Defense Secretary Mark Esper reminded personnel to "stay apolitical."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper reminded personnel to "stay apolitical." Alex Brandon / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Indian Health Service Forms Critical Response Team; Defense Secretary Reminds Personnel to Be Apolitical 

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

On the heels of the country’s reopening, there have been nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who was killed in police custody, and the vast racial inequalities in the United States. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis announced on Wednesday it is hosting a briefing on Thursday to “examine the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on existing racial health disparities and the unequal burden of this public health crisis on communities of color.” The panel cited concerns from lawmakers, mayors and other leaders over the federal government’s support and resources. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

ProPublica is tracking how and where the federal government is spending money on the pandemic. As of Tuesday, the most recent data, the government had committed to 6,494 contracts, 3,630 vendors and spending $14.7 billion.

The Government Accountability Office reported on Tuesday that the pandemic has complicated the Food and Drug Administration’s “already challenged” foreign inspections program. “From fiscal year 2016 through 2018, both foreign and domestic inspections decreased—by about 10% and 13%, respectively,” said the report. “FDA officials attributed the decline, in part, to vacancies among investigators available to conduct inspections. In March 2020, FDA announced that, due to Coronavirus Disease 2019, it was postponing almost all inspections of foreign manufacturing establishments. While FDA has indicated it has other tools to ensure the safety of the U.S. drug supply, the lack of foreign inspections removes a critical source of information about the quality of drugs manufactured for the U.S. market.” 

Documents obtained by Buzzfeed News showed the little evidence the FDA used before approving two anti-malaria drugs in March to treat the coronavirus. President Trump has been championing the drugs, despite warnings and questions from public health experts. In addition to the limited evidence, “the review also raised serious questions about shoddy practices at overseas factories that manufactured and donated the drugs for use in American hospitals, according to the documents,” Buzzfeed reported.

The Indian Health Service announced on Tuesday it’s forming a critical care response team to treat coronavirus patients admitted to tribal hospitals or IHS. Physicians, nurses and other health care professionals will serve on the team on an as-needed basis. Native communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus due to vast health disparities. 

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, established by the CARES Act, will hold a virtual public listening forum on Wednesday at 2 p.m. Stakeholders from state and local governments, financial institutions, the health care field, businesses, nonprofits, and government transparency organizations will speak about where they believe the committee should focus its attention in order to increase accountability and transparency of the pandemic funds.

The Office of Personnel Management inspector general nominee said during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that “evaluating OPM’s guidance related to COVID-19 [to] learn from what went well and what could be improved” would be one of his “immediate priorities” if confirmed. Craig Leen is currently director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. 

On Tuesday, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System IG outlined its coronavirus oversight plan. “The board has adjusted target interest rates and used its emergency lending authority under section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act to ensure liquidity in financial markets and provide lending support to various sectors of the economy,” said the IG. “While some of these facilities are modeled after those created during the 2008 financial crisis, others have been created in new and unique ways for the pandemic response. Significant coordination among the board, Treasury, and numerous other federal agencies will be necessary as the board continues its pandemic response.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper reminded all personnel to “stay apolitical in these turbulent days,” in a memo sent on Tuesday. “This part week, our support to [the] civil authority mission –– that had been focused on COVID-19 ––changed. Our National Guard are now also being called upon across the country to help protect our communities, businesses, monuments and places of worship,” he wrote. “I appreciate your professionalism and dedication to defending the Constitution for all Americans. Moreover, I am amazed by the countless remarkable accomplishments of the Department of Defense in today’s trying times.” 

Between the coronavirus and nationwide protests, National Guard deployments are up to 74,000, which beat the previous record of 51,000 during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to an analysis by National Journal. 

The Energy Department will enter phase one of its reopening plan on June 8. About 259 of the agency’s 7,000 employees and contractors at headquarters will return to facilities in Washington, D.C. and Germantown, Maryland. Employees are allowed to wear face coverings if they would like to and the department will make masks available at building entrances, Federal News Network reported

On Wednesday, The New York Times published a deep dive on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s early missteps and failures that hindered the federal government’s coronavirus response. Some of the issues were “antiquated data systems” that led to “blind spots” in the number of confirmed cases and individuals tested, clashes with the White House and a “risk-averse” culture at the agency. 

The Health and Human Services Department has yet to pay out about $100 billion of the $175 billion in emergency assistance to hospitals in need due to “a series of setbacks and internal uncertainty over how best to distribute the money” that has led to bipartisan backlash, Politico reported on Tuesday. An HHS spokesperson told the outlet the agency recognizes there is “great urgency” to distribute the funds, but it has to balance “concerns that these distributions be allocated fairly, transparently and with appropriate oversight into the process.”

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

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode features the President and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service Max Stier on how agencies can bring employees back to workplaces safely. 

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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