Briefing With Acting Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee And CDC Director for Global Migration and Quarantine Marty Cetron On New COVID Testing Requirements for International Travelers

Ian G. Brownlee, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of Consular Affairs

Marty Cetron, CDC Director for Global Migration and Quarantine

Via Teleconference

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today for this briefing to discuss the current state of travel during COVID-19, in particular the implementation of the CDC’s rule regarding predeparture testing for travelers to the United States.

To help explain what people considering overseas travel should expect in the coming months we have joining us today two speakers. We have Acting Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee from our Bureau of Consular Affairs. We’re also joined by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine Dr. Marty Cetron. A reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, but this call is on the record. It is on the record.

So with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Brownlee. Go ahead.

MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Ned. Good afternoon, everybody. The last time I spoke with many of you was last spring, when we here at the State Department were focused on bringing home tens of thousands of U.S. citizens stranded overseas following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now here we are in 2021 and the pandemic has entered a new phase, as vaccines begin to be rolled out around the world.

That said, our main message to U.S. citizens considering travel abroad remains the same: Seriously reconsider going overseas right now. If you’re overseas right now, it’s going to be harder to come home for a while. So be informed and be prepared. The State Department is committed to upholding the administration’s efforts to combat the pandemic through prudent, science-driven measures. Many countries are updating their requirements for travel, given the evolving nature of the pandemic. And today, to keep us all safe, the United States joins them.

As part of our effort to fight the pandemic here at home, today, January 26th, the United States implemented a new requirement. All travelers to the United States must test negative for COVID-19 within 3 days of boarding their U.S.-bound flights or must present proof of having recovered from COVID-19. This rule applies to all travelers age 2 and over, including U.S. citizens. This means that U.S. citizens who choose to go abroad, whether it’s for a holiday or a genuine emergency, everyone needs to be prepared to be potentially seriously disrupted in their trips.

If you cannot easily access a COVID-19 test or if you test positive, you will end up overseas for much longer than you planned. If that happens, you will be responsible for covering your own lodging and medical costs during that time. Please keep in mind, we know it’s entirely possible to feel fine, to be asymptomatic, and still to test positive.

So to reiterate, if you were to test positive for COVID-19 while overseas, you would need to postpone your trip back to the United States, potentially for several weeks. All travelers should have a plan B: Where would you stay? How would you pay for that extended stay? What would happen at home if you couldn’t get back to work, couldn’t get back to take care of your children, or any of your other responsibilities? We encourage potential travelers to think through the answers to these important questions carefully before making any travel plans and to consider travel insurance that covers COVID-19 medical treatments and COVID-19 related travel disruptions.

As always, the Department of State is committed to helping U.S. citizens overseas who find themselves in dire situations, but that assistance is likely to be limited. Our goal is to help people avoid those dire straits in the first place.

So again, we urge folks to postpone their trips if they’re able and if they absolutely must travel to equip themselves with information from us – and you can go to travel.state.gov – or from our colleagues at the CDC at cdc.gov. And again, have your own personal plan B in case you test positive overseas or can’t get a test to come home.

I’m pleased to be joined today by one of those CDC colleagues, Dr. Marty Cetron, to help explain how all of this will affect international travelers going forward. Marty, over to you.

DR CETRON: Thank you very much, Ian. Appreciate the opportunity to join you on the call. I’ll keep my comments brief. I think it’s important to just give you a little bit of context on where we are with the pandemic.

In the United States today we passed the sobering milestone of 20 million – 25 million reported cases and over 400,000 deaths. The emergence of the new variants has also highlighted a new challenge in this race that we have with infection versus vaccination. These variants been proven to be very difficult. They – as RNA viruses will form mutations, there are three or four variants in particular that we’re watching very closely.

The B117 that first reported out of the UK, the 351 variant reported in South Africa initially, and P1 variant out of Brazil all offer very significant challenges. They all suggest that they are potentially more contagious than the current circulating predominant virus. They can quickly become the predominant virus that’s circulating, and several of them have represented challenges in looking at our – evading some of the natural immunity and challenges toward looking at our vaccine solutions.

So we take these variants very seriously, and we appreciate the importance that the variants will continue to emerge, especially while the viral – and the virus is surging in high levels both in the United States and around the world.

As these variants increase, the risks of international travel really are highlighted by the urgency that President Biden and this administration have taken to combat the virus and use all measures that we have at our disposal here. As a consequence, we reposted the original order that CDC issued on January 10th – January 12th that came into effect today, and that order is available online for you all to see.

