The new projects look at food- and water-supply stability and how changes in human activity are affecting the environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched most aspects of human life. In recent months, NASA has initiated research projects focused on how the human response to the pandemic has affected our environment, like how air quality has improved in the wake of reduced vehicular traffic in many places. But the tentacles of the pandemic extend well beyond that.
How have production disruptions affected agriculture and food supply? What about our ability to forecast water availability in coming months? How do changes in activity levels affect environmental conditions?
NASA’s Earth Science Division recently selected three new projects that aim to answer these and other pandemic-related questions for Rapid Response and Novel Research (RRNES) awards. RRNES is funding quick-turnaround projects that make innovative use of the agency’s resources and data to better understand regional-to-global environmental, economic, and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new projects join a growing list of RRNES research now underway.
Food Supply Monitoring
Shutdowns in response to COVID-19 left many farmers facing two distinct problems: labor shortages brought on by travel restrictions, and falling demand resulting from the closures of restaurants and schools. Realizing that their labor costs would exceed the value of their crops, some farmers decided to forgo harvesting them.
The impacts don’t stop there. The economic downturn and related unemployment put food security at risk for many people, especially in developing countries. Import and export restrictions, COVID-19 outbreaks in and around port cities, and other supply-chain disruptions have all added to uncertainty in agricultural markets. In order to monitor the development of crop conditions globally, these factors and others need to be taken into consideration.
University of Maryland scientist and NASA Harvest data lead Michael Humber and his colleagues are working on a project that brings all of the relevant Earth Science data together in one easy-to-access place. In line with the mission of NASA’s food-security-focused program, NASA Harvest is striving to expand open access to agricultural data that can help inform food policy decisions.
“Our goal is to provide an interactive, web mapping tool that will show you, in just a few clicks, the international and national market situation and primary food-crop assessments supported with remote-sensing data,” Humber said. “You would be able to combine this data with the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker data and the latest pandemic-related updates.”
The information available through the tool will provide policymakers, humanitarian organizations, and others with vital information needed to respond to supply disruptions and other challenges proactively and to make the best decisions for their respective communities.
Preserving Water Supply Forecasts With Remote Sensing
In the semiarid western U.S., farmers and water resource managers rely on water supply forecasts both to ensure there is enough water to meet demand and to make the most efficient use of the water available.
The primary variable in these forecasts is what’s called snow water equivalent, which is the amount of water contained in the snow that accumulates and compacts over the winter. In spring and summer, snowmelt becomes a significant freshwater source. Each month, surveyors take manual measurements of snow water equivalent at hundreds of monitoring stations across the region.
But what happens when a global pandemic limits the surveyors’ ability to travel and take these measurements?
“As the pandemic evolved, we quickly discovered that the ground-based data that water resource managers have historically relied on for their decision making is potentially not going to be as readily available as it was in the past, because it requires people in trucks or in helicopters going out into the field to make these measurements,” said University of Colorado scientist Noah Molotch. “Our project will leverage remotely-sensed snow data to fill these data gaps.”
In doing so, Molotch and his colleagues hope to minimize disruptions to the water supply forecasts on which so many water and agricultural professionals rely.
Activity Mapping: Slowing Down and Speeding Up
Most governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing some form of shutdown; however, shutdown orders and their enforcement have varied extensively at local, national, and global levels. To determine what effects these reductions in activity have had on virus control and on the environment, we need to look at the global picture. Luckily, satellites make that possible.
Scientist Sang-Ho Yun and his team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with researchers from the Earth Observatory of Singapore, are using satellite-derived synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data to map changes in activity levels in cities around the world.
SAR data can show changes to Earth’s surface over time. In this case, the scientists are looking at things like how the concentration and arrangement of cars in parking lots and on highways has changed from pre-pandemic patterns as well as changes to construction sites.
“Using the SAR data, we’ll be able to provide citywide maps that quantify the changes in activity, both the slowing down due to lockdowns and the gradual increase as governments decide to reopen,” said Yun. “These maps will help us to better understand how activity reductions correspond to different cities’ levels of success in controlling virus outbreaks, and how those reductions correspond to observed improvements in environmental conditions like air quality.”
Research from this project will also be incorporated into NASA’s COVID-19 dashboard.
NASA accepts proposals for new RRNES research on a rolling basis.
