A testing kit sits on the windshield of a car as it passes through a drive-through COVID-19 testing site set up by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and operated by the Missouri National Guard.

A testing kit sits on the windshield of a car as it passes through a drive-through COVID-19 testing site set up by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and operated by the Missouri National Guard. Jeff Roberson / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: VA Is Still Struggling on Testing; OMB Stresses ‘Decentralized’ Approach to Agencies’ Return to Workplaces

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

The Trump administration chose five potential companies to produce a novel coronavirus vaccine, which it hopes to accomplish by the end of the year. They are: biotechnology firm Moderna; Oxford University and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca together; and pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer. “Each is taking a somewhat different approach,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Internal Revenue Service said on Wednesday certain retirement plan participants or beneficiaries could sign new elections remotely. “As part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act to allow participants greater access to their retirement benefits,” said the notice. “Providing alternative procedures for notarization and consent related to plan distributions that do not require physical presence is an appropriate emergency protective measure during this declared emergency period and is consistent with the physical distancing procedures implemented by the states.”

During an interview with Politico on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao spoke about potential long-term changes in telework at her agency post-pandemic. "We’re going to see trends develop in telework," she said. "Do we really need a building for 5,500 people [the size of Transportation's headquarters] when more and more people are feeling more comfortable teleworking ... and video conferencing?"

On Wednesday, during his confirmation hearing to be permanent Office of Management and Budget director, Russell Vought (currently serving in an acting capacity) said the agency “did have our public health experts review the guidance” issued on April 20 on returning to workplaces and the White House coronavirus task force was also involved. The guidance said the transition back “will require continued diligence and flexibility from federal agencies and the federal workforce” due to the “diversity of federal workforce missions, geographic locations and the needs of individuals within the workforce itself.”

Vought reiterated the importance of each agency having the flexibility to work with public health officials in their areas in a “decentralized” way.  Read more from Government Executive about how Vought pledged to work with the Government Accountability Office and Congress on coronavirus and other investigations.

Related, GAO has a “live feed” of reports and congressional testimonies that are relevant to the coronavirus. “As part of our oversight, we draw on the lessons learned from our broad portfolio of work on how the federal government can prepare for, respond to, and help people recover from disasters and pandemics,” said the agency. 

The Veterans Affairs Department acknowledged on Wednesday that it is “not there yet” on coronavirus testing for employees. “Although we’ve tested over 12% of our employees, and it is our intent to have on-demand testing for all of our employees, we’re not there yet,” Richard Stone, executive-in-charge at the Veterans Health Administration, said during a hearing, Federal News Network reported. Read Government Executive’s deep dive into the issues and challenges VA staffers are facing during the pandemic.

The Defense Department inspector general published a special report on Thursday on lessons learned and best practices from 2006 to 2020 that could help the department’s contracting officials during the pandemic. “We outlined lessons learned related to communication and coordination, documentation, consistency in contracting processes, staffing and training as well as the use of [undefinitized contract actions] that DoD contracting officials should consider over the duration of not only this response but also any future disaster or pandemic response efforts,”  the IG said. “DoD officials will be under scrutiny from Congress, the DoD [office of inspector general], and the public on the use and tracking of all disaster relief funding related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a statement on Thursday about his committee’s coronavirus oversight plans and outlined upcoming hearings on the pandemic. “Everyone wishes our country had been better prepared to combat the tragedy of the current pandemic. That is why our committee has been conducting methodical oversight of our government’s preparation and response to understand what happened and what changes should be made to ensure we are better prepared in the future,” he said. “Although much of our work to date has been behind the scenes...we have also held three public hearings or roundtables on these issues. Our work will continue in the coming weeks as we hold four additional hearings.” 

The Health and Human Services Department is taking back from the Federal Emergency Management Agency the day-to-day control of coronavirus testing, Politico reported on Thursday. Although Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Public Health Service, will be “demobilized” from his role as head of the federal government’s coronavirus testing efforts in mid-June, he will stay involved in the coronavirus response “as long as necessary,” he told Politico.  

The Food and Drug Administration is struggling to remain independent amid political pressure from the White House, which was exemplified by its rush to approve the controversial antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine for coronavirus use. “The unprecedented effort by the White House to intercede at an agency that's supposed to make independent judgments based on medical science is raising alarms among health experts inside and outside the administration,” Politico reported on Wednesday night. However, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn denied he’s been under any pressure to make certain decisions. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about the federal law enforcement presence at protests in Washington, D.C. in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25. 

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.