‘Sheer Madness:’ Agencies scramble to implement new policies for COVID-positive employees
Federal agencies are struggling to keep pace with the evolution of the Biden administration’s guidelines on how to quarantine, isolate and test employees for COVID-19 as concerns grow about the impact that the skyrocketing number of cases may have on government operations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued guidelines asking Americans who test positive for the disease to self-isolate for five days only if their symptoms subside. The instruction sparked controversy and administration officials suggested they could amend it further. The White House, through its Safer Federal Workforce, has yet to release updated guidance on how agencies should tailor the policy to their plans, although the Office of Management and of the budget sent an email to agency management at the end of December summarizing the CDC’s changes. . The OMB has promised more guidance on how agencies should incorporate the CDC’s recommendations into their planning, but said that in the meantime, they “shouldn’t be long” in implementing the updates.
The Department of Veterans Affairs released updated guidelines on December 30, bringing them in line with the CDC. Employees who test positive must stay home for five days, the department said in a memorandum from its director of human capital obtained by Government executive, but can return to work with a mask after five days if asymptomatic. Specifically, the guidelines instructed employees to stay home if they have a fever. The settings applied to all employees, regardless of their immunization status.
Unvaccinated employees – or staff members who were vaccinated more than six months ago and have not received a booster – should self-quarantine for five days if they are exposed to someone with COVID. 19, said VA, and wear a mask after that. Vaccinated workers should wear a mask and be tested, if possible, but do not need to stay home due to exposure. The Biden administration has yet to implement a vaccine recall mandate for the federal workforce, but the OMB recently told agencies it could collect information on the recall status “at his discretion “.
VA noted that Veterans Health Administration employees should strictly follow CDC guidelines, which recommend seven days of sick leave for staff who test positive for COVID-19, have only mild or moderate symptoms, and are not severely immunocompromised. Employees can return earlier “in the event of a staff shortage”. Healthcare workers are not instructed to self-quarantine if exposed to someone infected with the virus.
A VA employee said local facilities have discretion over how much time off to give to employees forced into self-isolation. VA policy requires employees to use sick leave if they are “unfit,” but allows paid “weather and safety days” for employees forced into quarantine. Employees should ask to telecommute, if that is an option for their job. Weather and safety days are not available for employees who cannot work because they have to take care of a loved one or are immunocompromised.
“VA continues to promulgate refined workforce guidelines to reflect the latest guidelines from the CDC and experts in public and occupational health,” said Randy Noller, a spokesperson for VA. The ministry is in the process of updating its guidelines and it is expected to release new policies later this week.
Another Indianapolis-based VA employee said her facility was not yet pressuring employees to return from the illness due to a staff shortage, but said nurses were being asked to do so. tasks different from normal. The facility has attracted more than a dozen ambulatory nurses to inpatient care, while others are invited to provide transportation for veterans. A Denver-based VA nurse said Government executive her facility is already understaffed due to the nurses’ positive test. The Indianapolis employee said he was preparing for things to get worse in the days to come as they have already stretched to keep all areas operational with “much weaker” capabilities.
“It’s expected to work a tough dance over the next two weeks,” the staff member said.
Like the rest of the nation’s healthcare system, VA has seen its number of COVID-19 cases skyrocket in recent weeks as the Omicron variant continued to spread. There are currently over 7,500 employees with active cases.
At the Transportation Security Administration, R. Carter Langston, a spokesperson, said the agency “anticipates[ing] adequate personnel ”for passenger screening volumes at airports. A senior TSA official, however, said long-standing recruitment difficulties exacerbated the shortages. So far, the official said, the TSA is simply asking managers to follow the instructions from the Office of Personnel Management and CDC for quarantine protocols.
On December 29, Customs and Border Protection sent out new guidelines, obtained by Government executive, directing vaccinated employees not to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19 and to self-isolate for just five days after testing positive. The next day, however, CBP repealed those guidelines “pending further and updated guidance from the CDC.” The agency ordered management to revert to the policies in place by the 29th.
“Our people are our most valuable resource, and we will continue to do our utmost as the latest variant of COVID Omicron impacts the United States,” CBP said in its since-rescinded guidelines.
The agency has started assigning its employees to other jobs, such as port facilities sending personnel to border patrol or to airports, where staff are understaffed. A Californian executive said Government executive his office had sent “as many as we can spare”, adding that it was happening “all over the country”. Earlier in December, CBP issued new guidelines requiring all staff in CBP’s field operations office to wear masks in all agency workplaces.
The published and quickly rescinded quarantine guidelines were “typical of perpetual confusion,” the CBP executive said, adding that some managers are still following them. “Madness, pure madness.”