COVID-19 Federal Update 4-21-20
Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday: 40,683, Tuesday, 42,364.
States Look at Road Map to Slowly Reopen
Pence Says U.S. Has Test Capacity to Reopen: The Trump administration declared yesterday the U.S. has enough laboratory testing capacity for states to begin reopening economies shuttered to fight the coronavirus outbreak, though governors say they still lack supplies such as swabs needed to diagnose sick people. President Donald Trump and U.S. governors have sparred for days over who is responsible for expanding testing for coronavirus infections, which public health experts say isn’t sufficient to begin relaxing the social-distancing practices adopted to curb the outbreak. “We told the governors once again today, that by our best estimates, we have enough testing capacity today for every state in America to go to phase one” of the White House’s reopening plan, Vice President Mike Pence said at a news conference. They also need to “meet the other criteria of 14 days of reduced cases and sufficient hospital capacity to prepare for any eventuality that may occur.” Republican governors in three southern states — Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee — announced yesterday that they would lift some social-distancing orders, allowing some businesses and recreation sites to reopen, including South Carolina’s beaches. Read more from Emma Court and Josh Wingrove.
Grassley Probes Virus Relief Waste in Puerto Rico: Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said yesterday he’s looking at “questionable contracts and potentially wasted relief money” related to coronavirus efforts in Puerto Rico. “It appears that procurement and contracting in Puerto Rico often passes through a filter of political connections before resources intended for the people of Puerto Rico actually reach them,” Grassley said in a letter to Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced. In particular, he’s concerned about contracts for testing going to firms “with close ties to a Puerto R ican political party” but without any experience in medical supplies. Read the letter here.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) are seeking answers from HHS Secretary Alex Azar and FEMA chief Peter Gaynor about the “administration’s efforts to acquire and distribute medical supplies to states,” according to a statement. Read their letter to two administration officials here.
CARES Act Stimulus Supplemental
Senate to vote on Interim Legislation The Senate plans to meet today for a potential vote on an emergency stimulus package of as much as $500 billion, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said negotiations are “down to the fine print.” ”We have, I believe, come to terms on the principles of the legislation, which is a good thing,” Pelosi said on CNN last night. She said she hopes the Senate can vote on the measure today and the House tomorrow. The legislation would add funds to the tapped-out Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses and also would provide money for coronavirus testing and overwhelmed hospitals. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier in the day, “It’s past time, past time, to get this done for the country.” Unanimous consent would be required for the Senate to pass the bill during a pro forma session allowing most members to avoid traveling to Washington. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) notified lawmakers last night they could meet as soon as Thursday to consider a deal. Because an objection to unanimous consent is likely, Hoyer said that members would probably have to go to Washington for a recorded vote.
Some known provisions of a deal include:
- $310 billion in emergency aid to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, designed to help small businesses keep employees on their payrolls as much of the country remains under stay-at-home orders.
- $50 billion to $60 billion for a separate Economic Injury Disaster Loan program that provides financing and advances as grants of as much as $10,000 for businesses.
- $75 billion of the $100 billion Democrats have demanded for hospitals, with a significant portion aimed at rural hospitals, as well as $25 billion for virus testing.
A person familiar with the talks said yesterday that Democrats and Republicans still have disagreements over the formula to distribute health-care relief to the states. Another dispute remains over the testing program, including which U.S. agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or National Institutes of Health, should oversee it, according to one person familiar with the discussions. Pelosi has also come under pressure from her party’s liberal wing to wring more concessions, like relief for state and local governments that the GOP is resisting putting in the package. “It is going to be very difficult to support a package that doesn’t have what we need in terms of help for state and local governments,” Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said.
Small Business Regulation Changes
White House May Suspend Small Business Federal Regulations: White House and Trump administration officials plan to suspend or repeal federal regulations affecting small businesses and expand a program that mandates agencies to annul two regulations for every additional one they issue, Washington Post reports, citing two unidentified people familiar.
