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Coronavirus Roundup: A $250M Initiative to Promote Coronavirus Safety and Vaccines; USDA Considers Non-Pandemic Telework Policy

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

President Biden issued a statement on Tuesday encouraging Congress to pass the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act,” which would amend decades-old labor laws to strengthen unions. The Office of Management and Budget released a similar statement on Monday. “As America works to recover from the devastating challenges of deadly pandemic, an economic crisis, and reckoning on race that reveals deep disparities, we need to summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone,” Biden said. “We owe it not only to those who have put in a lifetime of work, but to the next generation of workers who have only known an America of rising inequality and shrinking opportunity.” The House passed the act during the last session of Congress. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Following The New York Times’ report that Emergent Biosolutions used “aggressive tactics” to get the federal government to spend nearly half of its budget for the strategic national stockpile on its anthrax vaccine, the White House moved an event on Wednesday from its facilities in Baltimore to the White House, Bloomberg reported on Monday. Emergent is now helping AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson produce their coronavirus vaccines. When asked about the Times’ report on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “The administration is going to undertake a comprehensive review and audit of the national stockpile.” 

AstraZeneca plans to file for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its vaccine after it gets the results of its clinical trial within the next few weeks, CBS News reported last week. If approved, it will be able to deliver 50 million doses instantly. 

The Health and Human Services Department announced a $250 million initiative on Monday to promote coronavirus safety and vaccination among underserved populations. The department’s “Office of Minority Health will offer the funding as health literacy grants to localities, who will partner with community-based organizations, to reach racial and ethnic minority, rural and other vulnerable populations,” said the announcement. The effort “is expected to fund approximately 30 projects in urban communities and 43 projects in rural communities for two years. Cities, counties, parishes or other similar subdivisions may apply for the funding.” 

The HHS inspector general is looking into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s handling of coronavirus data, such as tracking the impact on communities of color (including vaccinations), Politico reported on Tuesday.

The National Archives and Records Administration is working on a “phased expansion” for employees coming back to work onsite at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., since COVID infection rates in the area are declining. The center houses military personnel, health, and medical records for discharged and deceased veterans from all services from after WWII. “Since March 2020, the NPRC has responded to more than 288,000 requests. Staff responded to more than 116,000 urgent requests, including more than 45,000 burial-related requests, assistance to more than 7,500 homeless veterans, and more than 18,000 medical emergencies. Additionally, the NPRC partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to expedite the processing of VA requests for records,” NARA said on Monday. However, “these efforts have not been enough to keep pace with the new requests received over the same period, and the backlog of unanswered requests has continued to grow to the current number.” The current backlog is more than 480,000.

The Agriculture Department is considering amending its pre-pandemic telework policy to allow for more remote and flexible work schedule options, which employee unions welcomed. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack “has asked his staff to begin replacing the department’s 2018 policy, which limited employees to one day of telework a week, with something more in line with the program he started back in 2014 during his time as USDA secretary in the Obama administration,” Federal News Network reported on Monday. “Under the previous 2014 policy, USDA employees could telework up to four days a week.” 

A Florida couple pleaded guilty to pretending to be farmers and business owners, so they could receive $1.1 million in COVID relief from the Small Business Administration, the Justice Department announced on Monday. Their sentencing was scheduled for June 2.

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 1:30 p.m.

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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