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Coronavirus Roundup: More Free COVID Tests; HHS Secretary Tests Positive

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

Jamie Holt, acting special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who oversees about 130 personnel throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, shared reflections on the work environment during the pandemic with Government Executive on Wednesday: “It's been difficult to navigate because it was constantly evolving.” However, like many at other agencies, Holt stressed the importance of needing flexibility and said that a positive aspect of the pandemic was learning that her team could work effectively in a telework environment. 

As for COVID-19 related investigations, Holt said most are ongoing, so she couldn’t divulge details, but did share that “we’ve seen the counterfeit items, [personal protective equipment] being sent into the United States, counterfeit tests, all of that stuff, the financial fraud involved in it.” Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on a recommendation for kids ages 5 to 11 to receive a Pfizer/BioNTech’s booster shot after the Food and Drug Administration authorized it earlier this week. The CDC also announced it was “strengthening its recommendation that those 12 and older who are immunocompromised and those 50 and older should receive a second booster dose at least 4 months after their first. Over the past month we have seen steady increases in cases, with a steep and substantial increase in hospitalizations for older Americans.” 

On Monday, the FDA authorized the first COVID-19 test available without a prescription that can detect the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (a common respiratory virus). Dr. Jeff Shuren, director of FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said, “the rapid advances being made in consumer access to diagnostic tests, including the ability to collect your sample at home for flu and RSV without a prescription, brings us one step closer to tests for these viruses that could be performed entirely at home.

The federal government made a third round of free COVID-19 tests available this week. The White House also once again called on Congress to provide more coronavirus funding because “the administration cannot continue making the types of federal investments needed to sustain domestic testing manufacturing capacity, and this may jeopardize the federal government’s ability to provide free tests moving forward.” 

The FDA took various actions to increase the availability of COVID tests in the United States as of September 2021 such as using enforcement discretion, meaning “it did not object to laboratories’ use of these COVID-19 tests before FDA had authorized them,” but it should develop a policy for using this to prepare for future public health emergencies, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. “Once hundreds of tests were reviewed and authorized for emergency use, the risks of unauthorized tests being used outweighed the benefits” and “FDA eventually took action to mitigate this risk in the current pandemic,” said the report. “However, until FDA develops a policy for the use of enforcement discretion regarding unauthorized tests in a future public health emergency—including the conditions under which FDA would begin and end such discretion—the agency could face the risk that unauthorized tests could be used for an extended period of time, even when a sufficient number of authorized tests are available.”

Health and Human Services Department Secretary Xavier Becerra tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday while traveling in Germany for the G7 meetings for health ministers. “He is fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, and is experiencing mild symptoms” and “will continue to perform his duties as HHS Secretary, working in isolation,” said Sarah Lovenheim, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs. The president is not considered a close contact to the secretary, she added. 

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced on Wednesday it awarded about $577 million to establish nine Antiviral Drug Discovery Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for new antiviral drugs, especially those that could easily be taken by patients at home while their symptoms are still mild,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, in a press release. “Decades of prior research on the structure and vulnerabilities of coronaviruses greatly accelerated our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we hope that similar research focused on antivirals will better prepare us for the next pandemic.”

White House and other federal public health officials held their first COVID-19 briefing in six weeks on Wednesday during which they warned of the recent rise in cases. Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said that he and Fauci have collectively done 50 media appearances in the last five weeks, “but we want to do more of these briefings and… I commit to continue to do these briefings on an ongoing basis.

The Internal Revenue Service implemented pandemic-related tax relief for employers quickly (which was modified a few times between 2020 and 2021), but could better mitigate compliance risks, according to a report published by GAO on Tuesday. “The unusual nature of the COVID-19-related credits, the rapid implementation, and multiple changes to the credits created a unique compliance risk environment,” said the report. “While [the] IRS is addressing some of these risks, we found opportunities for [the] IRS to strengthen its compliance planning to better manage risks.” 

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