Most importantly, the waiver that was initially contemplated to extend the deadline of implementation by a couple of weeks has been removed from this order, although we’ve specifically added a particular humanitarian emergency exemption to take into account.

So as Ian indicated, all travelers are going to be required to have a negative viral test or proof of recovery within the three days prior to their flight in order to be issued a boarding pass. All airlines and aircraft operators must confirm that negative result in order to issue the boarding pass, and if a passenger does not have documentation of a negative test or recovery from a medical professional or chooses not to take the test, they will not be able to board the flight back into the United States.

And this order does apply to all air passengers traveling into the U.S., including citizens and legal permanent residents of the United States. If a passenger doesn’t provide this documentation, the airline must deny boarding and the flight rescheduled at an appropriate time.

So as we said, travelers should be prepared for the possibility that you or traveling companions could test positive while overseas. And if you test positive, you may not be able to return home as planned, and you should clearly have a Plan B for this contingency.

U.S. citizens who choose to travel abroad must understand that they could be stuck in an extended way overseas without this Plan B, and the bottom-line message is this is really not a time for people to be engaging in discretionary travel and that all travel should be postponed until we get a better handle on getting this virus under control and accelerating our vaccination strategies.

With that, I’ll turn it back to the moderator and will be happy to take your questions.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1 then 0 command. Once again, if you have a question at this time, please press 1 and then 0. One moment, please, for our first question.

MR PRICE: Great. We’ll start with the line of Shaun Tandon, please.

QUESTION: Thanks to both of you for doing this. I had a question about the quarantine order that was issued by the President. What enforcement, if any, is applicable to this? If somebody doesn’t quarantine, are there repercussions? Will they be checked up on? Can you give us some more detail on that? Thanks.

MR BROWNLEE: Thank you for the question. We’re not at this time issuing federal quarantine orders, but we do have and have had up on the CDC website guidance regarding the ways to increase the safety of international travel. It has two goals – this strategy has two goals. There’s the pre-departure testing which we’re talking about now on entry into the United States, and the goal of that test is to actually try to keep the hidden – or the asymptomatic infected persons from getting on the plane in the first place and keep the infections out of the travel corridor.

The second part of the strategy is a well-timed post-arrival test for those who may have acquired the virus and be incubating the virus after they return. And in this case, staying home for a period of time, seven days if you have a negative post-arrival test taken between day three and five, as is recommended on our website, allows the quarantine period to be shortened.

Most of this return recommendation really falls in the jurisdiction of state and local authorities, and each, the state and local authorities may have their own specific advice, but the CDC’s standard advice on this can be found on our website. So these are recommendations from CDC. There is the ability – and they may be followed by authorities that are being used in each of the different states or jurisdictions where people return. And it is important to consult within your travel plans to be sure you’re aware of what the requirements are for the destination that you’re returning to as well as the destinations in which you are going.

MR PRICE: Great. We’ll go to the line of David Shephardson with Reuters.

QUESTION: Thanks for having the call. Marty, I know it’s only been a few hours, but can you talk about sort of how the initial rollout is going, if any countries have seen any problems in terms of people obtaining tests to return to the U.S.?

And can I also ask: In the President’s executive order last week, there is reference to the State Department and other agencies holding discussions with Mexico and Canada in terms of adopting similar testing requirements for land travel. But obviously most of the – most travel between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico land borders is – has been suspended by the orders in place, but can you also talk about the prospects of these international air testing requirements being applied to land crossings as well?

DR CETRON: Why don’t I take the first one, and I’ll let my colleague from State speak to the second.

So the – as you said, David, the order just came into effect at 12:01 this morning, and we are holding daily morning operation calls with the airlines to do exactly what you say, get feedback on the early rollout and implementation. There has been notice of this testing requirement that dates back to the order being posted on the CDC website in January 12th, as well as recommendations around this that dated back to before Thanksgiving, in terms of the strategy and how to use testing in the travel environment to reduce the risk of spread of this virus.

So far, the things that have come up overnight have been things that are anticipated and are being worked out. We have various hotlines that are available in order to adjudicate things that may come up in the middle of the night, but I think they’re moving as can be expected. It was good that there was sufficient advance notice that allowed people to prepare for this eventuality, and we have been having regular conversations with the air carriers in order to facilitate what they have learned. I think there are over a hundred countries that also have testing requirements for exit or entry that are commensurate with this global effort to control the pandemic, and so there’s been a lot of good experience out there. This isn’t the first time that a testing requirement is being put in place around the world.