- Changes could impact environmental, labour policy, workplace safety and health care
- Timing for this move is unclear; some White House officials seek a pullback of regulations by April-end or early May
- The White House National Economic Council and its director, Larry Kudlow, are working closely on the plan with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other officials at the Treasury Department
- NOTE: Earlier, Small Businesses Await Funds as Congress Talks Near an Agreement
Research Efforts, Testing and Treatments
Defense Production Act to Get Virus Test Swabs: For weeks, U.S. laboratories have complained about shortages of swabs and other testing supplies that state governors say are key to reopening the country. Now, the Trump administration says it’s moving to meet that need. The White House is finalizing plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to bolster the output of swab manufacturer Puritan Medical Products, a closely held company based in Guilford, Maine, according to Peter Navarro, the act’s coordinator.
Navarro didn’t say how much funding the company would get. But the goal, he said, is to increase Puritan’s output to over 20 million swabs a month within 30 days of the contract award, from 3 million now. Without sufficient test supplies, many laboratories have been limited in how much testing they could do. Some have had to cobble together different systems so that running out of any one material won’t ground their efforts. Emma Court and Josh Wingrove have more.
Printer Fights to Make N95 Masks: The nation’s largest industrial 3-D printer is getting a crash course in federal bureaucracy as it scrambles to make millions of critically needed N95 respirators for essential workers. Edward Dominion, head of D6 Inc., is feeling optimistic he’ll win quick approval from the FDA for a new N95 respirator the Portland-based company designed to meet or exceed federal safety standards. If approved, he said his D6 facilities could manufacture up to 7.2 million masks a day. But there’s a lot of regulatory hurdles in the way. Read more from Cheryl Bolen.
Gilead Drug Virus Response to Open Data Floodgates: The first look at how well Gilead’s Ebola drug treats Covid-19 patients in an NIH clinical trial should come in a matter of weeks, the agency’s head said yesterday. If available, that initial analysis would come a little more than two months after the trial began. It’s also the first wave in a deluge of data the National Institutes of Health and the FDA will need to assess as they aggressively shepherd in new medicines to treat the viral outbreak. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.
Trump Encourages Providers in Virus Clinical Trials: The Trump administration is making a slight adjustment to encourage additional participation in Covid-19 clinical trials by giving health-care providers a chance at more money from a Medicare quality and performance reporting system, according to an announcement yesterday. Read more from Shira Stein.
Path to Resume Elective Procedures: The Trump administration is touting its blueprint to resume nonessential medical procedures and elective surgeries in regions where the coronavirus threat has subsided. The new guidelines issued on Sunday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services allow communities that are in “Phase 1″ of the White House blueprint for re-opening the economy to lift restrictions.
The ban on elective procedures has hurt revenue and caused financial hardship at hospitals that are struggling to handle the outbreak. It’s also reduced patient volume at physician practices and ambulatory surgery centers, causing some to shut down or lay off staff. Many areas of the country are seeing fewer Covid-19 cases and low incidence of the disease, CMS Administrator Seema Verma said yesterday in a phone briefing with reporters. “So we’re providing a roadmap for providers to offer some forms of non-coronavirus related care to asymptomatic patients.” Read more from Tony Pugh.
Deferring Premiums Needs Federal Action: An increasing number of states are delaying their premium payments for health-care coverage or encouraging insurers to be flexible with billing during a pandemic that has brought much of the nation to a standstill. With over 22 million people now seeking unemployment benefits, the states’ orders are meant to help those struggling financially, but they only cover a small swath of people with insurance. It would require action from the federal government to defer premium payments for everyone, whi ch insurers might not support, health law scholars say. Lydia Wheeler has more.
WHO Says Virus’s Stability Helps Vaccines: Researchers have studied about 10,000 genome sequences, and it appears that the new coronavirus is relatively stable, which is good news for the potential of a vaccine, epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said at a World Health Organization press briefing in Geneva. A big proportion of people are vulnerable to Covid-19 infection as several studies suggest only a single-digit percentage has been infected, Van Kerkhove said, a smaller-than-expected estimate, which raises the risk that lifting lockdo wns too quickly or all at once will fuel a resurgence. Read more.
Coronavirus May Be More Widespread Than Thought: A collaborative study between the Los Angeles County Public Health Department and the University of Southern California estimated about 4.1% of the county’s adult population has antibodies to the coronavirus. That estimate, researchers said, is 28 to 55 times higher than the 7,994 confirmed cases of the virus in L.A. county at the time of the study. Antibody tests, which show not whether a person is currently suffering from Covid-19 but whether they have ever been exposed in the past, are key to understanding how widespread and deadly the illness is. Read more.
