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Coronavirus Roundup: Military Cases Spike; July 4th Concerns Grow; Free Masks for Feds

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

President Trump said during an interview with Fox Business on Wednesday that he is “all for masks,” yet thinks the coronavirus will “sort of just disappear.” He has been making similar claims for months as cases continue to rise in the United States. With the holiday weekend coming up, public health experts fear more spikes in cases. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

About 250 employees will be working at the Fourth of July events in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, which is typical for the holiday, an Interior Department spokesperson told Government Executive. “All employees are provided cloth face coverings for their use while working, and PPE is provided to employees commensurate with their duties,” said the spokesperson. “Additionally, we have an internal COVID mitigation plan for the event, which addresses best practices for work conditions such as travel and lodging, work schedule, office hygiene, on-site work and physical spacing.”

Last week, the Defense Department said that about 1,700 service members would support the celebrations and flyovers in Washington and at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. “DoD personnel supporting these events will follow standard health protection guidance as it applies to their specific involvement in this event,” a Defense spokesman told Government Executive. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, recommended Americans avoid gathering in large crowds. “Avoid crowds, wear a mask, keep physical distance,” he said. “It doesn't matter what the reason for the congregation, whether it's a celebration here, the demonstration there. It doesn't make any difference — wear a mask,” Politico reported.  

Jeff Ruch, Pacific director for the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said individuals should follow Fauci’s guidance and not attend fireworks displays either on the National Mall or Mount Rushmore. “Park Service and other government workers working during the event will be placed at higher risk of exposure for no good reason,” he told Government Executive. 

Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks Chairman Phil Francis said the Trump administration’s Fourth of July events should be “canceled” because it’s “just too dangerous to do it this year.” Francis previously worked for NPS for 41 years 

The National Treasury Employees Union praised the National Park Service’s approach to the event. “[NPS] is soliciting volunteers from among its employees to work Independence Day events on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,” NTEU President Tony Reardon told Government Executive. “It is our firm belief that employees should not be required to work large events where social distancing may not always be possible. I want to recognize those employees who volunteer so that the American public can enjoy a safe Fourth of July in our nation’s capital.”

Three ranking Senate Democrats released a report on Wednesday outlining how the Trump administration “failed” to protect residents and employees in nursing homes from the coronavirus. “Our report makes it clear that the Trump Administration’s deregulatory agenda, repeated failures to adequately prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic and its delayed and disorganized response exacerbated, and in some instances contributed to, a worsening public health crisis that has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable populations in the United States,” wrote Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Following Fauci’s remarks during a hearing on Tuesday that there could be 100,000 new coronavirus cases each day if the country can’t curb the surge, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote to Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday demanding more federal action. She asked for the development of a national testing strategy, national inventory of testing supplies and national contact tracing plan as well as issuance of clearer guidance on social distancing and mask wearing.  

Since April, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has made 11 trips to states, nine of which were swing states. Although they were for coronavirus-related matters, current and former HHS officials said the visit to battlegrounds states were “unusually political for a cabinet secretary particularly during an outbreak that Azar’s department has struggled to manage,” according to a Politico report on Thursday. 

Democratic Senators are asking HHS for more transparency on its pandemic data collection program due to fears it could be sharing such information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target undocumented immigrants. HHS Spokeswoman Katherine McKeogh said the department ensures the “privacy and security of all data in the system,” however “did not say whether any data would be shared with ICE or other agencies in the future,” The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. 

Top public health administration officials testified before a Senate committee on Thursday morning about the process to develop, manufacturer and distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, said he has “no concerns” that the Food and Drug Administration won’t go through the proper safety steps for approving a vaccine. Under the administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” plan the  “ability to do things so quickly is not compromising safety.” 

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a memo to Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, that summarizes her committee’s discussions with the large private sector companies involved in the coronavirus response and makes several recommendations on what the select committee should do. “Despite months of effort, there are still severe shortages of [personal protective equipment] and critical medical equipment, and the Trump administration has no coherent national strategy to address these deficiencies,” Maloney wrote. “These shortages continue even as coronavirus cases are now re-surging dangerously to record highs after the president insisted that states re-open prematurely [and] are also occurring as public health officials warn about the possibility of an even more grave recurrence in the fall.”

Last month, dozens of employees at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia contracted the coronavirus and over 20 others had to quarantine following a party where the virus potentially spread. Some officials in the embassy “took the extraordinary step of conveying information to Congress outside official channels, saying that they did not believe the State Department’s leadership or the American ambassador to the kingdom, John P. Abizaid, were taking the situation seriously enough, and that most American Embassy employees and their families should be evacuated,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. “The State Department took those steps months ago at missions elsewhere in the Middle East, Asia and Russia.”

The number of coronavirus cases among military personnel has more than doubled in the past three weeks. According to CNN, “As of Wednesday, 6,493 US service members had the virus, up from 2,807 on June 10. And in the last two weeks alone, the number of cases in the Air Force has almost doubled. On June 15, there were 700 reported cases, but by Monday that had jumped to 1,366.” Defense officials said the increase in military cases mirrors that of civilian areas, such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, CNN reported on Wednesday. 

The nonprofit Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund is offering free cloth masks to federal employees who need them. See here for more information. 

The Election Assistance Commission announced on Thursday that it would hold a virtual public hearing next week to discuss lessons learned from the 2020 primaries, which occurred under unprecedented circumstances. “Election administrators nationwide are facing unique challenges presented by COVID-19 as they prepare to administer elections in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the agency. “The EAC will continue working with state and local election officials and partnering with federal agencies and other key stakeholders to support elections.”

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley discusses the use of contact tracing to better track and understand the coronavirus. 

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.

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