Ian, over to you.

MR BROWNLEE: Yes. Thank you very much, Marty. David, yeah, a really good question is what’s going to happen on the northern and southern borders. We in CA will be involved in that, because obviously there will be lots of U.S. citizens seeking to go one way or the other. It’s really – it’s others within the administration that have the lead on this, and this does not go into effect for approximately two more weeks. So I know the administration is carefully considering how to manage that border to achieve the public health needs while still permitting essential economic and humanitarian travel across the borders. So essentially, it’s watch this space. Over.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Jennifer Hansler of CNN.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if there has been any discussion at the State Department of reinstituting the global level 4 travel advisory, and if so, when that might roll out. And are there any plans to add additional countries to the travel restrictions? Thank you.

MR BROWNLEE: We are looking – Ian Brownlee here. We are looking closely at individual conditions around the world, and we are going – country-specific is the best way to do it. It provides the most useful information to the U.S. traveling public or those who are considering traveling overseas to be able to look at individual countries. If we find the conditions in a particular country merit a level 4, we will go there. Such might be the case if there were no tests available, and therefore people who went wouldn’t be able to get back again. Over.

MR PRICE: Alison Sider, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much. I’m wondering if you could say anything about where the discussions about potential testing for domestic travel might stand, if that’s something that people are talking about or seems likely, and any other restrictions for either domestic or international travel, like a follow-up test once you’ve arrived back after international travel.

DR CETRON: Yeah, Jennifer. Thanks for the question. So as you indicated and as is specified in the President’s executive order, we also have to look at the possible planning in domestic travel. And so that – as the intent as it applies to the land border as well. These are conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be. So this is another one of those “follow that space.” We’re actively looking at it. We realize that there’s been a dramatic evolution and increase in both testing platforms and testing capacity. I think this is a really important part of our toolkit to combat this pandemic.

At this point in time, we don’t have evidence that these variant strains have evaded our ability to detect them with the testing strategies out there. And the scientific community is following that space very closely as well, so that the tests are just one part of a very important, comprehensive, multilayered strategy designed to mitigate the risk, to combat the virus, along with the wearing of masks, the washing hands, keeping distance, avoiding the crowds wherever possible, closed indoor spaces and contact.

With regard to an assessment of what the testing capacity might look like and where those platforms could be deployed, I think those are ongoing conversations. But we’re encouraged by the increased both numbers of test platforms that are out there, the number of tests that are being done.

The U.S. order is permissive in specifying that a viral test, whether it’s one of the rapid antigen tests which would allow a very quick result – and some of these can be done in proximity to departure or arrival, or shortly after arrival. And there are some emerging FDA-approved – under Emergency Use Authorization tests that are easier to use. And there a lot of examples from the experience this fall with institutes of higher education using multiple testing sequences in order to not only bring the hidden virus more visible, but to be able to detect the entry of virus into communities earlier so that it can be controlled.

So all these evolutions in our toolkit are ongoing concurrently with the commitment to ramp up the vaccinations and really get ahead of this virus. Over.

MR PRICE: We have time for a couple final questions here. We’ll go to Christina Ruffini. Christina, are you there?

QUESTION: To follow up my colleague’s question, you said you’re not – you’re doing country by country, but isn’t this kind of a de facto Level 4? Because it sounds like you’re telling people to strongly reconsider travel and I just want to make sure I’ve got this right. It seems like if folks are stuck because they can’t get a test or they failed their test, is the State Department providing any support to those individuals? Or is the message “Hey, we warned you, you’re on your own?”

And my other question is: Do either of you have any information on vaccinations at the State Department home and abroad, what percentage of the workforce have or will receive the shot, and what the timeline is? Thank you both very much.

MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Christina. Ian here. No, this is not, I don’t believe, is a de facto 4. We’re able to give very specific information about individual countries including the capacity of those countries, within those countries, to offer tests that will be sufficient to meet the needs of this executive order. So it may be that somebody will find they have essential travel and they say, “Okay, well, I can go and I know I can get a test on the way back.” Many others will not. So we do not see this as a backdoor to a Level 4.

With regard to the percentage of the domestic and overseas workforce that has been vaccinated, I’m afraid we’re going to have to take that question. That’s really one that belongs to the medical office, MED, and we don’t have that data with us. Over.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Rich Edson. Rich, you still there?

QUESTION: Hello?

MR PRICE: Hey, we can hear you.

