Peters to Examine Preparation and Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

Peters’ Continued Oversight of Administration’s Management of Public Health and Economic Crisis will be Key Priority Next Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will examine the federal government’s planning, coordination and execution of prevention and response efforts of the pandemic that has taken the lives more than 319,000 Americans, and cost millions more their jobs, homes and livelihoods in the deadliest national and public health security threat in a century. As part of his examination, Peters is seeking information, including documents, communications and interviews, related to the federal government’s Coronavirus pandemic preparedness and response.

As the top Democrat on the Senate’s primary oversight committee, Peters is seeking detailed information from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Defense, State Department and the Office of Management and Budget to analyze the challenges and flaws in the Trump Administration’s pandemic preparedness and response efforts. Peters intends to use this information to identify critical reforms to strengthen pandemic preparedness and response to prevent future pandemics from wreaking havoc on our nation’s health, safety and economic security.

“Congressional oversight of the executive branch is now necessary to understand and assess the U.S.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any needed reforms to combat this and future pandemics. I am particularly concerned about recent analysis that estimates at least 130,000 U.S. deaths “could have been avoided with earlier policy interventions and more robust federal coordination and leadership,” Peters wrote.

Peters continued: “I will use every authority under this Committee to seek answers regarding how and why the Administration made key decisions in preparation for and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes decisions that have resulted in a lack of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for emergency and first responders, insufficient testing, overwhelmed hospitals, and, reportedly, a failure to secure an extra 100 million doses of a critical and promising COVID-19 vaccine for distribution in the U.S. before it was offered to other countries.’

As Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Peters has led several efforts to ensure thorough oversight of the Administration’s Coronavirus response. Peters called in March for President Trump to use the Defense Production Act to address shortages of personal protective equipment and other critical medical supplies by increasing domestic production. In October, he released a report highlighting shortcomings in the Trump Administration’s vaccine distribution plans and providing recommendations to ensure that vaccines will be safe, effectivetrusted by the public, free, and widely available to every community. He pressed the Trump Administration to take swift action to ensure the U.S. has enough syringes and needles needed to immunize millions of Americans once Coronavirus vaccines are authorized for distributionHe also introduced legislation to address shortages of medical supplies and personal protective equipment by encouraging domestic production.

Peters’ letter to the White House is copied below and available here. PDFs of the letters are available via the following links.

Department of Homeland Security
Department of Defense
Health and Human Services
Office of Management and Budget
Department of State

December 21, 2020

The Honorable Michael R. Pence
Vice President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. Vice President,

            The United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is conducting oversight of the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This letter follows my November 18, 2020 notification to federal departments and agencies to preserve all documents and communications in accordance with the law, which includes documents and communications regarding the government’s COVID-19 response.

            The U.S. is in the midst of one of the deadliest national and public health security threats in a century and the federal government’s response has had, and will continue to have, a decisive impact on efforts to save lives and overcome the pandemic. On November 4, 2020, for the first time, more than 100,000 Americans tested positive for COVID-19 in a single day. This number doubled less than one month later, when on December 2, 2020, over 200,000 Americans tested positive for COVID-19. Over a quarter of a million Americans (more than 300,000 by this letter’s date) have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. in the ten months since the first cases were detected. Although the U.S. accounts for only four percent of the world’s population, it represents nearly twenty percent of global COVID-19 cases and deaths since the pandemic began.

            These deaths are tragic and I do not accept that the current state of affairs was inevitable. Congressional oversight of the executive branch is now necessary to understand and assess the U.S.’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and any needed reforms to combat this and future pandemics. I am particularly concerned about recent analysis that estimates at least 130,000 U.S. deaths “could have been avoided with earlier policy interventions and more robust federal coordination and leadership.”

            I will use every authority under this Committee to seek answers regarding how and why the Administration made key decisions in preparation for and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes decisions that have resulted in a lack of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for emergency and first responders, insufficient testing, overwhelmed hospitals, and, reportedly, a failure to secure an extra 100 million doses of a critical and promising COVID-19 vaccine for distribution in the U.S. before it was offered to other countries.

            As early as February 2020, President Trump was informed of the severity and lethality of COVID-19. However, as COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., large gatherings such as Mardi Gras continued without any federal warning of the pandemic’s increasing threat. The Administration also made the decision to leave states largely with the burden of procuring sufficient supplies of PPE and testing materials as COVID-19 cases surged throughout the U.S.

            I also intend to find out why the Administration continually shifted key roles and responsibilities for the pandemic response and what effect these changes had on the government’s ability to effectively contain the pandemic. In January 2020, the White House established a Coronavirus Task Force with Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Azar as the lead. One month later, on February 26, the President designated Vice President Mike Pence to serve as the Head of the Task Force. Similarly, when Secretary Azar declared a public health emergency on January 31, 2020, HHS headed the federal government’s response. Six weeks later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was designated as the lead role for coordinating the response. And months after that, FEMA delegated key procurement and supply responsibilities to the Department of Defense (DOD).

            This Administration must also explain the basis for the guidance it has provided to the public throughout the pandemic and whether political interference at key scientific agencies tainted that guidance. Despite the well-documented community transmission of the virus and the increasing rise in U.S. cases in March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially made the decision to not recommend wearing masks in public. On March 16, 2020, the White House announced its “Coronavirus Guidelines for America – 15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign which did not include guidance to wear masks. In April 2020, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority leading vaccine research was fired after allegedly resisting pressure from HHS leadership to approve potentially harmful drugs to treat COVID-19. In July 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, HHS changed its data collection practices when it awarded a contract to TeleTracking Technologies, Inc. to collect hospital data, a task embedded within the CDC.

