Some Agencies Tell Employees They Should Be Prioritized for COVID-19 Vaccine, But Offer Little Other Help

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Federal agencies and states appear to disagree on who is responsible for vaccinating frontline federal workers.

Several federal agencies have reached out to their workforces to notify them of their eligibility for prioritized COVID-19 vaccine access, but have offered little in the way of detail for how to actually secure a dose. 

Employees have raised concerns that their agencies are not adequately advocating for them, though officials have said they have taken appropriate steps to notify state and local public health departments of the essential nature of their frontline workforces. Few federal agencies have received direct distributions of the vaccine for internal use and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is largely allowing states to make their own determinations on the order of inoculations. 

That has left agencies in an awkward position, as they communicate to frontline staff that they have pushed states to include the workers in Phase 1B of their distribution plans without significant means to actually influence that decision making. Employees said they felt as if their agencies left them to fend for themselves rather than fighting to ensure vaccine availability. 

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, a contingent of employees received an email last month explaining the agency “may share” their names with state and local partners “to assist in vaccine distribution.” 

“You are receiving this message because you have been tentatively identified by your line or staff office as a candidate for priority vaccination due to the nature of your on-site mission-essential work,” the agency stated. 

While the message said officials would follow up with additional details, one employee said there has been no further communication on the subject. NOAA said it identified “a list of candidates” to protect its workforce and ensure continuity of its mission, but the employee said the agency’s approach has left him and his colleagues vulnerable. If an outbreak occurred among meteorologists in NOAA’s National Weather Service, the employee noted, it would have devastating effects on the country. NOAA did not respond to a request for additional details on vaccination efforts.

The Agriculture Department has also identified employees for prioritized vaccine distribution, including those at the Food Safety and Inspection Service. USDA officials sent a letter to state health departments last month, imploring them to consider the department's frontline workers for early access to doses and offering to provide details on personnel as necessary. 

“We appreciate your consideration of the USDA essential workers outlined above who are critical in agriculture, food safety, food production and supply and protecting the health, welfare and safety of the public,” Paul Kiecker, then FSIS director, wrote in the letter. “As you develop your individual state vaccination plans, please include the essential USDA employees in Phase 1B.”

While USDA looks for ways for its employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, it is deploying its staff throughout the country to help other Americans get their doses. It has sent 127 staffers to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency stand up and operate vaccination centers, including both Forest Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service workers. The Forest Service has sustained more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases among its workforce and has proposed that nearly 18,000 of its employees be eligible for early inoculation. Leadership recently told employees it did not “have all the answers”—and emphasized that states would make the final call—but there was a “general recognition” of the essential nature of their work.   

USDA also identified Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service employees for prioritized vaccine distribution, but, as with FSIS and the Forest Service, has not actually helped to deliver any vaccines to employees. USDA did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. President Biden in his first days in office created a task force to, among other things, develop policies to prioritize federal employees for vaccinations. The task force has yet to disclose any of its proposals.

The Health and Human Services Department and Defense Department have also deployed personnel to assist FEMA in operating federally run vaccine centers. The General Services Administration has led the efforts to secure the physical spaces out of which those centers will run. Defense, along with the departments of State and Veterans Affairs, the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Prisons, has received a direct distribution from CDC to vaccinate its own employees and other individuals. 

The U.S. Postal Service has also reached out to employees, alerting them that they should be eligible for vaccine doses once their states get to the Phase 1B, essential worker stage. In a message to workers last month, USPS encouraged its staff to seek the vaccine by any means available. They cautioned their employees against waiting to get a shot through their workplace. Still, behind the scenes postal management is working with states and other jurisdictions receiving vaccine distributions to set up mass vaccination events at their large plants. To date, however, the agency has announced no such plans and employees have voiced frustrations with the lack of communication and sense that they have been left to their own devices. A USPS spokesman recently told Government Executive it was working toward a "standardized priority opportunity" for its workers in conjunction with federal, state and local stakeholders.

Some states, meanwhile, are taking proactive steps aimed at vaccinating federal employees in their states, though they are pointing their fingers back in the opposite direction. Govs. Ralph Northam, D-Va., and Larry Hogan, R-Md., as well as Mayor Muriel Bowser, D-D.C., wrote a joint letter to HHS and FEMA asking for direct vaccine distributions for 30,000 frontline feds in their jurisdictions. The workers are “the direct and sole responsibility” of the government and the Biden administration should therefore ensure they are vaccinated, the letter said. The governors and mayor called for a distribution and vaccination site specifically for those workers, saying they did not have the sources to handle the efforts on their own. They also called for improved communications to the federal workforce about vaccination efforts.

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