QUESTION: Okay, great. Just wanted to give you, if you wanted the opportunity, just – and this sort of dovetails on what Christina was asking – when you are an American citizen and you maybe are having trouble getting a test, or you’re trying to come home, does that become a CA issue? Will the State Department help facilitate these things, or are you stressing if you’re planning on travel, this is something you’re on your own?

MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Rich, thanks very much. Ian here. Thanks very much for reminding me I failed to answer all of Christina’s questions. Very kind of you.

No, we have facilities for U.S. citizens overseas. We can provide both information as to where they can get tests. If they need medical assistance, we can provide information on local medical providers, that sort of thing, and we can help them with regard to – we can put them in touch with family members back in the United States who might be able to provide financial support. If they’re, in fact, truly destitute overseas – U.S. citizens are truly destitute overseas, we have mechanisms for providing loans to those people.

So this is not a question of saying, “Good luck, you’re on your own.” But it is important to remember that the assistance we are able to – the financial assistance we are able to provide is in the form of a loan. It is not a grant. And it is also important to note that the U.S. Government cannot – does not and cannot provide medical services overseas to private U.S. citizens.

So for example, Medicare and Medicaid are not applicable overseas. Some U.S. insurance policies are, but not all. So that’s why it’s so terribly important for U.S. citizens who are preparing to travel overseas to find out whether their medical coverage goes with them. They should not assume it does. They need to verify that. Over.

MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question from Jacqueline Charles.

QUESTION: If you could provide us a little bit of details in terms of some of the problems that you have been hearing about that you anticipated. And also, the decision to eliminate the waivers, can you talk a little bit about that? Why was that decision made after initially announcing that you would provide two-week waivers to airlines servicing countries that had a capacity issue as far as testing?

DR CETRON: I can start off with that, Ian. So thanks for the question. I think that what we’re watching and what we’ve seen all along through the course of this pandemic is that this virus is a formidable foe, both in its ability to spread asymptomatically and pre-symptomatically in driving a hidden epidemic; the speed with which the virus can move through a population and grow exponentially, its reproductive rate; and clearly the evolution of the virus to forming mutations, which have the potential to become more contagious, potentially more serious, and at times partially or completely evade some of the emerging treatments and prevention strategies that we have.

We have to be prepared to be very flexible in response to this virus and adapt our strategies quickly. Partially what we saw with the – what was being learned by – about the emerging mutants, particularly the P1 mutant that emerged in Amazonas State in Manaus, where they had an initial large wave of infections with a lot of the population having recovered, only to find that this mutation caused a number of reinfections and a second round. When travelers with that mutation were identified in Japan on arrival, and those were studied with regard to the ability of their – of the recovery from – their natural immunity from the wild-type virus were tested against this new mutant, it failed that ability, and it was an explanation for the reinfection.

All this is to say we are – we’re really in a race between a very formidable virus and our human ability to control transmission and bring our best tools to the table in the form of vaccinations. So we have the variants versus the vaccines, and we have the infection in general and in and of itself versus our ability to fight this. And for all those reasons, it was determined that we needed to bring this testing strategy into implementation rapidly today and not allow for an additional two weeks. There really isn’t time to waste in taking this virus very seriously.

Additionally, when we looked at the surges of this virus that have happened, in particular in the months before Thanksgiving and through the holiday season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s – we were just seeing surge upon surge in the virus at a time when more of the variants were proving themselves increasingly contagious. And it was a combination of all these factors which led to the urgency of removing the two-week additional extension for implementation and to move this into effect immediately at 12:01 midnight.

MR PRICE: Well, thanks very much. Thanks again to our speakers, Acting Assistant Secretary Brownlee and Dr. Cetron from CDC. Thanks to all of you for joining. And just a reminder this call was on the record, and the embargo is lifted.

MR BROWNLEE: If I may – if I may make one last point? I apologize.

MR PRICE: No, please.

MR BROWNLEE: A question I don’t believe – a question I don’t believe I heard asked. Maybe it was asked and I didn’t hear it; I apologize. The question would be: Will the U.S. embassies overseas be providing testing for folks – for U.S. citizens seeking to travel back to the United States? The answer to that question is no. We do not have the capacity to provide this sort of testing overseas.

Bear in mind, for example, in the Cancun area there are tens of thousands of U.S. citizens seeking to travel from the Cancun area back to the United States. We don’t have a health unit within 600 miles of Cancun. So if anybody’s thinking that might be a solution to this problem, it is not.

Thank you very much. Over.

