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Coronavirus Roundup: Senators Seek Guarantee of Maximum Telework for Feds; Rising Concern Over Vaccine Approval and Distribution to Communities of Color  

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

White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said during an interview on CNN on Sunday the country is “in a new phase” of the pandemic because the coronavirus is “extraordinarily widespread.” She also warned that individuals in rural America are not immune to the virus as cases in rural areas surpassed those of big cities last month. Here are some other recent headlines from over the weekend and today that you might have missed. 

The Health and Human Services and Defense departments announced on Friday they will pay pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline about $2 million for large scale trials and manufacturing of 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine. “The portfolio of vaccines being assembled for Operation Warp Speed increases the odds that we will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said. “Today’s investment supports our latest vaccine candidate, an adjuvanted product being developed by Sanofi and GSK, all the way through clinical trials and manufacturing, with the potential to bring hundreds of millions of safe and effective doses to the American people.”

According to a report by House Democrats, obtained by NBC News, the Trump administration overpaid up to $500 million for tens of thousands of ventilators. “The administration effectively disabled an Obama-era contract with [health technology company] Philips for ventilators and then struck a second contract with the company in which the administration overpaid for nearly identical ventilators by as much as $500 million,” said the report by the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. “These are funds that could have been used for personal protective equipment and critical medical supplies that were in short supply across the country.” 

The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner ceased plans to create a coronavirus national testing strategy as a political move, so Democratic governors could be blamed, according to a Vanity Fair report last week. The group working with Kushner, formed in the spring as a separate entity from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, was composed of business executives and federal officials. The White House disputed the allegations. 

The federal government lacks a national strategy to bring the coronavirus vaccine to communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the virus and are often distrustful of the health care system due to the country's “history of unethical experimentation and unjust treatment of minorities” in clinical research, Politico reported on Monday. 

The Trump administration is hiring consultants with connections to the drug industry to assist “Operation Warp Speed” under a $611,500 contract that allows them to not disclose their potential conflicts of interest. As consultants, not political appointees, they can get away with not complying with federal ethics requirements. The contract is also covering the housing expenses for former pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui, who is leading the vaccine development efforts, Politico reported on Friday. 

Experts inside and outside of the government are worried that the Trump administration will pressure the Food and Drug Administration to rush to approve a vaccine for at least limited groups before the November 3 election. The FDA recently said it will only base decisions off of science and data, but there are still vast concerns, The New York Times reported on Sunday. 

During a hearing on Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that over the years he’s been involved in many Government Accountability Office investigations and has found them “in many respects, very helpful.” This was during a line of questioning by Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., who was one of the lawmakers who recently wrote to GAO asking it to do periodic reviews of the administration’s vaccine development efforts. Read Government Executive’s full coverage of the hearing here

On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on ABC that she does not have confidence in White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Brix. “I think the president has been spreading disinformation about the virus and she is his appointee so, I don’t have confidence there, no,” she said. Later in the day during an interview on CNN, Birx said she has “tremendous respect for the speaker,” but condemned a New York Times article that claimed she had too much of an optimistic view of the pandemic. 

Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of heath at HHS, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the nation must “move on” from talking about the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine because it isn’t effective to treat the coronavirus. Despite the lack of evidence to support it, the president has still been promoting the drug. 

Twenty-two senators (20 democratic and two independent) asked Senate leadership on Friday to include a maximum telework provision for federal employees in the next economic stimulus package. “Federal employees and contractors have been teleworking successfully throughout the COVID-19 public health emergency, many of whom have been keeping vital services running and implementing relief measures,” they wrote. “Plans to bring federal employees back into offices prematurely would threaten to erase the progress made against the coronavirus and increase community spread.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency offices in the New England and the National Capital region as well as facilities in eight other states will enter Phase 2 of reopening on Tuesday, according to an internal email obtained by Government Executive. Despite the agency’s assurances the decisions are based on data and input from state and local health leaders, an employee noted that 10 of the 13 facilities moving into Phase 2 are designated “red” on the EPA’s reopening dashboard, which indicates the areas have an upward trend or no discernable trend in number of newly identified coronavirus cases, while not decreasing the overall number of tests.

The EPA inspector general published a report on Friday that outlines its pandemic oversight plan for the agency and aggregated the reports it's already done. “We are examining and identifying how the pandemic has affected agency programs and operations, from water infrastructure worries to air quality enforcement to potential misconduct and criminal activity,” the IG said. Government Executive previously reported on how the watchdog is reviewing the EPA’s plans to return workers to offices amid tensions between the agency and its union over workplace safety.

The Interior IG published a “flash report” on Friday about the agency’s Wildland Fire Management Program use of CARES Act funds thus far. The program houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and had obligated 5% ($547,596) and spent 3% ($381,431) of its $11.3 million of approved funds, as of June 19. The IG expects to see an increase in obligations as wildfire season gets underway during the summer. 

The Treasury IG updated and clarified reporting requirements on Friday for recipients of the department’s CARES Act funds. “We plan to use reported data to support our office’s coronavirus relief fund compliance monitoring and oversight efforts and for audit and investigative purposes,” said the IG. “In addition, reported data will be provided to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.” 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode talks about how employers can better support their female employees during the pandemic. According to various reports, women are taking on more at home during the pandemic than men, even if they are the breadwinners in the family. 

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