Covid-19 Oversight News: Trump Administration Political Interference in Pandemic Response, Boosters Approved for All Adults

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Congressional Hearings
Last week
    • The House Small Business Committee held a discussion on Nov. 16 with Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman about the Small Business Administration and opportunities and challenges for small businesses.
    • The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis held a hearing on Nov. 17 about combating pandemic misinformation.
    • The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on Nov. 17 about the implementation of Covid-19 education funds.
    • The House Appropriations Committee held a hearing on Nov. 17 to discuss the U.S. role in global vaccine equity.
  • The House Transportation Committee held a hearing on Nov. 17 to discuss industry and labor perspectives on supply chain challenges in North America. 
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Nov. 18 about the importance of U.S. engagement in vaccine diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Wed., Dec. 1: The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on oversight of the Treasury’s and Federal Reserve’s pandemic response. 

The State of the Pandemic
The Food and Drug Administration authorized booster doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for all adults over 18 years old who received their second dose six or more months ago. This move is expected to eliminate confusion over eligibility requirements and help boost defenses against a possible resurgence of the virus over the winter holidays.

The U.S. is buying more than $5 billion worth of Pfizer’s experimental antiviral pills. While still under review by the FDA, the drug is reported to be effective in preventing hospitalization. The company also recently signed a deal with a United Nations-backed organization that would allow generic drug companies in 95 countries to make the drug, which could provide treatment to over half the world’s population. 

Daily cases have been on the increase over the past two weeks, while deaths have declined slightly.

Political Interference Hampered Pandemic Response
Several current and former top health officials told congressional investigators that the Trump administration interfered with attempts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue clear warnings and guidance regarding the coronavirus pandemic. In one early example, senior CDC health expert Nancy Messonnier, who resigned this past spring, warned Americans on Feb. 25, 2020, that the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S. was “inevitable,” angering President Trump and prompting him to block the CDC’s media appearances. The agency held no news briefings between March 9 and May 29, 2020, as the White House sought to control all messaging regarding the crisis. 

The recent interviews with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis also corroborated reports that the White House and administration political appointees had pressured the CDC to alter its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports so as to conform with White House efforts to downplay the severity of the pandemic, and interfered in the creation of public health guidance, including regarding testing. The House subcommittee on the pandemic wrote letters requesting additional interviews with former CDC Director Robert Redfield, who is alleged to have directed staff to delete emails revealing this political interference, and three other senior CDC officials. 

In the States
  • Florida lawmakers wrapped up a special session last week, passing bills that require employers to include more opt-out options for vaccine mandates; prohibit school boards from requiring face masks or quarantining sick students; and revoke the state health officer’s ability to require vaccines during a public health emergency, among other provisions that defy the Biden administration’s recent vaccine mandates. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bills on Thursday.
  • The Arizona Public Health Association found that Arizona is the only state where Covid-19 has been the overall leading cause of death during the pandemic. Across most of the country, the virus comes third after heart disease and cancer. 
  • A federal judge in Texas overruled Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, stating that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by making it harder for students who are at greater risk to access public school programs.
  • A report from the New York Assembly’s investigation into former Gov. Andrew Cuomo found that his administration manipulated data and misrepresented the number of nursing home residents who died from Covid-19 across the state.

Other recent headlines:

  • Moderna disputes NIH invention of Covid vaccine (Washington Post)
  • Pentagon: Oklahoma National Guard must comply with vaccine mandate (Politico
  • Border Patrol vaccination rates increase, but 20 percent of agency’s workforce has not gotten shots (Washington Post
  • New reports confirm threats from the delta variant during pregnancy (Washington Post)  

House Subpoenas Former Trump Adviser
The House select subcommittee issued a subpoena to former Trump adviser Peter Navarro for failing to respond to document requests. The subcommittee alleges that Navarro, former director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, failed to coordinate an effective national strategy for the procurement of critically needed supplies and “exercised inappropriate influence over contract awards.” 

In the Documents: DeSantis Office Removed Covid-19 Health Measures from 2020 List of Accomplishments
Last December, Florida Gov. DeSantis’s team drafted a press release highlighting his 2020 accomplishments. The edits to the document obtained by American Oversight show that his office deleted mentions of Covid-19 safety and prevention measures, including encouraging people to wear masks and requiring long-term care facilities to regularly test staff and to impose visit limitations during the height of the pandemic.