MR PRICE: Thanks for that. Thank you, all. Have a good day.

More from: Ian G. Brownlee, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of Consular Affairs, Marty Cetron, CDC Director for Global Migration and Quarantine

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    In U.S GAO News
    The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported that the representation of some demographic groups within the Intelligence Community (IC) workforce increased from fiscal years 2011 through 2019—the latest available data. Over this period, the proportion of women, racial or ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities changed by .7, 3.3, and 6.2 percentage points, respectively. However, the representation of women, racial or ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities remained below comparable benchmarks and declined among higher ranks in fiscal year 2019. IC elements report taking steps to address leading practices for managing workforce diversity, but report gaps in diversity planning. GAO found that most IC elements report taking steps to address seven of nine leading practices for diversity management. For the remaining two leading practices—strategic planning and measurement—most elements report taking one or no steps. Number of Intelligence Community (IC) Elements and the Steps They Report Taking to Implement Leading Practices for Workforce Diversity Management, as of August 2020 GAO leading practices Number of IC elements that report taking steps Leadership commitment 17 of 17 IC elements report taking multiple steps Recruitment 14 of 17 IC elements report taking multiple steps, and three IC elements report taking one step Employee involvement 14 of 17 IC elements report taking multiple steps, two IC elements report taking one step, and one IC element reports taking no step Diversity training 14 of 17 IC elements report taking multiple steps, and three IC elements report taking one step Performance 12 of 17 IC elements linked diversity management with enhanced performance while five IC elements did not Succession planning 9 of 17 IC elements report taking multiple steps, and eight IC elements report taking one step Accountability 9 of 17 IC elements report taking multiple steps, seven IC elements report taking one step, and one IC element reports taking no steps Strategic planning 3 of 17 IC elements have current and complete strategic plans Measurement 6 of 17 IC elements have diversity-related performance measures Source: GAO analysis of IC element documents and GAO leading practices for diversity management. | GAO-21-83 Further, while all IC elements report having a process to identify barriers to diversity, nine IC elements report not completing required barrier assessments. Without fully implementing leading practices for managing workforce diversity and conducting routine barrier assessments, the IC may miss opportunities to develop effective and efficient diversity policies and programs. ODNI's Office of Intelligence Community Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity (IC EEOD) is meeting seven of eight leading practices for enhancing and sustaining the coordination of diversity initiatives across the 17 IC elements. However, IC EEOD partially met the practice to reinforce agency accountability. Specifically, IC EEOD has not established IC-wide implementation objectives and timeframes to demonstrate progress. As a result, IC EEOD risks not holding IC elements accountable for enhancing workforce diversity. The 2019 National Intelligence Strategy states that the IC will recruit, develop, and retain a diverse, inclusive, and expert workforce to enable mission success. ODNI reports that the IC is taking steps to increase the representation of diverse groups, such as issuing new strategies to enhance workforce planning. However, barriers to establishing a diverse workforce exist across the IC, according to an ODNI 2017 analysis. GAO was asked to review the IC's progress in enhancing workforce diversity. This report (1) summarizes ODNI annual demographic reports on the proportion of women, racial or ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities; and assesses the extent to which (2) IC elements report taking steps to address leading practices for managing workforce diversity and to identify potential barriers to maintaining a diverse workforce; and (3) ODNI is addressing leading practices for coordinating IC workforce diversity initiatives. GAO reviewed IC-wide and IC element specific policies and guidance; interviewed ODNI, and other IC officials; and administered a questionnaire to all 17 IC elements to obtain information on diversity strategies and challenges. GAO is making seven recommendations, including that the Director of National Intelligence issue or update guidance to ensure IC elements maintain diversity strategic plans, assess and take steps to eliminate barriers to diversity, and establish implementation objectives and timeframes to hold IC elements accountable. ODNI agreed with the recommendations. For more information, contact Brian M. Mazanec at (202) 512-5130 or mazanecb@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    GAO found (1) the Office of Financial Stability's (OFS) financial statements for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) as of and for the fiscal years ended September 30, 2020, and 2019, are presented fairly, in all material respects, in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles; (2) OFS maintained, in all material respects, effective internal control over financial reporting for TARP as of September 30, 2020; and (3) no reportable noncompliance for fiscal year 2020 with provisions of applicable laws, regulations, contracts, and grant agreements GAO tested. In commenting on a draft of this report, OFS stated that it is proud to receive an unmodified opinion on its financial statements and its internal control over financial reporting. OFS also stated that it is committed to maintaining the high standards and transparency reflected in these audit results. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (EESA) that authorized TARP on October 3, 2008, includes a provision for TARP, which is implemented by OFS, to annually prepare and submit to Congress and the public audited fiscal year financial statements that are prepared in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles. EESA further states that GAO shall audit TARP's financial statements annually. For more information, contact Cheryl E. Clark at (202) 512-3406 or clarkce@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and each of its major components face the same key drivers of employee engagement—as measured by the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS)—as the rest of the federal government (see table). Higher scores on the OPM FEVS indicate that an agency has the conditions that lead to higher employee engagement, a component of morale. Key Drivers of Employee Engagement across the Federal Government, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and within Each DHS Component Agency DHS has implemented department-wide employee engagement initiatives, including efforts to support DHS employees and their families. Additionally, DHS's major operational components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration, among others, have developed annual action plans to improve employee engagement. However, DHS has not issued written guidance on action planning and components do not consistently include key elements in their plans, such as outcome-based performance measures. Establishing required action plan elements through written guidance and monitoring the components to ensure they use measures to assess the results of their actions to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions to improve employee engagement would better position DHS to make additional gains in this area. In addition, approval from the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) and component leadership for these plans would help ensure department-wide commitment to improving employee engagement. DHS has faced challenges with low employee morale and engagement—an employee's sense of purpose and commitment—since it began operations in 2003. DHS has made some progress in this area, but data from the 2019 OPM FEVS show that DHS continues to rank lowest among similarly-sized federal agencies. GAO has reported that increasing employee engagement can lead to improved agency performance, and it is critical that DHS do so given the importance of its missions. GAO was asked to review DHS employee morale. This report addresses (1) drivers of employee engagement at DHS and (2) the extent that DHS has initiatives to improve employee engagement and ensures effective engagement action planning. To answer these objectives, GAO used regression analyses of 2019 OPM FEVS data to identify the key drivers of engagement at DHS. GAO also reviewed component employee engagement action plans and met with officials from DHS and component human capital offices as well as unions and employee groups. GAO is making three recommendations. DHS OCHCO should, in its anticipated written guidance, establish the elements required in employee engagement action plans and the approval process for these plans. OCHCO should also monitor components' action planning to ensure they review and assess the results of their actions to improve employee engagement. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or CurrieC@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detention contracts or agreements with 233 facilities, 185 of which it used to hold detainees, as shown below. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Space Acquisition Methods, Fiscal Year 2019 Acquisition method Total facilities Facilities that held detainees Percentage of average daily population held in facility Intergovernmental service agreement 133 108 59 U.S. Marshals Service rider 85 62 17 Federal Acquisition Regulation-based contract 15 15 24 Total 233 185 100 Source: GAO analysis of ICE data. | GAO-21-149 ICE primarily uses intergovernmental service agreements (IGSA) to acquire detention space. Officials said IGSAs offer several benefits over contracts, including fewer requirements for documentation or competition. ICE has a process for obtaining new detention space, but it did not follow this process for most of its recent acquisitions and does not have a strategic approach to using guaranteed minimum payments in its detention contracts and agreements. From fiscal year 2017 through May 11, 2020, ICE entered into 40 contracts and agreements for new detention space. GAO's review of ICE's documentation found that 28 of 40 of these contracts and agreements did not have documentation from ICE field offices showing a need for the space, outreach to local officials, or the basis for ICE's decisions to enter into them, as required by ICE's process. Until ICE consistently uses its process, it will not have reasonable assurance that it is making cost-effective decisions that best meet its operational needs. ICE has increasingly incorporated guaranteed minimum payments into its contracts and agreements, whereby ICE agrees to pay detention facility operators for a fixed number of detention beds regardless of whether it uses them. However, ICE has not taken a strategic approach to these decisions and has spent millions of dollars a month on unused detention space. Planning for detention space needs can be challenging, according to ICE officials, because the agency must respond to factors that are dynamic and difficult to predict. A strategic approach to using guaranteed minimums could help position ICE to balance these factors and make more effective use of federal funds. ICE relies on Contracting Officer's Representatives (COR) to oversee detention contracts and agreements, but the COR's supervisory structure—where field office management, rather than headquarters, oversee COR work and assess COR performance—does not provide sufficient independence for effective oversight. CORs in eight of 12 field offices