As Pandemic Lingers, Courts Lean Into Virtual Technology

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Middle District of Florida virtual trial

As she started a civil jury trial in early October, Judge Marsha J. Pechman looked across her federal courtroom in Seattle, Washington. It was completely empty.

The litigants and their lawyers beamed in via video. So did her law clerks, and the court reporter tasked with transcribing the trial. Most strikingly, the eight jurors deciding the case also were participating by video from their homes.

Since the pandemic first closed many courts, one of the most significant adjustments made by federal courts has involved the use of electronic communications. Under provisions of the CARES Act, a COVID-19 relief law passed last March, federal courts began conducting routine procedural hearings, such as first appearances for criminal defendants, by telephone and video hookups.

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) has dragged on, a small number of courts have adapted electronic proceedings to meet more challenging situations. Several courts have conducted virtual bench trials, which do not require a jury. In a few cases, courts holding high-profile hearings have needed to stretch virtual technology to accommodate large numbers of listeners. In perhaps the most ambitious experiment yet, the Western District of Washington recently began holding all-virtual jury trials in civil lawsuits.

“Video jury trials are a tool that can be used, and it’s a tool we need to use unless we are going to be backed up forever and ever,” said Pechman, who has heard four virtual civil jury trials in recent months. “It has worked better than my initial expectations, all the way around. The jurors have been very, very diligent. They’ve cleared themselves of distractions and worked hard to pay attention.” 

Electronic proceedings also have shown vulnerabilities. In one of Pechman’s trials, proceedings were suspended when a windstorm cut some jurors’ internet connections. And during a high-profile election case in Pennsylvania, a telephone outage interrupted audience audio.

Overall, however, judges said the virtual proceedings were fair and efficient.

“I think it worked just as well as in person,” said U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani, of the District of Massachusetts, who has conducted two non-jury trials that brought together witnesses from multiple countries. “The convenience of not having to travel here was enormous. Absolutely it was an effective way to deliver justice.”

At least five courts have scheduled virtual civil jury trials, with jurors serving from home. In addition to the Western District of Washington, the Middle District of Florida and the District of Minnesota have conducted virtual civil jury trials. In the Districts of Kansas and Rhode Island, litigants settled their disputes before virtual jury trials began.

“It flowed seamlessly from jury selection through deliberations,” said Judge Mary S. Scriven, of the Middle District of Florida, who presided over a five-day all-video civil trial in late January. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. There were no more glitches than are typically seen in an in-person trial.”

Other courts have adopted a mix of tactics. In the District of Connecticut, jury members in one civil case were selected virtually from home but then came to court for an in-person trial.

The following are examples of how some courts have used electronics to deliver justice in more complex court situations.

Bench Trials in Boston

Bench trials are one of the simplest forms of federal trials because they do not require juries. In addition to deciding questions of law and procedure, the judge also determines the verdict.

But before Judge Indira Talwani conducted two bench trials in late August, her court in Boston had to use an entirely new technical structure to support trials with witnesses testifying from other continents. In one, an international child custody dispute, a parent would be participating from Armenia, while a separate business dispute involved possible witnesses from London and China.

District Judge Indira Talwani, District of Massachusetts

“I issued a protocol of procedures,” Talwani said. “I didn’t want everyone there and not having checked their bandwidth, and things like that. So my courtroom deputy played a critical role in doing a test run with everyone.”

Pretrial conferences also gave participants a chance to test the system. In addition to witnesses, the court had to connect Armenian interpreters into the child-custody case. Because the online video service had a translation function, listeners could choose to follow the trial in English, Armenian, or hear both languages.

The child custody dispute went smoothly, except for one hitch.

“The father who was making his custody claim was sitting with a well-positioned photograph of him and his daughter on the desk. That would not have happened in the courtroom,” Talwani said. “That’s a lesson I’ve learned. The witnesses need to be encouraged to appear as if they were on the witness stand and not think of it as an opportunity to color the proceeding.”

