By Natale Zanardi /

Coronavirus Roundup: Majority of Pandemic Contracts Have Been for Medical Supplies and Were Not Awarded Competitively

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

The U.S. economy suffered its worst quarterly decline ever, according to the data from the Commerce Department published on Thursday. From April to June, gross domestic product decreased 32.9%, as the pandemic continues to hamper consumer spending and business operations. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office published a report that summarizes the federal government’s contracting practices during the pandemic thus far. As of June 11, spending totaled $17.8 billion and the Health and Human Services, Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments accounted for 85% of contract obligations. About 62% of obligations have been for ventilators, gowns, N95 respirators and other protective gear for health care workers and coronavirus patients. Fifty-three percent of contracts were not competitively awarded. Read NextGov’s full coverage here

Following the Trump administration’s shift in control of coronavirus data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Health and Human Services Department, the data “has become highly erratic,” according to The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization from The Atlantic. “Two weeks after the [new] rules began, it’s clear that technical requirements associated with the new guidelines have caused major problems,” said the report. “Some of the states facing the largest COVID-19 outbreaks—such as California, Texas, and South Carolina—have warned that they are not reporting accurate hospital information due to the switchover.”

Top House Democrats announced on Wednesday they launched an investigation into the Treasury Department’s payroll support to aviation contractors using coronavirus relief funds. “Under the CARES Act, Payroll Support Program funds must be used exclusively to pay employee wages, salaries and benefits,” said the lawmakers. “To receive these funds, recipients must ‘refrain from conducting involuntary furloughs or reducing pay rates and benefits until September 30, 2020.’ However, the committees found that at least twelve companies laid off thousands of workers before signing Payroll Support Program agreements with the Treasury Department.” They determined that twelve contractors received over $728 million in payroll support after having nearly 9,300 layoffs in recent months.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent a letter to the White House coronavirus task force on Wednesday imploring it to release an unpublished report about stronger public health measures for states that have become the new hotspots. Earlier this week The New York Times obtained a copy of the report dated July 26. “Although the Task Force has apparently provided private suggestions to state governments, many states have not implemented these recommendations—and instead appear to be following the contradictory public messaging coming from the administration,” wrote Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee. “I urge you to show federal leadership to control this deadly pandemic and implement nationwide, science-based public health measures to prevent more unnecessary deaths.” 

During a hearing on Wednesday, Census Bureau Director Steven Dill­ingham testified he was not personally involved in discussions about extending the deadline for the apportionment count from December 31, 2020, to March 31, 2021, due to the pandemic. Also, he would not say if he still supports the bureau’s request for an extension that it submitted to Congress in April, NPR reported

NPR also flagged on Wednesday that the Census Bureau changed the language on its website page about field operation changes due to the pandemic. As of Tuesday, it said that field data collection would be done by October 31, but as of Wednesday it said “as soon as possible.” 

A group of Democratic senators wrote to Senate Appropriations Committee leadership on Wednesday asking them to include funding for federal information technology in the next coronavirus relief package. The federal government’s response to the pandemic “has dramatically exposed the failures of outdated, legacy federal IT systems and shone a light on the need for agencies to more quickly modernize their networks,” they wrote. For example, the senators cited the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee’s report in June about how IT systems were struggling to accommodate the large number of federal employees teleworking, which slowed the process of  “normal functions like claims processing, increasing security risk, and making telework inefficient and frustrating.” 

The Labor Department inspector general issued a report on Wednesday about the challenge the department’s educational and vocational training program for individuals ages 18-24 is facing during the pandemic. “Job Corps...needs to ensure centers are properly prepared to reopen their campuses considering prevention guidelines for physical distancing, cleaning and disinfecting, and health monitoring, plus having an adequate stock of cleaning supplies and [personal protective gear],” said the IG. The Job Corps must also ensure that students have laptops, Internet access and other resources for remote learning. The program serves about 30,000 students across 131 centers nationwide. 

HHS issued a report on Wednesday about the increased use of telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries from March to May and potential for increased use after the pandemic. For example, in April almost half of Medicare primary care visits (42%) were through telehealth, compared to less than 1% in February. The department attributed this to President Trump waiving authorities under the national emergency declaration. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about election security ahead of the November election and the expanded use of vote-by-mail to mitigate public health risks. 

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