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Coronavirus Roundup: Trump Extends National Guard Deployments; State Department Outlines Process to Resume Passport Operations

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

As the country begins to reopen, individuals are more likely to view common activities as riskier than public health experts do. Also Republicans and men, on average, tend to view most activities as less risky than Democrats and women do. This is according to a new survey by Politico of about 2,000 Americans and a panel of 18 public health experts over Memorial Day weekend. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

President Trump tweeted on Thursday he will extend the coronavirus deployments for National Guard members through mid-August. This came after bipartisan backlash from lawmakers last week following reports he was planning on putting a “hard stop” on June 24, which could have prevented some from receiving federal benefits. 

The Defense Department has only spent 23% of its coronavirus relief funds and Senate Democrats pressed the department to explain why, Defense News reported on Thursday. “As we have seen, this is an evolving and dynamic situation where priorities and requirements change, which is why it is so important that we remain faithful and accountable stewards of the taxpayer dollar,” Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told the outlet. “The spend plan is due per the CARES Act in four weeks, on June 26th. The plan is currently in final review and approval, and we expect it to be on the Hill by close of business [May 29], a full month prior to the required due date.”

The Veterans Affairs Department said on Thursday it will resume in-person compensation and pension services at some of its locations within the next few weeks. “Resuming C&P exams allows VA to continue delivering the benefits our veterans have earned,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “We’re keeping the safety of veterans and our medical providers as our highest priority and have put a robust set of measures in place to ensure medical providers can safely conduct these examinations.” See a list of the locations nationwide here

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote to the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services  departments on Thursday demanding they respond to his requests for documents on the administration’s coronavirus response. In both letters he outlined his committee’s outstanding requests for documents and information that date back to March 12.  They cover contracting, testing, the travel ban, personal protective equipment, workforce operations and more. 

Thompson and the Democratic members of his committee also wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Agency with concerns on how it will handle the hurricane season, projected to be “above average,” amid the pandemic. “FEMA needs to take a proactive role in procuring the staffing and resources necessary to respond, keeping in mind that conventional disaster response strategies, such as communal shelters and volunteer recovery and supply distribution efforts, could pose increased health and safety risks during the pandemic, particularly for underserved populations,” the lawmakers wrote. They also asked for a briefing on the recent guidance FEMA issued and how it’s preparing. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently issued guidance on preparing for hurricane season during the pandemic. For example, the agency said to make sure to include in your “to go” kits items to protect yourself and others from the virus, such as face coverings and hand sanitizer. Also, the CDC said to practice social distancing when checking on neighbors before and after a storm. 

On Thursday, The Washington Post published a deep dive on the Trump administration's early mishandling of the distribution of remdesivir, the only drug approved thus far to treat the coronavirus. In early May, the first group of 607,000 vials was sent “in some cases to the wrong hospitals, to hospitals with no intensive care units and therefore no eligible patients, and to facilities without the needed refrigeration to store it, meaning some had to be returned to the government,” according to the report. Read Government Executive’s coverage on lawmakers’ push for more transparency into the process. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said on Friday the agency will resume premium processing in phases over the next month, after temporarily suspending operations on March 20. The agency will begin accepting some requests starting on Monday. 

On Friday, the State Department outlined how it will resume operations at passport centers. “We are working to resume normal operations in phases,” said the department in an email to the press. “Each passport agency and center will open on a different date based on local conditions. On a normal basis, we process over 18 million passports a year.  In light of the sustained demand for passports, even after we fully resume routine operations at individual locations, customers may continue to experience delays. We are committed to working as hard as we can to process applications as quickly as possible, as soon as it is safe for us to do so.” 

DHS developed a modeling tool to predict how long the virus that causes the coronavirus can last on surfaces. “We intended the tool to be used by health and safety professionals who are deciding and establishing the procedures and the policies that different places and institutions are going to implement as we return to work, and as we hope to open up,” Lloyd Hough, a microbiologist who also leads the DHS’ Hazard Awareness and Characterization Technology Center, told Nextgov. “It'll help people make decisions that are specific to their unique environment.” Read NextGov’s full coverage here

Meritalk has a roundup of the status of telework at seven major federal agencies and how the government is navigating technology challenges. “The most pressing challenge of scaling remote work is the complexity,” Kelsey Nelson, product marketing director at cloud software and technology company Okta, told MeriTalk. “It’s not just agency employees operating in a telework environment. It’s the extended workforce and the constituents who all collaborate to accomplish a mission.”

On Thursday, Meritalk also reported on how the Veterans Affairs Department specifically has shifted to telework during the pandemic. “VA is not by definition a telework agency, it’s very much an on-premise agency,” VA Chief Information Officer James Gfrerer said. “But we did go from a [pre-pandemic] high of about 40,000 workers in remote access posture to almost 140,000 presently, and so it took a lot of work.” Also, the agency doubled its virtual private network and added an additional 100,000 mobile devices and 250,000 endpoints (laptops, tablets, servers, etc.)

Occupational Safety and Health Administration head Loren Sweatt told lawmakers on Thursday she couldn’t answer questions about emergency coronavirus safety rules due to the ongoing lawsuit brought on by the AFL-CIO, which is trying to compel the agency to create a temporary emergency standard.  Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., chairwoman of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, said there is “no legal basis” for Sweatt’s refusal, which was “purely a political statement,” Politico reported. Read Government Executive’s coverage on a group of senators’ request for the Labor Department inspector general to review OSHA’s actions during the pandemic following backlash from former officials, watchdogs and labor groups.  

Upcoming: President Trump will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about why the Washington Metro area is a desirable place for federal employees and contractors, despite the high cost of living. 

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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