The makeshift virtual format had significant pros and a few cons, Talwani said. On the negative side, litigants can’t see each other in person, but in both cases she heard, the opposing sides knew each other well, reducing that concern.

On the plus side, seeing the full faces of witnesses on a screen 18 inches away, instead of viewing them at an angle in the witness box, provided a better view.

The biggest advantage was convenience for participants.

“For these parties, the difference of not having to travel here was enormous,” Talwani said. “To be able to do all of that without everyone having to spend the travel time worked very well. If people are cost conscious, it would make a huge difference.”

Virtual Civil Trials in Seattle and Florida

A senior judge for the Western District of Washington, Marsha Pechman first conducted a virtual bench trial in June. Her immediate takeaway: “I was stunned by how well it went off.”

When Pechman began to draft a manual for judges and lawyers on virtual bench trials, Chief Judge Richard Martinez asked her to expand her focus to include virtual jury trials, in which jurors would hear the case from home using virtual technology. The request forced her to consider legal and technical questions that literally had no precedent in the federal Judiciary.

Senior Judge Marsha J. Pechman, Western District of Washington

“I had the Ninth Circuit librarians look for case law, and the answer is, there’s nothing out there,” Pechman said. “We only found a few futuristic articles by legal scholars.”

As she and other judges looked more closely, they concluded that while criminal trials probably needed to be conducted in person, because defendants have a constitutional right to confront their accusers, lawyers already were allowed to take civil depositions by video. The court decided that civil jury cases would stand up to any appeals.

Assembling virtual juries raised additional questions. Pechman was especially worried that the requirement to use computer equipment might skew the jury pool, reducing the number of elderly and low-income jurors. The court made provisions to train jurors without computer skills, and to lend computers to those who lacked suitable equipment. 

In the four virtual jury trials she has conducted, Pechman was surprised to find that it was easier to assemble diverse juries. For some jurors, not having to travel a hundred miles or more to a federal courthouse was a major advantage.

In one case, a windstorm temporarily knocked out a juror’s connections. But, Pechman noted, in-person trials also experience disruptions, such as jurors getting delayed in traffic. The jurors deliberated virtually, rendering million-dollar-plus verdicts in two cases, and deciding in favor of the defendant in a third. A fourth case ended in a settlement after eight days of trial.

“I debriefed each of the jurors. We asked if you feel like you can pay attention while you’re sitting in your own home. The jurors overwhelmingly said yes,” Pechman said. “I know the lawyers would say this guy was sitting in his laundry room, and this lady was sitting on her bed, but the point is, we invaded their house, and they found the best space they could in order to pay attention.”

Judge Mary S. Scriven, Middle District of Florida

Pechman has shared her experiences and resource materials with other courts. Judge Scriven, of the Middle District of Florida, “only slightly modified” a handbook provided by the Western District of Washington in setting up her trial, an insurance case.

“The jurors commented that they appreciated the ability to see the exhibits and see and hear the witnesses clearly because everything was magnified on the screen,” Scriven said. “We even had a doctor/fact witness appear in full COVID-19 protective gear from the hallway of the hospital where she worked.”

Virtual Media Access in Pennsylvania

Perhaps the greatest stress test of virtual courtroom technology occurred in November, when an election law case in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, attracted national attention.

Under the CARES Act, which was passed by Congress early in the pandemic, federal courts were permitted to conduct most court proceedings by telephone and video hookups. In an unprecedented step, the federal Judiciary ensured the constitutional guarantee of public trials by making call-in lines available to the media and public, not just lawyers and litigants, in almost all federal proceedings.

In routine cases, that has posed little if any strain on federal courts. The Middle District of Pennsylvania, for instance, relied on WebEx technology with a call-in capacity of 200 to 300 listeners. But with the filing of Trump v. Boockvar, which challenged Pennsylvania’s presidential voting results, the court knew it needed more lines, but it wasn’t clear how many.

Concerned that national organizations might circulate online hearing information, potentially flooding the call-in lines and blocking access to some reporters, the court initially boosted its capacity to 4,000 listeners, and then raised it to 8,000 the morning of the hearing.

