Coronavirus Roundup: Senate Republican Says It Might be Time to Update Telework Policies; IG Flags Fraud Concerns with SBA Loans
There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
Arkansas, California, Florida, Montana, Oregon and Texas all experienced one-day records for coronavirus deaths on Tuesday (nationwide, there were 1,300). In California, Latinos make up about one-third of the population but account for 56% of the state's coronavirus cases and 46% of deaths, Reuters reported. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.
The 24 agencies to which a top Senate Democrat sent letters on July 14 asking for their reopening plans have not responded by the July 24 deadline, a committee aide told Government Executive on Wednesday. “While the country faces an unprecedented public health crisis and accompanying economic recession, it is more important than ever that the federal government stands ready to serve the American people,” wrote Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “It can only do so effectively if agencies protect the health and safety of federal employees and the communities they serve.”
During a hearing on Tuesday, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Financial Management, said it might be time to update telework policies for the federal workforce. “The last time this was done was 10 years ago,” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot of lessons that have been learned, and we want to make sure we capitalize on those lessons and implement those as fast as we can across the federal workforce in the days ahead,” Federal News Network reported.
The Government Accountability Office published a “spotlight report” on Tuesday about how contact tracing apps on cell phones work to track transmission of a disease. Many lawmakers have called on the Trump administration to implement a national contact-tracing plan for the coronavirus, but that has yet to happen.
On Tuesday, the Labor Department inspector general published a report about challenges the Mine Safety and Health Administration is facing in responding to the pandemic. “Challenges include unavailable inspectors; potential safety concerns by the mining industry; [personal protective equipment] shortages; canceled and suspended mine rescue contests; and unenforceable [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and MSHA COVID-19 guidance,” said the IG. “MSHA has issued an information sheet as guidance, adjusted operations and implemented safety measures to try to address these challenges...However, more action is needed to address any potential backlog created by the pandemic and the need for an emergency temporary standard.”
On Tuesday, the Labor Department IG published a “flash report” on the agency’s use of its $909.7 million in CARES Act funds so far. As of June 30, it has expended 43% and obligated 58% of funds.
The Small Business Administration IG published a report on Tuesday about issues with the agency’s coronavirus economic injury disaster loan program in response to the pandemic. “We have received complaints of more than 5,000 instances of suspected fraud from financial institutions receiving economic injury loan deposits,” said the report. Additionally, the IG “identified $250 million in economic injury loans and advance grants given to potentially ineligible recipients. We have also found approximately $45.6 million in potentially duplicate payments.”
The Health and Human Services, Energy and Veterans Affairs departments announced a partnership on Tuesday to share coronavirus data, research and expertise. They said this builds on the administration’s efforts to “leverage cutting-edge technologies” to combat the pandemic and develop a vaccine. “This unprecedented data and computing partnership is the latest addition to President Trump’s whole-of-government effort against COVID-19,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “The volume and quality of the data HHS has on COVID-19 has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent months. The Department of Energy’s world-class resources will help us derive new insights from the data we gather to help patients and protect our country.”
ABC News spoke with several of the academic and government public health experts whose series of emails (that The New York Times published in April) showed their rising frustrations with the administration’s handling of the pandemic from January to March. The contributors reflected on their experience trying to sound the alarm about the virus and get administration officials’ attention as well as “describe[d] their lingering distress about the missed chances to spare lives.”
On Tuesday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, asked the company that HHS contracted to collect coronavirus data from hospitals––after the administration took the responsibility away from the CDC–for information on the decision. “Your company has previously been awarded a handful of small contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs, but your contract with HHS is nearly twenty times larger than all of your previous federal contracts combined,” he wrote. “The sudden switch to a new portal is especially alarming at a time when infection rates and hospitalizations are rising across most of the country.” He asked the company TeleTracking Technologies Inc. to answer his list of questions by August 11.
Federal News Network interviewed Robert Westbrooks, executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee that was established in the CARES Act. He spoke about the committee's strategic plan, virtual work operation, relationship with Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery Brian Miller, lessons he’s using from the 2009 financial recovery and more.
President Trump said during a briefing on Tuesday evening that his administration is using the 1950 Defense Production Act to support the launch of Kodak Pharmaceuticals. He added this is the 33rd use of the act during the pandemic. The photography company will now be producing pharmaceutical ingredients for generic drugs. It received a $765 million government loan under the act, which was the first of its kind, The Wall Street Journal reported.
During a contentious hearing in the House on Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr said there is "high risk" of voter fraud with voting by mail, which the president has been repeating throughout the pandemic, despite lack of substantial evidence.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, criticized Barr for the vast coronavirus outbreak within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and its decisions about which prisoners to place on home confinement. “You have shamelessly abandoned your oath of office to protect all Americans impartially,” she said. “It is two simple systems of justice: one for the president’s friends and one for everyone else.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., led over three dozen of their colleagues in introducing a bill that would require the administration to create a program to distribute masks to all individuals in the United States and use all available authorities to boost domestic manufacturing of masks, among other things. Any masks not distributed would be added to the strategic national stockpile.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told CBS on Wednesday that money for a new FBI building included in the Senate’s coronavirus relief package is a priority, but "not a dealbreaker." Read Government Executive’s coverage from Tuesday on how Senate Republicans provided $1.75 billion for a new building in Washington, D.C., which has been the Trump administration's long-term and controversial goal.
The Election Assistance Commission will hold its annual Standards Board meeting virtually on Friday. The board will discuss the new version of the agency’s voluntary voting system guidelines to reflect technology and security developments since 2015, when they were last modified.
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at the federal government’s efforts with the private sector to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.