A Jackson, Miss., resident receives a Moderna COVID-19 booster shot from a Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse on Dec. 7.

A Jackson, Miss., resident receives a Moderna COVID-19 booster shot from a Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center nurse on Dec. 7. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: OMB Guidance on Suspension of Contractor Vaccine Mandate; Booster News 

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

The Biden administration's Safer Federal Workforce Task Force said in an update on Thursday that new guidance was issued to agencies following the nationwide temporary injunction on the vaccine mandate for federal contractors ordered on Tuesday. The guidance goes over how agencies should go about not enforcing the provisions of the mandate while legal challenges are ongoing. 

“Given the uncertainty surrounding the court orders, [the Office of Management and Budget] has formulated this updated guidance to be applicable even if the existing court orders change or new orders are issued,” said the guidance, which Government Executive obtained from OMB. There was previously a temporary injunction in just three states. 

“There is no change to the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force’s guidance for COVID-19 workplace safety protocols for federal agencies,” the new guidance continued. “Federal agency workplace safety protocols for federal buildings and federally controlled facilities still apply in all locations. Contractor employees working onsite in those facilities must still follow those federal agency workplace safety protocols.” Here are some of the recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Veterans Affairs Department’s watchdog issued a report earlier this week about the department’s effort to track data on the vaccines it administers, which it has been doing since December 2020. “[The Veterans Health Administration] has done an admirable job setting up systems and tools to collect data and report on COVID-19 vaccines to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] under short time frames,” said the report. However, “VHA could monitor system checks it added to minimize data entry errors and add controls for verifying facility-level data and processes for validating summary data to their sources.” 

Pfizer/BioNTech announced on Wednesday that preliminary studies show three doses of their vaccine can “neutralize” the Omicron variant. “Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” said Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer. “Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

President Biden said in a tweet this is “encouraging news” and reinforces the need for booster shots. 

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the Omicron cases have been mostly “mild” so far, in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. 

The confirmation hearing for Biden’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration is scheduled for Tuesday. Dr. Robert Califf, who previously served as FDA commissioner from 2016-2017, has recently come under scrutiny for his ties to the pharmaceutical industry. 

On Thursday the FDA approved Pfizer/BioTech booster shots for 16 and 17 year olds. Later in the day, the CDC expanded its booster recommendation to include them. "Although we don’t have all the answers on the Omicron variant, initial data suggests that COVID-19 boosters help broaden and strengthen the protection against Omicron and other variants," said Walensky. "We know that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and I strongly encourage adolescents ages 16 and 17 to get their booster if they are at least 6 months post their initial Pfizer vaccination series.”

The FDA announced on Wednesday it granted emergency use authorization to AstraZeneca’s drug to protect individuals with weakened immune systems from COVID-19. This is the first of its kind to get approval. “Vaccines have proven to be the best defense available against COVID-19,” said Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “However, there are certain immune compromised individuals who may not mount an adequate immune response to COVID-19 vaccination, or those who have a history of severe adverse reactions to a COVID-19 vaccine and therefore cannot receive one and need an alternative prevention option.” 

BuzzFeed News published an investigation on Wednesday about the CDC’s failed coronavirus tests early on in the pandemic based on federal records it obtained and interviews with health officials. It shows “government dysfunction,” “questionable blame,” “cut corners,” “overconfidence” and “systematic failures,” said the report. 

The House passed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday night that would extend the deadline for certain tribal groups to spend COVID-19 relief funds by a year.  “For all the assistance [the CARES Act] provided for Alaska Native and Native American communities, bureaucratic red tape has delayed the disbursement of these critically needed funds,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.  “Indigenous people were some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and pulling the rug out from under them by letting an arbitrary deadline take away these needed resources is a flagrant violation of our federal trust responsibility.” He and Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., called on the Senate to take up the bill immediately. 

The Small Business Majority, along with a small business owner and the American Independent Business Alliance, filed an amicus brief on Tuesday urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine rule for private business with 100 or more employees. “Some of [Small Business Majority] members, though still considered small businesses, have over 100 employees and thus fall directly within the purview of the [emergency temporary standard],” said the complainant. “Additionally, given that businesses with more than 100 employees manage two-thirds of America’s workers, many, if not most, customers of small businesses are likely employees of large businesses covered by the [standard]. Thus, the [standard] protects small businesses and their employees even if its requirements do not directly apply to them.” 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 2 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.

Update: This article has been updated to include the CDC's recommendation on booster shots.