The Pandemic in the Meatpacking Industry
Smithfield Foods agreed to pay a settlement of more than $13,000 to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to protect its meatpacking workers from Covid-19 exposure. While Smithfield is required to update its infectious disease protocols, the company refused to admit wrongdoing and thus a stipulation in the settlement agreement states that it cannot be used as evidence in any potential litigation by workers.

A lawsuit against a meat-processing plant in Iowa alleges that while Tysons Foods required employees to work during the beginning of the pandemic, supervisors bet money on how many workers would contract Covid-19. The lawsuit claims Tysons exercised a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”

Congressional Oversight
  • A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee asking the committee to include the National Commission on the Covid-19 Pandemic Act in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation would establish a 9/11-style commission to assess the vulnerabilities that Covid-19 revealed in the country’s health care system.
  • A bicameral group of Democrats wrote to President Biden asking that he implement requirements for airline passengers to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test to board a domestic flight, as well as other safety protocols for public transportation.
  • Senate Democrats wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging him to discharge federal student loan debt from borrowers in default. The senators noted that more than 8 million federal student loan borrowers are in default, and that many of these borrowers have been harmed by the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The House select subcommittee sent a letter to Stephen Siegel, the CEO and president of the Siegel Group, asking him to comply with the subcommittee’s previous request for documents and information regarding the company’s eviction practices. The subcommittee is also assessing the company’s compliance with pandemic-related eviction moratoria and federally funded rental assistance programs. 
  • Twenty Senate Democrats wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging her to provide tax relief to auto dealers experiencing large inventory shortages due to global supply chain issues related to the pandemic. 
Government Accountability Office Reports 
  • The GAO published a report on cybersecurity in K-12 schools during the pandemic, examining the extent to which federal agencies assisted in protecting schools from cyber threats. The GAO recommended that the Department of Education initiate a meeting with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to determine how to update its sector-specific plan and determine whether specific guidance is needed.
  • In a new report about vaccine development, the GAO identified nine policy options that could help address challenges hindering the adoption of vaccine development technologies, including prioritizing research and development for pathogens with pandemic potential, supporting public-private partnerships, and developing standards for health data.
  • The GAO examined the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s (DFC)  activities under the Defense Production Act, including what loans it made as part of the pandemic response. GAO recommended that DFC, in consultation with the Department of Defense, develop a plan to evaluate the DPA Loan Program’s effectiveness — DFC did not concur with this recommendation — and develop methodologies for accounting for all reimbursable DPA program costs.
  • Prior to the 2020 election, the Election Assistance Commission administered $400 million in grant funds provided by the CARES Act to help states prepare for and respond to the pandemic. The GAO published a report examining these grants, and found that the EAC could have reported more clearly how the grant money was spent. In particular, the GAO found problems with how states and the EAC categorized about 20 percent of the spending.
Inspector General Reports 
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general examined the impacts of the pandemic on the Clean Air Act compliance-monitoring activities of state and local agencies at facilities that emit air pollution. Nationally, compliance-monitoring activities decreased slightly during the pandemic, but state activities varied widely. The report recommends that EPA address the needs of agencies that had significant declines in compliance-monitoring.
  • The Department of Justice’s inspector general sent Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal a memorandum asking for immediate attention to address the lack of formal policy negotiations between BOP and its national union during the pandemic. 
  • The Department of Labor’s inspector general audited the efforts of the agency’s vocational training program for young adults, Job Corps, to resume on-campus operations and to teach students remotely during the pandemic. As of July 2021, Job Corps brought students and staff back to 112 centers, but reviewed less than half of them for compliance with safety requirements such as masking and physical barriers. The report recommends implementing improved monitoring of centers and oversight of remote instructional programs.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general assessed the pandemic readiness and emergency response plans of select Veterans Integrated Service Networks in facilities in New England and in Florida, Puerto Rico, and southern Georgia. In a survey sent to facility staff, 71 percent to 92 percent of respondents said that leaders communicated how to ensure staff and patient safety during the pandemic, and 81 percent to 94 percent reported having access to necessary personal protective equipment.
  • The VA’s inspector general also conducted a national review of select community care consults generated at the beginning of the pandemic, and outlined deficiencies in the process as well as problems with delayed or inconsistently provided care.
  • The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general conducted an audit to determine the extent to which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) followed required procedures and guidelines for awarding Covid-19 contracts to vendors. The report found that FEMA did not always accurately report contract data as required; of the 128 Covid-19 contract actions, FEMA mislabeled the competitive status of approximately 33 percent of actions and did not accurately report more than 4 percent of contract actions as Covid-specific.