Covid-19 Oversight News: Cases Spike as Omicron Spreads, Navarro Refuses to Comply with House Subpoena

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Congressional Hearings
  • The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis held a hearing on Dec. 14 about the urgent need to accelerate global vaccination efforts. 
  • The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on Dec. 14 regarding Robert Califf’s nomination to be Food and Drug Administration commissioner. 
  • The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on Dec. 15 about disruptions to the airline industry and the effectiveness of government assistance programs for the industry.
State of the Pandemic

Omicron Variant
The highly transmissible omicron variant is spreading rapidly through the U.S., and the CDC warned that infections could peak following the holiday season, overwhelming already-strained health care infrastructure. 

  • President Biden plans to address the nation about the soaring number of cases on Tuesday, Dec. 21. The administration’s response has so far relied on encouraging unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated. “We’re getting to the point now where … it’s about severity,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters this week. “It’s not about cases. It’s about severity.”
  • Early research suggests that only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots effectively prevent infection against the omicron variant. The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines as well as the vaccines produced in China and Russia have been used by the majority of countries, but may offer little to no protection against infection. 
  • As cases soar, many colleges and universities are placing restrictions on gatherings and are returning to online classes
  • The Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. surpassed 800,000 last week. Cases have increased in the past week compared with the previous two weeks, while deaths have decreased.

The CDC has miscounted an estimated several million second vaccine doses and booster shots as first doses, leading to an undercount of the number of both unvaccinated and fully vaccinated Americans. In a footnote on their data-tracking website, the CDC acknowledged these inaccurate estimates, citing the difficulty of linking first, second, and booster dose data for each individual, and lowered the number of elderly people who had received at least one dose from 99.9 percent to a new maximum estimate of 95 percent. 

The CDC recommended Pfizer and Moderna shots over Johnson & Johnson, citing rare blood clots that have killed nine people after J&J vaccinations. And on Dec. 9, the FDA authorized booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds. Parents of young children will have to wait longer for their kids to receive shots — Pfizer announced last week that in trials, a low dose of its vaccine did not produce a strong enough immune response in children ages 2 to 5. The company plans to test the efficacy of a third low dose for children.

Navarro Refuses to Comply with House Subpoena
Former Trump White House adviser Peter Navarro told the House pandemic subcommittee that he would not comply with its subpoena for documents and an interview about his role in the Trump administration’s pandemic response as the coordinator of Defense Production Act policy. In a letter, the subcommittee called Navarro’s refusal to comply “indefensible” and reiterated their expectation for him to comply.

In the Documents: Cruise Industry Influence on Florida Preemption Bill
Cruise industry lobbyists were heavily involved in crafting a bill that prevented Florida municipalities from placing restrictions on cruise ships docking at their ports, according to emails obtained by American Oversight. In March 2021, the office of the bill’s original sponsor received an email from the Cruise Lines International Association, forwarded by a lobbying firm, with feedback on a provision of the draft legislation that was incorporated into a later version of the bill. The preemption was ultimately included in a broader transportation bill that was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The legislation preempted referendums approved in 2020 by Key West voters in response to Covid-19 outbreaks on cruise ships and growing concern over reef health.

Why the CDC’s First Covid Tests Failed
Records obtained and published by BuzzFeed News highlight the dysfunction and systemic failures that led the CDC to distribute faulty Covid-19 test kits to clinics early in the pandemic, when the task of developing a Covid-19 test for public use “fell on an overburdened CDC lab with only three full-time employees.” The newly obtained documents, which contain interviews of health officials by HHS investigators in the summer of 2020, provide further insight into what went wrong and call into question some of HHS’s original conclusions. BuzzFeed’s investigation found that serious systemic issues — such as the Trump administration’s failure to implement an effective national testing strategy and the CDC’s reliance on making its own tests — are critical to understanding this pivotal early mistake.  

Select Subcommittee’s Year-End Report
In a new year-end report, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus released new findings from its ongoing investigations, including information about an August 2020 Trump administration meeting with a fringe group advocating for the deadly “herd immunity” strategy, a plan embraced by then-White House adviser Scott Atlas. The subcommittee also produced excerpts from transcribed interviews with former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx and former CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat detailing early missteps that contributed to the Trump administration’s failed pandemic response.