identified concerns including lacking resources or support, as well as supervisors limiting their ability to use contract enforcement tools and bypassing CORs' oversight responsibilities in contracting matters. Revising its supervisory structure could help ICE ensure that detention contract and agreement terms are enforced. The Department of Homeland Security's ICE detained approximately 48,500 foreign nationals a day, on average, for 72 hours or more in fiscal year 2019. ICE was appropriated about $3.14 billion in fiscal year 2020 to operate the immigration detention system. ICE has three ways of acquiring detention space—IGSAs with state or local government entities; agreements with Department of Justice U.S. Marshals Service to join an existing contract or agreement (known as a “rider”); or contracts. This report examines (1) what data show about the characteristics of contracts and agreements; (2) the extent to which ICE developed and implemented processes and a strategic approach to acquire space; and (3) the extent to which ICE has overseen and enforced contracts and agreements. GAO reviewed documentation of acquisition and oversight efforts at facilities used to hold detainees for 72 hours or more; analyzed ICE data for the last 3 fiscal years—2017 through 2019; conducted site visits to new and long-standing detention facilities; and interviewed ICE officials. GAO is making five recommendations, including that ICE include stakeholder input and document decision-making for new detention space acquisitions; implement a strategic approach to using guaranteed minimums; and revise its supervisory structure for contract oversight. DHS concurred with four recommendations and disagreed with revising its supervisory structure. GAO believes the recommendation remains valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    Presented is GAO's Performance and Accountability Report for fiscal year 2020. In the spirit of the Government Performance and Results Act, this annual report informs the Congress and the American people about what we have achieved on their behalf. The financial information and the data measuring GAO's performance contained in this report are complete and reliable. This report describes GAO's performance measures, results, and accountability processes for fiscal year 2020. In assessing our performance, we compared actual results against targets and goals that were set in our annual performance plan and performance budget and were developed to help carry out our strategic plan. An overview of our annual measures and targets for 2020 is available here, along with links to a complete set of our strategic planning and performance and accountability reports. This report includes A Fiscal Year 2020 Performance and Financial Snapshot for the American Taxpayer, an introduction, four parts, and supplementary appendixes as follows: A Fiscal Year 2020 Performance and Financial Snapshot for the American Taxpayer This section provides an overview of GAO's performance and financial information for fiscal year 2020 and outlines GAO's near-term and future work priorities. Introduction This section includes the letter from the Comptroller General and a statement attesting to the completeness and reliability of the performance and financial data in this report and the effectiveness of our internal control over financial reporting. This section also includes a summary discussion of our mission, strategic planning process, and organizational structure, strategies we use to achieve our goals, and process for assessing our performance. Management's Discussion and Analysis This section discusses our agency-wide performance results and use of resources in fiscal year 2020. It also includes, among other things, information on our internal controls and the management challenges and external factors that affect our performance. Performance Information This section includes details on our performance results by strategic goal in fiscal year 2020 and the targets we are aiming for in fiscal year 2021. Financial Information This section includes details on our finances in fiscal year 2020, including a letter from our Chief Financial Officer, audited financial statements and notes, and the reports from our external auditor and Audit Advisory Committee. This section also includes an explanation of the information each of our financial statements conveys. Inspector General's View of GAO's Management Challenges This section includes our Inspector General's perspective on our agency's management challenges. Appendixes This section provides the report's abbreviations and describes how we ensure the completeness and reliability of the data for each of our performance measures. For more information, contact Timothy Bowling (202) 512-6100 or bowlingt@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) develops allocation policies in the United States to determine which transplant candidates receive offers for organs, such as livers or lungs, that are donated from deceased donors. In July 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees OPTN, directed it to change the liver allocation policy to be more consistent with federal regulations. The liver allocation policy changed in February 2020 from a system that, in general, offered donated livers first to the sickest candidates within the fixed boundaries of a donation service area or region to a system based on a candidate's level of illness and distance from the donor hospital. The current liver allocation policy offers livers first to the sickest candidates within 500 nautical miles of the donor hospital using a series of distance-based concentric circles, called acuity circles. The processes used to develop the liver and lung allocation policies had various similarities and differences. For example, while the current liver allocation policy, the 2017 liver allocation policy, and the current lung allocation policy each had public comment periods, the length of these comment periods varied—25 days for the current liver allocation policy; two separate 