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Coronavirus Roundup: Administration To Deliver Millions of Masks; Agencies Have Yet to Implement Many of Watchdog’s Recommendations

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

Vivek Murthy, President Biden’s nominee to be surgeon general, testified during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning that one of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been learning about the virus while responding to it and communicating clearly changes in the approach to fighting the pandemic to the public. He told lawmakers that if confirmed, he would “first and foremost work with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], with the [National Institutes of Health] and other scientific entities in government to make sure we are clear on what the science says” and communicate that clearly to the public. Also, public education starts with “listening” to understand the public’s needs and concerns, not just speaking, he said. 

Dr. Rachel Leland Levine, nominee for Health and Human Services Department assistant secretary for health, also testified during the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. 

She said she has a “unique perspective” having been Pennsylvania secretary of health during the pandemic, in addition to being president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “I know first hand the importance of the collaboration and coordination between federal public health officials, state public health officials and local public health officials,” she testified. Levine would be the highest-ranking transgender federal government official, if confirmed. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

An analysis by the Food and Drug Administration, posted on Wednesday, says that Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine fits the requirements for emergency use authorization. The agency’s advisory committee will meet on Friday to consider the findings.

The Biden administration brought on Lauren Silvis, former FDA chief-of-staff, to be a consultant on the COVID response team, BioCentury reported. “The appointment brings regulatory expertise and a link to one of the few Trump administration officials who is widely respected across the political spectrum,” said the report. “Silvis served as chief of staff for former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb from May 2017 to June 2019, and as deputy director for policy of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health from 2015 to 2017.”

Dr. Stephen Hahn, former FDA commissioner, joined the board of directors of Blackfynn, which develops treatments for Parkinson's and neurodegeneration. This makes “him among the first high-ranking Trump health officials to land a private-sector role since Biden’s inauguration,” Politico noted on Wednesday. 

The White House said on Wednesday that the Health and Human Services and Defense departments will deliver millions of masks to federally qualified community health centers nationwide. “These approximately 1,300 health centers will be eligible to receive high-quality masks for free. Two-thirds of the people served by community health centers are living in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are un-housed,” said a fact-sheet from the White House. “Anyone in the community will be eligible to pick up masks from their local community health center.”

Also, Defense and USDA are working to distribute masks to many of the nation’s 300 food banks, which “reach a vast network of 60,000 food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food distribution points where masks will be distributed to individuals and families,” the White House said. 

Using money from the COVID-19 package enacted in December, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning a $2 billion program to help families pay for coronavirus funerals, but it's being delayed over concerns that it is susceptible to fraud, Politico reported on Thursday. While the agency has run similar programs over the years for other emergencies and major disasters, this “is poised to be the largest the agency has ever mounted,” said the report. “FEMA is scrambling to find safeguards that would prevent fraudsters from forging death certificates in an attempt to collect thousands of dollars for funerals that either never happened or were for people who died from another cause.” 

The Government Accountability Office summarized on Wednesday its 44 recommendations in its reports on the federal government’s response to the pandemic between June 2020 and January 2021. “Of the 44 recommendations we have made to date, 16 fall into one of the following public health areas: COVID-19 testing, vaccines and therapeutics, medical supply chain, COVID-19 health disparities, and COVID-19 health data,” said the watchdog. “Most of the recommendations have not been implemented. We maintain that doing so would improve the government’s response.”

The Agriculture Department outlined on Wednesday how it’s implementing President Biden’s national strategy to combat the pandemic. In addition to various programs, it has 354 personnel deployed to help with vaccine efforts nationwide.

The New Yorker published a profile on the “secret life of White House staff” on Wednesday, which dives into how Trump officials functioned during the pandemic. Timothy Harleth, White House chief usher installed by President Trump then fired by the Bidens, “told me that the residence staff took COVID-19 precautions more seriously than others at the Trump White House,” said the report. “By his count seven or eight residence staff workers contracted the virus. Once they recovered, those workers were asked to fill in for others, because of their presumed immunity...According to [a career White House employee] Jason, the lifers were given conflicting advice: stay home; later, come in.”

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.

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