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Coronavirus Roundup: VA to Provide Vaccines to NARA staff; Watchdog Flags Major Safety Violations at ICE Facility

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

In its latest pandemic report issued on Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office made 28 new recommendations to improve the federal government’s response—those are in addition to 38 of the previous 44 recommendations that haven’t yet been implemented. The new ones include recommending the Health and Human Services Department centralize its COVID-19 data online and the Agriculture Department ensure it has adequate contracting personnel to administer its pandemic food assistance program. “Sustained federal action is crucial as [the] pandemic enters its second year,” said the watchdog. 

The NASA inspector general released a report on Wednesday about the pandemic’s impact on the agency’s major projects as most employees and contractors shifted to telework. “As of October 2020, COVID-19 impacted 56 NASA programs and projects in FY 2020, 30 of which fit the criteria as a major program or project,” said the report. “Of the 56 impacted programs and projects, 52 are expected to continue experiencing impacts in FY 2021, with 35 of those continuing into FY 2022 and beyond at an estimated total cost impact of nearly $3 billion.”

The Homeland Security inspector general reported on Thursday that an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention center in Eloy, Arizona, did not follow public health standards during the IGs unannounced remote inspection from August to November 2020. “In addressing COVID-19, [the La Palma Correctional Center] did not enforce ICE’s precautions including use of facial coverings and social distancing, which may have contributed to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility,” said the report. “In addition, LPCC did not meet standards for medical care, segregation, grievances, or detainee communication” and the “medical unit was critically understaffed.” 

The Veterans Affairs Department announced on Thursday it reached an agreement with the National Archives and Records Administration to provide vaccines to staff who are working on processing VA claims and cannot do so remotely. “The staff at NARA play a vital role in making sure veteran claims for compensation for service-related conditions are processed in a timely manner,” said Thomas Murphy, VA acting under secretary for benefits. “By assisting their vaccination efforts, we can make significant progress in processing the backlog in claims, which has increased since March 2020 due to the pandemic.” Additionally, HHS gave a separate vaccine allocation to NARA to vaccinate other staff members, the announcement said. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Reuters on Thursday that the United States may not need AstraZeneca’s vaccine, even if it does get emergency use authorization from the FDA. His “general feeling” is that the country will have enough doses for everyone between the government’s contracts for the Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency signed an agreement with the Peace Corps earlier this week to assist with the COVID response. It is projected that volunteers will be deployed in mid-May. This is only the second domestic deployment for the Peace Corps in its 60-year history, with the first being the Hurricane Katrina response.

On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized two more non-prescription at-home coronavirus tests. The tests––from Abbott Laboratories and Quidel Corp.–– “had been previously authorized by the agency (some under different names) to test those with COVID-19 symptoms, but the actions this week authorize testing of asymptomatic individuals when used for serial testing,” said the FDA. “In total, the FDA has authorized three tests with serial screening claims (testing asymptomatic individuals multiple times on a routine basis).” 

The FDA is investigating what led to the contamination of a batch of about 15 million Johnson & Johnson vaccines at a contract manufacturing plant, The Wall Street Journal reported. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing on Thursday that Johnson & Johnson assured the White House they would meet their goal of producing 100 million doses by the end of May. 

When asked if the White House should have disclosed the problem earlier (administration officials knew about it last week), Psaki said the Baltimore plant hasn’t been FDA-approved. “J&J is, of course, working through that process to bring the facility online and gain authorization,” she said. “HHS updated us on J&J's manufacturing, including where things stood with the facility, at the point where they learned about the issue. It wasn't going to impact our supply. It wasn't going to impact the supply to the American people … J&J is working through this with the FDA, so we'd certainly refer to them on the process.”

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines for vaccinated individuals, saying they can travel domestically without taking a coronavirus test so long as they wear masks in public. They also won’t need to quarantine before or after traveling. For international travel, the agency said to check their recommendations by destination. 

The Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, which has over 13,700 employees, is studying what telework could look like after the pandemic ends. A recently published concept paper “notes that while the command’s mission set can’t and won’t change, where, how and when the work gets done is going to continue to be a lot more flexible than pre-pandemic,” Federal News Network reported on Thursday. 

A top Justice Department official issued a statement on Friday about how federal agencies, state and local governments and other receipts of coronavirus relief funding should approach “civil rights protections and responsibilities” during the pandemic. One of the tenets is the Justice Department’s “Civil Rights division is prepared to work with sister federal agencies to support state and local efforts aimed at preventing pandemic-related harassment and discrimination targeting [Asian American and Pacific Islander] communities.”

The Interior Department chief-of-staff was reassigned to a senior counselor job at the agency after she planned a 50-person indoor party that the White House canceled, Politico reported on Thursday. The party was meant to be a celebration for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s confirmation, but the plan was scrapped out of concern that it could become a super-spreader event, in addition to the terrible message it sent at a time when the administration is telling people to wear masks in public and social distance. “One Biden administration official said that ‘the party was the thing that broke the camel’s back’ and was the ‘latest lapse in judgment’ on [Jennifer] Van der Heide’s part in her new job, which she started on Jan. 20,” Politico reported. There were other accounts as to why and when this move happened. 

Miriam Cohen, former human capital officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who retired from the federal government in October 2020 after 34 years of service, published a post on Thursday about what she learned about telework over the last year and what the future of work looks like. “While I now have transitioned to the private sector, I cannot stop thinking about the questions I would face today as a CHCO, or quite frankly, as a federal manager, in contemplating a return to the office,” she wrote. “This issue seems to be a controversial one with no clear blueprint for a return to a post-COVID environment.” This was the first in a series of blogs on this matter. 

The nonprofit Hire Heroes announced they are holding a virtual job fair with government employers and contractors on April 15 for veterans and military spouses. “All Hire Heroes services are being offered online or over the phone during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the nonprofit. “This includes our volunteer services, which allow professionals to mentor and guide clients during their job search.”

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will give a briefing at 12:30 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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