News Media Contact
Ian J. O’Neill / Jane J. Lee
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-2649 / 818-354-0307
firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Written by Esprit Smith, NASA’s Earth Science News Team
- Former Construction Executive Sentenced to 51 Months in Prison for Tax Evasion and Bribery SchemeBy Sam NewsJuly 1, 2021A New York construction executive was sentenced today in Manhattan federal court to 51 months in prison for evading taxes on more than $1.8 million in bribes he received from building subcontractors.[Read More…]
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- Humanitarian Assistance: USAID Should Improve Information Collection and Communication to Help Mitigate Implementers’ Banking ChallengesBy Sam NewsAugust 24, 2021What GAO Found Implementing partners (partners) for 7 of 18 Department of State (State) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) humanitarian assistance projects that GAO selected noted encountering banking access challenges, such as delays or denials in transferring funds overseas. Of those 7 projects, 1 partner told us that banking access challenges adversely affected its project and 2 additional partners told us that the challenges had the potential for adverse effects. Moreover, the majority of partners (15 out of 18) for the 18 projects noted experiencing banking access challenges on their global portfolio of projects over the previous 5 years. Number of Selected U.S. Government Humanitarian Assistance Projects That Experienced Banking Access Challenges USAID's partners' written reports do not capture potential risks posed by banking access challenges because USAID generally does not require most partners to report in writing any challenges that do not affect implementation. Six of the 7 projects that encountered challenges were USAID-funded. Of those 6 USAID projects, 5 partners told us that these challenges did not rise to the threshold of affecting project implementation that would necessitate reporting, and 1 did not report challenges although its project was adversely affected. Additionally, GAO's review of about 1,300 USAID partner reports found that the few instances where challenges were mentioned lacked sufficient detail for GAO to determine their type, severity, or origin. Without information on banking access challenges that pose potential risks to project implementation, USAID is not aware of the full extent of risks to achieving its objectives. The Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and State have taken various actions to help address banking access challenges encountered by nonprofit organizations (NPO), but USAID's efforts have been limited. Treasury's efforts have focused on engagement between NPOs and U.S. agencies, while State has issued guidance on the topic to its embassies and designated an office to focus on these issues. In contrast, USAID lacks a comparable office, and NPOs stated that it is difficult to find USAID staff to engage with on this topic. Further, GAO found that awareness of specific challenges was generally limited to USAID staff directly overseeing the project. Without communicating these challenges to relevant parties, USAID may not be aware of all risks to agency objectives and may not be able to effectively engage with external entities on efforts to address these challenges. Why GAO Did This Study Since 2012, the United States has provided approximately $36 billion in humanitarian assistance to save lives and alleviate human suffering. Much of this assistance is provided in areas plagued by conflict or other issues that increase the risk of financial crimes. The World Bank and others have reported that humanitarian assistance organizations face challenges in accessing banking services that could affect project implementation. GAO was asked to review the possible effects of decreased banking access for nonprofit organizations on the delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance. In this report, GAO examines (1) the extent to which State and USAID partners experienced banking access challenges, (2) USAID partners' reporting on such challenges, and (3) actions U.S. agencies have taken to help address such challenges. GAO selected four high-risk countries—Syria, Somalia, Haiti, and Kenya—based on factors such as their inclusion in multiple financial risk-related indices, and selected a non-generalizable sample of 18 projects in those countries. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed U.S. officials and the 18 partners for the selected projects.[Read More…]
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- Homeland Security: DHS Needs to Fully Implement Key Practices in Acquiring Biometric Identity Management SystemBy Sam NewsJune 9, 2021What GAO Found The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initially expected to implement the entire Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) by 2021; however, no segments of the program have been deployed to date. Currently estimated to cost $4.3 billion in total, DHS plans to deploy increment 1 of the program in December 2021 and expects to implement later increments in 2022 and 2024. Increment 1 is expected to replace the functionality of the existing system. Although the multi-billion dollar HART program had suffered continuing delays, until the end of last year, the DHS Chief Information Officer (CIO) had reported the program as low risk on the IT Dashboard, a website showing, among other things, the performance and risks of agency information technology (IT) investments. In May 2020, the Office of the CIO began developing a new assessment process which led to the CIO accurately elevating HART's rating from low to high risk and reporting this rating to the IT Dashboard in November 2020. In addition, consistent with OMB guidance, the CIO fulfilled applicable oversight requirements for high-risk IT programs by, among other things, conducting a review of the program known as a TechStat review. While the CIO complied with applicable oversight requirements in conducting the TechStat review, GAO noted that DHS's associated policy was outdated. Specifically, the 2017 policy does not reflect the revised