‘Sheer Madness:’ Agencies Scramble to Implement New Policies for COVID-Positive Employees

Two nurses assess the vital signs of a COVID-19 patient using a ventilator on the Intensive Care Unit floor at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on April 21, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Two nurses assess the vital signs of a COVID-19 patient using a ventilator on the Intensive Care Unit floor at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on April 21, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

With staffing shortages arriving or anticipated, agencies look to adapt their quarantine and isolation guidelines.

Federal agencies are struggling to keep pace with evolving guidance from the Biden administration on how to quarantine, isolate and test employees for COVID-19 as concerns rise about the impact skyrocketing caseloads may have on government operations. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued guidance instructing Americans who test positive for the disease to isolate for just five days if their symptoms subside. The instruction was met with controversy and administration officials have suggested they may still tweak it. The White House, through its Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, has yet to issue updated guidance for how agencies should adapt the policy into their plans, though the Office of Management and Budget did send out an email to agency leadership in late December summarizing CDC's changes. OMB promised more guidance on how agencies should incorporate CDC's recommendations into their planning, but said meanwhile they "should not delay" in implementing the updates.

The Veterans Affairs Department put out updated guidance on Dec. 30, bringing it in line with the CDC. Employees who test positive should stay home for five days, the department said in a memorandum from its chief human capital officer that was obtained by Government Executive, but can return to work with a mask after five days if they are asymptomatic. Specifically, the guidance instructed employees to remain home if they have a fever. The parameters applied to all employees, regardless of vaccination status. 

Unvaccinated employees—or staff who were vaccinated more than six months ago and have not received a booster shot—should quarantine for five days if they are exposed to someone with COVID-19, VA said, and wear a mask after that. Vaccinated workers should wear a mask and get a test, if possible, but do not need to stay home due to an exposure. The Biden administration has yet to implement a vaccine booster mandate for the federal workforce, but OMB recently told agencies they can collect booster status information "at their discretion." 

VA noted that Veterans Health Administration employees should strictly follow CDC guidelines, which recommend seven days away from work for staff who test positive for COVID-19, have only mild or moderate symptoms and are not severely immunocompromised. Employees can go back sooner “if there are staffing shortages.” Health care personnel are not instructed to quarantine if they are exposed to someone with the virus. 

One VA employee said local facilities are being given discretion with how much leave to give employees forced to isolate. VA policy requires employees to use sick leave if they are “incapacitated,” but allows for paid “weather and safety leave” for employees forced to quarantine. Employees should ask to telework, if that is an option for their job. Weather and safety leave is not available to employees who cannot work because they need to care for a loved one or are immunocompromised. 

“VA continues to promulgate refined guidance to the workforce to reflect the latest guidance from CDC and public and occupational health experts,” said Randy Noller, a VA spokesman. The department is in the process of updating its guidance and it is expected to issue new policies later this week. 

Another VA employee, based in Indianapolis, said her facility is not yet pressuring employees to rush back from illness due to staffing shortages, but said nurses are being asked to perform different duties than normal. The facility has pulled more than a dozen outpatient nurses into inpatient care, while others are being asked to provide transportation for veterans. A Denver-based VA nurse told Government Executive her facility is already short staffed due to nurses testing positive. The Indianapolis employee said they are gearing up for things to get worse in the days ahead, as they have already stretched themselves thin to keep all areas operational with “much lower” capacities. 

“Working a difficult dance in the upcoming two weeks is anticipated,” the staffer said.  

Like the rest of the nation’s health care system, VA has seen its COVID-19 caseload skyrocket in recent weeks as the Omicron variant has continued to spread. There are currently more than 7,500 employees with active cases. 

At the Transportation Security Administration, R. Carter Langston, a spokesman, said the agency is “anticipat[ing] adequate staff” for passenger screening volumes at airports. One TSA senior official, however, said longstanding hiring difficulties are exacerbating shortfalls. So far, the official said, TSA is simply directing managers to follow guidance from the Office of Personnel Management and CDC for quarantining protocols. 

Customs and Border Protection on Dec. 29 sent out new guidance, obtained by Government Executive, directing vaccinated employees not to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure and to isolate for just five days after testing positive. The following day, however, CBP rescinded that guidance “pending new and updated guidance from CDC.” The agency directed management to return to the policies in place prior to the 29th.

“Our personnel are our most valuable resource, and we will continue to do all we can as the latest COVID Omicron variant impacts the U.S.,” CBP said in its since rescinded guidance. 

The agency has taken to detailing its employees to other jobs—such as seaport facilities sending personnel to Border Patrol or airports—where staffing is short. One California-based executive told Government Executive her office had sent out “as many as we can spare,” adding that has been happening “all over the country.” Earlier in December, CBP issued new guidance requiring all CBP Office of Field Operations staff to wear masks at all agency workplaces. 

The issued and quickly rescinded quarantine guidance was “typical of the perpetual confusion,” the CBP executive said, adding some managers were still enforcing it. “Madness, sheer madness.” 

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