“This was clearly not a time for half measures. You either go big or go home,” said Chief Judge John E. Jones III.

For more than an hour, the system seemed to hold. Most or all of the 8,000 lines were in use, accommodating a far greater audience than normally could listen in, and the hearing was proceeding without incident. Then an AT&T server failed, plunging the public audio into silence.

Chief Judge John E. Jones III, left, and Clerk of Court Peter J. Welsh, Middle District of Pennsylvania

“It was an unbelievably stressful time,” said Peter J. Welsh, Clerk of Court for the Middle District. “When we realized it wasn’t just a few lines, we called AT&T, and they said they could fix it in five minutes. Five minutes turned to 10, and then 15. We notified the courtroom deputy.”

By the time U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann called a recess, the hearing had proceeded 25 minutes without public audio. Once repaired, the AT&T audio performed without incident for the rest of the hearing. The court addressed the audio gap by posting a transcript of the proceeding on its website, and Jones also issued a public statement.

“The transcript went a long way toward cleaning things up,” Jones said. “People wanted to know what they missed and what had happened. They had to have some account of it.”

Even with the audio interruption, Jones believes the public and media benefited from increased access.

“Despite the hiccup of the dropped lines, members of the press thought that on balance, the court did do a good job,” Jones said. “It may have been imperfect, but it was still awfully effective under the circumstances.”

Moving Forward

The long-term role of electronic court proceedings remains unclear. While virtual trials in civil cases remain a rarity, a Feb. 5 how-to seminar hosted by the Western District of Washington attracted more than 900 participants from more than 60 district courts.

Under the CARES Act, the Judiciary will end most electronic proceedings once the pandemic emergency is declared over. Until then, judges agreed in interviews, telephone and virtual hookups will play an important role in moving cases forward.

Read the Series

This is the fifth in a series of articles about how federal courts are working to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Chief Judge John R. Tunheim, of the District of Minnesota, said virtual civil trials are likely to be needed even after more people receive vaccinations. That is because anti-COVID-19 measures, such as plexiglass barriers and social distancing, will greatly reduce courtroom capacity, and criminal cases must be tried in person.

“We will only have one courtroom in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul for trials,” Tunheim said, “so the ability to do civil trials virtually while we catch up on our criminal trial backlog will be very helpful.”

And despite inevitable wobbles, judges said virtual strategies have preserved the essentials of justice during the nation’s worst health crisis in a century.

“I have no backlog. Every single case I had set in 2020 got tried in 2020,” Pechman said of her virtual civil jury trials. “I tell my fellow judges this may be the only way the wheels of justice will still turn.”

Jones was pleased that a critical case proceeded without delay, but also without sacrificing public access.

“The best of it was the fact that in the middle of a pandemic, Judge Brann could conduct this massive preceding, that literally had national import, and finish the case in two weeks,” Jones said of the Pennsylvania election lawsuit. “We operated in a way that promoted the Third Branch, and that’s the way it should be.”

