Jan 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Federal watchdog finds lack of data, resources impede COVID response

A patient in a bed
A patient rests in a COVID-19 care site in a parking garage at Renown Regional Medical Center, Reno, Nevada, on Dec. 16. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

National data on COVID-19 testing is incomplete, "critical gaps in the medical supply chain" remain, and a lack of data has stalled delivering key resources to people who need it most, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has found.

Why it matters: The findings come as the rise of more contagious variants ensures that Americans’ risk remains high, despite a three-week decline in the number of COVID infections in the U.S. A greater number of people are also dying from the coronavirus over less time.

What GAO found: Incomplete and inconsistent COVID testing data from states have hindered getting resources to areas and people that need it most.

  • GAO remains "deeply troubled" about "critical gaps in the medical supply chain," including shortages of personal protective equipment.
  • Vaccine distribution greatly fell short of the 300 million doses by January that the Trump administration promised.
    • Operation Warp Speed had shipped roughly 12.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Dec. 30, the report said, citing CDC data.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services has not publicly released a national testing strategy, hampering a coordinated effort and the government's ability to control the spread of the virus.

Where it stands: HHS, in its response to the report, said it would take steps to create an effective national testing strategy, but whether it would make the strategy public remained unclear.

  • In his "wartime" pandemic strategy, President Biden called for “real-time” data collection for schools and higher education, plus a public dashboard on coronavirus cases, testing, vaccinations and hospital admissions.
  • The new administration plans to increase COVID-19 vaccine shipments to states and tribes from 8.6 million doses per week to 10 million for at least the next three weeks.

What they're saying: Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chair of the select subcommittee monitoring the government's response to the pandemic, called the report "alarming" and said "the previous administration’s coronavirus response failed across the board, exacerbating the pandemic’s toll of death, disease and economic harm."

  • While praising Biden's initial response to the pandemic, Clyburn acknowledged that the virus "will continue to kill thousands of Americans each day and prevent the full resumption of normal economic activity for some time to come."

The bottom line: GAO recommended that...

  • HHS should work with Congress and states to fix the supply chain.
  • The department should create an expert committee to inform data collection.
  • HHS should create a time frame with the Defense Department for publicly sharing a national plan on vaccine distribution.
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