Kaiser Permanente registered nurse Corie Robinson administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to DC Fire and EMS Lieutenant Joseph Papariello in December 2020.

Kaiser Permanente registered nurse Corie Robinson administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to DC Fire and EMS Lieutenant Joseph Papariello in December 2020. Shawn Thew/Pool via AP

Coronavirus Roundup: More Feds Are Eligible for Vaccines; Calls to Review FOIA During Pandemic 

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

According to an analysis by Allan Blutstein, founder of the noncommercial forum FOIA Advisor, in fiscal 2020––the year upended by the pandemic–– agencies received 7.9% fewer FOIA requests and processed 12% fewer than in fiscal 2019. The analysis, shared with Government Executive, also found that unfulfilled requests increased 9.6%, backlogged requests increased 17.4%, the average time to process a “simple request” decreased 17.9%, and agency processing and litigation costs increased by 13.8% and 10.9%, respectively. 

“The government was able to reduce its request backlog in 2019 despite a month-long shutdown, but this year's data suggests that the pandemic was far more disruptive to agency FOIA operations,” Blutstein said. “The numbers likely would have been far worse had the government not brought historically high resources to bear.”

The Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration’s Office of Government Information Services (the federal FOIA ombudsman) both issued guidance early on in the pandemic about mitigating anticipated delays. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

In other FOIA-related news, a group of bipartisan senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the Government Accountability Office on Monday to review how the pandemic has impacted agencies’ compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests. They cited a May 2020 report from the Justice Department that said the pandemic limited agencies’ abilities to retrieve and process documents because of technology and staff limitations. “These issues compounded the preexisting challenges that agencies face in processing the hundreds of thousands of FOIA requests they receive each year in a timely manner,” the senators wrote. “According to a March 2020 GAO report, from fiscal year 2012 to 2018, agencies reported the number of FOIA requests received increased over 30% and backlogs increased over 80%.” 

Starting this week in Washington, D.C., Postal Service employees are eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine and starting April 12, “essential” federal employees also will be eligible, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on Monday.

Vanity Fair published a deep dive on Monday about how Trump officials scrambled to try to get coronavirus vaccines during the last few weeks of the administration. Then-White House Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows and a small group of National Security Council officials guarded a list for vaccine recipients, which were meant for career staff who couldn’t telework, those in the line of succession and officials in the field, such as Secret Service agents. “It is not clear who ultimately succeeded in crashing the list” as “the operation was so opaque that even members of the Operation Warp Speed board and the White House COVID-19 task force say they were left in the dark,” said the report. “When several caught wind of the seemingly random vaccinations of healthy, young federal employees, they suspected that vaccine doses were being siphoned, without clear accounting, from the nation’s overall supply.”

Some state and federal prison officials are refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine, either out of fear of side effects or lack of confidence in it, The Associated Press and Marshall Project reported. The pandemic has ravaged prisons and staff not getting vaccinated could make it worse, said the report. 

The Defense Department issued updated coronavirus guidance on Tuesday on personnel movement and travel restrictions, which applies to service members and civilians. The department instituted a “conditions-based approach,” in which “conditions for unrestricted travel rest on installation-level data regarding conditions in and surrounding DoD installations, facilities and locations,” said the memo.

The State Department inspector general reported on Tuesday that the department followed White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other federal agency guidance in returning employees to worksites. “The department also developed metrics and collected data to help bureau, facility, and post management determine whether moving from one reopening phase to another should be considered,” said the report. Also, “the department considered welfare and safety precautions in returning department personnel to onsite work; obtained and provided cleaning supplies and [personal protective equipment] to domestic and overseas personnel to reduce the spread of COVID-19; and established protocols that met or exceeded CDC guidance.”

The Internal Revenue Service has sent out about 90 million direct deposit stimulus payments, totaling $242.2 billion, and mailed an additional 150,000 checks, totaling $442 million, so far, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion relief package six days ago.

Following an executive order from Biden, the Education Department put out a request for information on Tuesday on safe school reopenings. This will be used when the department establishes a clearinghouse for schools and institutions of higher education on best practices on operating during the pandemic.

Many veterans cannot access their benefits because the majority of personnel at the National Personnel Records Center (located in St. Louis) have been teleworking and cannot access most records remotely, NBCLX reported on Tuesday. It could take up to 18 months to “clear the backlog,” according to an internal document obtained by NBCLX. “It was only March 8 – shortly after NBCLX alerted the agency of its intention to report on the massive backlog – that the NPRC issued a press release announcing it would expand to ‘Phase 1’ of reopening later in the month,” said the report. “It also detailed efforts to digitize more of its operation to expedite requests.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director; and Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration, testified before a House committee on Wednesday morning about how the Biden administration is increasing access to vaccines. “I’ve had the honor of being the director of this agency for just under two months, and it is clear to me that all of this work is done by expert staff with great dedication to, and pride in their work,” Walensky said. “They work tirelessly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am committed to making sure that their efforts to conduct and analyze the data allow science to drive our path forward.”

Former President Trump said on Fox News on Wednesday night, “I would recommend” the vaccine, as it “is a safe vaccine, and it is something that works.” Recent surveys have shown that Republican men and Trump supporters have expressed the most skepticism about getting vaccinated. Fauci said over the weekend that Trump speaking directly to his supporters would have a huge impact.

Trump also took swipes at Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator during his administration. “Dr. Fauci and Birx, and all of these people that frankly made nothing but mistakes,” Trump said. 

The Food and Drug Administration announced on Tuesday a series of actions to streamline the process for developers of coronavirus tests to receive emergency use authorization. “In certain circumstances, a [point-of-care] test or an at-home test could be authorized for over-the-counter use without the need for validating its use in asymptomatic individuals prior to authorization,” said FDA officials. “The FDA believes that evidence of a test’s strong performance in symptomatic patients combined with serial testing can mitigate the risk of false results when testing asymptomatic individuals.”

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will give a briefing at 3 p.m.

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s call for strenuous oversight of funding and the latest on vaccines.

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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