GAO Releases New Analysis of Federal COVID-19 Response Efforts to Date

Published: September 09, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCoronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic

Last week, GAO published reports on federal spending, public health monitoring, and the state of the economy, as well as the use of paid leave for contractors, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Takeaways:

  • GAO’s analysis of federal contract obligations through June 2020 related to the pandemic, totaled $1.4 trillion against a base of total appropriated funds of $2.6 trillion.
  • GAO is using positivity rates, contact tracing performance, ICU bed availability, and death rates as indicators to monitor the health care system’s response during the pandemic.  
  • GAO found that to date, agencies had made few contract obligations to reimburse contractors for paid leave due to the coronavirus pandemic, in part because of the lack of dedicated funding.

GAO released two reports last week regarding federal actions during the COVID-19 pandemic:

The CARES Act tasked GAO with monitoring federal actions stemming from the four relief laws enacted between March and July 2020. The COVID-19 Brief Update is GAO’s second report summarizing its findings regarding federal efforts in the areas of spending, public health monitoring and the economy.

Federal Spending: In the area of federal spending, the four relief laws, including the CARES Ace, made available approximately $2.6 trillion in appropriations. GAO analyzed data from and found that overall, federal contract obligations of COVID-19 relief funds totaled $1.4 trillion as of June 30, 2020. Spending can be broken down into the following categories:

Spending Category

Appropriations ($B)

Obligations through 6/30/20 ($B)

Business Loan Programs



Economic Stabilization and Assistance to Distressed Sectors 



Unemployment Insurance



Economic Impact Payments



Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund



Coronavirus Relief Fund






Public Health Monitoring:  GAO is using four indicators to monitor areas of the health care system’s response and recovery:

  1. Positivity Rate for COVID-19 Testing
  2. Contact Tracing Performance
  3. Proportion of Intensive Care Unit Beds Available
  4. The Number of Higher than Expected Deaths from All Causes

According to GAO, the extent to which governments can reduce the positivity rate is partly dependent on the availability of testing and contact tracing resources. GAO determined in its June 2020 report that testing data reported by the CDC did not provide sufficient reliable information on the amount of COVID-19 viral testing occurring over time because the data were incomplete and inconsistent.  GAO plans to work with the National Academies to establish an approach for monitoring this health indicator.

HHS is now providing hospital utilization data under a revised reporting process meant to capture key statistics better, such as the proportion of staffed ICU beds that are available within each state. As of July 20, 2020, under its revised reporting process, HHS provides hospital utilization on its new HHS Protect Public Data Hub website. According to data published on July 30, 2020, about 92% of hospitals reported at least one data element within the past 7 days. However, the percentage of hospitals that are reporting the proportion of ICU beds available on a daily basis is unclear.

Economy:  GAO’s analysis showed that “the national economy and areas of the economy supported by the federal pandemic response have improved modestly in recent months but remain much weaker than prior to the pandemic.” According to GAO’s report, by the end of May 2020, the majority of states had eased stay-at-home orders and certain restrictions on nonessential businesses. Individuals returning to work in leisure and hospitality, retail trade, and health care industries drove gains in employment.

Last week, GAO also released a report analyzing federal agencies’ implementation of section 3610 of the CARES Act, which granted them authority to reimburse contractors for paid leave related to the COVID-19 pandemic through September 30, 2020. GAO found that overall agencies had made relatively little use of the authority through July 2020, and that implementation guidance provided by agencies varied from the implementation guidance provided by OMB.   

“Section 3610 of the CARES Act generally authorizes agencies at their discretion to reimburse a contractor for the cost of paid leave incurred during the pandemic so that it can maintain its workforce in a ready state.” Between March 2020 and July 2020, OMB and each of the seven federal agencies GAO reviewed, issued section 3610 implementation guidance. GAO found the guidance to be similar for the most part, but found some differences, such as the extent to which the rates used to calculate these reimbursements could include profit or fees.

GAO’s analysis of Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG) data indicated that agencies made relatively little use of the authority through July 2020. Only DOD and NASA showed contact obligations for this category. DOD obligated $18.3 million and NASA obligated $3.6 million to reimburse contractors for paid leave due to the pandemic.  However, Energy indicated to GAO that it reimbursed contractors for almost $550 million in paid leave costs using existing obligations rather than adding funding via a contract modification. As a result, these amounts would not show in the FPDS-NG data as section 3610 reimbursements.

Agency officials and industry representatives told GAO a main factor for limited section 3610 obligations to date, was due to the lack of dedicated funding. DOD indicated that it expected industry requests for reimbursement to total in the billions of dollars.