Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing earlier this week.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing earlier this week. Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times via AP, Pool

Coronavirus Roundup: Concerns About the Delta Variant Rise; Administration Will ‘Continue to Follow the Science’ for Agency Reentry Plans

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

Monday was the deadline for agencies to submit their back to work plans to the Office of Management and Budget, as Government Executive previously reported. When asked for any updates on the plans and/or changes in planning due to the spread of the Delta variant, which accounts for more than 83% of cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a senior administration official said on Thursday: “Agencies are working through reentry plans, but we don’t have anything new to share at this time. We will continue to follow the science and listen to doctors and adhere to CDC guidelines.”

OMB said earlier this week that “timelines vary agency by agency, based on each organization’s unique mission and organizational considerations.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

With concerns of the Delta variant spreading, Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, spoke during a briefing on Thursday about what the federal government is doing to help communities. “Last week, we announced $400 million in American Rescue Plan funding for 1,540 small rural hospitals for COVID-19 to increase testing capacity in rural America,” he said. “And today...we're making an additional $1.6 billion investment in American Rescue Plan funding to bolster testing and mitigation measures in high-risk congregate settings, including homeless shelters, mental health and substance abuse treatment centers, domestic violence shelters, and prison systems.”

Zients added that the administration's coronavirus surge response teams are working with governors and local public health officials and providing them with federal resources; the administration is providing the CDC “technical expertise, including on genetic sequencing, data analysis, and outbreak response to Missouri, Illinois and Colorado” and “[the Federal Emergency Management Agency] will be deploying mobile vaccination clinics in North Carolina.” Lastly, he pointed out that on Thursday Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was going to Nevada where federal resources and 100 personnel from HHS and FEMA were sent to support local public health efforts. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during the briefing that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is “very effective” and right now there isn’t any data to show that individuals who received that vaccine need a booster shot. 

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that White House and CDC officials talked about recommending vaccinated people wear masks in certain settings due to the spread of the Delta variant. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky was asked during the briefing on Thursday if the CDC is considering changing its mask guidance and she did not give a direct answer. “We are always looking at the data as the data comes in,” Walensky said. “We have always said that communities—local communities have to look at what is going on locally, as we have [a] very heterogeneous country right now. In areas that have a high amount of disease and low amounts of vaccination, that, you know—if you're unvaccinated, you should absolutely be wearing a mask.” 

During a briefing on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated that there has not been a change in mask guidance. When pressed to confirm whether or not White House officials were a part of these discussions, she said the White House is “regularly in touch and [we] have regular meetings with our public health officials, including the CDC, about how to continue to address the virus,” which “shouldn't surprise anyone.” Also, “the [Washington Post] report on it was a little breathless about what it implied was happening when the CDC director said that's not a decision that's been made.”

Psaki was also asked during the briefing if there have been any talks about the White House “promoting businesses choosing to verify vaccinated status for attending concerts or dining indoors” or any discussion about changing its position on the matter? “Our position has not changed, nor do I anticipate it would, on guidance coming from the federal government,” Psaki replied. “It is also entirely appropriate for private-sector entities and universities and hospitals to make decisions about how to keep their community safe.”

The CDC’s advisory committee on immunization practices agreed during a meeting on Thursday that the benefits outweigh the risks of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine after reports of rare side effects, Politico reported. “But there was one caveat: Two of the panel’s 15 members suggested that those administering the vaccine ensure patients are aware of its risks,” said the report. “The panel also punted on booster shots. Whether immunocompromised people should get COVID-19 booster shots is a decision the committee is leaving up to the [Food and Drug Administration].” 

The Commerce Department announced on Thursday that $3 billion in funds from the American Rescue Plan will go to economic development in communities nationwide, which is the largest economic development initiative from the department in decades. “With an emphasis on equity, [the Economic Development Administration’s] investments made possible by the American Rescue Plan will directly benefit communities that have been denied full access to economic prosperity and who have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” said Secretary Gina Raimondo, in a statement. “We will work with local communities across the country on innovative new approaches to ensure that we can increase American competitiveness by strengthening our workforce, businesses and communities and build back better in regions across the country.”

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki 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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