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Coronavirus Roundup: Lawmakers Press for Answers on Cancellation of NIH Grant; Labor Department Adds Jobs to Oversee Compliance With Federal Laws

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

At least 12 states have paused their reopenings due to spikes in coronavirus cases. Arizona, Florida and Texas have become the new epicenters of the virus, but there has been a steady uptick in cases nationwide. On Friday, the United States surpassed a record set on Wednesday for one-day increases in new cases, with 45,557 reported. Here are some other headlines from over the weekend and today that you might have missed. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that “the window is closing” to curb the coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve got our fatality rates and our hospitalization rates the lowest they’ve been in two months, but this is a very serious situation...We are surging in [to work] with our local authorities and states,” he said. “We have to act and people and individuals need to act responsibly. We need to social distance, [and] we need to wear face coverings if we are in settings where we cannot social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

HHS announced on Monday the administration secured over 500,000 treatments of the drug remdesivir, the only drug approved thus far to treat the coronavirus, through September. “These supplies will be allocated in the same way that Gilead’s donation of approximately 120,000 treatment courses of remdesivir were allocated: HHS allocates product to state and territorial health departments based on COVID-19 hospital burden, and health departments allocate it to hospitals,” said HHS. “The delivery of the purchased remdesivir will be streamlined, going directly to the hospital, per the state’s allocation decision, rather than going first to the state health departments for subsequent delivery to hospitals.”

The Trump administration reversed course on Friday and said it will continue its support for testing facilities in Texas due to the spike in cases. The five facilities were supposed to transition to state control on June 30, but HHS extended federal support by two weeks, ABC News reported

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the administration is considering a “pool testing” strategy. With this method, samples are collected from a group of individuals and one coronavirus test is administered. If it comes back positive, then each person is tested. “What you need to do is find the penetration of infected people in your society,” Fauci told The Washington Post. “And the only way you know that is by casting a broad net.” With the current approach, “something’s not working,” he said. 

On Friday, members of the Science, Space and Technology, and Energy and Commerce committees asked HHS why in April the administration canceled a National Institutes of Health grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit, for research on bats and coronaviruses. “Press reports indicate that the grant was canceled because a small portion of the funding was to be given to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for on-the-ground sample collection and analysis,” they wrote. “Given the potential for this study to inform our knowledge of coronavirus disease 2019 transmission, it is deeply concerning that it may have been canceled for political reasons in the midst of the current pandemic.” 

On Monday, the Veterans Affairs Department launched a digital tool for VA employees, veterans and their caregivers to answer coronavirus pre-screening questions before entering VA facilities. Upon entering, VA staff will direct entrants to the appropriate area depending on their results. 

The Labor Department said on Friday the Wage and Hour Division will hire an additional 55 investigation and additional eight technicians to help ensure that employers are complying with federal requirements. “Now more than ever, the [division] is critical to helping America’s workers and employers,” said Wage and Hour Division Administrator Cheryl Stanton. “In addition to enforcing long-standing protections, [the division] now enforces the paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave protections in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. With more than 60 million workers eligible for relief, our team continues to deliver when the workforce needs us most.”

Also on Friday, the Labor Department issued two guidance memos for families and employees this summer. One covers child labor laws when schools are physically closed due to the pandemic and the other is on employees’ use of paid leave due to summer camp or childcare closures. 

The watchdog Accountable.US compiled a report, shared with Government Executive, on how large corporations and industry groups have been trying to “distance themselves from liability for worker safety” by advocating for corporate immunity legislation during the pandemic. “Big corporations are using the COVID-19 crisis to advance one of their long-held agenda items: a get-out-of-court-free card for putting their workers in harms’ way,” said Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig. “If the president and his allies in Congress give their corporate benefactors blanket immunity, it will come at the expense of worker health and safety.”

On Friday, a California federal judge ordered the release of migrant children at three detention centers by July 17 due to the pandemic. The ruling applies to children held for over 20 days at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, The New York Times reported

The National Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization within the Internal Revenue Service that helps individuals and businesses resolve filing problems, issued its annual report to Congress on Monday. It included challenges the IRS is facing during the pandemic and its implementation of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, such as processing paper returns, providing customer service and distributing stimulus payments.

The Trump administration issued a “blanket approval” that allows Small Business Administration staff, lawmakers, federal officials and their families to bypass conflict of interest rules in seeking coronavirus aid funds, The Washington Post reported on Friday. This was “a brief and barely noticed” rule for the Paycheck Protection Plan published on April 13. 

A Wall Street Journal report looks at the impacts of the continued closures of  U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. Immigration advocates claim the State Department isn’t doing enough to help students get visas in time for the fall semester or others in urgent situations. However, Michelle Thoren Bond, who ran the State Department’s Consular Affairs division under the Obama administration, said the “department is making a solid, good-faith effort to do what it can right now.” Also, “what you’re seeing are the same kind of constraints that we’re all operating under: there are limits to what you can do face-to-face in a pandemic.”

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany will hold a briefing at 1:00 p.m.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode discusses how government leaders can and should adapt to a constantly changing world. 

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