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Coronavirus Roundup: FDA Senior Career Officials Assert Science is Guiding Pandemic Response; Trump Said ‘Perhaps’ He Misled the Public on Pandemic Severity 

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

On Thursday morning, the Justice Department and officials from other agencies and inspector general offices announced that since May they’ve charged 57 people for trying to steal $175 million from the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program, which led to $70 million in losses for the government. The department said they’ve recovered $30 million so far and expect to add to that soon. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Internal emails obtained by Politico showed that a top aide at the Health and Human Services Department has been trying to dictate what Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, says to the press. “Lengthy messages” from Paul Alexander, a senior adviser to HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, “some sent as recently as this week, are couched as scientific arguments,” said the report on Wednesday. “But they often contradict mainstream science while promoting political positions taken by the Trump administration on hot-button issues ranging from the use of convalescent plasma to school reopening.” Fauci told Politico he hasn’t seen the emails and asserted no one tells him what to say. 

Eight senior career officials at the Food and Drug Administration wrote in USA Today on Thursday to assure that their agency is using science not politics to guide its approval of a vaccine and other pandemic-related products. “Our approach has been and must remain the gold standard that all can rely upon,” they wrote. “We want the American people to know that the FDA’s 17,000 plus career staff will continue to work to the best of our ability on their behalf, and with their health and well-being as our beacon.” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn tweeted he “wholeheartedly agrees[s] with them.”

The watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight launched a tracker to follow the federal government’s over $2.9 trillion in spending on the coronavirus and where it’s going. You can explore the data by agency, program, state and whether it’s a contract or direct assistance.

President Trump admitted to legendary journalist Bob Woodward in a series of interviews at the beginning of the year that he knew how severe the coronavirus was and “wanted to always play it down,” according to excerpts of Woodward’s upcoming book that The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. 

Later in the day, the president was asked if the report was true that he downplayed the virus and misled the public. “Well, I think if you said ‘in order to reduce panic,’ perhaps that’s so,” said Trump. “The fact is, I’m a cheerleader for this country, I love our country, and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.” 

Homeland Security Department acting Secretary Chad Wolf recapped his department’s efforts to combat the pandemic during a “State of the Homeland” address on Wednesday. “Of all the threats DHS has confronted in the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed one of the most formidable, rapidly evolving and uniquely challenging,” he said. “In stark contrast [to the World Health Organization], President Trump’s decisive and rapid action led our federal government to pursue a whole-of-America response, which continues to deliver results through a locally-executed, state-managed, and federally-supported strategy.” He outlined specific initiatives by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs and Border Protection, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the department as a whole.  

The White House ordered airports to stop enhanced passenger screenings for the coronavirus for inbound international flights as of September 14. Since mid-March, flights from high-risk countries have been directed to 15 airports that have been doing the advanced screenings that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CBP and DHS were involved in, Yahoo News reported on Wednesday. 

Six months after the president declared a public health emergency, the administration has rolled back 30 “public protections” and proposed rolling back 20 more that have nothing to do with the pandemic, according to the Coalition on Sensible Safeguards. Deregulation has been a major priority for the administration since coming into office and now it is using it to boost the economy following the recession created by the pandemic. “Many of the rollbacks have come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has weakened or eliminated numerous clean air and water protections,” said Matt Kent, regulatory policy associate at the nonprofit group Public Citizen, on Thursday. “Instead of using their regulatory and enforcement powers to implement a national pandemic response, Trump officials have sabotaged or obliterated essential health, safety, environmental, anti-discrimination and financial safeguards for the American public.” 

The Defense Department outlined on Wednesday how contractors will get reimbursed for pandemic-related expenses, which could take until the second quarter of 2021 if Congress and the White House don’t agree on a new stimulus package. Read Defense One’s full coverage here

On Wednesday, Arlington National Ceremony started a limited reopening for the public to visit. “Staff will be monitoring all aspects of the cemetery in order to prepare for a full opening in the near future,” Charles “Ray” Alexander Jr., cemetery superintendent, told Military Times. “We will evaluate our standard operating procedures and efficiencies to ensure the outstanding visitor experience and high standards people expect when coming to the cemetery.”

SBA announced on Thursday registration is open for its virtual conference next week for National Small Business Week. They will focus on “retooling and innovative practices for entrepreneurs" as they recover from the economic recession induced by the pandemic.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode talks about how the government can balance using evidence-based policies and taking quick actions on matters such as the pandemic and national security. 

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