Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testifies during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed. Saul Loeb/Pool via AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Tensions Increase Between White House and CDC; Lawmakers Question FDA’s Oversight of Tests

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

President Trump signed into law on Monday a bill that increases the amount the Health and Human Services Department can spend to help U.S. citizens repatriated due to the pandemic from $1 million to $10 million. This is effective for the remainder of fiscal 2020, which ends on Sept. 30. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Despite the pandemic, the Defense Department seeks to cut over $1 billion on spending for chemical and biological defense programs in fiscal 2021 and the Senate adopted this as an amendment to its version of the Defense authorization bill on July 1. Protective shelters for troops, systems for detecting dangerous agents, and a vaccine to combat toxins and plague are among the programs that would be affected. This is part of Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s “Defense Wide Review” to cut over $5 billion in programs to pay for nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles or other weapons to deter Russia and China, Roll Call reported on Monday.  

On Monday, Trump retweeted a post that implied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was lying about the pandemic in order to hurt his reelection chances. “The president, with his intent in that retweet, expresses displeasure with the CDC, some rogue individuals leaking guidelines prematurely,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during the briefing on Monday afternoon. She added that science shouldn’t be used for political purposes, which contrasts many reports in the media as well as ousted vaccine director Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint on how the administration has been handling the pandemic. However, in a follow-up question, McEnany said the president does have confidence in the CDC. 

Stat News published a special report on Monday about why the CDC has been “strikingly inept” in pushing back against the administration's “political attacks.” The CDC has fewer political connections that other health-related agencies because the majority of its staff members are located in Atlanta, pharmaceutical companies “have little to gain” by lobbying Congress for more funding for the agency and former staffers said the CDC has a culture of avoiding politics, which left it unprepared for this situation, according to the report.  

Top members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to the Food and Drug Administration on Monday asking for information on its oversight of coronavirus diagnostic and serological tests to ensure their reliability. The FDA has expedited the approval of many tests under an Emergency Use Authorization. “While no diagnostic test will ever be 100% accurate, these lower standards for determining reliability in diagnostic tests could affect our understanding of COVID-19’s spread within a community and across the United States, they wrote. As outbreaks continue to arise, patients, health care providers, and public health officials must be able to quickly test and trace the path of the disease,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked for a response to their list of questions on the agency’s oversight and monitoring of the tests by July 22. 

The HHS inspector general dismissed a complaint against former pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui, who is one of the heads of the White House’s “Operation Warp Speed” to develop a coronavirus vaccine, Politico reported on Tuesday. The watchdog organizations Public Citizen and advocacy organization Lower Drug Prices Now argued that Slaoui should be classified as a political appointee, so he would be subject to conflict-of-interest and disclosure requirements. 

The Trump administration plans to ask governors to consider sending their National Guards to hospitals to help with their coronavirus data collection. The possibility “has infuriated hospital industry leaders, who say any data collection problems lie primarily with the Department of Health and Human Services and repeatedly changing federal instructions,” according to a Washington Post report on Monday. Similarly, The New York Times reported that data collection has been an issue for state and local health departments because of their antiquated technology and “patchwork” of reporting systems. As a result, nationwide 80% of coronavirus tests results are missing some type of demographic information, which could hamper efforts to trace and better understand the virus. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday about the racial health disparities the coronavirus outbreak has exploited and the administration’s lack of adherence to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s requirements. “[HHS] is required by law to report biannually to Congress on its progress to address health disparities, but these reports appear to have stopped under the Trump administration,” the lawmakers wrote. “Without successfully addressing these racial disparities in health outcomes and health care access, we will not be able to mitigate and fully control the COVID-19 pandemic. You have, to date, failed to do so, with tragic consequences.” 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report on Tuesday with recommendations on how to respond to future pandemics and public health emergencies. “Despite the investments that have been made in [public health emergency preparedness and response] research over the past two decades, the science underlying the nation's system of response to public health emergencies is seriously deficient,” said the report. Among the recommendations is the creation of a national science framework led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “ensure a coordinated approach to the development and implementation of a unified [public health emergency preparedness and response] research agenda.” Researchers said this study began two years before the emergency of the coronavirus, but this pandemic has highlighted some of the issues they outline. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode discusses how Trump’s harsh rhetoric about government bureaucracy affects federal employees.

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.