Levin Pushes for Telehealth Expansion: Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), vice chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, yesterday sent a letter to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia calling for “additional action to expand telehealth access amid the COVID-19 pandemic.” Levin told Scalia that telehealth “coverage is essential to protecting the health and wellbeing of the millions of Americans who depend on employer-sponsored health coverage,” amid heightened concerns of leaving the house to visit a doctor’s office. Read the letter here.
Treasury Sends $2.9 Billion to Airlines: The Treasury Department disbursed $2.9 billion to passenger airlines in the first round of payroll assistance to an industry suffering financially from a pandemic-induced shutdown. The assistance that has been handed out so far went to two “major” airlines and 54 smaller passenger carriers, the department said in a statement late yesterday. More payments will be sent out on a rolling basis, it said. The Treasury Department didn’t say which carriers received the money yet. However, it said American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, have struck agreements for aid. The Treasury also announced that Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines have also reached a deal for payroll assistance. Five others have said they plan to participate: Alaska Air, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and SkyWest. Separately, Southwest Airlines announced that it finalized terms with the Treasury and will receive more than $3.2 billion in disbursements over the next several months. The deal allows Southwest to receive an immediate payment of about $1.6 billion with the remainder being paid in installments during May, June, and July, the company said. Read more from Saleha Mohsin.
Travel Industry Pummeled by Virus Impact: The U.S. Travel Association — which represents airlines and other transportation companies, local attractions, tourism bureaus and other parts of the industry — estimates that lost revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic could approach $520 billion by the end of the year, with much of the tourism industry still depressed in December, Ben Brody reports. The group released an economic analysis yesterday that said the sector is on track to lose 6.9 million jobs and $83 billion in revenue in April alone as a result of the pandemic and could peak in coming weeks. The group’s analysis also predicted nearly 43 million fewer international travelers to the U.S. in 2020, resulting in nearly $120 billion in lost revenue. The travel association reiterated its call to add $600 billion in funding for small business aid, let businesses take out bigger loans through the end of the year, and expand eligibility for the funds to include tourism marketing groups.
United’s $2.1 Billion Loss Heralds More Airline Pain: The airline’s early look at first-quarter results is the first for big U.S. carriers and presages a gruesome set of earnings reports after flights were curtailed worldwide. Travel at U.S. airports is about 5% of what it was a year earlier. Delta is scheduled to release its earnings tomorrow, with Southwest and American following next week. Justin Bachman and Tony Robinson detail United’s revenue-raising measures.
Coronavirus Has Wiped Out More Than 90% of International Flights: Airlines have cut international capacity to just half a million seats a week from an average of 5.9 million before the coronavirus shut borders and decimated travel demand, according to OAG Aviation Worldwide. “There isn’t much more international capacity that can be dropped around the globe,” OAG senior analyst John Grant wrote in a post dated April 20.
Strong domestic capacity has at least helped stem declines in countries such as the U.S., Japan and Indonesia, though demand is lacking, Grant said, adding that nearly 9 in every 10 seats scheduled this week will be on domestic flights. Read more from Harry Suhartono.
Used-Car Price Plunge Threatens GM, Ford: Vehicle prices in America are on track for a record decline. Manheim, North America’s largest auto-auction company, for the first time ever released a mid-month view of its closely watched used vehicle value index last week, showing prices plunged 11.8% in the first 15 days of April. If prices finish the quarter lower than General Motors and Ford have estimated, their finance arms likely face multibillion-dollar losses, wrote JPMorgan lead analyst Ryan Brinkman.
Vehicle prices are likely going to come under significant pressure in the coming months as rental-car firms including Hertz and Avis Budget offload far more vehicles than usual, Brinkman said. Read more from David Welch and Keith Naughton.
