement of migrant protection protocol hearings through June 1. All hearings will be rescheduled. 

President Trump announced on Thursday he formed an independent commission to review how nursing homes are responding to the pandemic as they have had increasing cases and deaths from the virus. State and local authorities, industry experts, doctors, scientists, resident and patient advocates, family members, and infection and prevention control specialists will be on the commission. 

During an interview on MSNBC on Friday, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, spoke about how he would handle a second wave of the coronavirus if elected. He said the president should “empower a supply officer” to oversee distribution of equipment, fully use the 1950 Defense Production Act, establish a pandemic testing board, and open up a new enrollment period for health insurance, among other things. 

The federal government needs to provide much more funding in order for states and localities to conduct safe and secure elections during the pandemic, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, Alliance for Securing Democracy, University of Pittsburgh and R Street. They said the “$400 million in grants to help states run their elections during the coronavirus disease” from the CARES Act was “an important first step,” but “unfortunately, we now know this is not enough.” 

Related, election security experts are getting increasingly worried that the pandemic will leave the country more vulnerable to foreign interference in elections, The Hill reported on Thursday. “Certainly we are in an unprecedented time and these are unprecedented challenges, and these are challenges created at the intersection of these two issues,” said Benjamin Hovland, Election Assistance Commission chairman. “The challenge of disinformation and misinformation is one of the biggest areas of concern.”

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

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