process DHS started using in 2020. As such, until the guidance is updated, other departmental IT programs deemed high risk would likely not be readily aware of the specific process requirements. Concurrent with the CIO's actions to conduct oversight, HART program management has also acted to implement important risk management practices. Specifically, GAO found that HART had fully implemented four of seven risk management best practices and partially implemented the remaining three (see table). For example, as of February 2021, the program had identified 49 active risks, including 15 related to cost and schedule and 17 related to technical issues. While DHS has plans under way to fully implement two of the partially implemented practices, until it fully implements the remaining practice its efforts to effectively monitor the status of risks and mitigation plans may be hampered. Summary of the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology Program's Implementation of the Seven Risk Management Practices Practice GAO assessment 1. Determine risk sources and categories ● 2. Define parameters to analyze and categorize risks ● 3. Establish and maintain a risk management strategy ◑ 4. Identify and document risks ● 5. Evaluate and categorize each identified risk using defined risk categories and parameters, and determine its relative priority ● 6. Develop a risk mitigation plan in accordance with the risk management strategy ◑ 7. Monitor the status of each risk periodically and implement the risk mitigation plan as appropriate ◑ Legend: ● = Fully implemented ◑ = Partially implemented ○ = Not implemented Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-21-386 Why GAO Did This Study DHS currently uses an outdated system, implemented over 27 years ago, for providing biometric identity management services (i.e., fingerprint matching and facial recognition technology services), known as the Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT. In 2016, DHS initiated a multi-billion dollar program known as HART, which is intended to replace the existing system. GAO was asked to evaluate the HART program. Its specific objectives, among others, were to (1) determine the status of the program, (2) assess the extent to which the DHS CIO was accurately reporting risk and meeting applicable oversight requirements, and (3) assess the extent to which the program was identifying and managing its risks. To accomplish these objectives, GAO identified the program's schedule and cost estimates, assessed the CIO's risk ratings and HART oversight documentation and related evidence against OMB guidance, and compared the program's risk management practices to best practices that are essential to identifying and mitigating potential problems. In addition, GAO interviewed appropriate officials.[Read More…]
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While there is no cure for PTSD, experts believe early identification and treatment of PTSD symptoms may lessen their severity and improve the overall quality of life for individuals with this disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a world leader in PTSD treatment and offers PTSD services to eligible veterans. To inform new veterans about the health care services it offers, VA has increased outreach efforts to servicemembers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Outreach efforts, coupled with expanded access to VA health care for these new veterans, are likely to result in greater numbers of veterans with PTSD seeking VA services. Congress highlighted the importance of VA PTSD services more than 20 years ago when it required the establishment of the Special Committee on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Special Committee) within VA, primarily to aid Vietnam-era veterans diagnosed with PTSD. A key charge of the Special Committee is to make recommendations for improving VA's PTSD services. The Special Committee issued its first report on ways to improve VA's PTSD services in 1985 and its latest report, which includes 37 recommendations for VA, in 2004. The Special Committee reports also include evaluations of whether VA has met or not met the recommendations made by the Special Committee in prior reports. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a world leader in PTSD treatment and offers PTSD services to eligible veterans. To inform new veterans about the health care services it offers, VA has increased outreach efforts to servicemembers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Outreach efforts, coupled with expanded access to VA health care for these new veterans, are likely to result in greater numbers of veterans with PTSD seeking VA services. Congress asked us to determine whether VA has addressed the Special Committee's recommendations to improve VA's PTSD services. We focused our review on 24 recommendations related to clinical care and education made by VA's Special Committee on PTSD in its 2004 report to determine (1) the extent to which VA has met each recommendation related to clinical care and education and (2) VA's time frame for implementing each of these recommendations.GAO determined that VA has not fully met any of 24 Special Committee recommendations in our review related to clinical care and education. Specifically, we determined that VA has not met 10 recommendations and has partially met 14 of these 24 recommendations. For example, the Special Committee recommended that VA develop, disseminate, and implement a best practice treatment guideline for PTSD. The Special Committee designated the recommendation as met because VA had developed and disseminated the guideline. However, because we found that VA does not have documentation to show that the treatment part of the guideline is being implemented at its medical facilities and community-based clinics, we designated the recommendation as partially met. We also determined that VA does not plan to fully implement 23 of 24 recommendations until fiscal year 2007 or later. Ten of these are long-standing recommendations that were first made in the Special Committee report issued in 1985. VA's delay in fully implementing the recommendations raises questions about VA's