Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: “Bright Spots” of the Federal Pandemic Response; FDA Addresses COVID Variants

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

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service compiled a list of 65 “bright spots” in the federal government’s response to the coronavirus. “Telemedicine expanded to more veterans. Legacy paper processes went digital, giving rise to more effective services. Federal employees got remote access to agency systems to retrieve data and information, even at high-security organizations, opening opportunities for telework few had imagined,” said PPS. “Government adapted and kept delivering, often in new and better ways, whether it was managing loan applications for small businesses, processing veterans’ benefits or distributing millions of vaccine doses to the public. People throughout the country are the beneficiaries of a trial by fire, a test that would have been impossible for government to conceive and plan under normal circumstances.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

NBC News reported on Monday how the Biden administration selected vaccine distribution sites and how that differs from the Trump administration’s approach. “Former President Donald Trump used his power over federal resources and contracting dollars to reward governors, senators and business leaders who praised him privately and publicly as he sought re-election,” said the report. “By contrast, Biden has prioritized vaccinating people who are both vulnerable and representative of his political coalition. His administration is even providing support to vaccination sites in churches, hoping to persuade more Black and Hispanic people to get the shots.” The Biden administration has also made the Federal Emergency Management Agency the central government coordinator for vaccine distribution, unlike the Trump administration that relied on the White House coronavirus task force and an ad hoc group run by Jared Kushner, senior adviser and Trump’s son-in-law. 

Two new vaccine sites in Queens and Brooklyn are opening on Wednesday in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday.

Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, said during a briefing on Monday the administration anticipates all backlog doses of vaccines (due to the winter storm across the country) will be delivered by midweek. “But delivering doses to administration sites is, as we know, only the first step,” he stated. “Sites around the country have a significant job ahead of them to quickly vaccinate the public. It will take some time for those sites to catch up.”

Slavitt also said that the White House, Health and Human Services Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be hosting listening sessions over the next two weeks with stakeholder groups to increase confidence in taking the vaccine. 

When asked what the federal government is doing to vaccinate federal employees, Slavitt replied: “What I can tell you is that the federal government is following the [CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] guidelines. And if you'd like more detail or if you have more specific detailed questions on aspects of federal employees, frontline workers, versus others, we will follow up with you and answer those questions.” 

The Food and Drug Administration said on Monday that companies don’t have to conduct lengthy trials for vaccines for the coronavirus variants. Instead, they can do smaller trials, like those used for annual flu shots. This “would greatly accelerate the review process at a time when scientists are increasingly anxious about how the variants might slow or reverse progress made against the virus,” The New York Times reported. Other guidance documents the FDA released on Monday included, “addressing how antibody treatments and diagnostic tests might need to be retooled to respond to the virus variants.”

Agencies are working to update their coronavirus safety plans after the Office of Management and Budget issued new guidance last month and recommendations from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, Federal News Network reported on Monday. “Generally speaking, the new plans reflect many of the broad principles that agencies have set during the pandemic but are, in some cases, more detailed or direct,” said the report. “The biggest change in agencies’ plans stems from OMB’s January guidance, which required agencies to limit occupancy at their facilities to no more than 25% of normal capacity during periods of high community COVID-19 spread.”

Dr. Eric Lander, Biden’s nominee for Office of Science and Technology Policy director, won’t be able to do some pandemic work if confirmed due to conflicts of interest, Axios reported on Monday. He “will have to refrain from working on COVID vaccine matters until he divests as much as $1 million of stock in a company manufacturing one,” said the report. He, “also won't work on any other issues that could affect his sizable portfolio until he's fully divested, the White House said. That could take months, potentially handicapping a key administration hand at a crucial time.” 

Besides the pending nomination, Lander is currently advising OSTP and “is complying with all applicable ethics rules and appropriate recusals are in place pending divestiture,” a White House spokesperson told Axios

The Biden transition team spent more than five times more on personnel and operations than the Trump team did ($24.4 million compared to $4.7 million). Besides payroll, COVID testing and safe event places added additional costs, Politico reported on Monday.

In announcing changes to the Paycheck Protection Program on Monday to better promote equity in getting access to relief, the White House outlined how it’s working to curb waste, fraud and abuse in the pandemic program, which has been an issue. “Unlike the previous round of the PPP, loan guaranty approval is now contingent on passing [Small Business Administration] fraud checks, Treasury’s Do Not Pay database, and public records,” said a fact-sheet from the White House. “The SBA now also conducts manual loan reviews for the largest loans in the PPP portfolio and a random sampling of other loans.” Additionally, the SBA is continuing to work with “its lender partners to create streamlined processes to resolve issues as quickly as possible, while still ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.” 

The Federal Trade Commission warned earlier this month that posting your COVID vaccination cards on social media could put you at risk for identity theft since the cards have your full name, date of birth, where you got the vaccine, and the dates you got it. 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 12 p.m. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about how telework affects teams and ways to bolster communication and collaboration. 

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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