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Coronavirus Roundup: EPA Watchdog to Review Workplace Safety Measures; White House Is Rethinking Federal Vaccine Strategy

Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

The pandemic, “does not appear to have significantly transformed the size or composition of the federal workforce,” in the short-term, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service released on Friday. For example, among the front-line agencies, from March to December 2020, “the full-time workforces across these six agencies grew by an average of 0.7% per quarter, just slightly outpacing the 0.6% in average growth seen governmentwide over the same period,” said the report. The Federal Emergency Management Agency “saw the largest expansion, averaging 1.3% per quarter, while the [National Institutes of Health] workforce retracted by 2.7% on average.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

There are now 25 federally run vaccination sites across the country following the addition of new sites in Boston, Norfolk, Va., and Newark, N.J., the White House coronavirus response team announced on Friday. Overall, there are nearly 50,000 locations nationwide where people can get vaccinated, said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator. Last week, President Biden increased the goal of administering 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office (which ends April 29) to 200 million shots. 

Despite the addition of new federal vaccination sites, the administration is rethinking its vaccine strategy since “the existing system of government-run mass vaccination pilot sites has been costly,” Politico reported on Monday. “The sites have administered just 1.7 million doses since the beginning of February and about 67,000 shots a day over the last two weeks, per internal FEMA briefing documents and data obtained by Politico. That’s roughly 2.5% of all doses administered nationwide during the same period, according to data published by the CDC.”

Army Lt. Gen. Ronald J. Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, said on Friday that the entire Defense Department could be vaccinated by the middle of July. So far, more than 600,000 service members from the department’s three components have received at least their first does, he said.

The administration is working with private companies to develop a standard for “vaccine passports,” The Washington Post reported on Sunday. Many companies and businesses said this will be a requirement for returning to normal operations, however, there are lingering concerns over the ethics of such passports. “If it became a government mandate, it would go down a dark road very quickly,” Brian Castrucci, head of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health group that is funding research in to why some Americans are hesitant about the vaccine, told the paper. “It becomes a credential. It becomes a ‘needing your papers,’ if you will. That could be dangerous—and it could turn off people.”

FEMA officials said the District of Columbia will not get a mass vaccination site, despite its “high social vulnerability” status (calculated based on race and poverty levels) due to its population size, The Washington Post reported. “FEMA has also rejected requests from the District and the governors of Maryland and Virginia to help vaccinate the massive essential federal workforce in the capital region, including transit workers and postal workers,” the report noted. 

Some former top health officials in the Trump administration are coordinating how they will talk about the COVID response under Trump out of fear they will be “scapegoated” by other colleagues, such as former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Politico reported last week. The group includes the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, Medicare chief and White House COVID-19 coordinator, many of whom sparred with Azar. “The behind-the-scenes efforts represent just one part of the broader race to shape the story around the Trump administration’s response to the health crisis, which was marked by constant internal conflict,” said the report. “The turbulent period will be the subject of numerous forthcoming books and television specials, with little expectation the previous administration will be vindicated in those accounts.” 

The Justice Department announced on Friday that since the start of the pandemic it has charged 474 defendants in coronavirus fraud schemes that involved attempts to obtain over $569 million from the federal government. At least 120 of the defendants tried to scam the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program. This has been a “historic enforcement initiative” said Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement. “The impact of the department’s work to date sends a clear and unmistakable message to those who would exploit a national emergency to steal taxpayer-funded resources from vulnerable individuals and small businesses.”

Newly confirmed Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is getting involved in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s stalled decision over whether or not it will issue an emergency temporary standard for the coronavirus, Bloomberg reported on Friday. In an executive order issued on day two of his administration, President Biden directed the agency to make a decision by March 15. Although the agency has taken several actions since then to bolster its coronavirus response, it has not specifically said anything about the standards yet.

The Environmental Protection Agency inspector general released its fiscal 2021 oversight plan on Friday, which includes reviewing if the agency followed health and safety protocols upon employees return to workplaces. Other planned and ongoing reviews involve how the pandemic impacted EPA’s ability to carry out its missions. The return to offices has been a source of tension between the agency and its union.

At a briefing on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president “certainly wants to have an FDA commissioner in place” and “wants it to be the right person.” Former FDA officials from Republican and Democratic administrations have been calling on the president to name someone, saying the pandemic presents an urgent need for a confirmed leader.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this morning she feels an “impending doom” over the rise of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the last week. She pleaded that everyone should do what they can to prevent a fourth surge. “When I first started at CDC about two months ago I made a promise to you: I would tell you the truth even if it was not the news we wanted to hear,” she said. “Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth and I have to hope and trust you will listen.” 

Later on Monday, President Biden will provide an update on the pandemic response and vaccinations at 2:10 p.m.

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