Coronavirus Roundup: D.C. National Guard Members Test Positive Following Protests; Watchdog Says Pandemic Could Delay 2020 Census
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
It’s been over a month since the coronavirus task force held a briefing, despite the fact that the pandemic is not over, Politico noted on Wednesday. Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, warned governors of coronavirus spikes following the recent protests during a call on Monday, of which The Daily Beast obtained the recording. She said they should “scramble now to make sure there is testing available in urban areas” since 70 testing sites were destroyed during the protests. Vice President Mike Pence said on the call this is “an issue our team is following and there is a concern.”
In addition to prompting concerns about a resurgence of the coronavirus cases, the protests have shed light on the vast health disparities among minorities and how the virus is disproportionately affecting them. Here are a few other recent headlines you might have missed.
NBC 4 interviewed National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday on the outlook of the coronavirus in the Washington, D.C., area, where he lives. “We’ve gotten hit, I would say pretty badly in a sense,” he said. “But I think our city has done well. I think the mayor has done a good job.” As states are going through their reopening phases federal employees are being called back to work, but many in the D.C. area are still teleworking.
On Tuesday, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., renewed their calls for the Health and Human Services and Transportation departments to require face coverings and social distancing while flying during the pandemic. “Although airlines and airports are acting with the best of intentions, air travel is an inherently interstate and international issue that demands stronger leadership from the federal government,” they wrote. “We believe the safety of the flying public requires consistent and enforceable rules from your agencies, and we urge you to act without further delay.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, released a white paper on Tuesday preparing for the next pandemic based on the coronavirus and the past 20 years of planning for infectious diseases. The recommendations in the paper include: accelerating research on testing and treatments, bolstering disease surveillance, rebuilding federal and state stockpiles, and improving agency coordination.
HHS awarded a $628 million contract to a biodefense company to which Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, has ties. Ousted vaccine head Dr. Rick Bright had expressed concern about possible conflicts-of-interest in contract awards as part of his whistleblower complaint. Kadlec, who is leading the agency’s coronavirus response, was a consultant at Emergent Biosolutions until 2015. “Since Kadlec's 2017 confirmation, the biodefense company has received more than $1.2 billion from the division Kadlec oversees, including a part of HHS known as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority…[and] is scheduled to get more,” Roll Call reported on Wednesday.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked the acting HHS IG to issue alerts to the public and Medicaid recipients about nursing homes and other assisted living facilities unlawfully taking residents’ stimulus payments. “This practice, which reportedly has occurred in facilities across the country, is contrary to the provisions of the [CARES Act], which authorized these payments,” they wrote. “We ask that your office look into these practices targeting elderly Americans and individuals with disabilities and issue alerts to raise awareness that this practice is improper and contrary to congressional intent.”
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and two immigration advocacy groups filed the first lawsuit against the Trump administration’s border restrictions due to the pandemic using special authority from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CNN reported.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Dan Abel was installed at HHS to help with the coronavirus response. He has been coordinating the daily calls with HHS Secretary Alex Azar and division leaders, which has prompted questions internally. “Meanwhile, the department is steadily turning back to its many pre-COVID-19 priorities,” Politico reported on Wednesday.
The Internal Revenue Service reminded individuals on Tuesday how and when to file their taxes as the deadline for filing was pushed back to July 15 due to the pandemic. Read more here.
The State Department told Congress it plans to reopen its consulate in Wuhan, China (where the coronavirus originated) “on or around” June 22. "At this critical juncture in U.S.-China relations, it is critical that our diplomatic posts in China are staffed," the department said, according to a CNN report. The consulate has been closed since late January.
The Los Angeles Times published a feature article on the resilience of the U.S. Postal Service throughout history and how the pandemic “became another [thing] in a long line of challenges.” Read more from Government Executive on employees’ health and safety concerns and the agency’s financial struggles.
Some of the 1,300 D.C. National Guard members who responded to the recent protests in Washington, D.C., tested positive for coronavirus, but the agency did not say how many, McClatchy reported on Tuesday. The D.C. National Guard is the only National Guard unit controlled by the president.
The Government Accountability Office issued a report on Tuesday saying the pandemic presents “delays and risks” for the 2020 census count. Some of the challenges GAO outlined were: maintaining staff levels, communicating contingency operational plans, monitoring risks to information technology systems, managing disinformation and evaluating the impact of the delay on data quality.
GAO also reported on Tuesday that the Veterans Affairs Department’s ability to give its critical medical centers supplies and equipment during the pandemic was hindered by its “long-standing problems with its antiquated inventory management system.” Although the VA has taken steps to improve, “fully resolving the problem at the agency level is at least 7 years away.”
Internal documents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency released on Tuesday showed the agency hasn’t significantly increased its supply of surgical gowns and masks in the last few months. Also, “the slides show FEMA’s plan to ramp up supply into June and July hinges on the reusing of N95 masks and surgical gowns, increasing the risk of contamination,” Roll Call reported. “Those are supposed to be disposed of after one use.”
A top Secret Service official told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that pandemic-related fraud could lead to at least $30 billion in relief funds getting stolen. “Countering criminal schemes seeking to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic has become a primary investigative focus for the U.S. Secret Service, and will remain so over the coming years,” said Secret Service Assistant Director Michael D’Ambrosio, The Hill reported. The Justice and Homeland Security departments have also made this a priority.
On Wednesday, top House Democrats released the transcripts of their interview with ousted State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who addressed “Diplomacy Strong,” the department’s program to bring employees back into offices. Linick claims that Brian Bulato, State undersecretary for management, pressured him to not pursue investigations into Secretary Mike Pompeo and does not understand the role of IGs. “He did ask me through an email...to help design the department's response to COVID-19, the ‘Diplomacy Strong’ program,” Linick said. “And I did advise him that that wouldn't be appropriate for me to do that because we may be auditing the department's efforts to address COVID-19.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Tuesday it began voluntary coronavirus testing for detainees at facilities in Tacoma, Washington; and Aurora, Colorado. It will assess how testing goes at these locations in the coming months before it expands such efforts.
Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany will hold a briefing at 2 p.m.
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode talks about how federal employees, who are still mainly teleworking, can participate in the ongoing protests for racial justice without violating the Hatch Act.
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 email@example.com.