More from: info@uscourts.gov

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This report provides information on the (1) federal tactical teams and their characteristics; (2) training team members receive; (3) deployments of such teams from fiscal years 2015 through 2019; and (4) firearms, tactical equipment, and tactical vehicles in team inventories, as of January 2020. To identify federal tactical teams, GAO contacted executive branch agencies with at least 50 federal law enforcement officers. GAO administered a standardized questionnaire and data collection instrument to the identified teams to gather information on team missions, staffing, training, deployments, and inventories. GAO reviewed team documents, such as standard operating procedures, and interviewed agency officials. GAO collected descriptive information on reported deployments as of June 2020 in response to COVID-19 and nationwide civil unrest, which were ongoing during the review. GAO incorporated agency technical comments as appropriate. For more information, contact Gretta L. 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    Few of the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies had implemented seven selected foundational practices for managing information and communications technology (ICT) supply chain risks. Supply chain risk management (SCRM) is the process of identifying, assessing, and mitigating the risks associated with the global and distributed nature of ICT product and service supply chains. Many of the manufacturing inputs for these ICT products and services originate from a variety of sources throughout the world. (See figure 1.) Figure 1: Examples of Locations of Manufacturers or Suppliers of Information and Communications Technology Products and Services None of the 23 agencies fully implemented all of the SCRM practices and 14 of the 23 agencies had not implemented any of the practices. The practice with the highest rate of implementation was implemented by only six agencies. Conversely, none of the other practices were implemented by more than three agencies. Moreover, one practice had not been implemented by any of the agencies. (See figure 2.) Figure 2: Extent to Which the 23 Civilian Chief Financial Officers Act Agencies Implemented Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Supply Chain Risk Management (SCRM) Practices As a result of these weaknesses, these agencies are at a greater risk that malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in the ICT supply chain causing disruption to mission operations, harm to individuals, or theft of intellectual property. For example, without establishing executive oversight of SCRM activities, agencies are limited in their ability to make risk decisions across the organization about how to most effectively secure their ICT product and service supply chains. Moreover, agencies lack the ability to understand and manage risk and reduce the likelihood that adverse events will occur without reasonable visibility and traceability into supply chains. Officials from the 23 agencies cited various factors that limited their implementation of the foundational practices for managing supply chain risks. The most commonly cited factor was the lack of federal SCRM guidance. For example, several agencies reported that they were waiting for federal guidance to be issued from the Federal Acquisition Security Council—a cross-agency group responsible for providing direction and guidance to executive agencies to reduce their supply chain risks—before implementing one or more of the foundational practices. According to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials, the council expects to complete this effort by December 2020. While the additional direction and guidance from the council could further assist agencies with the implementation of these practices, federal agencies currently have guidance to assist with managing their ICT supply chain risks. Specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued ICT SCRM-specific guidance in 2015 and OMB has required agencies to implement ICT SCRM since 2016. Until agencies implement all of the foundational ICT SCRM practices, they will be limited in their ability to address supply chain risks across their organizations effectively. Federal agencies rely extensively on ICT products and services (e.g., computing systems, software, and networks) to carry out their operations. However, agencies face numerous ICT supply chain risks, including threats posed by counterfeiters who may exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain and, thus, compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an organization's systems and the information they contain. For example, in September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reported that federal agencies faced approximately 180 different ICT supply chain-related threats. To address threats such as these, agencies must make risk-based ICT supply chain decisions about how to secure their systems. GAO was asked to conduct a review of federal agencies' ICT SCRM practices. The specific objective was to determine the extent to which federal agencies have implemented foundational ICT SCRM practices. To do so, GAO identified seven practices from NIST guidance that are foundational for an organization-wide approach to ICT SCRM and compared them to policies, procedures, and other documentation from the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in October 2020. Information that agencies deemed sensitive was omitted and GAO substituted numeric identifiers that were randomly assigned for the names of the agencies due to sensitivity concerns. The foundational practices comprising ICT SCRM are: establishing executive oversight of ICT activities, including designating responsibility for leading agency-wide SCRM activities; developing an