OMB gives agencies more flexibilities when awarding grants for coronavirus research

The Office of Management and Budget is relieving some regulatory requirements for agencies awarding grant money for research on the coronavirus.

Margaret Weichert, the deputy director for management at OMB, detailed 10 flexibilities to any grantees who receives money “to support the continued research and services necessary to carry out the emergency response related to COVID-19” during the 90-day public health emergency declaration by the Department of Health and Human Services.

At the same time, at least one agency, the Homeland Security Department, is reassuring its vendors about the health and safety precautions the agency is taking at its facilities.

Soraya Correa, the DHS chief procurement officer, wrote to contractors on March 5 providing some basic information about how to prepare for a possible outbreak of the virus.

“If your employees must travel to affected areas, please have them contact you prior to their return to discuss possible telework and leave options,” Correa wrote. “If contract performance is affected due to the COVID-19 situation, such as the need for alternative work locations or travel or schedule changes, the contracting officers has the authority to discuss this with your company.”

Alan Chvotkin, the executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin that clear guidance from the government would be helpful.

“We can’t have every individual contracting officer making this up or addressing these circumstances individually and having inconsistent treatment across the government,” he said during a March 10 interview. “We faced a similar issue in the shutdown and as you said when we saw the [H1N1] virus come in and Ebola, the government moved forward and provided some pretty clear guidance. We’ve shared that history with some of the federal agencies, and we expect that over the next week or so that there’ll be some further guidance from executive branch agencies on how to treat contractors who are unable to take teleworking, or the impact that it might have on any individual contract performance.”

PSC posted a resource center on the COVID-19 virus for their members and is working with agency procurement activities, policy offices in the White House to try to develop a more comprehensive guidance.

There are a handful of notices on the beta.sam.gov portal either cancelling industry days for procurements or asking vendors not to send anyone that has traveled to the affected areas.

Additionally, agencies, non-profit groups and vendors are moving events online or postponing them altogether. For example the Agriculture Department and HHS announced they are holding the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee meeting online only this week. Meanwhile, Code for America cancelled its summit scheduled for March 11-13, and the Know Identity Conference has been postponed until later this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also awarded two contracts for emergency response support services (ERSS) to Rapid Deployment, Inc. to provide a host of services including the ability to “mobilize quickly and provide high-quality service for a ‘no-fail’ mission to support CDC’s repatriation efforts during the 2019-nCoV response.”

OMB’s guidance for grant awards tells agencies they can waive certain rules such as the requirement to put out a notice of funding opportunities for 30 days or letting awarding agencies extend awards which are active as of March 31 and scheduled to expire prior or up to Dec. 31, automatically at no-cost for a period up to 12 months.

Agencies spend more than $500 billion a year on grants to state and local governments, non-profits, universities and other research institutions.

“The administration will evaluate if these flexibilities should be extended to recipients whose operations have been adversely impacted in the emergency response related to COVID-19 at a later date,” Weichert said.

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