Covid-19 Oversight News: Hospital Data Collection, Vaccine Costs, and Politics Over Public Health

American Oversight’s Covid-19 Oversight Hub provides news and policy resources to help you keep track of investigations into the government’s pandemic response. The project brings together a public documents database, an oversight tracker of important ongoing investigations and litigation, regular news updates, and deeper dives into key issues. 

For the latest news on the pandemic, as well as updates on various oversight investigations, sign up for our weekly Covid-19 Oversight News email.

In the Documents

  • CDC Communications: American Oversight obtained records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that contain directives about CDC press outreach. They include a note that “the new HHS comms team wants to focus on local media” as well as explicit instructions not to entertain interview requests from political commentator Greta Van Susteren or anyone at Voice of America. They were previously published by the Knight Institute. 
  • Who Got WHO’s Money? We requested records from the CDC regarding the administration’s decision to halt millions of dollars in World Health Organization funding. The records show email threads regarding the planning of awards to the WHO through the end of the fiscal year, which were first sent a week before Trump announced he would stop the funding. They also show that CDC officials were out of the loop on related policy meetings and decisions. In August, after sending a FOIA request to find out whether that money had been sent elsewhere, we received a response from the CDC saying, “Funds originally planned for WHO have not been redirected to any entities.” 

Covid-19 Cases Rise, White House Claims Victory
As coronavirus cases hit all-time highs, the White House apparently believes the job is done. In a list detailing the accomplishments of his four years in office, President Donald Trump counted “ending the Covid-19 pandemic” among them. His chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN last week, “We are not going to control the pandemic.” Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the White House’s coronavirus task force, has been absent from task force meetings in favor of hitting the campaign trail. In interviews, White House advisers continue to minimize the importance of mitigation efforts like testing and mask-wearing. And behind closed doors, the White House is even considering slashing millions of dollars in health-care funding for cities that Trump has previously labeled “anarchist jurisdictions.”

The Elusive Vaccine
In an online interview last week, Anthony Fauci said availability of a coronavirus vaccine could come by January or “could be later.” Though officials were initially promising a fall vaccine, that now seems less and less likely, as clinical trials have been put on hold or delayed and not a single company has submitted its vaccine for FDA approval. Last Wednesday, the CDC pushed back its controversial Nov. 1 deadline for states to be ready to receive and distribute coronavirus vaccines to Nov. 15.

Also last week, the Trump administration released its plan for ensuring free Covid-19 vaccines. Under the plan, Medicare and Medicaid will cover vaccines that receive FDA emergency use authorization. The plan also requires private health insurers to cover authorized vaccines as long as the Covid-19 emergency lasts. However, it’s still unclear how much vaccines will cost. 

HHS’s New Data Collection System Falls Short
In July, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx ended the CDC’s Covid-19 hospital data-collection system and turned the task over to HHS, allegedly because all hospitals weren’t reporting 100 percent of their Covid-19 data each day. The move was highly criticized, and previous reporting has shown that the new system was inefficient and slow. Last week, HHS released data showing that just 62 percent of hospitals reported all mandated coronavirus data that week.

NPR also released several of these data sets from October, which showed increasing use of ventilators and inpatient beds throughout the month. The documents also showed that 24 percent of U.S. hospitals are using more than 80 percent of their intensive care unit capacity. 

The Political Nature of HHS’s Ad Campaign
New documents released by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform revealed additional details about the $250 million star-studded ad campaign led by HHS and conceived of by former official Michael Caputo. Politico has reported that the campaign, which faltered after facing congressional and public scrutiny for its potentially inappropriate politicization, is no longer slated to run before the election, “if at all.” 

According to the House committee, during the campaign’s planning stages, Caputo proposed that one of the themes should be centered on “helping the president.” Administration officials vetted celebrities based on their political views and previous comments they had made about the president and other Republicans. At least one public service announcement was canceled because the prospective celebrity participant had criticized the president. The documents also suggest only 10 of more than 200 potential celebrity candidates were approved.

Covid-19’s Impact on Health-Care Workers
The CDC released a report focused on health-care workers who were hospitalized due to the coronavirus from March to May, underscoring the importance of personal protective equipment. The report found that 67 percent were in roles with prolonged patient contact, and more than one-third were nurses. In the sample studied in the report, more than half of hospitalized health workers were Black, and the vast majority were women. As of November, more than 180,000 health-care workers have contracted the coronavirus.

CMS and the Spread of the Pandemic in Nursing Homes
A Washington Post investigation revealed that leaders at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services took little action in response to inspections that unearthed serious health violations at more than 3,000 nursing homes. Federal law allows CMS to levy daily fines of around $22,000 until a violation is corrected, but in most cases, CMS imposed no penalties. This is part of a broader pattern at CMS, which for three years has been easing nursing home industry regulations by limiting fines and in one case, striking a rule requiring nursing homes to have part-time infection preventionists. 

Report: The Trump Administration’s Failed Response to the Coronavirus Crisis
The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis published an interim staff report outlining findings from its first six months. The report details how Trump downplayed the crisis; provides more than 60 examples in which political appointees improperly interfered in the government’s public health response; highlights how the administration directed funding for critical supplies to companies with key political connections and failed to address conflicts of interest in vaccine development; and discusses how some state governments have failed to help people vote safely during the pandemic.

The SBA’s Initial Response to the Pandemic
The Small Business Administration Inspector General released a report detailing concerns about the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, warning that billions might have been fraudulently obtained or directed to ineligible businesses. The IG stated that the SBA “lowered the guardrails” or “relaxed internal controls” as it tried to expedite aid to businesses — for instance, the SBA approved $62.7 billion in repeated loans to applicants who had used the same email addresses, bank accounts, or business addresses in other applications. Approximately $1.1 billion in loans and grants were given to potentially ineligible businesses.