Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project, was originally published here.
Coronavirus Roundup: Top Federal Officials Self-Quarantine; Updates on SBA, HHS, EPA and Defense Inspector General Probes
There’s a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.
President Trump tweeted on Monday morning, “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere. Big progress being made!” Meanwhile, various top federal officials (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci; Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn; Chief of the U.S. National Guard Gen. Joseph Lengyel and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilda) are self-quarantining due to possible coronavirus exposure. White House Economic Adviser Kevin Hassert said on on Sunday that going to work in the West Wing is “a little bit risky…but you have to do it because you have to serve your country.” Here are some other recent headlines from over the weekend and today you might have missed.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the Veterans Affairs Department to explain why it’s using the drug hydroxychloroquine on some veterans, which is not a proven coronavirus treatment yet. The administration’s push to use hydroxychloroquine was a central part of demoted vaccine official Dr. Rick Bright’s whistleblower complaint. “VA only permits use of the drug after ensuring veterans and caretakers are aware of potential risks associated with it, as we do with any other drug or treatment,” said VA Spokeswoman Christina Noel, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
Bright pushed back on the president’s claims he was a “disgruntled employee” in an interview CBS’ 60 minutes set to air on May 17. “I am frustrated at a lack of leadership,” he said. “I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing lifesaving tools for Americans. I’m frustrated at our inability to be heard as scientists. Those things frustrate me.”
Citing a statement from Bright’s attorneys, The New York Times reported on Friday the Office of Special Counsel found “reasonable grounds to believe” the Trump administration retaliated against Bright and said he should be reinstated for 45 days while an investigation takes place. OSC told Government Executive it could not “comment on or confirm the status of open investigations.”
The Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group, published new guides for government employee and contractor whistleblowers. One of them is specifically about “speaking up for science.”
Top House Democrats wrote to the Homeland Security and Transportation departments on Friday asking them to create an interagency working group to address air travel during the pandemic. “Although passenger volume has dramatically decreased, frontline employees are still going to work and aircraft are still flying,” they wrote. “Frontline workers and airline passengers, subject to varying requirements, continue to comingle in public areas, secure areas, and finally on aircraft. Inconsistency creates uncertainty and limits the effectiveness of the actions taken.”
Similarly, another group of top House Democrats urged House leadership on Friday to establish an independent and bipartisan commission composed of outside experts in the next coronavirus relief package. The commission would “complement” Congress’ oversight efforts and mirror the 9/11 commission. “Currently at least four proposals [are] introduced in the House to establish bipartisan commissions. Collectively, they have been cosponsored by 54 Members of Congress, 40 Democrats and 14 Republicans,” they wrote. “While there are important differences in what has been proposed, there are far more commonalities.”
On Friday, the Indian Health Service announced five new projects to expand health care facilities for American Indian and Alaska Native people under its joint venture construction program with tribes nationwide. Read more here.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, published an article in The Washington Post on Monday criticizing the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and arguing what should be done. “If we’re going to have thriving workplaces, restaurants, stores and parks, we need widespread testing,” he wrote. “Trump can’t seem to provide it — to say nothing of worker safety protocols, consistent health guidelines or clear federal leadership to coordinate a responsible reopening.” If elected, Biden could be in charge of overseeing subsequent waves of the coronavirus or recovery efforts from the current one.
Capitol police officers are now required to wear masks when in close contact with others, Roll Call reported on Friday. This comes a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended individuals wear face coverings.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., launched a new website to share information about congressional committees’ pandemic-related work. This includes hearings, reports, forums and other resources.
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis announced its first official action on Friday. The panel, led by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., sent letters to five large, public corporations demanding they return the relief funds they received that were intended for small businesses.
The Small Business Administration inspector general said in a “flash report” on Friday that the agency didn’t follow all congressional mandates in its distribution of relief loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. For example, “Because SBA did not provide guidance to lenders about prioritizing borrowers in underserved and rural markets, these borrowers, including rural, minority and women-owned businesses may not have received loans as intended,” said the report.
The Defense Department IG said on Monday it will begin a review of the Navy’s policies, procedures and migration strategies in response to the coronavirus. Two ships suffered outbreaks, one of which led to much leadership turmoil.
The Health and Human Services IG announced on Friday a report about the agency’s need to bolster security controls to prevent cyber attacks. “Due to the current public health emergency and increased cyber-activity, we are only posting the title of our cybersecurity audits,” said the office. This follows reports of an attempted cyber attack on HHS in March and the FBI warning of increased cyber threats during the pandemic, as NextGov reported.
The Environmental Protection Agency IG will review how the pandemic impacted the EPA’s “programs and operations, regulatory and enforcement missions, and mandated activities,” according to a memo obtained by The Hill. The IG will also examine how the agency “conducted and is conducting its oversight and programmatic responsibilities to protect public health and the environment” during this time.
The FDA announced on Saturday it issued its first emergency authorization for a coronavirus antigen test, which can be used for rapid detection of the virus. However, it noted, “negative results from an antigen test may need to be confirmed with a [polymerase chain reaction] test prior to making treatment decisions or to prevent the possible spread of the virus due to a false negative.”
The Health and Human Services Department plans to ship 14,400 vials of remdesivir, the only drug approved to treat coronavirus, to state health departments, which will decide which hospitals will get them. “Previously the administration had sent a total of 35,360 vials straight to a handpicked list of hospitals, via its contractor AmerisourceBergen,” Politico reported on Saturday.
Top National Institutes of Health experts said there needs to be a “harmonized and collaborative approach” to scale-up coronavirus vaccine testing and distribution. Read the full article published in Science Magazine on Monday. “The authors emphasize that developing COVID-19 vaccines will require unprecedented cooperation from governments, academic institutions, industry, and global philanthropic partners,” said the NIH. The “public-private partnership spearheaded by NIH aims to facilitate such collaboration with discussions and collaborations on trial designs and data sharing.”
DHS and the Justice Department said that starting on Sunday in-person document services for migrant protection protocol hearings will be suspended until June 8 and hearings are now postponed through June 19. “DHS and [the Executive Office for Immigration Review] are deeply committed to ensuring the health and safety of aliens, our frontline officers, immigration court professionals and our citizens,” they said.
Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode digs into the testimony last week of Brian Miller, Trump’s nominee to be Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery. Miller is currently special assistant and senior associate counsel in the Office of White House Counsel and a former IG for the General Services Administration.
Upcoming: President Trump and administration officials will hold a briefing on coronavirus testing at 4 p.m.
Fauci, Redfield, Hahn and Adm. Brett Giroir, HHS official overseeing testing efforts, will testify before a Senate committee Tuesday at 10 a.m.