The federal agency that serves as an international multimedia broadcaster for the U.S. informed all employees of its first known coronavirus case about an hour after it knew.
But the agency responsible for regulating civil aviation in the U.S. didn’t immediately tell technical operations employees about a positive test result at a Las Vegas airport, allowing them to continue working in a potentially infected area. Those employees, including technicians who had just completed their shifts, found out after a tower was evacuated.
Dozens of employees who work across the nation’s federal agencies have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, adding to the surging count of well over 10,000 confirmed cases in the United States. Experts expect the number of cases to continue rising as more tests are made available — and the federal government’s millions of employees are just as exposed as the American public at large. Meanwhile, hundreds, if not thousands, of other government employees have quarantined themselves either out of precaution or because they are exhibiting symptoms of the disease.
But if the Trump administration has a unified policy on how it is handling the grim march of the virus within its own ranks, it isn’t sharing it.
Just as cities and states across the country have developed their own responses to the outbreak — from closing schools, bars, restaurants, movie theaters and a mix of other venues to encouraging curfews and issuing shelter-in-place orders — agencies across the federal government are crafting their own policies on how to disclose cases of coronavirus.
The result is a confusing jumble of messages that has angered federal workers and those who represent them.
“We’ve been getting a lot of mixed information. The president has put out different information, then OMB puts out guidance, and then the DOT secretary puts out guidance and then the FAA administrator puts out guidance,” said Mike Perrone, national president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, AFL-CIO, a union that sounded the alarm on the FAA’s lack of transparency with the Las Vegas worker who was diagnosed with the virus.
“Nobody said nothing for how many hours? And they knew about it?” Perrone added. “I’m frustrated — very frustrated — because literally people are gonna get sick and people could potentially die or spread it to their families.”
There are no clear directions for reporting disclosures of coronavirus throughout the federal government, leaving each individual agency to determine how to share information about known cases — who gets to know, how soon they should be informed and how often they require updates.
The spectrum ranges from severe undersharing to daily reports. A spokesperson for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told POLITICO the agency provides updates to staff each day, including when leadership was alerted to an employee who exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus at its headquarters.
“Staff were alerted over the weekend through email, the agency’s alert system and a posting to the EEOC website,” said Kimberly Smith-Brown, an EEOC spokeswoman.
Voice of America reported its first case to employees on Thursday roughly an hour after the agency itself was notified, following through on its commitment to “give you information as soon as possible.” VOA Director Amanda Bennett pledged to “keep you informed if further cases are diagnosed in the coming weeks.”
As anxiety mounts among their staff, agencies have been encouraged to “maximize” teleworking in recent days, in line with recent guidance from the Office of Personnel Management. That guidance, however, is a recommendation — not a rule. It encourages employees to refer to their specific agencies “for communications and guidance on telework or leave status.”
But some agencies have gone a step further.
The Department of Transportation, after confirming its first case on Thursday morning, told employees via email that “effective immediately and until further notice, we are mandating that all employees not report to duty at the DOT headquarters unless specifically notified by your manager.”
Similarly, the Commerce Department mandated that all employees in the Herbert C. Hoover building begin teleworking until Monday after informing employees of its first case Wednesday night. And the Department of Agriculture told employees who worked in close proximity to an employee who tested positive Sunday that they should begin teleworking immediately.
Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette emailed staff Wednesday about a DOE employee at its Forrestal headquarters building who was diagnosed with coronavirus.
The Education Department hasn’t had any cases, but a spokesperson said the department would “send a note to employees in the affected area” if one were diagnosed with the virus.
The Department of Health and Human Services has asked all of its operating and staff divisions in the National Capital Region to “leverage maximum telework flexibilities,” a spokesperson said Thursday. Two HHS agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health, confirmed their first case this week.
The Food and Drug Administration has “a few” confirmed cases, according to FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Caccomo, who said she wasn’t able to share a more specific number.
On Friday evening, Vice President Mike Pence’s office announced that a staffer had tested positive, though a spokeswoman said that neither Pence nor President Donald Trump had had close contact with the person. Pence has not been tested for the virus, and his office said there were no plans to do so at this time.
Citing the growing number of reports of federal employees who have continued to go to work and contract the virus, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland called on Trump to do more.
“This is an urgent situation,” Van Hollen said in a clip posted to Twitter on Thursday. “Mr. President, you’ve got to issue an executive order to all agencies to maximize telework, and do it now.”
