Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a July 31 House Select Subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus.

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a July 31 House Select Subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus. Erin Scott/Pool via AP

Coronavirus Roundup: CDC Director Clarifies New Testing Guidance; IRS Expands Use of Electronic Signatures 

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

For over five months now, many employees (who are able) have been working from home. General Services Administration Administrator Emily Murphy shared on Friday what she’s telling her employees. “Take breaks from work to stretch, take a walk, exercise, or check-in with coworkers, family, and friends,” she said. “Spend time outdoors, get fresh air, and step away from the computer!” Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

On Thursday, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services with concerns about the use of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine in nursing homes to treat the coronavirus, despite no evidence proving its effectiveness and revised guidance from the FDA. President Trump is still advocating for using the drug, so the “mixed messaging from the administration coupled with an absence of clear guidance, has led to the drug’s continued use, even after the FDA issued warnings about its safety,” the senators wrote. They also wrote to the Health and Human Services Department inspector general to request an investigation. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield clarified the change in coronavirus testing guidance earlier this week that caused much backlash. “Everyone who needs a COVID-19 test, can get a test. Everyone who wants a test does not necessarily need a test,” he said. “The key is to engage the needed public health community in the decision with the appropriate follow-up action.” He also said “all close contacts of confirmed or probable COVID-19 patients,” can get tested. However, the CDC didn’t change its website after the director released the statement, NBC News reported on Thursday. 

On Thursday, five House Democrats asked the CDC to explain how and why officials changed the guidance. The lawmakers said that it is “counterproductive” not to test asymptomatic individuals and asked detailed questions on the White House’s involvement. 

The CDC and Homeland Security Department are considering a plan to collect phone numbers and email addresses from all incoming air travelers to the United States (including American citizens), as part of a contact tracing plan, NBC News reported on Thursday. The program is “intended to allow airlines to alert travelers who may have come in contact with an infected passenger,” said the report. However, “two sources with knowledge of the program say the information could be accessed by law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and potentially used to track the arriving air travelers.” 

The CDC is seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would require cruise ship operators to submit plans to the CDC, HHS and/or Coast Guard that outline how they will prevent coronavirus outbreaks onboard. “If unrestricted cruise ship passenger operations are permitted to resume after the March 14, 2020, ‘No Sail Order,’ infected and exposed cruise ship cases would place health care workers at substantial increased risk,” said a notice in the Federal Register published on Friday. “Specifically, these cases would divert medical resources away from persons with other medical problems and other COVID-19 cases, consuming precious diagnostics, therapeutics and protective equipment.” Feedback is due by October 27. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t “have any limiting factors at this point” in the response to Hurricane Laura amid the use of FEMA funds for unemployment payments, as outlined in the president’s recent executive order after Congress failed to negotiate a deal on a new economic stimulus package. “FEMA has sufficient resources to handle” the hurricane and the payments, David Bibo, acting associate administrator for the agency’s Office of Response and Recovery, said on a press call on Thursday. 

President Trump delivered his Republican convention acceptance from the White house lawn on Thursday night in front of a crowd of over 1,000, despite the fact that Washington, D.C.’s phase two reopening guidelines prohibit gatherings of over 50 people. Masks were not required and "a number of" guests at the White House were tested, but "you make choices individually," said Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows. "I'm not worried about that based on the protocols that we have in place,” Meadows said, according to an NBC News report. Members of the president’s Cabinet sat in the front row and it appeared that HHS Secretary Alex Azar was the only one wearing a mask. Read Government Executive’s full coverage of the speech here

The Internal Revenue Service announced on Friday it would accept electronic signatures for certain forms from now until the end of the year to reduce personal contact. "We take the health and safety of the nation's taxpayers, the tax professional community and our employees very seriously," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said. “We will continue to review our processes to determine where long-term actions can help reduce burden for the tax community, while appropriately balancing that with critical security and protection against identity theft and fraud."

Two senior public relations officials were removed from the FDA following a messaging mishaps about its authorization of convalescent plasma and the data on the treatment. One was Emily Miller, the chief agency spokeswoman, who was on the job only 11 days. The other was a consultant who advised FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn. However, HHS denied there was a connection between the cancelation of the consultant's contract and the plasma situation, The New York Times reported on Friday. 

On Friday, the Veterans Affairs Department announced it will begin a new clinical trial on convalescent plasma treatment for veterans with coronavirus. It plans to enroll 700 veterans who are hospitalized at VA medical centers. The FDA gave emergency use authorization for the treatment earlier this week and “stresses further evidence from rigorous trials—such as the new VA study—is ‘critically important’ for establishing safety and efficacy,” VA stated.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode features a former FEMA official and emergency management veteran discussing how the agency can manage Hurricane Laura disaster relief during the pandemic. 

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