Employees, Lawmakers Frustrated by Homeland Security’s Slow COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts

Aedka Studio/Shutterstock.com

A nearly month-old effort has only led to 900 employee vaccinations.

The Homeland Security Department is facing increasing pressure over its efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, as employees say management is slowing the process and some lawmakers are taking issue with its prioritization plan. 

DHS and the Veterans Affairs Department on Jan. 6 began a partnership to get frontline personnel vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, but that has so far yielded just 900 inoculations of Homeland Security employees out of its 230,000-person workforce. VA is accepting DHS employees for vaccinations at 21 facilities around the country, but the workers must be within a certain geographic area to be eligible and indicate they are interested. VA then reaches out to those individuals to schedule an appointment. 

The Trump and Biden administrations both have struggled to explain that process to employees. At the Transportation Security Administration, for example, headquarters officials told regional leaders this week that 60% of staff had not responded to an email asking them to indicate if they were interested in receiving a vaccine. Many employees thought the email was a phishing test and deleted it, according to two senior TSA officials, and management has yet to make an effort to reach back out to its workforce. Homeland Security and VA are depending on responses to those surveys to determine which and how many facilities should accept employees, agency management said. 

“Our goal is all frontline employees will get vaccinated, but it’s taking longer than we had hoped,” Patricia Bradshaw, TSA’s assistant administrator for human capital, said on the call, a recording of which was played for Government Executive

Last week, then-acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske emailed staff to launch Operation Vaccinate Our Workers (VOW), saying the department would eventually help get all employees who want a COVID-19 vaccine get one. Department components are instructing employees to seek out a vaccine through their local public health authorities, however, leading staffers frustrated with what they see as insufficient advocacy from the top. That is despite an executive order President Biden signed his first week in office creating a task force to, among other things, address vaccine prioritization and access for federal workers.

“The reality is we are still on our own for this,” said one of the TSA senior officials.

Max Weitzner, a TSA spokesperson, said the agency has identified 53,000 employees eligible for early access to the vaccine through VA. 

“Employees are encouraged to get the vaccine as soon as it is made available to them, even in cases where it is offered outside of the DHS, TSA, and/or [Veterans Health Administration] offerings,” Weitzner said. “Such instances might occur in jurisdictions where it becomes available through state and local facilities.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees will also be eligible for early vaccine access through VA, according to Danielle Bennett, an agency spokesperson. She declined to offer details on how the process will play out. On a separate track, ICE is also “working with state and local health departments,” she said, to ensure the agency’s detained population has access to vaccines. It has provided details to those jurisdictions on how many individuals are in its custody and where they are housed. 

That process has irked some members of Congress, who said U.S. citizens and DHS employees should always take priority for vaccinations over detainees. Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday that ICE, TSA, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Protective Service and Secret Service employees, among others, should be in line for vaccines ahead of detainees in DHS custody. 

“A scenario where individuals in DHS custody are prioritized for vaccination over our frontline federal law enforcement tasked with securing our border and enforcing immigration laws, as well as other frontline DHS personnel and American citizens, would likely prove … shocking and inequitable to the American people,” Katko wrote. 

He asked for details on the department’s prioritization plan, VA partnership and role in vaccinating foreign nationals. DHS did not respond to a request for comment, but Bennett said that while ICE has advocated for its detainees, states are largely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to determine when to vaccinate them. CDC has encouraged jurisdictions to vaccinate staff at correctional facilities at the same time as the detained population “because of their shared increased risk of disease.” To date, more than 9,000 ICE detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died from related symptoms. 

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union that represents CBP officers, blamed DHS for not taking early steps to ensure frontline employees would quickly receive vaccines. While he said CBP personnel should have had immediate access to the vaccine, he called the partnership with VA "a step in the right direction" with efforts expected to grow in the coming weeks. 

"No employee should have to travel more than 50 miles in order to receive a vaccine from a VA facility," Reardon said. "To that end, NTEU will work with leaders at CBP and DHS to help accelerate vaccine distribution to employees in all 328 ports, including to those who work in especially remote areas of the country." He added the CBP workforce, which has seen more than 6,600 COVID-19 cases and 24 related deaths, has lost too many to the pandemic and would welcome "a more aggressive and organized vaccination program from DHS." 

Nate Peters, a CBP spokesperson, said 80% of the agency’s workforce would be eligible to receive a vaccine in Phase 1A or 1B of distribution. In addition to VA, CBP is working with local jurisdictions to arrange for employees to receive inoculations.

“CBP will continue to prioritize the well-being of our workforce during this evolving situation and to identify opportunities to expedite the delivery of vaccines,” Peters said. He added individuals in CBP custody will not receive vaccines through the agency due to the short timeframe before they are transferred.

Randy Noller, a VA spokesperson, said the partnership with DHS will last until the COVID-19 vaccines become “widely available to the public.” VA is responsible for scheduling appointments with eligible employees who have said they are interested in being inoculated. Those eligibility determinations have caused confusion and logistical hurdles, however, including the geographic barriers the Biden administration is imposing. At TSA, for example, employees were originally told they could sign up for a vaccine through VA if they lived within 200 miles of one of the facilities offering it to DHS staff. Headquarters told its leadership this week that figure is now cut to just 50 miles, though the news did not reach all of the rank-and-file in time and some employees drove long distances to receive a dose only to be turned away upon arrival due to ineligibility. Officials also lamented the logistical difficulties in getting their employees to vaccination sites, one carload at a time. 

“They’re now hindering the process,” one TSA official said of DHS management. “This thing has been mismanaged from the start.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.