Administration officials counter that guidance, rather than executive orders, are the nimblest approach to the evolving threat of the virus and that agency leaders should ultimately determine what’s best for them and their employees.
Drafting an executive order is a time-consuming process that may not be able to keep up with the pace of the outbreak, they note, and sending all government employees home could harm Americans: food shortages due to lack of inspections, for instance, and no air traffic controllers to direct aircraft.
“By acting early and decisively, President Trump has ensured the government continues to be open and essential services are provided to the American public, including our most vulnerable,” an Office of Management and Budget spokesperson said in a statement. “Now is not the time to be distracted by those who use business-as-usual Washington tactics to distract from the urgent measures which all Americans are taking to respond in this emergency.”
The White House issued guidelines this week recommending Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people and work from home as much as possible. To slow the spread of the virus, it also encouraged sick Americans, older people and those with underlying conditions to stay home.
Inside the White House itself, staffers have started conducting temperature checks of anyone who may come in close contact with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, including reporters and anyone going in and out of the Oval Office. They also have reduced the number of reporters sitting in the rows of chairs in the briefing room, requiring an open seat between every reporter.
Outgoing chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and incoming chief of staff Mark Meadows both self-quarantined, and press secretary Stephanie Grisham has been working from home. Trump tested negative for the virus, as did his daughter Ivanka, and Pence has told reporters that he hasn’t been tested.
Some agencies, like the State Department, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security, have unique considerations that make mitigating the spread of the virus especially challenging.
State has more than 75,000 employees, with more than 9,000 Foreign Service and Civil Service officers scattered overseas. DHS employs more than 240,000 workers, many of whom interact with people daily for work, such as employees with Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration. And the Department of Defense has roughly 26,000 employees inside its Pentagon headquarters in Virginia, but employs nearly 3 million service members and civilians worldwide, with a presence in more than 160 countries and nearly 5,000 defense sites.
There is growing frustration inside the State Department about the limited internal communications on the impact of the virus on its workforce. The department’s employees are flung across the world, including in many countries with poor health infrastructure. But even U.S. diplomats and other staffers based in Washington are worried about their exposure.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Tuesday that only a “handful” of employees have tested positive. “You can count ‘em on one hand,” Pompeo said.
A State Department official familiar with the issue, however, said there are around 50 suspected coronavirus cases of people affiliated with the State Department worldwide, including some two dozen in the U.S. Several cases have been confirmed positive, the official said.
At least one State Department employee working in Washington has also tested positive, according to a notice from the Bureau of Consular Affairs obtained by POLITICO. Overall, the information available on State Department cases has come through patchwork messaging involving various embassies, bureaus and other divisions with no centralized, regular updates about the department as a whole.
The department has suspended routine visa services in most countries due to the outbreak, a State Department spokesperson said, a move that limits the exposure of diplomats to potential carriers.
But there’s no uniform guidance across embassies on when, for instance, staffers should cancel meetings or what other social distancing measures they should take, a State Department staffer monitoring the situation said, adding to confusion in the ranks.
On Thursday, the U.S. Agency for International Development confirmed its first known case of an employee contracting the virus. The employee is affiliated with a USAID mission in sub-Saharan Africa, according to agency administrator Mark Green.
In an email to USAID employees, Green, who is leaving his post soon, promised that the agency “will continue to provide you with timely updates that include all available information and relevant guidance.”
Nearly 500 DHS employees were quarantined as of Wednesday, and at least 13 were either confirmed of having coronavirus or presumed positive, according to documentation reviewed by POLITICO. A DHS spokesperson, however, wouldn’t comment on the documentation on the record.
At the Pentagon, officials are relying on individual offices to assess themselves and their colleagues for any signs of the virus. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday morning that 67 service members have tested positive, though the Pentagon later reported its first two cases inside the building, according to the Air Force. DOD has issued guidance encouraging employees to stay home if they or someone they work with show symptoms.
“This really starts with the individual, and I think it is not about policy at this point,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Chiefs surgeon, who personally sent home two staffers who may have been sick. “It’s about a shared commitment to minimize the impact of this outbreak, and each of us individually has a responsibility.”
Nahal Toosi, Lara Seligman, Myah Ward, Daniel Lippman, Sarah Owermohle, Betsy Woodruff Swan, Rebecca Rainey, Liz Crampton, Nicole Gaudiano, Eric Wolff, Brianna Gurciullo, Tanya Snyder and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.
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