            This Committee has a responsibility as the chief oversight committee of the U.S. Senate with broad jurisdiction over all government operations to conduct a comprehensive review of the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic response to date and to recommend any reforms that may be necessary. To that end, please provide the following documents and communications as soon as possible, but no later than January 5, 2021. Please refer to the attached Schedule A for information on how to respond to this request and for the types of documents and communications to be provided. Unless otherwise indicated, all documents and communications responsive to the below requests should be provided from January 2019 to present.

1. All documents and communications regarding the shifts in leadership and authority between HHS, FEMA, and the Department of Defense, how the roles of each department and agency evolved in relation to the White House Coronavirus Task Force and overall federal COVID-19 response, and coordination between the departments and agencies, including but not limited to interagency agreements and memoranda of understandings.

2. All documents and communications regarding the President’s March 11, 2020, National Emergency Declaration, including, but not limited to:

a. Factors leading to the President’s determination to make the declarations on March 11, 2020;

b. What other authorities, including under the Stafford Act, were considered and the basis for whether to utilize other authorities;

c. What factors determined which programs would be activated under the subsequent major disaster declarations? Were other programs considered outside of Category B and Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training program; and

d. What, if any, changes in leadership and authority occurred after the President declared a national emergency.

3. A list of all Community Based Testing Sites for COVID-19 and whether each site is currently in operation, and documents sufficient to show FEMA and HHS’s respective roles and responsibilities, how testing site locations were decided, the funding structure for testing sites and any changes, and who was responsible for overseeing the implementation and any reasons for shifts in oversight.

4. All documents and communications regarding national testing and contact tracing strategies, including, but not limited to, how the White House Coronavirus Task Force made the decision to let states handle COVID-19 testing.

5. All documents and communications regarding the Administration’s decisions to invoke its authorities under the Defense Production Act to mobilize and increase PPE production.

6.  All documents and communications regarding Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force determination of PPE distribution to states and a list of all individuals involved.

7.A list of all officials involved in, and a chronology of actions taken by the U.S. government in relation to, pending trade negotiations with China between the months of January to May 2020.

8. All documents and communications regarding social distancing and other containment measures with respect to federal response planning starting in February 2020, including the CDC’s guidance regarding the decisions to allow large gatherings to take place, the initial decision to not recommend wearing masks in public, and the CDC’s involvement in the “Coronavirus Guidelines for America – 15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign, including, but not limited to the data and assessments relied upon.

9. All documents and communications regarding the shipment of PPE or ventilators by the federal government to other countries, including the decision to have the U.S. donate critical medical supplies to China in January and February 2020, and a list of all officials involved in those decisions.

10. A list of any individuals or entities who had a role in reviewing, editing, or approving CDC or FDA COVID-19 guidance.

11. All documents and communications regarding HHS changes to its data collection practices to collect hospital data in July 2020.

12. All White House Coronavirus Task Force organizational charts relating to the COVID-19 response, including a list of all current and former members, volunteers, contractors, and any employees or officials involved in supporting the efforts of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, as well as current and former Defense Production Act Task Force members.

13. All documents and communications regarding intelligence briefings, National Security Council (NSC) intelligence reports, and proposed recommendations relating to the federal government’s COVID-19 response, including, but not limited to:

a. NSC 2018 Pandemic Playbook and drafts;

b.  NSC pandemic modeling reports and projections;

c.  Briefing by CDC Director Redfield on or around January 2, 2020;

d. January 14, 2020, Policy Coordination Committee Meeting; and

e.  February 14, 2020 memoranda titled, “U.S. Government Response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.”

14. All documents and communications relating to the Crimson Contagion tabletop exercise and the February 21, 2020 tabletop simulation of a flu-like pandemic exercise presented by HHS Assistant Secretary Kadlec.

15. All White House Coronavirus Task Force member communications with officials at other agencies and with the World Health Organization relating to the COVID-19 response.

16. All documents and communications regarding White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting and call agendas, including standing calls with Governors and press briefings.

17. Copies of all weekly White House Task Force reports for Governors.

18. All documents and communications regarding the use of the Defense Production Act; the acquisition of PPE; halting the export of critical medical supplies (testing and PPE); COVID-19 briefings; guidance documents; testing; communications with the public; a national education campaign for COVID-19, and the development of diagnostic or serology tests, therapeutics, and vaccines, including but not limited to all forecasts, modeling, and memos of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

19. All documents and communications relating to the planning and implementation of “National Testing Centers.”

20. All documents and communications relating to Project Air Bridge, including but not limited to records of supply requests, supplies shipped, and the “VIP list” of providers.

21. All contracts or agreements either entered into or directing FEMA, DOD, the Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force, Project Air Bridge, or the Joint Acquisition Task Force to enter into contracts for medical supplies, PPE, and ventilators.

22. All documents and communications regarding White House reports and guidance relating to COVID-19, including but not limited to the Coronavirus Task Force, Office of Science and Technology, and “Coronavirus Guidelines for America – 15 Days to Slow the Spread.”

23. All documents and communications pertaining to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 response, funding for projects affiliated with the World Health Organization, and the decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization.

            Additionally, upon request, please make all Coronavirus Task Force officials with relevant information available for interviews to provide information and testimony regarding the issues identified herein.

            The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is authorized by Rule XXV of the Standing Rules of the Senate to investigate “the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of all agencies and departments of the Government.” Additionally, Senate Resolution 70 (116th Congress) authorizes the Committee to investigate “the efficiency and economy of operations of all branches of the Government.”

Thank you for your prompt attention and cooperation in this matter.

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