By Todd Kuhns /

Coronavirus Roundup: HHS Abandons Santa Claus Plan; Morale is Low at CDC and HHS

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

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” said White House Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows on CNN on Sunday. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.” This is “a contagious virus just like the flu,” he added, and the administration is "making efforts to contain it.” This came two days after the United States hit a record high of daily new cases (83,000) since the start of the pandemic. Here are some other recent headlines from over the weekend and today that you might have missed. 

Morale at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “toxic” due to pressure from political officials since the onset of the pandemic, NBC News reported on Sunday. “[A] current employee said: ‘I don't know if the damage to our reputation can be overcome with a new administration. I worry it's a permanent problem,’ ” said the report. “An official who has worked for the CDC for more than 10 years said that even though she has never seen morale so low, many staffers are afraid to leave, knowing their positions could be filled by people with political agendas or without public health backgrounds.”

Since February, at least 27 political appointees at the Health and Human Services Department have left and agency leaders are preparing for more if Trump loses re-election, Politico reported on Monday. “Such a wave of departures would leave only a shell staff shepherding the department through a uniquely challenging winter of coronavirus outbreaks and drug and vaccine authorizations until Inauguration Day on Jan. 20,” said the report. Current and former officials told Politico that “the coronavirus crisis has driven down morale at HHS and its agencies, saying that the round-the-clock nature of the response, unrelenting headlines about the Trump administration's many fumbles and internal battles over policy have made the health department an especially difficult work environment.” 

HHS scrapped a plan to use Santa Claus performers to promote the coronavirus vaccine and give them (in addition to elves and Mrs. Claus performers) early access to the vaccine, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. This would have been part of the department’s $250 million public relations campaign to “inspire hope” about the pandemic. Michael Caputo, HHS top spokesman, who is now on medical leave, conceptualized the Santa deal. 

At least five individuals close to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for coronavirus in recent days. This includes his chief-of-staff, a close aide and outside adviser. Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force, and Karen Pence, tested negative; despite contact with some of those who tested positive recently, the vice president is not quarantining, CNN reported on Sunday.

The New York Times published a deep dive on Friday about the implications of the Trump administration shutting down the National Vaccine Program Office last year. “We’re behind the eight ball,” Daniel Salmon, director of vaccine safety in the office from 2007 to 2012, told the Times. ”We don’t even know who’s in charge.” HHS said the office was “not closed” but rather “merged” with HHS’s Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy “and was strengthened.”

The military will only play a logistics role in delivering vaccines; it will not be administering them. "The overwhelming majority of Americans will get a vaccine that no federal employee, including the Department of Defense, has touched," said Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Health and Human Services Department, on Friday. Gen. Gustave Perna, “Operation Warp Speed” chief operating officer, “and his team ... are guiding all of that with scores of folks from both the CDC and the DoD...We will have an operation center that will tell us at any given time exactly where every dose of vaccine is."

President Trump is considering replacing Defense Secretary Mark Esper if he wins re-election, due to their “strained” relationship. Esper may have “outperformed” Trump by being a strict follower of the CDC’s guidelines by wearing a mask when he couldn’t social distance, The New York Times reported on Friday. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Friday that it might be time for a national mask mandate due to the rise in coronavirus cases. “There's going to be a difficulty enforcing it,” he said. “But if everyone agrees that this is something that's important and they mandate it and everybody pulls together...I think that would be a great idea to have everybody do it uniformly.”

On September 24, the No. 2 Labor Department official told the department’s enforcement heads to stop issuing press releases about companies’ violations because they can “they can linger unfairly online if citations are overturned,” The New York Times reported on Friday. “The memo may be having some effect already. Since its flurry of releases about citations in mid-September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not issued discrete news releases about particular companies for COVID-related violations, instead providing a weekly summary of proposed penalties with a table listing up to three dozen companies that have recently been cited,” said the report. “The summaries include little detail about what violations the companies may have committed and no comments from department officials.”

The FBI Agents Association, which represents over 14,000 active and retired FBI special agents, announced on Friday that Fauci would receive its annual “Distinguished Service Award.” Fauci will also be the keynote speaker at the award ceremony, which will take place virtually on November 19. 

On Friday, the Agriculture Department authorized $500 million for a fourth round of contracts for its pandemic food assistance program. The department will award contracts to food distributors by October 30 and expects to deliver food boxes between Nov. 1 and December 31. Previously, there have been reports of mismanagement and politicization in the program.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about the president’s recent executive order that could politicize the civil service. 

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