Covid-19 Oversight News: Surging Cases and More Vaccinations

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.

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Both the House and the Senate are in recess this week and next.

A Surge in Cases — and Vaccinations

Following a discouragingly dwindling rate of vaccinations and the alarmingly increasing number of hospitalizations among those who did not get the shot, the United States last week saw its highest daily vaccination number since early July, with 864,000 doses administered. Many have attributed the rise to the move away from incentives, like lotteries or prizes, and toward restrictions, such as government and private employee requirements (for instance, on Monday, the Associated Press reported that members of the military would be required to be inoculated) or tougher rules that would prevent the unvaccinated from participating in “normal” life.

The numbers are especially going up in Covid hot spots, as the rapidly spreading Delta variant provides for many a view of the tragic consequences of failing to get a vaccine. And while misinformation continues to echo in certain pockets of the country (and the internet), there has been more discussion of the different reasons many Americans have for not having yet received a shot, including precarious work schedules.

In the States

  • According to the White House, seven states with some of the lowest vaccination rates — Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi — account for half of recent weeks’ new cases and hospitalizations nationwide. Florida and Texas alone accounted for a third of U.S. cases.
  • More states and localities are instituting vaccine mandates for certain groups or reinstating indoor mask mandates:
    • State employees in Virginia will be required to be vaccinated or be tested every week.
    • New Jersey announced that it will require public school students and staff to wear masks when the schoolyear resumes later this month.
    • Last week, New York City became the first U.S. city to require proof of vaccination for indoor activities such as dining and gyms.
  • In recent months, multiple states put in place restrictions making it harder to enact certain public health measures. Arkansas Asa Hutchinson signed a bill banning state and local mask mandates, but last week said that he regretted it becoming law and that he wanted it reversed to allow schools to require masks.
  • Florida Ron DeSantis hasn’t backed down, however, apparently looking at the return of mask mandates as a greater threat than the Covid surge in his state. Recently, DeSantis issued an executive order allowing the state to withhold funds to school boards that impose mask mandates. The state’s board of education last week approved a rule allowing private school vouchers to parents who don’t want to abide by their school district’s mask mandates.
  • The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota kicked off this past weekend, sparking new fears about Covid spread. Organizers did not cancel last year’s event, which was linked to hundreds of cases across the country; this year’s is supposed to be even bigger.

Vaccine Approvals

The Food and Drug Administration is aiming to fully approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine by early September. Officials hope that a full approval will make people more confident in the vaccine and pave the way for more universities, hospitals, and government agencies to institute vaccine mandates.

Report: HHS Hospital Data

In July 2020, the Trump administration partnered with Palantir to create a new hospital data-tracking system called HHS Protect, which required hospitals to report data to the Department of Health and Human Services rather than directly to the CDC. The Government Accountability Office looked at HHS’s implementation of the system’s hospital-capacity reporting requirements, and found that reporting entities experienced a number of challenges, including lack of clarity on requirements and difficulty in adapting their own systems to provide data to HHS Protect. Some stakeholders told GAO they opted to rely on state and local data because they contained more detailed information, but GAO also noted that some officials in states that were not collecting their own data relied on HHS Protect.

Report: Paycheck Protection Program

The GAO found that while the Small Business Administration had enhanced its oversight of PPP, it has not developed a process to improve communication with lenders. For instance, some lenders reported that SBA had not responded in a timely manner, or at all, to inquiries about loan forgiveness applications, creating confusion and uncertainty.

Memorandum: Medical Care for Migrants

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general sent a memo to acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Troy Miller detailing recommendations for improving medical attention and procedures for migrants at the southwest border. The memo noted that CBP did not ensure that staff conducted required medical screenings, nor did the agency consistently conduct welfare checks or adequately train agents.

Reports: Covid-19 Federal Contracting

  • The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee found that of the approximately $28 billion in pandemic response contracts awarded between April and September 2020, first-time federal contractors received $4.4 billion. Of that amount, $128 million was deobligated from contracts for a variety of reasons, including non-completion of contract terms or changing requirements.
  • A GAO report found that in 2020, agencies awarded about five times as many contracts to vendors without prior federal contracting experience as in previous years.
  • Another GAO report examined the use of a CARES Act provision that authorized agencies to reimburse contractors that were unable to access worksites because of closures or paid leave restrictions, recommending that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy collect and share lessons learned from the implementation of paid leave reimbursement, including related to data tracking and reporting.
  • A GAO analysis revealed challenges in how agencies track a contracting mechanism called “other transaction agreements” that allows greater flexibility.

Other Reports

  • VA Infection Prevention: The GAO found that the Department of Veterans Affairs conducted limited oversight of infection prevention and control in Community Living Centers during the first year of the pandemic, only resuming in-person inspections of the facilities in February.
  • Federal Oversight of Assistance to Individuals and the Transportation Industry: The GAO found that the Transportation Department has not yet developed a national aviation preparedness plan for the federal government regarding communicable diseases, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has faced challenges collecting and analyzing data on requests for supplies.
  • National Biodefense Strategy: The GAO reviewed the interagency plans of multiple agencies regarding preparation for biological incidents, finding that the U.S. lacked necessary preparations, including an interagency process to assess and communicate priorities. GAO also determined that federal agencies do not routinely work together when monitoring results from exercises and real-world incidents, undermining their ability to identify patterns and root causes.
  • OMB Covid-19 Flexibilities: The National Science Foundation Inspector General conducted an audit to determine whether the University of Michigan used the administrative Covid-19 flexibilities authorized by the Office of Management and Budget, identifying concerns regarding the university’s compliance with federal regulations and NSF award terms and conditions.
  • Safety Measures at IRS Facilities: The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that the IRS generally implemented health and safety measures to help protect people at agency facilities.

Congressional Oversight