By Rob Crandall /

Coronavirus Roundup: Union and EPA Dispute Conditions for Returning to the Office; Ousted Vaccine Director Amends Whistleblower Complaint 

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

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its list of individuals who are at high risk of getting severely ill from the novel coronavirus. In addition to adding pre-existing medical conditions that could lead to more vulnerability to the virus, it removed the age-specific threshold. “Risk increases steadily as you age, and it’s not just those over the age of 65 who are at increased risk for severe illness,” said the agency. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Government Accountability Office published a report on Thursday that said the costs for the Fourth of July events on the National Mall were between $6 million-$7 million annually from 2016 to 2018 and more than $13 million in 2019. Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Tom Udall, D-N.M.; and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who requested the report, would now like GAO to review President Trump’s plans for this year, which include a firework display over Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. In addition to concerns over how taxpayer funds will be spent, “We question whether large, ticketed public events can be conducted safely and in a manner that is consistent with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other state and local public health authorities,” they wrote. “We also believe that appropriate action must be taken to protect the health and welfare of members of the public who attend public gatherings as well as the federal, state and local government employees and other essential workers who will be required to participate.”

Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted federal vaccine director, amended his whistleblower complaint to claim that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said, "If anyone were to help Dr. Bright be successful, 'there would be hell to pay.' " Bright was demoted to a role at the National Institutes of Health. Bright’s new allegation says that Dr. Gary Disbrow, his acting replacement at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told an HHS employee about Azar’s remark. Disbrow denied all of the claims, CBS reported.

On Thursday, NBC reported on an internal document from the White House coronavirus task force that details the surges of coronavirus cases around the country. On Tuesday, Trump said the virus is “going away” an event in Phoenix, “but on the same day, the coronavirus task force produced an internal document showing that Phoenix had the highest number of new cases among the 10 metropolitan regions where the week-over-week change in infection rates spiked the most,” NBC reported. The “mixed signals” from the Trump administration have created much confusion and uncertainty for state and local officials. 

New estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the true number of coronavirus cases in the United States might be 10 times higher than previously recorded. “This virus causes so much asymptomatic infection," CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said on Thursday. "The traditional approach of looking for symptomatic illness and diagnosing it obviously underestimates the total amount of infections," NBC reported

On Friday, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked HHS to provide Congress with the coronavirus testing plans that states were required to submit to the department under the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act. “I continue to strongly believe that a national testing strategy, coordinated and spearheaded by the federal government, is the most effective approach to ensuring our nation has adequate testing capacity to respond to COVID-19,” wrote Pallone. “Given this administration’s deference to states and localities, it is even more critical that these testing plans be made public in order for Congress and the American people to review and analyze the testing efforts underway at the state and local level.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., led a group of Democrats in asking HHS for information on how the administration plans to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile as public health experts anticipate a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall, Politico reported on Friday. 

White House Deputy Domestic Policy Adviser Maria Bonner is leaving the administration, according to those familiar with her decision, Politico reported. Former Domestic Policy Council Chief Joe Grogan told Politico that Bonner was an "integral part of the health team."

Retired Gen. Joseph Dunford is the leading choice of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to chair the congressional coronavirus oversight commission, according to Politico. Dunford was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Obama and Trump administrations; he started his military career in 1978.

Following the GAO report that said the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department distributed almost 1.1 million relief payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion to deceased individuals, the top Senate Democrat called for more oversight. “Where's the Republican oversight? This is a $3 trillion package. And every small bit of oversight that the Republicans have done has had to be pushed by Democrats,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement to the press. “We should be having far more robust oversight over what has happened, as well as moving forward on a new bill.”

Politico looked at the legal aspects of how and why dead people received checks. GAO said: “IRS counsel subsequently determined that IRS did not have the legal authority to deny payments to those who filed a return in 2019 [and 2018], even if they were deceased at the time of payment.” However, an anonymous Treasury official gave Politico a “conflicting account,” saying the department wasn't aware of the problem “until it was reported in various media outlets” in the spring. 

The American Federation of Government Employees and the Environmental Protection Agency are in a dispute over the process to return employees back to offices. “It is troubling that AFGE continues to misrepresent the agency’s communications,” wrote Nicole Patterson, acting director of EPA’s Labor and Employee Relations Division. “Despite the numerous briefings, demonstrations and resources provided by the agency, AFGE conveys ignorance about the agency’s plans for reopening. Most concerning, the union’s persistent and recent misrepresentations are stoking fear in employees about returning to the workplace...We urge AFGE to devote time to ensuring local representatives and bargaining units are equally and factually informed. In these difficult and unprecedented times, communication and cooperation are paramount. While we will continue to communicate and cooperate with AFGE, we hope to see improved communications and cooperation within AFGE.” 

On Thursday, AFGE sent a statement to the press in response. “While it is true that EPA has given us notice and is apparently planning to bargain with us, what is also true is that they have moved ahead without completing those negotiations – rushing to reopen offices with little regard to the health and safety of employees,” said the union. “Agency briefings are not the same as formal negotiations with the union. EPA is enforcing its plans for reopening worksites without satisfying its legal obligations to negotiate the impact of those changes with AFGE. Our claims are not false. We have and will continue to pursue litigation against the agency in every instance in which they violate the law.”

Mark Morgan, acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, gave conflicting testimony on Thursday about the agency’s screening procedure for unaccompanied children at the Southern border. He “testified that all of the children were screened to make sure they didn’t potentially qualify for asylum,” Roll Call reported. However in his written testimony submitted before the hearing, he said that “initial asylum screenings on unaccompanied minors have been conducted only on a case-by-case basis, ‘when it is not possible to return a minor to his or her home country or when an agent or officer suspects trafficking or sees signs of illness.’ ” In March, the Trump administration used a public health directive to allow CBP officials to deny entry to migrants at the border who would have otherwise been allowed in. 

Morgan said 2,000 unaccompanied minors have been turned away since March. “CBP works extensively with the governments of the countries that they are being returned to, to make sure that they are returned in a safe and humane, compassionate way, and that they are actually reunited with their parents in their home country,” Morgan said. Yet, CBP doesn't track if the minors make it back to their original homes, Roll Call reported. 

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