agency-wide ICT SCRM strategy for providing the organizational context in which risk-based decisions will be made; establishing an approach to identify and document agency ICT supply chain(s); establishing a process to conduct agency-wide assessments of ICT supply chain risks that identify, aggregate, and prioritize ICT supply chain risks that are present across the organization; establishing a process to conduct a SCRM review of a potential supplier that may include reviews of the processes used by suppliers to design, develop, test, implement, verify, deliver, and support ICT products and services; developing organizational ICT SCRM requirements for suppliers to ensure that suppliers are adequately addressing risks associated with ICT products and services; and developing organizational procedures to detect counterfeit and compromised ICT products prior to their deployment. GAO also interviewed relevant agency officials. In the sensitive report, GAO made a total of 145 recommendations to the 23 agencies to fully implement foundational practices in their organization-wide approaches to ICT SCRM. Of the 23 agencies, 17 agreed with all of the recommendations made to them; two agencies agreed with most, but not all of the recommendations; one agency disagreed with all of the recommendations; two agencies neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations, but stated they would address them; and one agency had no comments. GAO continues to believe that all of the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the sensitive report. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harrisCC@gao.gov.
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    In the years before the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and others assessed the potential risks to financial stability that leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligation (CLO) securities may pose. Generally, leveraged loans are those made to businesses with poor credit and high debt, and CLO securities are backed by these loans. FSOC and others found that riskier borrower profiles and looser underwriting standards left leveraged lending market participants vulnerable to losses in the event of a downturn. After the COVID-19 shock in March 2020, loans suffered record downgrades and increased defaults, but the highest-rated CLO securities remained resilient. Although regulators monitoring the effects of the pandemic remain cautious, as of September 2020, they had not found that leveraged lending presented significant threats to financial stability. Based on regulators' assessments, leveraged lending activities had not contributed significantly to the distress of any large financial entity whose failure could threaten financial stability. Large banks' strong capital positions have allowed them to manage their leveraged lending exposures, and the exposure of insurers and other investors also appeared manageable. Mutual funds experienced redemptions by investors but were able to meet them in part by selling leveraged loan holdings. While this may have put downward pressure on already-distressed loan prices, based on regulators' assessments, distressed leveraged loan prices did not pose a potential threat to financial stability. Present-day CLO securities appear to pose less of a risk to financial stability than did similar securities during the 2007–2009 financial crisis, according to regulators and market participants. For example, CLO securities have better investor protections, are more insulated from market swings, and are not widely tied to other risky, complex instruments. FSOC monitors leveraged-lending-related risks primarily through its monthly Systemic Risk Committee meetings, but opportunities exist to enhance FSOC's abilities to respond to financial stability threats. FSOC identified leveraged lending activities as a source of potential risk to financial stability before the COVID-19 shock and recommended continued monitoring and analysis. However, FSOC does not conduct tabletop or similar scenario-based exercises where participants discuss roles and responses to hypothetical emergency scenarios. As a result, FSOC is missing an opportunity to enhance preparedness and test members' coordinated response to financial stability risks. Further, as GAO reported in 2016, FSOC does not generally have clear authority to address broader risks that are not specific to a particular financial entity, such as risks from leveraged lending. GAO recommended that Congress consider better aligning FSOC's authorities with its mission to respond to systemic risks, but Congress had not done so as of September 2020. GAO maintains that changes such as broader designation authority would help FSOC respond to risks from activities that involve many regulators, such as leveraged lending. The market for institutional leveraged loans grew from an estimated $0.5 trillion in 2010 to $1.2 trillion in 2019, fueled largely by investor demand for CLO securities. Some observers and regulators have drawn comparisons to the pre-2008 subprime mortgage market, noting that loan origination and securitization may similarly spread risks to the financial system. These fears are being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly affected leveraged businesses. This report examines assessments by regulators, FSOC, and others—both before and after the COVID-19 shock to the economy—of the potential risks to financial stability stemming from leveraged lending activities, and the extent to which FSOC monitors and responds to risks from broad-based activities like leveraged lending, among other objectives. GAO examined agency and private data on market size and investor exposures; reviewed agency, industry, and international reports; and interviewed federal financial regulators and industry participants. GAO recommends that the Secretary of the Treasury, as Chairperson of FSOC, conduct scenario-based exercises intended to evaluate capabilities for responding to crises. GAO also reiterates its 2016 recommendation (GAO-16-175) that Congress consider legislative changes to align FSOC's authorities with its mission. FSOC neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said that it would take further actions if it determined necessary. For more information, contact Michael E. Clements at (202) 512-8678 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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    As of August 20, 2020, the U.S. had over 5.5 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19, and 158,000 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 between March and July 2020 to provide appropriations for the response to COVID-19. