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Coronavirus Roundup: There’s No New Mask Guidance Yet from the CDC 

Today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

The Homeland Security Department issued a new National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin earlier this week, which has pandemic-related warnings. 

“As COVID-19 restrictions continue to decrease nationwide, increased access to commercial and government facilities and the rising number of mass gatherings could provide increased opportunities for individuals looking to commit acts of violence to do so, often with little or no warning,” said the bulletin. “Meanwhile, COVID-19 mitigation measures—particularly COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates—have been used by domestic violent extremists to justify violence since 2020 and could continue to inspire these extremists to target government, healthcare and academic institutions that they associate with those measures.” The bulletin runs through June 7. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

Dr. Raj Panjabi, who most recently led the President’s Malaria Initiative at the U.S. Agency for International Development, will become the new senior director for global health security and biodefense at the National Security Council, replacing Dr. Beth Cameron. “Cameron joined the Biden administration to help re-establish the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which former Trump national security adviser John Bolton had folded into another office as part of an effort to streamline the NSC,” Axios reported on Tuesday. “Cameron played an early role in shaping White House policy for what President Biden had deemed his No. 1 priority on the campaign trail: defeating the pandemic” 

A new report from the Government Accountability Office looks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s efforts to provide vaccinations to underserved and historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups that were launched in February 2021. Although the available data was limited, “our analysis suggests that while the programs vaccinated a greater share of some racial and ethnic groups compared to their shares of the population, disparities exist for other racial and ethnic groups, such as non-Hispanic Black persons,” said the report. “However, according to [the] CDC, some groups may have a higher likelihood of having missing race and ethnicity data, and the percentage of unknown race and ethnicity data may account for some, or even all, of the differences observed in comparing vaccinations among various racial and ethnic groups to their shares of the U.S. population.” 

Brian Miller, special inspector general for pandemic recovery, and Jean Saint-Elin, deputy assistant inspector general for auditing, spoke with Social Science Space in a recent interview about how his office looks for and investigates fraud in certain COVID-19 relief programs. “We didn’t want to wait for hotline complaints, where you wait for insiders to come forward,” since “with a five-year charter, we couldn’t wait to do that,” said Miller when asked how he goes about investigations. “From the start, we were actively looking at data points, getting data. One of the first agreements I had that we reported in our 60-day report and then in our initial quarterly reports, was our agreements with other law enforcement agencies and we get information that way through agreements, so we can get data to see if people are defrauding the system.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said during the COVD-19 briefing on Wednesday her agency is working on updated mask guidance for states, but hospitalizations and death rates are still high, “so, as we work towards that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.” Many Democratic states have begun to roll back their mask mandates, which has caused some confusion. 

A reporter asked during the briefing if people should be listening to their governors or the CDC. “We've always said that these decisions are going to have to be made at the local level and that policies at the local level will look at local cases, they’ll look at how local hospitals are doing, they’ll look at local vaccination rates,” Walensky said. “And they, as I understand it, in many of these decisions are using a phased approach. Not all of these decisions are being made to stop things tomorrow, but they're looking at a phased approach.” While reiterating this has to be done locally, she added: “I’m really encouraged that cases are continuing to drop dramatically, hospitalizations are continuing to drop dramatically as people are making these decisions and as we are working on our guidance.”

On vaccines for children under age five, Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said during the briefing “operationally, we will be ready once [the Food and Drug Administration] and CDC make their recommendations.” Since the vaccine is made specifically for young kids “we're launching a new program specially for kids under five,” he continued. “We've secured enough vaccine supply for all kids in this age group—all 18 million.”

On Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., filed cloture on Biden’s nominee to lead the FDA. This nomination has “been snared by political controversies on both the left and right,” the Associated Press reported. “A permanent FDA chief can’t come soon enough for the beleaguered agency, which has been straining for months under an intense pandemic workload even as several scientific disputes have battered its reputation.” 

The Internal Revenue Service announced on Wednesday it will be suspending over a dozen “additional letters” it normally sends to taxpayers who owe additional taxes or for whom the IRS has no record of a return. This comes as the agency is working through its backlog of unprocessed returns due to the pandemic, a process that has received much scrutiny by lawmakers and other groups. “IRS employees are committed to doing everything possible with our limited resources to help people during this period,” said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. “Our efforts are not limited to suspension of these additional letters and the possibility of similar actions going forward. We have redeployed and reallocated resources throughout the IRS and have implemented innovative strategies in an ongoing effort to provide a meaningful reduction in our inventories.” 

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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