From truckers to testing labs: How the federal government is cutting red tape in response to coronavirus

CNN’s Jake Tapper and Nick Watt report.

The federal government regulates and monitors practically every activity that takes place in the US economy, from where and when truck drivers drop off their deliveries, to what tests hospitals and labs can use on patients.

With the coronavirus outbreak shutting down large swaths of society, the federal government is taking broad steps to ensure the rules and regulations that are designed to keep people safe don’t have the opposite effect in these unprecedented circumstances.

Here’s a roundup of ways that the federal government is cutting red tape.

Department of Transportation eases restrictions on truck drivers

The Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration relaxed restrictions on truck driver hours for those making emergency deliveries related to coronavirus.

Normally, truck drivers have restrictions on the number of consecutive hours they can drive. Those carrying property can drive for only 11 consecutive hours before taking a mandatory break. Under the new rules, there is no restriction on how many hours a driver can drive for emergency deliveries. Once the delivery is completed, the driver must receive at least 10 hours off-duty time for transporting items and eight hours of off-duty time for transporting people.

This change applies only to deliveries for health care workers and communities who need more supplies of medical equipment, sanitation equipment and food.

The relaxed regulations apply to deliveries of “medical supplies and equipment related to testing, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, supplies and equipment necessary for community safety, sanitation, and prevention of community transmission of COVID-19,” according to the emergency declaration. The regulation also applies to movement of people needed to assist with the outbreak, including people “necessary to provide other medical or emergency services.”

The declaration goes through April 12 and is the first time the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has issued nationwide relief.

FDA changes policies and regulations to speed up testing for coronavirus

The Food and Drug Administration has changed several policies to speed up testing for coronavirus. Normally, private companies and state health departments would have to get federal approval by the FDA before they can use tests developed outside of the agency. But the FDA changed regulations and policies to allow certain companies and state health departments to use their own testing as they’re developed without waiting for regulatory approval.

The FDA will now allow state officials to authorize tests developed by labs in-state, which the New York State Department of Health did last week. State health departments can now authorize the tests and green light state labs to use them without having to get approval directly from the FDA, which can often take weeks if not months.

The updated guidance should allow more labs to perform more tests. The original guidance issued in February said that only labs that were certified to perform high-complexity testing were allowed to perform coronavirus tests. The new guidance says that labs can use commercially manufactured tests under certain circumstances, while the companies are still in the process of applying for Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA.

The FDA set up a hotline for labs to help with questions as they are working through testing. If there is a problem with any of the newly created tests, the FDA said that it will work with the manufacturer to see if the problems can be resolved, or if the test would need to be removed from the marketplace.

“This really is one of the tradeoffs,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said on March 16. “But on the flip side, you will get tests out there a little bit more quickly, and we think under these particular unique circumstances for the pandemic, that trade-off is worth doing. But again, it does carry risks.”

HHS expands telehealth services

The Department of Health and Human Services expanded telehealth services for people with Medicare coverage. Medicare didn’t previously cover all telehealth visits, but HHS changed the policy so that people who are covered by Medicare can use telehealth to limit in-person contact.

HHS also changed guidelines for the Office for Civil Rights to waive potential penalties of HIPAA, a law that governs how medical professionals ensure that patient information is kept confidential. Under HIPAA, medical professionals are normally required to make patients fill out certain waivers before they can use telehealth services or use only designated apps and programs. This waiver will allow more medical professionals to see more patients remotely.

“Thanks to the Public Health Emergency I declared in January, more older Americans will be able to access healthcare they need from their home, without worrying about putting themselves or others at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.

USDA allows state flexibilities for people who rely on food assistance programs

The US Department of Agriculture authorized all Food and Nutrition Service nutrition assistance programs to use flexibilities to “respond to on-the-ground realities and support response and recovery efforts,” according to the Department.

For children who rely on meals at school through the national school lunch and breakfast programs, schools can switch to their Summer Food Service Program to serve meals when schools are closed without getting permission from the USDA.

The agency also allows schools to serve meals to children in any approved area, like a neighborhood or school, where 50 percent or more of the student population qualifies for the free and reduced meal program. Under normal circumstances, these meals must be served in a group setting. Now, states are allowed to request USDA to serve food in less high-contact areas. All 50 states along with Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico have already applied for this waiver.

Over 29 million people participated in the national school lunch program and over 14 million participated in the school breakfast program in 2019, according to the Department’s data.

For SNAP, a program that allows low-income families to buy certain foods at grocery stores, state agencies can now accept online applications and extend certification periods to the maximum available, according to the Department. SNAP had over 34 million participants in 2019, according to the Department’s data.

The extension also applies to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a federal program that provides grants to states to use for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age five who are considered to be at nutritional risk. With the flexibilities for WIC, states can extend certification periods for up to 30 days and provide up to three months of benefits in advance. A total of 6.4 million people participated in WIC in 2019, according to the Department’s data.

Census Bureau adjusts operations due to coronavirus

The 2020 Census count is already underway, and while people are able to respond to the Census by phone, mail or email, the Census Bureau requires workers across the country to knock on doors in order to ensure that an accurate count of the US population is collected.

The Census Bureau usually counts college students as part of their Group Quarters operation, which counts all students living in university-owned housing. Even though many students are now away from their college campuses, the Bureau announced it still plans to count college students by contacting the university directly. The university then contacts the students that were living in resident housing and asks them to respond to the Census.

The Census Bureau is also encouraging administrators of people that live in group housing to choose a way to respond to the Census that involves less in-person contact. This applies to people who live in nursing homes, prisons and other institutional living facilities.

The Bureau is delaying a number of activities scheduled in the next few weeks that they would normally implement to ensure that an accurate Census count is completed on time. Their Early Nonresponse Followup measure, where Census workers visit homes that have not responded to the Census yet, won’t start until April 23, when it was previously scheduled to begin April 9. Their Mobile Questionnaire Assistance program, where Census workers set up at events and places where people naturally gather to answer questions about responding to the Census, won’t begin until April 13 when it was originally set to begin March 30.

Over 5 million people have already responded to the Census as of March 16, and all US citizens are to be counted by July 31. The Bureau said the final count date “will be adjusted if necessary as the situation dictates.”

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