capacity to identify and treat veterans returning from military combat who may be at risk for developing PTSD, while maintaining PTSD services for veterans currently receiving them. This is particularly important because we reported in September 2004 that officials at six of seven VA medical facilities stated that they may not be able to meet an increase in demand for PTSD services. In addition, the Special Committee reported in its 2004 report that VA does not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of new combat veterans while still providing for veterans of past wars. If servicemembers returning from military combat do not have access to PTSD services, many mental health experts believe that the chance may be missed, through early identification and treatment of PTSD, to lessen the severity of the symptoms and improve the overall quality of life for these combat veterans with PTSD. Moreover, VA has identified geographic areas of the country where large numbers of servicemembers are returning from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. VA could consider focusing first on ensuring service availability at facilities in areas that are likely to experience the most demand for PTSD services.[Read More…]
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- U.S. Postal Service: Better Use of Climate Data Could Enhance the Climate Resilience of Postal FacilitiesBy Sam NewsSeptember 30, 2021What GAO Found GAO's analysis of the United States Postal Service's (USPS) data found that about 1,065 USPS facilities—about 3 percent of USPS's over 32,000 facilities—sustained damage from 21 weather-related natural disasters from fiscal years 2015 through 2019. The damage, from floods, hurricanes, winter storms and other disasters, cost USPS over $30 million and ranged from broken flag poles to collapsed sections of buildings. USPS officials noted that any amount paid to repair damage is a challenge given USPS's poor financial condition. Impact of Most Costly Weather-Related Natural Disasters on the U.S. Postal Service's Facilities, Fiscal Years 2015–2019 GAO's analysis of USPS and federal climate data found that about one-third (just over 10,000) of USPS's facilities are in areas that may be affected by one or more potential climate change effects including flooding, storm surge, sea level rise, and wildfires. Most of the facilities at risk are post offices, but about one-third of USPS's mail processing and distribution facilities, which are crucial to USPS's ability to process and deliver mail, are also at risk. USPS has taken steps to incorporate climate resilience into its facilities, but its practices are not consistent with its policy to assess climate risk early in its investment process. Several factors can affect USPS's efforts to incorporate climate resilience into its facilities, including competing priorities for limited financial resources and a universal service mission that necessitates having facilities in all parts of the country—even in areas at heightened risk from climate change. Nevertheless, USPS has taken steps to incorporate climate resilience, such as adding resilience requirements to its facility guidance and developing a mapping tool to analyze climate data in its facility investment process. However, USPS currently uses these data at the end of the process, rather than in the preliminary planning steps, as specified in USPS policy. Using the data earlier could help USPS enhance the resilience of its facilities to climate change and ensure that Americans continue to have access to mail that they depend upon. Why GAO Did This Study USPS has one of the largest asset portfolios in the United States. Its post offices and other facilities are essential to the processing and delivery of mail, which millions of Americans rely on for communication and commerce. Weather-related natural disasters resulting from extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, can damage USPS's facilities and present financial and operational risks. According to a recent study, some extreme weather events are projected to become more frequent and intense due to climate change. Investing in climate resilience—taking actions to reduce potential damage by planning for extreme weather events—can help to manage climate change risks. GAO was asked to review the climate resilience of USPS's facilities. This report addresses: (1) how USPS's facilities have been affected by recent weather-related natural disasters; (2) the extent to which USPS's facilities may be affected by climate change effects; and (3) the extent to which USPS has taken steps to incorporate climate resilience into its facilities. GAO analyzed USPS facilities' data and financial data as well as federal climate data; reviewed prior GAO work on climate resilience, the Fourth National Climate Assessment , USPS policies and facility inspection reports; and interviewed USPS officials.[Read More…]
- Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program: Too Early to Determine Effects of Allowing Recipients to Serve at For-Profit FacilitiesBy Sam NewsSeptember 8, 2021What GAO Found The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), within the Department of Health and Human Services, manages the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program (LRP). The program provides educational loan repayments for registered nurses and other nursing professionals in exchange for their service in a critical shortage facility (CSF)—a facility that is located in or designated as a health professional shortage area. From October 2007 to March 2020, recipients of the Nurse Corps LRP could not fulfill their required program service by working at for-profit CSFs. The CARES Act eliminated this restriction in March 2020, allowing recipients of the LRP to serve in either nonprofit or for-profit CSFs. To manage the program, HRSA has processes in place to communicate program information to applicants and to verify information, such as an applicant's eligibility, loan information, and proof of employment in an eligible CSF. HRSA also conducts annual evaluations to monitor the effects of the program and issues an annual report to Congress. These reports describe