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Coronavirus Roundup: Watchdog Outlines More SBA Fraud Concerns; Tax Help for Military Service Members

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

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during the COVID-19 briefing on Friday, “we're pivoting our language,” when asked why the CDC hasn’t changed its definition of “fully vaccinated” to include booster shots. “We really want to make sure people are up to date,” she continued. “That means if you recently got your second dose, you're not eligible for a booster, you're up to date. If you are eligible for a booster and you haven't gotten it, you're not up to date and you need to get your booster in order to be up to date.” 

While the CDC has the authority to set these definitions, some possible reasons for this “nuance” could be because of the language in the administration’s vaccine mandates and rules and the uncertainty of some of the mandates currently due to legal challenges; only one of the vaccines––Pfizer/BioNTech––has full approval from the Food and Drug Administration and this could give more “wiggle room” if more boosters are needed, Erica White, research scholar at the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, told Government Executive on Monday. 

White reiterated that the consensus is that booster shots lead to the most protection. White also noted that “states have the power to…go further and use that federal definition as a floor and then build” to include boosters. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Food and Drug Administration significantly revised the authorizations for two COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatments on Monday due to the Omicron variant. “Data show these treatments are highly unlikely to be active against the Omicron variant, which is circulating at a very high frequency throughout the United States,” said Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a press release. The revision for “bamlanivimab and etesevimab (administered together) and REGEN-COV (casirivimab and imdevimab) – [is] to limit their use to only when the patient is likely to have been infected with or exposed to a variant that is susceptible to these treatments.” She added that there are other therapies that are expected to work against Omicron, although these treatments are not a substitute for vaccinations. 

The Biden administration announced on Monday it awarded another contract as part of its pledge to distribute 500 million free coronavirus test kits in response to the Omicron variant. The award went to Siemens Healthineers, located in Tarrytown, New York, to produce 50 million test kits.

The launch of the Biden administration’s free COVID-19 test kit website was largely successful, Meritalk reported on Monday. After going live on January 18, it has drawn “over 68 million users to the site over the past week without suffering much in the way of notable performance problems,” said the report. “The successful launch of the website can largely be attributed to the design and implementation of the site’s cloud architecture, according to Paul Smith, chief technology officer and co-founder of Ad Hoc. Smith was also a member of the team that fixed after its troubled launch.”

Distribution of the 400 million free N95 masks from the Biden administration (as announced last week) to pharmacies and health care centers is beginning, CNN reported on Monday. “Some of the first masks arrived in the Midwest on Friday, including at Hy-Vee grocery stores in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin [and] Nebraska, and Meijer stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin,” said the report. “Masks will also begin arriving at Southeastern Grocers locations as early as this Friday, the [administration] official added, and will be available at Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie in-store pharmacies.” 

The third tax filing season during the pandemic officially kicked off on Monday and the Defense Department shared resources available to help service members with their returns. “Tax season can be particularly stressful for the military community because of the unique aspects of military life that can impact their tax returns, and the pandemic continues to amplify the need for easy, remote and reliable tax support,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy Patricia “Patty” Montes Barron. “Service members and their families have filed more than 270,000 federal and state returns using MilTax. The Defense Department is pleased to once again offer this easy-to-use, secure and accurate tax service that was developed specifically for our service members and their families.”

On Monday, the Defense Department inspector general released a fiscal 2022 quarter one update on its COVID-19 oversight efforts. Ongoing projects include reviews of the vaccine distribution plan to the Defense workforce and contracts terminated as a result of the pandemic. 

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee issued a new report on the Small Business Administration's efforts to prevent fraud in Paycheck Protection Program loans processed after January 11, 2021. “Despite the SBA adding up-front anti-fraud controls in 2021, which were designed to mitigate some of the earlier fraud, the controls would not have likely detected some of the PPP fraud found in 2020 criminal cases,” said the report. “Residual fraud risks remain, allowing some of the same fraud schemes to go undetected today.” 

The Labor Department announced on Tuesday a new pilot program to encourage vaccinations among miners in Kentucky and Arizona as data from the CDC shows vaccination rates in those states are below 60% and there are a substantial number of mining operations there. “The department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration will pilot the Mine Vaccine Outreach Program to deliver free vaccinations in mining communities and provide educational outreach to mining communities in Kentucky and Arizona on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines,” said a press release. Participation is “free and voluntary.” 

Upcoming: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will give a briefing at 12:15 p.m.

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