Under both the Biden and the Trump administrations, HHS has taken a backseat to the White House in management of the coronavirus pandemic even though its scientists, doctors, disease detectives and service providers carry out most of the day-to-day work.
The GAO said it found “persistent deficiencies” in five main areas for HHS: establishing clear roles and responsibilities for federal, state and local agencies; collecting and analyzing data to inform decision-makers; providing clear and consistent communication to the public; establishing transparency and accountability; and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of other federal and state agencies that it has to work with.
For example, under the heading of setting clear roles and responsibilities, the GAO said that the health agency still has not addressed recommendations from 2020 for resolving supply chain issues, including the availability of diagnostic tests. “Shortages of such supplies continue to plague the nation’s pandemic response,” the report said.
Ramping up production of at-home COVID-19 tests has become a top priority for the White House in recent weeks.
The GAO concluded that data collection and analysis has been a critical weakness for the federal government since the start of the pandemic. As a result, decision-makers have had only a partial or late-evolving view of some developments. As far back as 2010, Congress had required HHS to put in place a nationwide “public health situational awareness” surveillance system. But more than 10 years later that still has not been done, the GAO said, forcing policymakers to rely on data collected by thousands of state health departments and labs, and multiple federal agencies, with different capabilities and protocols for handling information.