Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, gives an opening statement during a hearing to discuss vaccines and protecting public health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, gives an opening statement during a hearing to discuss vaccines and protecting public health during the coronavirus pandemic. Greg Nash/Pool via AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Lawmakers Ask HHS for Vaccine Distribution Plans; USAID Deactivates Pandemic Task Force

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

Last week marked the seventh straight week of declines in coronavirus cases and the third straight week of decreases in deaths nationwide, according to an analysis published by Reuters on Tuesday. However, over the last two weeks, 17 states in the Northeast and Midwest have experienced a rise in cases. The infection rates range from a 0.9% to 18% increase. Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed.

Drug company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s clinical trials for its leading coronavirus vaccine were put on pause on Tuesday, as Stat News first reported. "Our standard review process was triggered and we voluntarily paused vaccination to allow review of safety data by an independent committee," said AstraZeneca in a statement. "This is a routine action which has to happen whenever there is a potentially unexplained illness in one of the trials, while it is investigated, ensuring we maintain the integrity of the trials." The large-scale, Phase 3 trial in the United States began in late August, but started in other countries earlier. In May, the Trump administration announced it would provide AstraZeneca up to $1.2 billion to accelerate its vaccine developments, which was part of “Operation Warp Speed.” 

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins testified before a Senate committee on Wednesday that the AstraZeneca situation “is a concrete example of how even a single case of unexpected illness is sufficient to require a clinical hold for the trial in multiple countries.” He also said regarding the vaccine approval process that "science and science alone will be the way in which this decision is made, otherwise I’ll have no part in it.”  

On Tuesday, three top House Democrats asked the Health and Human Services Department to provide written responses and a staff briefing by the end of the month on the government’s plans to distribute a coronavirus vaccine if and when one is approved. They described the logistical issues of rapid distribution, deciding who will receive the vaccine first and monitoring effects. “We all fully support the rapid development of a safe and effective vaccine. However, once one is approved for use, difficult decisions will follow,” wrote Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee; Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis; and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. “These critical decisions must be made on the basis of science and our shared values—not politics.”

The Internal Revenue Service announced on Tuesday that later this month it will send letters to an estimated 9 million non-tax filers who might be eligible for economic stimulus payments, but haven’t received them yet. They will have until October 15 to register online for their payments and their children’s, if applicable. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development is deactivating its coronavirus task force on Wednesday, even though the pandemic has not ended, Politico reported. “The decision is being met with concerns by some who fear it will lead to greater dysfunction at USAID, which already faces personnel and structural turmoil,” said the report. “Others, however, say the task force was poorly managed and that its functions can be delegated.” The agency told Politico that a new “Readiness Unit” would oversee the bureaus and divisions’ coronavirus efforts as they take over from the task force. 

Internal emails obtained by the watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight signal that the Small Business Administration, “hadn’t done all it could” to prevent fraud in distribution of $160 billion in coronavirus relief in its Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. This follows the SBA inspector general’s assessment in late July that there is “potentially rampant fraud” in the program. “Anti-fraud policies do not appear to have been fully implemented in the agency’s loan processing operations—at least not until recently,” according to a report published on Wednesday. Also, “a significant portion of SBA’s loan officers were untrained, and for months had been approving loans to applicants who should not have received them.”

Senate Republicans released an approximately $300 billion “skinny” coronavirus relief bill on Tuesday, which the Senate is expected to start voting on Thursday. Democrats rejected the bill before it even came out, as it does not include a second round of stimulus checks or more funding for state and local governments. CNN did a comparison of the House’s HEROES Act (approved in May), the previous Senate Republican bill and the new one. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS and Homeland Security Department should adapt a national, uniform framework for data collection on disaster responses (such as the pandemic) according to a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Although disasters are growing in number and severity, there hasn’t been a standardized approach to answering the question, ‘How many deaths and severe morbidities were caused by this event?’ ” said Ellen MacKenzie, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Mortality and morbidity data present a significant opportunity to inform response, recovery, mitigation, and preparedness efforts.” 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany will hold a press briefing at 12:30 p.m.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode discusses the Office of Management and Budget’s recent memo that advises agencies on how to reduce their regulation enforcement and adjudication practices as part of the administration's effort to use deregulation to boost the economy, currently in a recession due to the pandemic. 

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.