the program's results, such as the number of applications, number of recipients and loan repayments, number and placement locations of the Nurse Corps LRP recipients, and recipients' demographics. It is too early to determine the effects of allowing loan recipients to fulfill their service commitment at a for-profit CSF. Funding decisions for the first group of applicants that may serve in for-profit CSFs will not be completed until September 30, 2021. Selected applicants will begin their 2 years of service and start working in designated CSFs in late 2021. According to HRSA officials, they plan to examine the effects of allowing service in for-profit facilities in future annual program evaluations, with the first set of results expected in fiscal year 2022. Officials associated with for-profit and nonprofit CSFs had opposing views about the possible effects of the elimination of the for-profit restriction. Officials from an association representing for-profit CSFs stated that eliminating the restriction could provide an incentive for nurses to work in areas with the greatest need, regardless of whether a CSF is for-profit or nonprofit. Officials from a nonprofit critical access hospital and its associated nonprofit rural health clinic told GAO they were concerned that for-profit CSFs may have financial advantages over nonprofit CSFs. They stated that these financial advantages, such as a higher wage rate, could make for-profit CSFs more attractive to program participants, resulting in fewer nurses willing to work at nonprofit CSFs in rural or other underserved areas. Why GAO Did This Study The supply and retention of registered nurses is uneven across the country, with shortages in rural and other underserved areas. These shortages are exacerbated by other challenges, such as lower numbers of nursing students who want to work in rural or other underserved areas. To help address this problem, HRSA's Nurse Corps LRP provides nursing school loan repayments for registered nurses and other nursing professionals who work in underserved areas. From fiscal year 2016 through fiscal year 2020, 4,156 Nurse Corps LRP awards were distributed. Congress included a provision in the CARES Act for GAO to review the Nurse Corps LRP. This report describes (1) how HRSA manages the program, and (2) what is known about the effect on CSFs of eliminating the for-profit restriction. GAO reviewed the CARES Act and other related statutory provisions, as well as HRSA documents, including application and guidance information, information verification, annual reports to Congress, and other program-related documents. GAO also interviewed HRSA officials about their management of the program, and officials from two nonprofit CSFs and one stakeholder group that represented for-profit hospitals that are CSFs to obtain a variety of perspectives on the elimination of the for-profit restriction. The Department of Health and Human Services provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Michelle B. Rosenberg at (202) 512-7114 or RosenbergM@gao.gov.[Read More…]
- Afghanistan Security: U.S. Efforts to Develop Capable Afghan Police Forces Face Challenges and Need a Coordinated, Detailed Plan to Help Ensure AccountabilityBy Sam NewsSeptember 21, 2021Since 2005, the Department of Defense (Defense), with support from the Department of State (State), has directed U.S. efforts to develop the Afghan National Police (ANP) into a force capable of enforcing the rule of law and supporting actions to defeat insurgency, among other activities. This testimony discusses (1) U.S. efforts to develop a capable ANP; (2) challenges that affect the development of a capable ANP; and (3) GAO analysis of U.S. efforts to develop a coordinated, detailed plan for completing and sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which comprise the ANP and the Afghan National Army (ANA). This statement is based on a concurrently issued GAO report titled Afghanistan Security: Further Congressional Action May Be Needed to Ensure Completion of a Detailed Plan to Develop and Sustain Capable Afghan National Security Forces, GAO-08-661 (Washington, D.C.: June 18, 2008).Although the ANP has reportedly grown in number since 2005, after an investment of more than $6 billion, no Afghan police unit (0 of 433) is assessed by Defense as fully capable of performing its mission and over three-fourths of units (334 of 433) are assessed at the lowest capability rating. In addition, while the ANP has reportedly grown in number to nearly 80,000 personnel, concerns exist about the reliability of this number. Several challenges impede U.S. efforts to develop capable ANP forces. First, the shortage of police mentors has been a key impediment to U.S. efforts to conduct training and evaluation and verify that police are on duty. Second, the ANP continues to encounter difficulties with equipment shortages and quality. Third, the ANP faces a difficult working environment, including a weak Afghan judicial sector and consistent problems with police pay, corruption, and attacks by insurgents. Defense has recognized challenges to ANP development and, in November 2007, began a new initiative called Focused District Development--an effort to train the police as units--to address them. This effort is too new to fully assess, but the continuing shortfall in police mentors may put the effort at risk. Despite a 2005 GAO recommendation calling for a detailed plan and a 2008 congressional mandate requiring similar information, Defense and State have not developed a coordinated, detailed plan with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, milestones for completing and sustaining the ANSF, and a sustainment strategy. In 2007, Defense produced a 5-page document intended to address GAO's 2005 recommendation. However, the document does not identify the role or involve the participation of State--Defense's partner in training the ANP. Further, State has not completed a plan of its own. In the absence of a coordinated, detailed plan that clearly defines agency roles and responsibilities, a dual chain of command exists between Defense and State that has complicated the efforts of mentors training the police. Defense's 5-page document also contains few milestones, including no interim milestones that would help assess progress made in developing the ANP. Without interim milestones, it is difficult to know if current ANP status represents what the United States intended to achieve by 2008. In addition, Defense's 5-page document lacks a sustainment strategy. Without a detailed strategy for sustaining the ANSF, it is difficult to determine how long the United States may need to continue providing funding and other resources for this important mission.[Read More…]
