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How Can the Federal Government Strengthen Its Response to COVID-19?

Posted on September 21, 2020

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our third report on the implementation of the CARES Act and other pandemic relief measures. The report outlines the many effective steps the Administration and the Congress have taken to address issues, and identifies further steps to improve the nation’s response in these areas:

  • the medical supply chain
  • vaccines and therapeutics
  • data collection
  • stimulus payments
  • federal assistance to states and localities
  • K-12 schools
  • federal procurements
  • cybersecurity

Read on to learn more about what we recommended.  You can also listen to our podcast featuring GAO directors who have helped lead our review of the federal response to the pandemic.

The Medical Supply Chain

Shortages of personal protective equipment and testing supplies have happened because some supplies are not made in the U.S. and global demand for these supplies is high. We made recommendations to help the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) work together to continue making progress to stabilize the supply chain. Specifically, agencies should document plans for supply functions transitioning from federal partners to HHS; further develop and communicate about specific actions to mitigate supply shortages; and help state partners better track and plan supply requests.  

Vaccine Distribution Plan

On September 16, HHS and the Department of Defense (DOD) provided us with documents showing their plan for distributing and administering a COVID-19 vaccine. We are evaluating this plan to make sure it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling, and to ensure it outlines how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. Having these elements in a plan would help ensure that the public receive access to any vaccine as soon as possible.

COVID-19 Data Collection

We have identified a need to collect reliable data that can drive decision-making. Specifically, better data is needed on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. We made recommendations on reporting race and ethnicity information for cases and hospitalizations to further explore potential disparities. We also found that HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes don’t capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS, in consultation with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the CDC, should develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020.

Economic Impact Payments

The IRS has issued economic impact payments to eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; but not everyone who was eligible received a payment or the correct amount. IRS took several actions to address challenges we reported on in June, including a policy change that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS don’t have up-to-date information on how many eligible recipients haven’t yet received their payments. This could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of people at risk of missing their payments. We recommended that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients to help target outreach and communications efforts.

Federal Assistance for States and Localities

The Coronavirus Relief Fund is the largest program established in the 4 COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid for state, local, territory, and tribal governments. Audits of entities that receive funds from programs like this are critical to safeguarding those funds. Additional audit guidance is needed for COVID-19-related programs. Supplemental information on auditing such programs is expected this fall, but further delays in issuing this guidance could undermine auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. We recommended that the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with Treasury, issue this audit guidance as soon as possible, as many audit efforts are under way.

Guidance for K-12 Schools

State and local school district officials faced tough decisions when deciding whether to reopen schools in their communities this fall, and when planning on how best to ensure students’ safety. These officials relied on and continue to look for guidance and recommendations from federal, state and local public health officials when making those decisions. 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. CDC should ensure that its federal guidance on reassessing schools’ operating status is cogent, clear, and internally consistent.


We have identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies—including CMS, CDC, and the Food and Drug Administration—during the last 6 years. These weaknesses can pose risks to patient information, intellectual property, public health data, and intelligence. Based on imminent cybersecurity threats, we urge HHS to expedite implementation of our prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies.

How can you report suspected fraud to GAO?

It can be challenging to identify where to report your concerns when you have an allegation of fraud, waste, or abuse. But you can report any of your concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic or the CARES Act to GAO’s FraudNet.

Use any of these 3 methods for reporting your concerns to FraudNet:

  • Our online reporting portal
  • Via email at
  • Or by calling our hotline at 1-800-424-5454

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and recommendations to practice social distancing, FraudNet staff are working remotely. As a result, we strongly encourage you to submit your concern online so we may provide a more timely response and continue to serve the public.

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