Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is reviewing jobs across the department to see which could remain virtual after the pandemic.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is reviewing jobs across the department to see which could remain virtual after the pandemic. Susan Walsh/AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Transportation and Agriculture Secretaries Discuss Telework; OMB Advises Agencies on Good Stewardship of Relief Funds 

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

Open the Government, a nonpartisan coalition seeking to make the government more transparent and accountable, issued a report on Monday about challenges to government transparency during the pandemic, particularly with Freedom of Information Act requests. “Agencies such as the State Department, Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs and Border Protection, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, etc. blocked access to information, failing to honor expedited processing for coronavirus-related requests, even after granting the requests in the first place,” said the organization. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “inappropriately rejected standard FOIA requests, claiming requests were ‘too vague’ or ‘too broad’ in scope – a recurring theme for denials.” 

There are several recommendations at the end of the report to reform FOIA law and encourage transparency at the agencies. Here are some of the other recent headlines from over the weekend and today that you might have missed.

AstraZeneca announced on Monday that its vaccine––that it developed with the University of Oxford––is 79% effective and there aren’t any safety concerns, following a large clinical trial in the United States, Chile and Peru. The company will continue to analyze the data and plans to apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration “in the coming weeks.” The U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and National Institutes of Health provided funding for the trial.

Several European countries recently paused their rollouts of the vaccine due to concerns of blood clots, but the European Medicines Agency determined last week the benefits outweigh the risks, Stat News reported on Monday. Also the new study “did not see a specific type of clot in blood vessels near the brain that the [European Medicines Agency] said might be associated with the vaccine. However, this type of clot, called a cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, is so rare it might not be expected to occur in even a large clinical trial.”

The Office of Management and Budget sent a memo to agencies on Friday on how to effectively implement the American Rescue Plan while also ensuring good stewardship of taxpayer funds. It says agencies should “use existing financial transparency and accountability mechanisms established by OMB” in April 2020. It also outlines actions for equity, payment integrity and compliance with oversight bodies. 

Pete Buttigieg, Transportation secretary, published an article in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday about the lessons and challenges of telework during the pandemic. “I’m among the Americans who have learned some surprising lessons of telework: that a video meeting can be less intimate than a phone call, that not commuting to work can be strangely exhausting, and that having more time doesn’t mean getting more done,” he wrote. “Ultimately, I learned how little of what we have to tell each other is communicated in words, even in word-heavy disciplines like politics and academia.”

Tom Vilsack, Agriculture secretary, launched an agency-wide review to determine what positions could be completely virtual after the pandemic, Federal News Network reported. In a memo, obtained by the outlet, he said, the change in 2018 that severely restricted telework “had significant negative impacts on employee morale and retention.” 

Most of President Biden’s senior aides won’t qualify for relief payments under the new stimulus package, according to new financial disclosures, The Associated Press reported on Saturday. 

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra brought on Kristina Schake to be counselor for strategic communications, leading the agency’s public education campaign on the pandemic, Politico reported on Monday. She was previously global communications director for Instagram, communications director for former First Lady Michelle Obama and deputy communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Demetre Daskalakis, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention division on HIV/AIDS prevention, is taking on a newly established role to lead the agency’s vaccine equity efforts, The Washington Post reported on Friday.

Following the killing of eight people last week in Georgia, including six Asian American women, Biden on Friday asked Congress to pass the “COVID Hate Crimes Act.” He said in a statement: “While we do not yet know motive, as I said last week, we condemn in the strongest possible terms the ongoing crisis of gender-based and anti-Asian violence that has long plagued our nation. [The act] would expedite the federal government’s response to the rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic, support state and local governments to improve hate crimes reporting, and ensure that hate crimes information is more accessible to Asian American communities.”

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

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