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Coronavirus Roundup: Federal CIO Teases Possible Telework Changes; VA Now Offering Vaccines to Eligible Adolescents 

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

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks held a hearing on Wednesday about the pandemic’s impact on the National Park Service. As of April 2020, over 140 of its 419 facilities closed or had modified operations, but NPS allowed some to remain open where possible, to the dismay of some lawmakers, union officials and advocates.

“While a significant number of NPS employees have been on maximum telework during the pandemic, law enforcement, custodial services, visitor services, research, restoration work, fee collection, and other operational work continues in the field,” said Shawn Benge, NPS deputy director, in his prepared statement. “The employees of the NPS have shown remarkable ingenuity and flexibility.”

In fiscal 2020, NPS lost about $125 million due to its temporary suspension of entrance fees and reduced visitations. “On the other hand, some cost categories showed savings in fiscal 2020: NPS travel costs decreased by $16 million, and utility costs dropped by $5 million,” Benge said. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Federal Chief Information Officer Clare Martorana “hinted” about potential upcoming changes to the federal government’s telework policy during a virtual conference on Tuesday, MeriTalk reported. “I think the pandemic did highlight” agency CIOs “doing a pretty phenomenal job in making sure that they could pivot their workforce to almost entirely maximum telework,” she said. There is “an incredibly collaborative” effort going on across the government “related to the way we work” and “I think that you’re going to see some evolution in the innovation in that space in the next couple of months.”

Thousands of Americans seeking funeral assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for coronavirus-related deaths can’t receive it because their family members’ death certificates don’t list COVID-19 specifically as the cause of death, Politico reported. “FEMA has approved a total of about $66 million for 9,700 applicants,” but those who died early on, when doctors were still learning about the virus and thus didn’t list coronavirus, are excluded, said the report. “FEMA has told families that lack documentation they must have their relative’s death certificate amended in order to receive a payout. But the amendment process is cumbersome, and doctors and medical examiners are pushing back on changing the cause of death unless there is definitive proof — such as test results — that a person succumbed to COVID-19.”

Moderna said on Tuesday its vaccine has produced the same immune response in teenagers as it does adults, so it will apply for full approval from the Food and Drug Administration early next month.

The Veterans Affairs Department said on Tuesday it expanded vaccine eligibility to some 12-17 year olds under the Save Lives Act. “It will be available to veteran caregivers and those who qualify as beneficiaries under VA’s Civilian Health and Medical Program,” said the VA. “The expansion is in line with recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at an annual ministerial meeting of the World Health Organization on Tuesday there should be a follow-up investigation into the coronavirus’ origins after recent reports that Wuhan lab researchers were hospitalized in November 2019, weeks before the first novel coronavirus case was identified, The Washington Post reported. “A WHO-led team concluded in February that a lab leak was extremely unlikely after visiting the Wuhan facility, but some international scientists and researchers said the findings were tainted by politics and called for further investigation,” said the report. Other top public health officials echoed Beccera’s remarks during the COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday.

The Biden administration shut down a State Department effort launched last fall by the Trump administration aimed at showing the coronavirus originated in a Chinese lab, CNN reported. The Biden administration had concerns over the quality and objectivity of the work.

The Biden administration’s ability to undo the Trump administration’s immigration policies has been limited because of the continued coronavirus restrictions at the State Department, The Hill reported. “Even as the State Department ramps up vaccinations of its staff, the complications of processing visas during the pandemic are creating a pileup on top of an already daunting backlog,” said the report. “One result is that the effects of Trump’s policies targeting family based-immigration are living on under Biden’s presidency.”

HHS and the Defense Department said on Wednesday they recently signed a memorandum of understanding to continue their partnership on the pandemic response. "The MOU establishes the framework under which the Department of Defense will continue to support HHS with acquisition efforts to expand domestic industrial capacity of health and medical resources; procure diagnostics and medical supplies for the strategic national stockpile; and accelerate the development, manufacture, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics," said a press release. 

The CDC has stopped investigating mild coronavirus infections in vaccinated individuals (it will now only review those that result in hospitalizations or deaths), The New York Times reported on Tuesday. “Through the end of April, when some 101 million Americans had been vaccinated, the CDC had received 10,262 reports of breakthrough infections from 46 states and territories,” said the report. “This was very likely ‘a substantial undercount,’ according to a C.D.C. report issued on Tuesday.” 

Dr. Rick Bright, demoted federal vaccine director turned whistleblower who served on Biden’s transition coronavirus advisory board, tweeted on Wednesday the CDC’s decision is “very concerning.” It’s important “to look closely at vaccine breakthrough [and] re-infection cases to understand viral evolution [and] spread,” he said. He equated this to only testing people with coronavirus symptoms. 

Upcoming: White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre 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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