MTA to Vote on Payout for Virus Deaths: New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority will vote tomorrow on a deal negotiated between its CEO and labor unions to pay $500,000 to families of workers who died from Covid-19, perhaps the most generous benefit to date. Thus far, the outbreak has struck down at least 79 employees of the MTA. The money will come from the MTA’s $17 billion operating budget. The authority is expected to run an $8.5 billion deficit as ridership plummets. The authority wants an additional $3.9 billion of federal aid to deal with the lost revenue amid the virus fallout. That follows a nearly $4 billion allocation from the initial bailout package for the MTA. At least 18 states, including New York, Alaska and Illinois, have taken or are considering steps to ease requirements for workers compensation as the virus puts a wider range of front-line employees in danger. Read more from David Voreacos and Michelle Kaske.
Coronavirus and Homeland Response: House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (R-Miss.) will host a conversation today with former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the coronavirus and homeland security. The YouTube livestream will be moderated by CNN political analyst April Ryan.
Trump’s WOTUS Revamp Complete: The Trump administration’s rule revising the definition of what constitutes a federally protected water body or wetlands will be published later today. The Navigable Waters Protection Rule (RIN: 2040-AF75) replaces the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule that Republicans and business groups criticized, claiming it was overly broad in its scope. The new rule goes further than simply rewriting the Obama-era protections; it also scraps certain Reagan-era regulations. With the publication of this rule, the Trump administration’s rewrite of the Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, which began three years ago, will be complete. Democratic-led states, notably California, and separate coalitions of national environmental groups including the Waterkeeper Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Earthjustice indicated in January and again yesterday that they would challenge the new rule in court. Amena H. Saiyid and Ellen M. Gilmer recap what’s in the final rule.
Wicker Wants Input on REAL ID Challenges: Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) yesterday sent a letter to the National Governors Association, American Association of Airport Executives, American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and U.S. Travel Association asking them to share challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, they’ve faced in meeting the new October 1, 2021, REAL ID implementation deadline. “I have repeatedly sounded the alarm about our lack of readiness for REAL ID implementation,” Wicker wrote. “The U.S. Travel Association has projected that nearly 70,000 Americans will be denied boarding on the first day of implementation followed by nearly half a million Americans in the first week. Such a disruption would create serious security concerns at airports and would have major economic consequences.”
Nominations: President Donald Trump will formally nominate Joel Szabat to be under secretary for policy at the Department of Transportation, though he’s been acting in that capacity since June 2019. Previously, Szabat was the department’s assistant secretary for Aviation and International Affairs after being confirmed in January 2019 by the Senate. Politico reported last November that, during his latest confirmation, Szabat failed to disclose campaign contributions to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who’s married to Szabat’s boss, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Szabat also didn’t inform the Senate Commerce Committee about his donations of more than $500 to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Trucking Software Requests Hours-of-Service Waiver: The designer of a cruise control system for trucks is asking the federal government to bend the rules on how many hours a trucker can drive if its system is installed. The deadline to comment on the petition is May 20. Pronto.ai, a trucking software company, is petitioning the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to allow truckers who use its automated driving system be allowed to drive up to 13 hours per shift. The agency typically says a driver hauling goods may drive up to 11 hours after a 10-hour break. Those rules have been waived in some cases during the coronavirus pandemic.
Transit Report Deadline Extended: Transit system grantees of funds under the CARES Act can hold off on submitting federal financial reports and milestone progress reports for up to 90 days after their previous deadline, the Federal Transit Administration said in an April 19th update to its coronavirus FAQ.
Once-Bankrupt Ligado Triumphs With Hired Hands Close to Trump: Ligado Networks overcame powerful opposition to its proposed broadband network with some help from inside-the-Beltway figures close to President Donald Trump’s White House. As late as Friday, the Defense and Transportation departments said they were “strongly opposed” to Ligado’s plan to use airwaves they feared would interfere with global positioning system navigation.
The Democratic and Republican leaders of both armed services committees also called last week for rejecting Ligado’s plan. And in March, agencies including the departments of Interior, Commerce, Justice, Energy and Homeland Security all signed a letter opposing the company’s plan. But on Monday the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, led by a Trump-appointed chairman, Ajit Pai, reversed itself and signed off on the plan anyway, realizing a vision set out by hedge fund manager Philip Falcone a decade ago. Read more from Todd Shields and Megan Wilson.
