U.S. watchdog finds loopholes in government response to pandemic

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NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. government watchdog bluntly examined the shortcomings of the government’s response to the pandemic on Thursday, including sending nearly $ 1.4 billion to dead Americans and collecting Incomplete and inconsistent virus testing data.

FILE PHOTO: Claudia Clemente, MA, tests for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as part of the Valle del Sol testing at Tolleson Fire Station 161 in Tolleson, Arizona, United States, June 18, 2020. REUTERS / Courtney Pedroza

The report released by the Government Accountability Office marked the first review of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and made recommendations to lawmakers on how to improve the fight to emerge from the crisis.

The watchdog noted, among other shortcomings, that the U.S. government sent nearly $ 1.4 billion in stimulus checks to deceased Americans at the end of April, highlighting the challenges the government faces in ensuring that the funds are properly spent.

“The number of economic impact payments made to the deceased underscores the importance of consistently using key guarantees to provide government assistance to individuals,” the watchdog said.

Some of its harshest criticisms have been reserved for the Small Business Administration (SBA), which oversees a $ 670 billion emergency loan program to help businesses survive the pandemic, and the lack of a plan. of the Ministry of Transport to improve the aviation sector’s response to epidemics. .

Detailing its findings on the data from the coronavirus tests, the GAO said the data that was sometimes collected included antibody tests that detect previous infections, and sometimes included counts on the number of samples tested, which could include multiple tests for one person.

“The lack of complete and consistent COVID-19 test data reported up to May 31, 2020 has made it more difficult to monitor and understand the rate of infection, mitigate the effect of infections, and make decisions on reopening communities, ”said the watchdog.

He said the United States also does not have a national aviation preparedness plan for infectious diseases.

“Although the Department of Transportation agreed that a plan was needed, as of May 2020 no such plan had been developed,” the watchdog said. He said the Department of Transportation has argued other U.S. agencies should take the lead in planning for outbreaks.

As part of his recommendations to US lawmakers, the watchdog said he was urging them to take legislative action to force the transportation department to work with others to develop a national plan.

He criticized the SBA for failing to provide detailed descriptions of loans made in its data and for failing to submit review plans for loans worth less than $ 2 million.

“We had the most difficulty trying to get information from the Small Business Administration (SBA),” the watchdog said. “To date, SBA has not provided the critical information for our review.”

The SBA said the watchdog misinterpreted their interactions.

“The report downplays the historic work the SBA has undertaken,” the agency said in a statement. He said he was providing the watchdog with data on more than 4.7 million loans he had made.

The level of transparency of US government spending to fight the pandemic has been a controversial issue between various watchdogs and government agencies.

The watchdog says the U.S. government has set aside $ 2.6 trillion in spending to fight the pandemic, but spending to date is unknown because not all agencies are required to report spending until July 2020 .

Some U.S. lawmakers responded to the report Thursday by calling for more transparency on how stimulus funds are spent.

“GAO has found that over $ 1 trillion in public funds has already been committed with little transparency about how that money is spent,” US Representative Carolyn B. Maloney said in a statement.

“The American people deserve to know if these funds are being misused.”

Koh Gui Qing report; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Aurora Ellis

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