Covid-19 Oversight News: The Omicron Variant, Trump’s Positive Covid Test

Congressional Hearings
  • The Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on Nov. 30 about CARES Act-related oversight of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testified.
  • The House Financial Services Committee held a discussion on Dec. 1 on oversight of the Treasury’s and Federal Reserve’s pandemic response. Yellen and Powell testified.

The State of the Pandemic

Daily cases and deaths have increased significantly over the past two weeks.

Omicron Variant Poses New, Still-Unknown Risks

Researchers in South Africa identified the omicron variant of Covid-19 as a mutated variant of concern. The first confirmed case of Omicron in the United States was detected in California on Dec. 1. The variant has since been confirmed in 17 states. While there is still uncertainty about the severity and transmissibility of the variant as well as the effectiveness of current vaccines against it, Anthony Fauci has called initial data “encouraging” and said the variant so far does not seem particularly severe.

In response to the variant’s emergence, the United States banned travel from eight southern African countries, a move also made by other nations despite the World Health Organization cautioning that it has a limited effect on preventing the spread and instead imposes unnecessary burdens on people’s livelihoods. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now requires international travelers to the U.S. to provide a negative test result within 24 hours before departure instead of three days. 

Health experts say the scarcity of vaccines in poorer countries created the opportunity for the virus to mutate, leading to renewed calls for pharmaceutical companies to share vaccine formulas. Last week, President Biden called for countries to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines in response to the newly emerged variant.

Trump Tested Positive Week Before Hospitalization

After former President Donald Trump announced that he and the first lady had tested positive for Covid-19 on Oct. 2, 2020, his sudden visit to the hospital later that day led to speculation about when exactly the White House knew of his infection. According to details revealed in a new book from his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, Trump had first tested positive on Sept. 26 — days earlier, and prior to attending a rally in Pennsylvania, a presidential debate with Biden, and numerous other events, including meeting with military families. The Washington Post estimates that Trump came into contact with more than 500 people, not including rally attendees, between first testing positive and his hospitalization. 

The positive test result came hours after the White House hosted a gathering for the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, an event that took place in and out of doors and was later deemed a superspreader event. In the book, Meadows says that Trump took another rapid test shortly after the first result, and received a negative result. While it is currently not possible to determine whether the first test that day was a false positive, the White House never announced it and the accuracy of the tests was never confirmed with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, as recommended by the CDC.  

In the Documents: Deportations of Migrants 

American Oversight obtained records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that provide insight into the deportations of migrants during the spring of 2020 and ICE’s failure to implement proper safety measures. The records indicate that several migrants tested positive upon arrival in their destination countries, a pattern American Oversight has previously investigated. The documents also include conversations among high-ranking officials about pushback from the governments of Guatemala, Jamaica, India, and other nations.

In an April 30, 2020, email, Marlen Pineiro, assistant director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), provided updates on flights to various countries. According to the email, the Guatemalan government requested that people deported from the U.S. be tested and that their negative results be sent for approval prior to the flight. “This is very logistically difficult and will add an additional detention day,” Pineiro wrote. “ERO is hoping to be able to push back on this request, meanwhile ERO is exploring ways to operationalize this request.”

New York’s Poor Covid Spending Transparency

The policy resource center Good Jobs First published a critique of New York’s Covid-19 Relief Program Tracker, finding that it fails to provide the public with adequate information about the state’s relief spending. In particular, the tracker does not itemize expenditures or purchases. 

States and Cities
Recent Headlines
  • A federal judge blocks Biden’s vaccine mandate for U.S. health workers (New York Times)
  • Nurses are leaving staff jobs to triple their salaries as travel nurses (Washington Post)
Congressional Oversight
  • The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent a letter to former FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn requesting a transcribed interview related to his role in the Trump administration’s pandemic response. The subcommittee also released documents it obtained, which contain a set of Hahn’s text messages that raise questions about the administration’s interference in FDA’s decision-making regarding the approval of Covid-19 vaccines.
  • Sen. Ed Markey wrote to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Fauci asking for information about the agency’s efforts to produce a universal coronavirus vaccine. In September, NIAID announced awards of $36.3 million to academic institutions to conduct research to develop a vaccine that protects against multiple types of coronaviruses.
  • A bipartisan group of 41 senators wrote to the Senate Finance Committee asking it to ensure that pandemic relief aid provided to passenger vehicle industries are treated the same, for tax purposes, as relief measures for small businesses, restaurants, and entertainment venues, writing that grants for transportation services did not have the same non-taxable status as other grants.
  • The coronavirus subcommittee sent letters to the CEOs of two financial technology startups following reports that these companies, which processed one-third of all Paycheck Protection Program loans in 2021, may have been linked to a disproportionate number of loans to fraudulent or ineligible applicants. The subcommittee asked for information to better understand the companies’ fraud controls and compliance frameworks. 
  • After reports that the messaging platform Telegram may have facilitated fraud in multiple pandemic relief programs, the House pandemic subcommittee sent a letter to Telegram CEO Pavel Durov requesting information on how guidance for evading fraud controls has been disseminated through the platform and about whether the company has undertaken efforts to prevent the spread of such information.
  • A group of Democratic senators wrote to four federal student loan servicers requesting updated information on steps the companies are taking to transition millions of borrowers back into repayments once the pause on payments ends on Jan. 31.
  • A group of senators wrote to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig expressing concern about a backlog of 5.9 million unprocessed individual tax returns and 2.7 million amended returns during the pandemic. The senators asked the IRS to keep its telephone lines open while clearing the backlog of unprocessed returns. 
Public Reports
  • The Peace Corps’ inspector general published its findings from a review of the Peace Corps’ internal budgeting and disbursement of CARES Act funding, concluding the agency complied with relevant guidance and provisions. 
  • The Small Business Administration’s inspector general issued an advisory about potential improper payments in the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program. The inspector general reviewed EIDL grants from March to November 2020 and found that more than $3.1 billion in Covid-19 EIDL and $550 million in emergency EIDL grants were distributed to potentially ineligible recipients. 
  • In response to a request from the House Ways and Means Committee, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general reviewed the agency’s telephone services during the pandemic, when it limited in-person service and shifted more calls to field offices. To reduce wait times, the agency hired additional staff, modified automated service options, and developed plans to implement a new telephone system.
  • The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee released its semiannual report, summarizing the pandemic oversight work it conducted between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2021.
  • The Congressional Oversight Commission released its 19th report, which provides updates on lending programs under the CARES Act, loans authorized and disbursed  by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, and other developments.