Dr. Scott Atlas, right, President Donald Trump's new pandemic advisor, during a news conference at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute Monday, Aug. 31.

Dr. Scott Atlas, right, President Donald Trump's new pandemic advisor, during a news conference at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute Monday, Aug. 31. Chris O'Meara/AP

Coronavirus Roundup: White House Advisor Denies Pushing Herd Immunity Strategy; HHS Wants to ‘Inspire Hope’

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

Tuesday marks an “important milestone” for former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Under the law, his staff will get office space at the Commerce Department, government-issued devices and the ability to clear people for security clearances, David Marchick, director of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service's presidential transition center told Government Executive. While the election has been upended by the pandemic, Marchick said “so far so good” on the transition preparations by the White House, Biden’s team and the General Services Administration, which manages transition activities. 

A Biden transition spokesperson told Government Executive the team is following public health experts’ directions to keep safe. "Like many organizations around the country, the Biden transition team will continue to do our work remotely,” said the spokesperson. “While we have access to GSA space, the number of staff needed inside the office will be limited. A portion of our work is dedicated to ensuring continuity of government across all federal agencies, including the handling of sensitive information which may require socially distant interaction.” Here are some other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The contractor selected to distribute loans and grants under the Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is under scrutiny for delays and potentially fraudulent activity. RER Solutions Inc. received nearly $800 million from SBA to distribute about 3.6 million loans totaling $188 billion and another $20 billion in grants to 5.8 million companies, The Wall Street Journal reported. RER then subcontracted most of that work to Rocket Loans, a component of the nation’s largest mortgage lender. The EIDL program is separate from the Paycheck Protection Program. The SBA’s inspector general “estimated that about $250 million in loans and grants have gone to businesses that could be ineligible.”

Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis published a report on Tuesday on the “resounding success” of the Paycheck Protection Program. The forgivable loan program supported over 51 million jobs during the pandemic by distributing $659 billion to small businesses in need, the lawmakers said.

Meanwhile, the Democrats on the committee released their own report, which was more critical of the program. An initial analysis found “tens of thousands of loans issued by the administration could be subject to fraud, waste, or abuse,” said the report. “Yet the administration appears to lack the appropriate oversight mechanisms to identify and root out these problems. Treasury and SBA have only committed to auditing PPP loans that exceed $2million—leaving the other 99.4% of loans with little or no oversight.” 

As of June 30, the federal government’s coronavirus-related obligations totaled $1.5 trillion and expenditures totaled $1.3 trillion, the Government Accountability Office said Monday in a report on the federal response to the pandemic and its effects. Between January 1 and June 30 there were about 125,000 more deaths than would normally occur, “an indicator of the pandemic's effect on health care outcomes,” said GAO. It also found that agencies have made some progress on addressing their recommendations from its June report, but “such urgency required certain tradeoffs in achieving transparency and accountability goals.” The watchdog made three recommendations regarding distribution of unemployment insurance, retracting stimulus payments sent to deceased individuals and oversight of SBA loans. 

The Trump administration’s new pandemic adviser is reportedly pushing a controversial strategy to achieve COVID-19 herd immunity, whereby the majority of the population would develop immunity to the disease by contracting the virus, thus slowing its spread. The Washington Post reported on Monday that Scott Atlas, a Hoover Institution fellow and former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center, is encouraging the White House to follow Sweden’s model in which the country lifts restrictions, so individuals can build immunity. Atlas strongly disputed the report in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. Sweden's approach, deemed reckless by many public health officials, would likely lead to more lives lost—Sweden has a higher COVID-19 death rate than the United States, according to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded 11 grants totaling $17 million to create the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases, which will involve collaborations between the United States and 28 other countries, Federal News Network reported on Monday. “The CREID network will enable early warnings of emerging diseases wherever they occur, which will be critical to rapid responses. The knowledge gained through this research will increase our preparedness for future outbreaks,” said NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci in a statement last week.

The House Budget Committee released a report on Monday about the need to increase federal funding for research and development. “The president’s relentless attacks on science and facts have made the impact of the coronavirus in the United States more devastating and the resulting economic free fall far worse,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., committee chairman. “With a renewed commitment to science, innovation, and inclusion, we can supercharge our recovery and begin to make real societal changes that will set our nation on a path to becoming a healthier and more equitable nation.”

The Office of the First Lady announced on Tuesday that White House tours will resume on Sept. 12 with new health and safety precautions for visitors and staff. The hours of operation and capacity will be significantly reduced. 

The Health and Human Services Department put out a bid for a $250 million contract for a communications firm to help “defeat despair and inspire hope” about the pandemic and the nation’s recovery. The document says the majority of the money would be spent between now and January. HHS wants to target businesses, workplaces, colleges and schools, faith organizations, law enforcement and child care groups with the message campaign, Politico reported on Monday.

HHS is seeking public comment on a proposed data reporting method for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program’s use of $90 million in CARES Act funds. The report “will provide monthly reporting on the types of services provided and number of people served for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19 among RWHAP clients (and immediate household members in limited circumstances),” said a notice published in the Federal Register on Tuesday. “This module will be required for all providers (regardless of whether they are recipients or sub-recipients) who receive CARES Act RWHAP funding.” Feedback is due by November 2. 

The Wall Street Journal published a deep dive on Monday about how the federal government’s mishandling of the supply chain at the onset of the pandemic “turned hospital systems and state governments into rivals” for limited resources. The Journal outlined how the White House’s shift of responsibility onto states was a gradual process and was due, in part, to “its late recognition of the supply threat and its slowness in mobilizing the federal government to coordinate a response.”

Backlogs in naturalization applications, which worsened during the pandemic when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices were shut, could prevent many would-be new Americans from voting in November, The Washington Post reported on Monday. USCIS said it expects to naturalize 600,000 new citizens by the end of fiscal 2020, but did not disclose how many cases are in the backlog. 

On Monday, the Justice Department inspector general published virtual inspection reports on how three contractor-operated Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities managed the coronavirus and followed public health guidance. There were mixed results at the locations in Garza County, Texas; Clearfield County, Pa. and Telfair County, Ga. However, the IG reported that “BOP did not always issue [coronavirus] technical directions to contract prisons at the same time it issued comparable guidance to BOP-managed institutions between January and April.” 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode discusses a new report by The National Academy of Public Administration on managing space traffic. 

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.