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to COVID-19. This second report examines federal spending on the COVID-19 response; indicators for monitoring public health and the economy; and the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations from GAO’s June 2020 report (GAO-20-625). GAO reviewed data through June 30, 2020 (the latest available) from USAspending.gov, a government website with data from government agencies. GAO also obtained, directly from the agencies, spending data, as of July 31, 2020, for the six largest spending areas, to the extent available. To develop the public health indicators, GAO reviewed research and federal guidance. To understand economic developments, GAO reviewed data from federal statistical agencies, the Federal Reserve, and Bloomberg Terminal, as well as economic research. To update the status of matters for congressional consideration and recommendations, GAO reviewed agency and congressional actions. In response to the national public health and economic threats caused by COVID-19, four relief laws making appropriations of about $2.6 trillion had been enacted as of July 31, 2020. Overall, federal obligations and expenditures government-wide of these COVID-19 relief funds totaled $1.5 trillion and $1.3 trillion, respectively, as of June 30, 2020. GAO also obtained preliminary data for six major spending areas as of July 31, 2020 (see table). COVID-19 Relief Appropriations, Obligations, and Expenditures for Six Major Spending Areas, as of July 2020 Spending area Appropriationsa ($ billions) Preliminary obligationsb ($ billions) Preliminary expendituresb ($ billions) Business Loan Programs 687.3 538.1 522.2c Economic Stabilization and Assistance to Distressed Sectors 500.0 30.4 19.2c Unemployment Insurance 376.4 301.1 296.8 Economic Impact Payments 282.0 273.5 273.5 Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund 231.7 129.6 95.9 Coronavirus Relief Fund 150.0 149.5 149.5 Total for six spending areas 2,227.4 1,422.2 1,357.0 Source: GAO analysis of data from the Department of the Treasury, USAspending.gov, and applicable agencies. | GAO-20-708 aCOVID-19 relief appropriations reflect amounts appropriated under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, Pub. L. No. 116-123, 134 Stat. 146; Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Pub. L. No. 116-127, 134 Stat. 178 (2020); CARES Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, 134 Stat. 281 (2020); and Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, Pub. L. No. 116-139, 134 Stat. 620 (2020). These data are based on appropriations warrant information provided by the Department of the Treasury as of July 31, 2020. These amounts could increase in the future for programs with indefinite appropriations, which are appropriations that, at the time of enactment, are for an unspecified amount. In addition, this table does not represent transfers of funds that federal agencies may make between appropriation accounts or transfers of funds they may make to other agencies. bObligations and expenditures data for July 2020 are based on preliminary data reported by applicable agencies. cThese expenditures relate to the loan subsidy costs (the loan’s estimated long-term costs to the United States government). The CARES Act included a provision for GAO to assess the impact of the federal response on public health and the economy. The following are examples of health care and economic indicators that GAO is monitoring. Health care. GAO’s indicators are intended to assess the nation’s immediate response to COVID-19 as it first took hold, gauge its recovery from the effects of the pandemic over the longer term, and determine the nation’s level of preparedness for future pandemics, involving subsequent waves of either COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. For example, to assess the sufficiency of testing—a potential indicator of the system’s response and recovery—GAO suggests monitoring the proportion of tests in a given population that are positive for infection. A higher positivity rate can indicate that testing is not sufficiently widespread to find all cases. That is higher positivity rates can indicate that testing has focused on those most likely to be infected and seeking testing because they have symptoms, and may not be detecting COVID-19 cases among individuals with no symptoms. Although there is no agreed-upon threshold for the test positivity rate, governments should target low positivity rates. The World Health Organization recommends a test positivity rate threshold of less than 5 percent over a 14-day period. As of August 12, 2020, 12 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (38 states had not). Resolve to Save Lives, another organization, recommends a threshold of less than 3 percent over a 7-day period, and 11 states and the District of Columbia had met this threshold (39 states had not) as of August 12, 2020. GAO also suggests monitoring mortality from all causes compared to historical norms as an indicator of the pandemic’s broad effect on health care outcomes. Mortality rates have tended to be consistent from year to year. This allows an estimation of how much mortality rose with the onset of the pandemic, and provides a baseline by which to judge a return to pre-COVID levels. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, about 125,000 more people died from all causes January 1–June 13 than would normally be expected (see figure). CDC Data on Higher-Than-Expected Weekly Mortality, January 1 through June 13, 2020 Note: The figure shows the number of deaths from all causes in a given week that exceeded the upper bound threshold of expected deaths calculated by CDC on the basis of variation in mortality experienced in prior years. Changes in the observed numbers of deaths in recent weeks should be interpreted cautiously as this figure relies on provisional data that are generally less complete in recent weeks. Data were accessed on July 16, 2020. Economy. GAO updated information on a number of indicators to facilitate ongoing and consistent monitoring of areas of the economy supported by the federal pandemic response, in particular the COVID-19 relief laws. These indicators suggest that economic conditions—including for workers, small businesses, and corporations—have improved modestly in recent months but remain much weaker than prior to the pandemic. In June and July initial regular unemployment insurance (UI) claims filed weekly averaged roughly 1.4 million (see figure), which was six and a half times higher than average weekly claims in 2019, but claims have decreased substantially since mid-March, falling to 971,000 in the week ending August 8, 2020. Increasing infections in some states and orders to once again close or limit certain businesses are likely to pose additional challenges for potentially fragile economic improvements, especially in affected sectors, such as the leisure and hospitality sector. National Weekly Initial Unemployment Insurance Claims, January 2019–July 2020 Note: See figure 5 in the report. As GAO reported in June, consistent with the urgency of responding to serious and widespread health issues and economic disruptions, federal agencies gave priority to moving swiftly where possible to distribute funds and implement new programs designed to help small businesses and the newly unemployed, for example. However, such urgency required certain tradeoffs in achieving transparency and accountability goals. To make mid-course corrections, GAO made three recommendations to federal agencies: To reduce the potential for duplicate payments from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)—a program that provides guaranteed loans through lenders to small businesses—and unemployment insurance, GAO recommended that the Department of Labor (DOL), in consultation with the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of the Treasury (Treasury), immediately provide information to state unemployment agencies that specifically addresses PPP loans, and the risk of improper unemployment insurance payments. DOL issued guidance on August 12, 2020, that, among other things, clarified that individuals working full-time and being paid through PPP are not eligible for UI. To recoup economic impact payments totaling more than $1.6 billion sent to decedents, GAO recommended that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) consider cost-effective options for notifying ineligible recipients of economic impact payments how to return payments. IRS has taken steps to address this recommendation. According to a Treasury official, nearly 70 percent of the payments sent to decedents have been recovered. However, GAO was unable to verify that amount before finalizing work on this report. GAO is working with Treasury to determine the number of payments sent to decedents that have been recovered. Treasury was considering sending letters to request the return of remaining outstanding payments but has not moved forward with this effort because, according to Treasury, Congress is considering legislation that would clarify or change payment eligibility requirements. To reduce the potential for fraud and ensure program integrity, GAO recommended that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in PPP to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud. SBA has begun developing oversight plans for PPP but has not yet finalized or implemented them. In addition, to improve the government’s response efforts, GAO suggested three matters for congressional consideration: GAO urged Congress to take legislative action to require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to work with relevant agencies and stakeholders, such as HHS, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and international organizations, to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan to ensure safeguards are in place to limit the spread of communicable disease threats from abroad, while also minimizing any unnecessary interference with travel and trade. In early July 2020, DOT collaborated with HHS and DHS to issue guidance to airports and airlines for implementing measures to mitigate the public health risks associated with COVID-19, but it has not developed a preparedness plan for future communicable disease threats. DOT has maintained that HHS and DHS should lead such planning efforts as they are responsible for communicable disease response and preparedness planning, respectively. In June 2020, HHS stated that it is not in a position to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan as it does not have primary jurisdiction over the entire aviation sector or the relevant transportation expertise. In May 2020, DHS stated that it had reviewed its existing plans for pandemic preparedness and response activities and determined it is not best situated to develop a national aviation-preparedness plan. Without