White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Tuesday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Tuesday. Patrick Semansky/AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Winter Storms Hamper Vaccine Shipments; an Update on Efforts to Combat Mask Fraud

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

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday “while the world is reeling from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ebola has again emerged, simultaneously, in both Central and West Africa.” Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, spoke with the Ambassadors of Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia to the United States on Tuesday about theUnited States’ willingness to work closely with the governments of affected countries, and neighboring countries whose citizens would be at risk of the current outbreak spread,” Psaki stated. “President Biden’s first national security memorandum directed that U.S. leadership in health security and global health be elevated, prioritized and strengthened. The United States stands ready to do everything in its power to ensure a robust global response and to stop these outbreaks.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed.

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it increased the number of weekly vaccine doses to states to 13.5 million per week, which is a 57% increase since Inauguration Day. It also doubled the vaccine supply to its pharmacy program (2 million per week will be sent).

Then on Wednesday, the administration announced new actions to expand and improve coronavirus testing efforts. The Health and Human Services and Defense departments are making a $650 million investment to expand testing for Kindergarten through 8th grade schools, HHS and Defense will invest $815 million to increase domestic manufacturing of testing supplies, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will invest almost $200 million in genome sequencing to study coronavirus variants. 

The CDC is in talks with at least 13 labs to expand its genome sequencing efforts for the new coronavirus variants because “so far, though, the federal effort is lagging,” Politico reported on Tuesday. 

The severe winter storms throughout the country are hampering the Biden administration’s shipment of vaccines to states. “The two known affected shipping hubs include FedEx facilities in Memphis, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., according to the CDC,” Politico reported on Tuesday. “It is unclear how many vaccine doses are affected by shipment delays, but officials from numerous states said they were expecting delays, including Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota and Texas.” 

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and members of his “informal kitchen cabinet” spoke with The Hill about how they navigated attempts at politicizing the agency in the run-up to approving two coronavirus vaccines in December. “Hahn wanted their meetings kept quiet, so members blocked off time on their calendars and shared it as a ‘party planning meeting’ with colleagues in their various organizations to disguise it,” said the report published on Tuesday. “Hahn said he spent months batting away the White House’s demands for action on therapeutics and vaccines.” 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will host a virtual press conference at 3 p.m. to discuss the department’s efforts to identify and prevent counterfeit N95 masks from getting to frontline workers. Top officials from DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations as well as 3M, one of the largest producers of N95 masks, which many fraudsters have tried to replicate, will also be present. “Nearly a year into the pandemic, fraud remains a major problem as scammers seek to exploit hospitals and desperate and weary Americans,” The Associated Press reported last week. “Federal investigators say they have seen an increase in phony websites purporting to sell vaccines as well as fake medicine produced overseas and scams involving personal protective equipment. The schemes deliver phony products, unlike fraud earlier in the pandemic that focused more on fleecing customers.” 

Many hospitals are still rationing N95 masks, despite there not being a shortage, and “the logistical breakdown is rooted in federal failures over the past year to coordinate supply chains and provide hospitals with clear rules about how to manage their medical equipment,” The Associated Press reported on Tuesday. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency launched its first mass vaccination sites in California on Tuesday (Los Angeles and Oakland). Both centers will be able to administer up to 6,000 vaccines per day, with the help of FEMA’s operational and staffing support. “Last week, FEMA and the state of Texas announced the launch of a pilot project to establish community vaccination centers in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston,” said a press release. “FEMA is seeking bids to contract medical personnel to help staff both federally supported and community vaccination centers around the country.” They anticipate the contracts, which will be given through the federal acquisition process, to be completed by mid-March. 

The Biden administration announced a slew of new appointments at HHS on Tuesday, several of which will be focused on the COVID response. “These new appointees join tens of thousands of talented, dedicated career officials throughout the agency, whose expertise is critical for tackling the ongoing public health crisis, ensuring Americans have access to quality, affordable health care, strengthening support for seniors and other vulnerable populations, conducting groundbreaking research, and more,” said the press release. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to restoring public trust in our health agencies and leading with science and facts.”

Distributing pandemic relief has highlighted agencies’ challenges with identity management as fraudsters “have exploited gaps in this process, using stolen personal information to obtain pandemic relief,” Federal News Network reported on Wednesday. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that introduced legislation to address such issues last September and plans to reintroduce the bill. 

When asked during the briefing on Tuesday how many White House staffers have been vaccinated, Psaki said, “Our focus is on being as transparent as possible with our efforts to vaccinate senior staff and other staff around the White House complex.” She added, “We have a limited footprint as well here because every staffer is tested on a daily basis as well.” Axios first reported on January 26 that hundreds of White House staffers have received the vaccine. 

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee released a video on Wednesday of a stakeholder listening forum with small business representatives. “We greatly benefited from hearing the views of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Small Business Roundtable representing the interests of millions of small businesses across the country, and will carefully consider their thoughts and recommendations as we conduct our oversight activities and plan our future work,” said Rich Delmar, acting inspector general for the Treasury Department, in a statement. 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 12:30 p.m. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode looks at how and when federal employees will receive the coronavirus vaccine and the confusing messaging some are getting about it. 

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.