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Coronavirus Roundup: Watchdogs Find Challenges With COVID Data System and PPE Distribution Early in the Pandemic 

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

As the Biden administration approaches its 200-day mark on Saturday, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service applauded its early actions on federal management. This includes “issuing guidance on the future of work in federal agencies after the pandemic, including hybrid and remote work options,” the Partnership said in a press release on Friday. 

It called on the administration and Senate to work together to fill the key management positions that are still open, such as Office of Management and Budget director, OMB controller and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs administrator. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Eric Lander, science advisor to the president and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in The Washington Post earlier this week about how the country needs to prepare for any future pandemics. Some goals are: The ability to develop vaccines within 100 days of detecting a pandemic threat, development of early warning systems, and “we desperately need to strengthen our public health system—from expanding the workforce to modernizing labs and data systems—including to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected.” Lander added that later this month the White House will release a plan about preparing for future outbreaks. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during the briefing on Thursday the White House expects a decision soon from the Defense secretary about mandating vaccines for the military. Psaki said Biden will “certainly” follow the recommendation from Lloyd Austin III. 

Psaki was asked for a cost estimate for coronavirus tests for federal employees who don’t get vaccinated and if the White House would commit to making those costs public.  Psaki said, “different agencies are going to be accounting for it [in] different ways,” which she said she believes will come from existing funds and “not one federal pot.” When pressed again, she said she could look into the accounting of the costs. 

Psaki said the White House supports “efforts to incentivize workforces” to get vaccinated and any ways of providing information should be done in a “transparent” and “equitable” way. “So, there are basic guidelines, along those lines, that we have conveyed, and we will continue to convey as people have questions,” she said. “And we understand different localities and communities will apply any verification measures in different ways.”

Michael Knowles, spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, which represents Homeland Security Department asylum officers, said the public health policy (Title 42) that has been preventing migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country during the pandemic “is a compounding violation of our obligations under the Refugee Convention and federal immigration law,” Buzzfeed reported on Thursday. “We find it appalling that after campaign rhetoric about restoring the soul of America and securing our values as a nation of immigrants, the Biden administration has continued one of the most draconian and indefensible of its predecessor's xenophobic policies."

The Government Accountability Office released a report on Thursday about the challenges associated with the coronavirus data system run by a private contractor that the Trump administration’s Health and Human Services Department implemented last year, which diverted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s role. “Representatives from all five of the hospital associations we spoke with told us that reporting entities experienced logistical challenges in adapting staff resources or data systems to comply with reporting requirements,” said the report. Stakeholders also told us that reporting entities were sometimes unclear on what information HHS was seeking or why the information was being collected.” 

A soon-to-be released report from the Homeland Security Department inspector general will show how data management issues hindered the Federal Emergency Management Agency's ability to distribute personal protective equipment in the beginning of the pandemic, NBC News reported on Thursday. “Top coronavirus task force officials, often working at the direction of then-White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and then-Vice President Mike Pence, routinely circumvented FEMA's decision-making process to award ventilators, PPE and government contracts to favored states and companies,” said the report. “The inspector general has purview over FEMA but not the White House. Still, the report hints at the difficulty career agency officials had in explaining decisions made by the president's political appointees...Those officials worked through a Unified Coordination Group that could upend the recommendations of the agency.” 

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to have a strategy by early next month on who needs a coronavirus booster shot and when, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The intelligence agencies are going through troves of genetic data from the Wuhan lab in China that some believe was the source of the coronavirus outbreak as part of the 90-day review Biden ordered, CNN reported. One of the challenges is “a manpower issue,” said the report. “Not only do intelligence agencies need government scientists skilled enough to interpret complex genetic sequencing data and who have the proper security clearance, they also need to speak Mandarin, since the information is written in Chinese with a specialized vocabulary.” 

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee is hosting an event on August 12 to discuss the impact of pandemic spending and programs on underserved communities. Michael Horowitz, committee chair and Justice Department inspector general, will give the opening remarks. 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 1 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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