Uber Gets Green Light to Chase Federal Contracts: The ride-share company won approval yesterday to serve as a business vendor to the U.S. government, allowing the company to vie for an estimated $810 million in spending over the next five years, Lizette Chapman reports. The government clearance removes a substantial hurdle for selling to agencies, but revenue isn’t assured. The U.S. expects to spend $810 million through 2025 on ride-hailing services, according to an Uber spokesman, citing an estimate by the General Services Administration. Uber must compete for those contracts.
Trump Says He’ll Add to Oil Reserve and Eyes Saudi Shipments: Trump said he wants to add as much as 75 million barrels of oil to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, taking advantage of record low prices for crude, and that he’ll consider blocking imports of crude from Saudi Arabia. Oil is at “a level that’s very interesting to a lot of people right now,” Trump said Monday at a White House news conference. “That would be the first time in a long time it’s been topped out — we’ll get it for the right price.” Read more from Justin Sink and Josh Wingrove
Biden Might Triple Trump’s Infrastructure Spending: There’s potential for an infrastructure funding bill of between $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion if former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, were to capture the White House in the fall, Felice Maranz reports, citing analysts at Veda Partners. That’s in comparison to a bill in the lower range of $500 million to $800 million under a re-elected Trump. Deficit spending, and not tax increases, would be a “major pillar” of a potential Biden administration, with either a slim majority or a minority in the Senate, analyst Henrietta Treyz wrote in a note. “Given that the U.S. is likely to be in a recession and still dealing with fallout from Covid-19 there will not be votes in the Senate to raise taxes on individuals or corporations, even in the event Biden prioritizes a massive $2 trillion infrastructure package,” she said.
Tennessee Abortion Provider Wins Halt to Ban: Tennessee may not enforce an emergency coronavirus order suspending elective and nonessential medical procedures to stop an abortion provider from performing procedural abortions, a federal court in the state said. Adams & Boyle is likely to win on its claim that applying the order in this fashion is unconstitutional, as it places a substantial burden on a woman’s right to end a pregnancy before viability without undue state interference, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee said. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.
Trump’s Move to Cut WHO Funding Prompts Fierce Internal Debate: Trump’s decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization has sown confusion within his administration, as staff argue over what the decision means and whether some programs that the agency oversees should be protected from the cut.
In the days since Trump suspended funding to the WHO for a review period of “60 to 90 days,” some administration officials have argued that, no matter what, the organization should get far less than the $400 million to $500 million it receives each year from the U.S. They see the review as a way to redirect money permanently to other organizations focused on health-care issues. Others insist the halt is aimed — as the president said when he announced the cuts last week — at seeking reforms from the WHO and cleaning up what the administration sees as the pro-China bias it showed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Read more from Nick Wadhams.
Democrats Urge Trump on WHO Funding: Senate Democrats yesterday sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on the administration to “reconsider its treatment of the World Health Organization” through the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. The letter, signed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), raises concern “about the consequences of further withdrawing the United States from multilateral cooperation to confront the coronavirus pandemic.” Read the letter here.
Today on the Hill
- 11:00 am – In-House Pool Call Time
- 4:00 pm – Trump meets with the Governor of New York State
- 5:00 pm – Members of the Coronavirus Task Force hold a press briefing
- On recess and not scheduled to return before May 4th
Congressional negotiators neared a deal on an emergency stimulus package to add funds to the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses
Senate will meet today to vote on the measure pending a deal; House expected to consider it Thursday if Senate votes today
NOTE: Unanimous consent would be required for the Senate to pass the measure during a pro forma session, which would allow most members to avoid traveling to Washington amid coronavirus restrictions
- On recess and not scheduled to return before May 4th
Legislation Updates from Yesterday
- 1. H.R.6530 — 116th Congress (2019-2020)To require the President to report to Congress on certain authorities used under the Defense Production Act of 1950 and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, and for other purposes. Action: House – 04/20/2020 Referred to the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.
- H.R.6552— 116th Congress (2019-2020)To prohibit water shutoffs during the COVID-19 emergency period, provide drinking and waste water assistance to households, and for other purposes. Latest Action: House – 04/20/2020 Referred to the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.