With the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths rising exponentially, it is no surprise that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is calling for urgent action. The pandemic is not going to take a rest for the holidays, nor will it wait for a new administration. The message is clear: Act now.
As we begin the final month of 2020, the United States has recorded 13,295,605 confirmed cases and 266,051 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yes, the country has a high population, but it has failed to control the virus where other nations have, to varying degrees, succeeded. Even among countries with very high case numbers, there has been some encouraging statistics in recent weeks, showing that restrictions are having an impact. The United States is one of the few countries that has not acted upon this second spike and worked to flatten the curve.
The problem America faces is two-fold: Effective leadership and citizen engagement. Countries that have succeeded in keeping a check on the virus have both, those who are still struggling but not seeing an ever-increasing rise in infections have one or the other.
It is a fine balancing act between public safety and the economy and there is no definitive recipe for pandemic response that will work for every country. The U.S. economy has improved since July 2020, but many people remain unemployed, including both those temporarily laid off and those who have permanently lost their job. Also, more households have become seriously delinquent on mortgage payments during the pandemic. In addition, GAO’s review of academic studies suggests the pandemic will likely remain a significant obstacle to more robust economic activity.
The CARES Act included economic impact payments (EIP) for eligible individuals to address financial stress due to the pandemic. As of September 30, 2020, the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had disbursed over 165.8 million payments to individuals, totaling $274.7 billion. According to IRS data, more than 26 million non-filers—individuals who do not normally file a tax return and may be hard to reach—received a payment. However, everyone that was supposed to receive a payment was not reached.
As of November 30, GAO has also identified new concerns about the timely reporting of improper payments for COVID-19 programs. The COVID-19 relief laws appropriated over a trillion dollars that may be spent through newly established programs to fund response and recovery efforts. However, unlike the supplemental appropriations acts that provided for disaster relief related to the 2017 hurricanes and California wildfires, the COVID-19 relief laws did not require agencies to deem programs receiving these relief funds that expend more than a threshold amount as “susceptible to significant improper payments.”
Another key area that GAO has highlighted in its call for urgent action is the availability of medical supplies. While the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have made numerous efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain, shortages of certain supplies persist.
In September 2020, GAO reported that ongoing constraints with the availability of certain types of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. In October 2020, GAO surveyed public health and emergency management officials from all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories (hereafter states) and found that most states reported no shortages of swabs or transport media, but about one-third to one-half reported shortages in other types of testing supplies. Most PPE was available with the exception of some products such as nitrile gloves. And about one-third of states that responded stated that they were “greatly” or “completely” concerned about having sufficient vaccine-related supplies to administer COVID-19 vaccines. An additional 21 states indicated that they were moderately concerned.
GAO’s latest report highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic response cannot be put on hold while the country awaits a change in leadership. Nor can it afford to become complacent in light of recent news about vaccine success. Lives are at stake.