States’ Poor Disclosures of CARES Act Spending
In an effort to better understand how states are spending Covid-19 relief funds, Good Jobs First reviewed the online disclosure practices of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, finding that states have spent a combined $111.8 billion in relief funds, but only six states (Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wyoming) provide a full picture of how they are spending their allocations. Eight states and D.C. fail to disclose any meaningful information online, and while most states have created websites that track program fund recipients, they often lack details on how awardees spent their funds.

In the States and Cities
  • Researchers and faculty at the University of Florida said they felt pressured to destroy Covid-19 data, were inhibited from contributing to scientific research on the pandemic, and were told not to criticize state or university policies regarding Covid-19.
  • The Kansas City Police Department, which does not require its officers to be vaccinated, released unreliable survey data claiming almost half of its officers were vaccinated. The voluntary survey did not track how many officers responded compared with the total number on staff. “KCPD’s reluctance to mandate or track officer vaccination status is consistent with a national trend among law enforcement,” wrote the Kansas City Beacon
  • Average daily cases in New York City doubled over last week, and residents have reported waiting for hours to get tested.
  • Cass County, Mo., passed a resolution ending its health department’s Covid-19 orders and quarantines, citing “the importance of individual freedom.”
  • California has reinstated an indoor mask mandate, as did Washington, D.C.
Other recent headlines:
  • Outgoing NIH director says Trump and other Republicans pressured him to endorse unproven Covid-19 remedies and to fire Fauci (CNN)
  • Maker of rapid Covid-19 tests told factory to destroy inventory (New York Times)
  • More than 100 Marines kicked out of the service for refusing Covid vaccine, although vast majority of service is vaccinated (Politico)
  • White House not budging on Feb. 1 end to student loan forgiveness (Politico)
  • Far-right using Covid-19 theories to grow reach, study shows (Associated Press
  • Two years into this pandemic, the world is dangerously unprepared for the next one, report says (Washington Post)
Congressional Oversight
  • A bipartisan group of senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell requesting an extension of both the current moratorium on Medicare sequestration and the 2021 Medicare physician payment adjustment.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell asking him to immediately release information related to Fed officials’ recent financial trading scandals, including trades of individual stocks and other investments at the height of the pandemic. The letter also requests that the Fed provide records of related warnings issued by the Fed ethics office. 
  • The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging him to conduct a needs analysis and create a revised plan to align the number, size, and cost of the Veterans Health Administration Regional Readiness Centers with the actual level of demand for services. 
  • Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley wrote to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking the USDA to review Oregon’s rules and regulations for a state meat inspection program.
  • More than 100 scientists and medical experts sent a letter to Senate and House leaders, urging Congress to pass the National Commission on the Covid-19 Pandemic Act, which would set up a Covid-19 commission meant to ensure the U.S. is prepared to confront future pandemics.
  • Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey wrote to Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of the Airlines for America trade association and lobbying group, expressing concerns about ticketing policies and reports that customers are still owed billions in refunds. 
  • The House pandemic subcommittee sent letters to 12 of the nation’s largest companies that reportedly laid off more than 1,000 workers during the pandemic. The subcommittee requested that the companies complete a survey and provide data to assess the impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce and to identify policies to promote a sustainable recovery. 
Public Reports
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on groups that may be at higher risk of behavioral health impacts from the pandemic, including children and adolescents and people facing financial distress. The report also assessed the amount and types of relief funding provided by the government to address behavioral health needs and how those funds could be used to serve higher-risk populations. 
  • The VA’s inspector general reviewed the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) implementation of data collection and reporting systems related to the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to VA medical facilities and clinics. The report found that VHA set up reporting tools quickly, but the reliability of the data was sometimes inaccurate or inconsistent. 
  • The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) worked with state auditors across the U.S. to better understand their states’ use of pandemic funds and the challenges they have faced with their unemployment insurance (UI) programs. PRAC found that UI claims increased, and that this surge weakened internal fraud controls.
  • The GAO found that federal agencies used the Defense Production Act and other actions more than 100 times to address Covid-19 medical supply needs from March 2020 through September 2021. 

The GAO also reviewed states’ and localities’ use of supplemental Covid-19 funding from the Older Americans Act of 1965, and found that states adapted to Covid-19 safety concerns by temporarily suspending or modifying certain services.