such a plan, the U.S. will not be as prepared to minimize and quickly respond to future communicable disease events. GAO also urged Congress to amend the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration (SSA) to share its full death data with Treasury for data matching to help prevent payments to ineligible individuals. In June 2020, the Senate passed S.4104, referred to as the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act. If enacted, the bill would allow SSA to share these data with Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service to avoid paying deceased individuals. Finally, GAO urged Congress to use GAO's Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) formula for any future changes to the FMAP—the statutory formula according to which the federal government matches states' spending for Medicaid services—during the current or any future economic downturn. Congress has taken no action thus far on this issue. GAO incorporated technical comments received the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and the Treasury; the Federal Reserve; Office of Management and Budget; and Internal Revenue Service. The Small Business Administration commented that GAO did not include information on actions taken and controls related to its loan forgiveness program or its plans for loan reviews. GAO plans to provide more information on these topics in its next CARES Act report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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  • Drinking Water: EPA Could Use Available Data to Better Identify Neighborhoods at Risk of Lead Exposure
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO's statistical analysis indicates that areas with older housing and vulnerable populations (e.g., families in poverty) have higher concentrations of lead service lines in the selected cities GAO examined. By using geospatial lead service line data from the selected water systems and geospatial data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS), GAO identified characteristics of neighborhoods with higher concentrations of lead service lines. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) guidance for water systems on how to identify the location of sites at high-risk of having lead service lines has not been updated since 1991 and many water systems face challenges identifying areas at risk of having lead service lines. By developing guidance for water systems that outlines methods for identifying high-risk locations using publicly available data, EPA could better ensure that public water systems test water samples from locations at greater risk of having lead service lines and identify areas with vulnerable populations to focus lead service line replacement efforts. (See figure for common sources of lead in home drinking water.) Common Sources of Lead in Drinking Water within Homes and Residences EPA has taken some actions to address the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act requirement, which include developing a strategic plan regarding lead in public water systems. However, EPA's published plan did not satisfy the statutory requirement that the agency's strategic plan address targeted outreach, education, technical assistance, and risk communication undertaken by EPA, states, and public water systems. For example, the plan does not discuss public education, technical assistance or risk communication. Instead, EPA's plan focused solely on how to notify households when EPA learns of certain exceedances of lead in their drinking water. Moreover, EPA's plan is not consistent with leading practices for strategic planning. For example, EPA's plan does not set a mission statement or define long-term goals. Developing a strategic plan that meets the statutory requirement and fully reflects leading practices for strategic planning would give EPA greater assurance that it has effectively planned for how it will communicate the risks of lead in drinking water to the public. Lead in drinking water comes primarily from corrosion of service lines connecting the water main to a house or building, pipes inside a building, or plumbing fixtures. As GAO reported in September 2018, the total number of lead service lines in drinking water systems is unknown, and less than 20 of the 100 largest water systems have such data publicly available. GAO was asked to examine the actions EPA and water systems are taking to educate the public on the risks of lead in drinking water. This report examines, among other things: (1) the extent to which neighborhood data on cities served by lead service lines can be used to focus lead reduction efforts; and (2) actions EPA has taken to address WIIN Act requirements, and EPA's risk communication documents. GAO conducted a statistical analysis combining geospatial lead service line and ACS data to identify characteristics of selected communities; reviewed legal requirements and EPA documents; and interviewed EPA officials. GAO is making four recommendations, including that EPA develop (1) guidance for water systems on lead reduction efforts, and (2) a strategic plan that meets the WIIN Act requirement. EPA agreed with one recommendation and disagreed with the others. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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  • Five Individuals Charged for Roles in $65 Million Nationwide Conspiracy to Defraud Federal Health Care Programs
    In Crime News
    The owners of four orthotic brace suppliers and several marketing companies were charged in a complaint unsealed yesterday for allegedly orchestrating a nationwide kickback and bribery scheme to order medically unnecessary orthotic braces for Medicare beneficiaries.
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  • Montenegro Statehood Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]