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- COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted ActionsBy Sam NewsSeptember 21, 2020In the government’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Congress and the administration have taken action on multiple fronts to address challenges that have contributed to catastrophic loss of life and profound economic disruption. These actions have helped direct much-needed federal assistance to support many aspects of public life, including local public health systems and private-sector businesses. However, the nation faces continued public health risks and economic difficulties for the foreseeable future. Among other challenges, the public health system, already strained from months of responding to COVID-19 cases, will face the additional task of managing the upcoming flu season. At the same time, many of the federal, state, and local agencies responsible for responding to the ongoing public health emergency are called on to prepare for and respond to the current hurricane season. Timely and concerted federal leadership will be required in responding to these and other challenges. GAO has identified lessons learned and issues in need of continued attention by the Congress and the administration, including the need to collect reliable data that can drive decision-making; to establish mechanisms for accountability and transparency; and to protect against ongoing cyber threats to patient information, intellectual property, public health data, and intelligence. Attention to these issues can help to make federal efforts as effective as possible. GAO has also identified a number of opportunities to help the federal government prepare for the months ahead while improving the ongoing federal response: Medical Supply Chain The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with support from the Department of Defense (DOD), have taken numerous, significant efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain. For example, the agencies have coordinated to deliver supplies directly to nursing homes and used Defense Production Act authorities to increase the domestic production of supplies. However, shortages of certain types of personal protective equipment and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and FEMA have both identified shortages, and officials from seven of the eight states GAO interviewed in July and August 2020 identified previous or ongoing shortages of testing supplies, including swabs, reagents, tubes, pipettes, and transport media. Testing supply shortages have contributed to delays in turnaround times for testing results. Delays in processing test results have multiple serious consequences, including delays in isolating those who test positive and tracing their contacts in a timely manner, which can in turn exacerbate outbreaks by allowing the virus to spread undetected. In addition, states and other nonfederal entities have experienced challenges tracking supply requests made through the federal government and planning for future needs. GAO is making the following recommendations: HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain. HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic. HHS and FEMA—working with relevant stakeholders—should devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) objected to GAO’s initial draft recommendations. GAO made revisions based on their comments. GAO maintains that implementation of its modified recommendations is both warranted and prudent. These actions could contribute to ensuring a more effective response by helping to mitigate challenges with the stability of the medical supply chain and the ability of nonfederal partners to track, plan, and budget for ongoing medical supply needs. Vaccines and Therapeutics Multiple federal agencies continue to support the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. These efforts are aimed at accelerating the traditional timeline to create a vaccine (see figure). Traditional Timeline for Development and Creation of a Vaccine Note: See figure 5 in the report. As these efforts proceed, clarity on the federal government’s plans for distributing and administering vaccine, as well as timely, clear, and consistent communication to stakeholders and the public about those plans, is essential. DOD is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of a vaccine. In September 2020, HHS indicated that it will soon send a report to Congress outlining a distribution plan, but did not provide a specific date for doing so. GAO recommends that HHS, with support from DOD, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and in developing such a plan ensure that it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling and outlines an approach for how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. DOD partially concurred with the recommendation, clarifying that it is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of vaccine. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but noted factors that complicate the publication of a plan. GAO maintains that a time frame is necessary so all relevant stakeholders will be best positioned to begin their planning.On September 16, 2020, HHS and DOD released two documents outlining a strategy for any COVID-19 vaccine. GAO will evaluate these documents and report on them in future work.GAO will also continue to conduct related work, including examining federal efforts to accelerate the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. COVID-19 Data Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among racial and ethnic minority groups, but GAO identified gaps in these data. To help address these gaps, on July 22, 2020, CDC released a COVID-19 Response Health Equity Strategy. However, the strategy does not assess whether having the authority to require states and jurisdictions to report race and ethnicity information is necessary to ensure CDC can collect such data. CDC’s strategy also does not specify how it will involve key stakeholders, such as health care providers, laboratories, and state and jurisdictional health departments. GAO recommends that CDC (1) determine whether having the authority to require the reporting of race and ethnicity information for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is necessary for ensuring more complete data, and if so, seek such authority from Congress; (2) involve key stakeholders to help ensure the complete and consistent collection of demographic data; and (3) take steps to help ensure its ability to comprehensively assess the long-term health outcomes of persons with COVID-19, including by race and ethnicity. HHS agreed with the recommendations. In addition, HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes do not capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 data to CDC by May 17, 2020, starting with information as of May 8, 2020, but made reporting prior to May 8, 2020 optional. By not requiring nursing homes to submit data from the first 4 months of 2020, HHS is limiting the usefulness of the data in helping to understand the effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes. GAO recommends that HHS, in consultation with CMS and CDC, develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020. HHS partially agreed with this recommendation by noting the value of having complete data, but expressed concern about the burden of collecting it. GAO maintains the importance of collecting these data to inform the government’s continued response and recovery, and HHS could ease the burden by incorporating data previously reported to CDC or to state or local public health offices. Economic Impact Payments The Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued economic impact payments (EIP) to all eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; however, not everyone eligible was able to be initially identified. To help ensure all eligible recipients received their payments in a more timely manner, IRS took several actions to address challenges GAO reported on in June, including a policy change—reopening the Non-Filers tool registration period for federal benefit recipients and extending it through September 30—that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, Treasury and IRS lack updated information on how many eligible recipients have yet to receive these funds. The lack of such information could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of individuals at risk of missing their payment. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, (1) update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP to help target outreach and communications efforts and (2) make estimates of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP, and other relevant information, available to outreach partners to raise awareness about how and when to file for EIP. Treasury and IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations and described actions they are taking in concert with the recommendations to notify around 9 million individuals who may be eligible for an EIP. Coronavirus Relief Fund The Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) is the largest program established in the four COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid to states, the District of Columbia, localities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories. Audits of entities that receive federal funds, including CRF payments, are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds. Auditors that conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updates and issues annually in coordination with federal agencies. OMB issued the 2020 Compliance Supplement in August 2020, but the Compliance Supplement specified that OMB is still working with federal agencies to identify the needs for additional guidance for auditing new COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, as well as existing programs with compliance requirement changes. According to OMB, an addendum on COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, will be issued in the fall of 2020. Further delays in issuing this guidance could adversely affect auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue the addendum to the 2020 Compliance Supplement as soon as possible to provide the necessary audit guidance, as many single audit efforts are underway. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. Guidance for K-12 Schools State and local school district officials tasked with reassessing their operating status and ensuring their school buildings are safe are generally relying on guidance and recommendations from federal, state, and local public health and education officials. However, portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. Based on GAO’s review, Education has updated the information and CDC has begun to do so. GAO recommends that CDC ensure that, as it makes updates to its guidance related to schools’ operating status, the guidance is cogent, clear, and internally consistent. HHS agreed with the recommendation. Tracking Contract Obligations Federal agencies are tracking contract actions and associated obligations in response to COVID-19 using a National Interest Action (NIA) code in the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. The COVID-19 NIA code was established in March 2020 and was recently extended until March 31, 2021, while a draft of this report recommending that DHS and DOD extend the code beyond September 30, 2020, was with the agencies for comment. GAO has identified inconsistencies in establishing and closing these codes following previous emergencies, and has continued concerns with the criteria that DHS and DOD rely on to determine whether to extend or close a code and whether the code meets long-term needs. GAO recommends that DHS and DOD make updates