As More Feds Contract Coronavirus, Agencies Scramble to Keep Employees Safe

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies before a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on preparedness for and response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies before a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on preparedness for and response to the coronavirus outbreak. Patrick Semansky/AP

Federal offices also looking to ensure a continuity of operations as outbreak spreads.

As the World Health Organization officially declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, federal agencies were scrambling to protect their employees and ensure continuity of operations.  

Agencies have demonstrated mixed success with those efforts, as at least three Transportation Security Administration screeners, one Defense Department civilian and a U.S. Postal Service clerk have contracted COVID-19, the disease that results from the new coronavirus. Each component of the Trump administration is rushing individual guidance to its workforce—following governmentwide guidance from the Office of Personnel Management over the weekend—and some are readying for the possibility of widespread, mandatory telework.

OPM has advised agencies to establish telework agreements with all employees who can possibly conduct their duties remotely, and several, including NASA, the Air Force, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have conducted day-long “stress tests” to prepare for office closures. Some federal offices have instructed employees to bring their equipment home each day, in case they are told not to come back in. Most agencies have prohibited non-essential travel, with the State Department the latest to join that group on Wednesday. They have also instructed any worker feeling sick to work remotely for at least 14 days. The push for emergency telework comes as many agencies across the Trump administration have sought to slash its usage. 

Still, the moves remain inadequate to many employees and their advocates. The American Federation of Government Employees submitted written testimony to lawmakers on Wednesday asking for better personal protection equipment where relevant, immediate telework authority for anyone eligible, better communication and hazard pay for all employees facing the potential of on-the-job exposure. 

Asked about the possibility for boosted pay for affected workers, Anthony Marucci, an OPM spokesman, said the agency is coordinating with the governmentwide coronavirus task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence and it “will issue guidance as necessary to protect federal employees and ensure the continual operation of the government.” In its earlier guidance, OPM said employees are eligible for a 25% pay bump if they “work in close proximity to” virulent biologicals that “when introduced into the body are likely to cause serious disease or fatality.” Employees are not eligible, however, if “safety precautions have reduced the element of hazard to a less than significant level of risk.” 

Ultimately, the decision to award the inflated salary rests with individual agencies and not OPM. Workers with potential for exposure to the novel coronavirus, as opposed to a known, direct exposure, as well as those who contract COVID-19 outside of official duties, are not eligible for hazard pay. 

TSA screeners, for example, are not eligible for hazard pay as they are only potentially exposed to the virus. On Tuesday morning, the AFGE council that represents the 46,000 officers asked the agency to provide the N95 respirator masks that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously said are most effective at protecting against coronavirus infection. TSA leadership denied the request, however, and late that evening announced three of its screeners in San Jose, California, had tested positive for COVID-19. Now, a couple dozen employees deemed to have had contact with those workers are home on self-quarantine. Multiple medical screeners at Los Angeles International Airport are also now facing quarantines after potential exposure to the virus. 

Hydrick Thomas, president of AFGE’s TSA council, said he reached an agreement with the agency to provide N95 masks, but management failed to deliver. It has made standard surgery masks available to employees at their request, which CDC said this week was an acceptable alternative to the more sophisticated equipment due to supply shortages. Thomas said the masks should be mandatory, likening the situation to the military only providing helmets and vests to soldiers upon request. Overall, he said, agency management has demonstrated a lack of appreciation for the severity of the circumstances. 

“What are we doing here?” Thomas asked. “Are we waiting for the situation to get worse?”

 Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confirmed at a congressional hearing on Wednesday the situation will indeed get significantly worse. While the White House has faced allegations of painting an overly rosy picture, Fauci promised he has “never ever held back what is going on” publicly or to the president and vice president. He quickly dismissed attempts by Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee to praise previous steps Trump took and said the country must instead look forward. 

“We need to do a lot more,” Fauci said. 

The hearing ended abruptly over objections by members of both parties after Fauci and other public health agency leaders said they were recalled to the White House. Fauci applauded CDC’s efforts to conduct “surveillance testing” in six U.S. cities—referring to officials going into communities and proactively testing for COVID-19, rather than waiting for individuals to request testing—and said those efforts would soon expand to more areas. CDC Director Robert Redfield stressed that the development of test kits by the private sector will soon dramatically expand testing capacity throughout the country. 

Chris Currie, director of emergency management and national preparedness at the Government Accountability Office, cautioned that the watchdog agency has for decades raised concerns about the nation’s defense against biological threats. He noted the disparate array of agencies involved during an outbreak can lead to a fragmented response, while a sustained focus on preparation can be difficult due to the infrequency of threats. 

“Coordination just at the federal level is extremely difficult,” Currie said. 

While Trump last week signed into law a measure providing $8.3 billion for coronavirus response, Currie noted getting that money out the door in an effective way throughout government can prove difficult. 

“We still don’t see a good mechanism across agencies to coordinate budgets,” he said. “CDC, DHS, HHS, USDA—they all have separate budgets. They can’t tell each other what to do or how to spend their money.” 

Reuters reported on Wednesday another factor complicating interagency coordination: the White House has demanded that most high-level discussions on response efforts take place in a classified setting, making it difficult for some agency staffers to participate and stay informed. 

In addition to breakdowns in the relationship between CDC and the Food and Drug Administration exacerbating delays in ramping up the distribution of COVID-19 testing kits, the White House appeared to jump the gun last week when it said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was preparing to mobilize 50 teams around the country. A FEMA spokesperson later clarified the agency was only deployed to HHS headquarters to provide analysis. FEMA's Atlanta office, meanwhile, sent all employees home on Wednesday after an employee contracted the virus. 

Trump, who has faced criticism for delivering messages inconsistent with those provided by other administration officials and agency experts, was expected to address the nation Wednesday evening. 

Erich Wagner contributed to this report.

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