With Help From Other Agencies, Homeland Security Ramps Up Employee Vaccinations

Customs and Border Protection Officer Perez checks in CBP Officer Flores at a Laredo, Texas, vaccination event.

Customs and Border Protection Officer Perez checks in CBP Officer Flores at a Laredo, Texas, vaccination event. Homeland Security Department

Department still has a long way to go to meet its vaccination goals.

The Homeland Security Department said it has significantly ramped up its workforce vaccination efforts, announcing this week it has helped 58,000 employees receive inoculations. 

The initiative, which DHS has dubbed Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (VOW), is moving faster after getting off to a slow start. The department announced on Jan. 13 it had partnered with the Veterans Affairs Department to vaccinate its employees, though by early February that had led to just 900 workers getting a shot. 

When the Trump administration first launched the partnership, DHS employees could go to just eight VA facilities to receive a vaccine. By early February that had expanded to 21 sites and today there are now 163 VA facilities accepting DHS employees. DHS 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.

As it has since taking office, the Biden team said that it had stepped up the pace of vaccine delivery as compared to the previous administration. 

“There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our workforce,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “I am proud of the incredible progress that Operation VOW has made in just two months, thanks to the dedication of the DHS and VHA personnel leading this effort.”

Still, the department has a long way to go to meet its goals. DHS leadership has said that it would help all department personnel who want a vaccine get one. Despite the uptick in inoculations, the department's vaccinated employees represent just one-quarter of its 230,000-person workforce. That lags behind the United States as a whole, where about one-third of the population—and 40% of the adult population—has received at least one dose. 

Department management has instructed employees throughout the process to try to get the vaccine through all avenues, inside or outside its internal efforts. A similar message has gone out to employees across government, even those at agencies where employees have been told they have been identified as essential and eligible for prioritized access. DHS employees have also said the department’s messaging for the sign up process has been confusing. The department was not one of the five federal agencies to receive its own allotment of vaccine doses to inoculate its workforce, though VA is getting a separate disbursement specifically for DHS personnel. 

The Biden administration, however, is confident the process will continue to accelerate. In recent weeks, DHS began holding mass vaccination events in coordination with VA for its employees. Those have taken place at the Southwest border, in airports and at VA facilities. The events were each primarily targeted at multiple DHS components. A March 26 event at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center location in Artesia, New Mexico, for example, helped vaccinate more than 200 Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection and FLETC staff. Terry Todd, the FLETC site director, called the event “a game changer.” 

An earlier event at a CBP processing center in Texas enabled every employee stationed there who wanted a shot to get one, according to Constance Johnson-Cage, who is leading Operation VOW’s mass vaccination sites. DHS said it will continue to hold such events across the country in the coming weeks. The department backed away from its earlier pledge to vaccinate its entire workforce, with a spokesperson saying that employees outside its 1A and 1B phases would be "eligible to register for vaccination in the very near future" along with all U.S. adults. The employees currently receiving the vaccine through VA are health care workers or frontline, mission-critical staff. 

Ahead of President Biden announcing that all Americans should be eligible for a vaccine appointment by April 19 at the latest, his administration opened a vaccination site for Washington-area federal workers in Gaithersburg, Maryland. VA has fully vaccinated a total of nearly 2 million people, including about 268,000 of its own employees. 

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