to the 2019 NIA Code Memorandum of Agreement so as to enhance visibility for federal agencies, the public, and Congress on contract actions and associated obligations related to disaster events, and to ensure the criteria for extending or closing the NIA code reflect government-wide needs for tracking contract actions in longer-term emergencies, such as a pandemic. DHS and DOD did not agree, but GAO maintains implementation of its recommendation is essential. Address Cybersecurity Weaknesses Since March 2020, malicious cyber actors have exploited COVID-19 to target organizations that make up the health care and public health critical infrastructure sector, including government entities, such as HHS. GAO has identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies, including CMS, CDC, and FDA, over the last 6 years, such as weaknesses in key safeguards to limit, prevent, and detect inappropriate access to computer resources. Additionally, GAO’s March 2019 high-risk update identified cybersecurity and safeguarding the systems supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as health care, as high-risk areas. As of July 2020, CMS, FDA, and CDC had made significant progress by implementing 350 (about 81 percent) of the 434 recommendations GAO issued in previous reports to address these weaknesses. Based on the imminent cybersecurity threats, GAO recommends that HHS expedite implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies. HHS agreed with the recommendation. As of September 10, 2020, the U.S. had over 6.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and over 177,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of September 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of July 31, 2020, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.6 trillion and expended $1.5 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds as reported by federal agencies on USAspending.gov. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This third report examines key actions the federal government has taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic and evolving lessons learned relevant to the nation’s response to pandemics. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials, as well as industry representatives. GAO is making 16 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[Read More…]
- COVID-19 Loans: SBA Has Begun to Take Steps to Improve Oversight and Fraud Risk ManagementBy Sam NewsApril 20, 2021What GAO Found In April 2020, the Small Business Administration (SBA) quickly implemented the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and expedited the processing of Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and a new EIDL advance program. These important programs have helped businesses survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to move quickly on these programs, SBA initially put limited internal controls in place, leaving both susceptible to program integrity issues, improper payments, and fraud. Because of concerns about program integrity, GAO added PPP and the EIDL program onto its High-Risk List in March 2021. SBA has begun to take steps to address these initial deficiencies: PPP oversight. Because ongoing oversight is crucial, GAO recommended in June 2020 that SBA develop plans to respond to PPP risks to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. Since then, SBA has developed a loan review process and added up-front verifications before it approves new loans. Improper payments for PPP. GAO recommended in November 2020 that SBA expeditiously estimate improper payments for PPP and report estimates and error rates. SBA has now developed a plan for the testing needed to estimate improper payments. Analyzing EIDL data. Based on evidence of widespread potential fraud for EIDL, GAO recommended in January 2021 that SBA conduct portfolio-level analysis to detect potentially ineligible applications. SBA has not announced plans to implement this recommendation. EIDL oversight. GAO recommended in March 2021 that SBA implement a comprehensive oversight plan for EIDL to ensure program integrity. SBA agreed to implement such a plan. Assessment of fraud risks. SBA has not conducted a formal fraud risk assessment for PPP or the EIDL program. GAO made four recommendations in March 2021, including that SBA conduct a formal assessment and develop a strategy to manage fraud risks for each program. SBA said it would work to complete fraud risk assessments for PPP and EIDL and continually monitor fraud risks. Financial statement audit. In December 2020, SBA's independent financial statement auditor issued a disclaimer of opinion on SBA's fiscal year 2020 consolidated financial statements because SBA could not provide adequate documentation to support a significant number of transactions and account balances related to PPP and EIDL. GAO continues to review information SBA recently provided, including data on PPP loan forgiveness and details on the PPP and EIDL loan review processes. In addition, GAO has obtained additional information from a survey of PPP participating lenders, interviews with SBA's PPP contractors, and written responses to questions provided by SBA's EIDL contractor and subcontractors. Why GAO Did This Study SBA has made or guaranteed about 18.7 million loans and grants through PPP and the EIDL program, providing about $968 billion to help small businesses adversely affected by COVID-19. PPP provides potentially forgivable loans to small businesses, and EIDL provides low-interest loans of up to $2 million for operating and other expenses, as well as advances (grants). This testimony discusses the lack of controls in PPP and the EIDL program and SBA's efforts to improve its oversight of these programs. It is based largely on GAO's June 2020–March 2021 reports on the federal response, including by SBA, to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 (GAO-20-625, GAO-20-701, GAO-21-191, GAO-21-265, GAO -21-387). For those reports, GAO reviewed SBA documentation and SBA Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports; analyzed SBA data; and interviewed officials from SBA, the SBA OIG, and the Department of the Treasury.[Read More…]