Coronavirus Roundup: New Concerns About Vaccine Effort; Revised Cleaning Standards for Federal Offices
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
According to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56% of respondents said they’re worried about an increase in coronavirus cases in their areas following the recent protests for police reform and racial justice. Of those, 73% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans expressed concerns. Also, 68% and 71% of Black and Hispanic respondents, respectively, were worried about outbreaks, compared to 52% of whites. The survey was conducted from June 8-14 by phone among a sample of 1,296 adults that was nationally representative. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Wednesday with concerns over reports that the Transportation Security Administration will be doing temperature screenings at airports. “These calls for federally administered temperature checks, however, appear to run counter to statements from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which stated that temperature checks conducted on international arriving passengers were ineffective in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” he wrote. He asked for details about the plan, including steps TSA would take to protect frontline employees, by June 23.
On Wednesday, five House committee chairs pressed the Small Business Administration to comply with the Government Accountability Office’s request for information for its review of SBA’s use of CARES Act funds. “SBA has not granted GAO access to all requested SBA officials for interviews and, according to GAO, SBA officials who have been interviewed have not been fully cooperative in providing timely, fulsome, and transparent responses,” they wrote to Administrator Jovita Carranza. Also, “refusing to provide basic data to GAO about [Paycheck Protection Program] loans appears to be an attempt to avoid such oversight and accountability.”
The Small Business Majority, a national small business advocacy organization, wrote to the SBA and Treasury Department on Thursday asking for more transparency and oversight for the Paycheck Protection Program. “The program was allocated nearly $660 billion dollars in funding, but it remains unclear where that money has been spent and whether it’s been distributed equitably,” said the letter. “The limited data that is available indicate that [program] loans have largely shut out women- and minority-owned businesses, who lack access to traditional banking relationships … With nearly $130 billion dollars left in the program, we must understand where funds are being allocated to ensure remaining [program] loan funds go to the businesses that need them most.”
The coronavirus congressional commission, established by the CARES Act, released its second report on Thursday. Since the law was enacted in late March, the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve have announced how they plan to use $195 billion of the $454 billion designated for emergency lending facilities. The lending facilities have used only $6.7 billion so far. “That's worked out well for big corporations that benefit from the promise of action, but less well for smaller companies and municipal governments,” tweeted Bharat Ramamurti, a commission member.
Also, “83 days after the passage of the CARES Act, the commission still lacks a chair and staff,” Ramamurti noted. “We will continue to do our work, but these are serious obstacles to performing robust oversight.”
Some scientists and top administration officials are getting nervous that President Trump is trying to speed up the “already ambitious” timeline to develop a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year. They “worry that his fixation on the timeline, combined with his past dismissal of scientists’ recommendations, could put regulators under intense pressure to approve some sort of limited use of a vaccine before it has been adequately vetted for safety and effectiveness,” The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. Some even raised concerns about an “October surprise” in which the administration approves a vaccine right before the election “regardless of whether the research justifies it.”
Three Senate Democrats wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and White House Designated Ethics Official Scott Gast about possible conflicts of interest with the officials involved in the vaccine effort, known as “Operation Warp Speed.” They noted that Marc Short, chief-of-staff to Vice President Mike Pence (the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force), owns stock in companies that received funding for vaccine development. Also, they said because Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser on the vaccine effort, is a former pharmaceutical executive, he should be “brought on as a special government employee subject to federal ethics law and guidelines” in order to “ fully resolve his glaring conflicts of interest.”
On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Army Gen. Gustave Perna to be the chief operating officer for “Operation Warp Speed.” Read the committee’s pre-hearing questions and Perna’s answers here.
The General Services Administration updated its cleaning standards for federal buildings as agencies begin their reopening processes. GSA is adding amendments to the pre-existing contracts for its over 8,000 federally-leased spaces and will include the new language in all future leases. The new standards require wipe downs of high-traffic areas and high-contact surfaces at least once a day using soap and water and then a disinfectant product, Federal News Network reported.
The pandemic could delay naturalizations for several hundred thousands individuals before the end of the year as the backlog of cases has already increased significantly in recent years, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. This comes as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to send notices to about three-quarters of its employees starting around June 19 to warn of upcoming furloughs if Congress does not provide emergency funding, as Government Executive reported.
Federal News Network reported on Wednesday details about how intelligence employees and contractors are handling returning to their workplaces. “The biggest issue is the anxiety of the people who have been home for a couple of months now coming back in and the concerns they have,” said John McDermott, an emergency management specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, during a webinar on Tuesday. “Our commitment to them is to provide them a safe and secure workspace.”
The Federal Election Commission began the initial start to its return to normal operations on Thursday. The FEC will begin processing mail again, but most employees will remain on telework and officials will still be closed to visitors. Read more here.
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode covers how the Homeland Security Department is operating during the pandemic.
Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee, contractor or military member with information or concerns about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.