62-day and 64-day periods for the 2017 liver allocation policy; and 61 days (retroactive) for the current lung allocation policy. In addition, the current lung allocation policy resulted in part from a federal district court order directing HHS to initiate emergency review of the policy. However, the 2017 liver allocation policy—that was approved but never implemented—resulted from a 2012 OPTN Board directive to reduce geographic disparities in organ allocation. HHS oversight of OPTN's processes were similar for all three allocation policies and included reviewing the proposed changes to the policies to ensure compliance with federal regulations, according to HHS officials. Timeline of Selected Events Related to Three Organ Allocation Policies Organ transplantation is the leading form of treatment for patients with severe organ failure. OPTN, a nonprofit entity that was established in 1984 under the National Organ Transplant Act, manages the nation's organ allocation system. In 2019, 32,322 organs were transplanted from deceased donors in the United States. Nevertheless, as of July 2020, close to 110,000 individuals remained on waiting lists for donor organs. Previously, donated livers and lungs were generally offered first to the sickest candidates in donation service areas. However, livers and lungs are now generally offered first to the sickest candidates based on distance. GAO was asked to review the changes to the liver and lung allocation policies. This report describes (1) changes to the liver allocation policy, and (2) similarities and differences in the processes OPTN used to change the liver and lung allocation policies, and federal oversight of these processes, among other things. GAO reviewed documents, including those related to the current liver and lung allocation policies, and the 2017 liver allocation policy; interviewed HHS officials and OPTN members; reviewed the National Organ Transplant Act and its implementing regulations; and conducted a literature review of studies published from January 2017 through April 2020 in peer-reviewed and other publications. HHS and the United Network for Organ Sharing (the contractor serving as OPTN) provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.
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  • Small Business Loans: SBA Generally Incorporated Key Elements for Estimating Subsidy Cost of 7(a) Program
    In U.S GAO News
    The Small Business Administration (SBA) develops its subsidy cost estimates for the 7(a) loan guarantee program—that is, estimates of the program's net long-term cost to the government—using a cash flow model. The model uses historical data, econometric equations, and macroeconomic projections to estimate cash flows—such as guarantee fees, SBA purchases of defaulted loans, and recoveries on those loans—for the loans SBA expects to guarantee in the next fiscal year. The net present value of the cash flows (value in current dollars) is the subsidy cost estimate. SBA generally incorporated key elements of subsidy cost estimation into its estimates for the 7(a) program for the fiscal year 2020 budget. Specifically, GAO found that SBA's estimation process was largely consistent with eight key elements GAO previously identified that help ensure subsidy estimates are supported, reliable, and reasonable. For example, SBA generally validated historical data, documented the cash flow model and key assumptions, analyzed the sensitivity of estimates to alternative assumptions, and had documented policies and procedures. SBA made changes in its estimation process that collectively increased the 7(a) program's subsidy cost to $99 million for fiscal year 2020 (a 0.33 percent subsidy rate when expressed as the cost per dollar of credit assistance) from $0 for fiscal year 2019 (0 percent subsidy rate). Some of these changes were routine updates to data and economic assumptions used in the cash flow model, while others were revisions to the estimation process. Additionally, some individual changes increased the subsidy costs, while others decreased it. Some of the changes that had the largest impact on the subsidy rate included the following: Incorporating the President's economic assumptions for fiscal year 2020 decreased the rate by 0.27 percentage points. Updating the basis for the size and composition of the loan cohort SBA expected to guarantee in fiscal year 2020 increased the rate by 0.21 percentage points. Revising the methodology for estimating purchase amounts for defaulted loans to better reflect the outstanding loan balance at the time of purchase increased the rate by 0.21 percentage points. The 7(a) program is SBA's largest loan guarantee program for small businesses, with about $95 billion in outstanding loan principal as of the end of fiscal year 2019. Federal agencies that provide credit assistance are generally required to estimate the net long-term cost to the government—known as the subsidy cost—for each annual cohort of loans. SBA initially estimated a zero subsidy cost for each cohort from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, but estimated that the fiscal year 2020 cohort would have a positive subsidy cost and require appropriations. GAO was asked to evaluate SBA's subsidy estimation process for the 7(a) program. This report examines (1) how SBA estimates 7(a) subsidy costs, (2) the extent to which SBA incorporated key elements of subsidy cost estimation into its estimation process for the fiscal year 2020 budget, and (3) the changes SBA made in its estimation process for the fiscal year 2020 budget. GAO reviewed SBA documentation on its estimation process, including information on SBA's cash flow model, and compared SBA's process to key elements that GAO previously identified ( GAO-16-269 ). GAO also interviewed officials from SBA, the Office of Management and Budget, and outside auditors and contractors that annually review SBA's process and model. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-8678 or shearw@gao.gov.
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