The Homeland Security Department is facing increasing pressure over its efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, as employees say management is slowing the process and some lawmakers are taking issue with its prioritization plan.
DHS and the Veterans Affairs Department on Jan. 6 began a partnership to get frontline personnel vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, but that has so far yielded just 900 inoculations of Homeland Security employees out of its 230,000-person workforce. VA is accepting DHS employees for vaccinations at 21 facilities around the country, but the 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.
The Trump and Biden administrations both have struggled to explain that process to employees. At the Transportation Security Administration, for example, headquarters officials told regional leaders this week that 60% of staff had not responded to an email asking them to indicate if they were interested in receiving a vaccine. Many employees thought the email was a phishing test and deleted it, according to two senior TSA officials, and management has yet to make an effort to reach back out to its workforce. Homeland Security and VA are depending on responses to those surveys to determine which and how many facilities should accept employees, agency management said.
“Our goal is all frontline employees will get vaccinated, but it’s taking longer than we had hoped,” Patricia Bradshaw, TSA’s assistant administrator for human capital, said on the call, a recording of which was played for Government Executive.
Last week, then-acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske emailed staff to launch Operation Vaccinate Our Workers (VOW), saying the department would eventually help get all employees who want a COVID-19 vaccine get one. Department components are instructing employees to seek out a vaccine through their local public health authorities, however, leading staffers frustrated with what they see as insufficient advocacy from the top. That is despite an executive order President Biden signed his first week in office creating a task force to, among other things, address vaccine prioritization and access for federal workers.
“The reality is we are still on our own for this,” said one of the TSA senior officials.
Max Weitzner, a TSA spokesperson, said the agency has identified 53,000 employees eligible for early access to the vaccine through VA.
“Employees are encouraged to get the vaccine as soon as it is made available to them, even in cases where it is offered outside of the DHS, TSA, and/or [Veterans Health Administration] offerings,” Weitzner said. “Such instances might occur in jurisdictions where it becomes available through state and local facilities.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees will also be eligible for early vaccine access through VA, according to Danielle Bennett, an agency spokesperson. She declined to offer details on how the process will play out. On a separate track, ICE is also “working with state and local health departments,” she said, to ensure the agency’s detained population has access to vaccines. It has provided details to those jurisdictions on how many individuals are in its custody and where they are housed.
That process has irked some members of Congress, who said U.S. citizens and DHS employees should always take priority for vaccinations over detainees. Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday that ICE, TSA, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Protective Service and Secret Service employees, among others, should be in line for vaccines ahead of detainees in DHS custody.
“A scenario where individuals in DHS custody are prioritized for vaccination over our frontline federal law enforcement tasked with securing our border and enforcing immigration laws, as well as other frontline DHS personnel and American citizens, would likely prove … shocking and inequitable to the American people,” Katko wrote.
He asked for details on the department’s prioritization plan, VA partnership and role in vaccinating foreign nationals. DHS did not respond to a request for comment, but Bennett said that while ICE has advocated for its detainees, states are largely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to determine when to vaccinate them. CDC has encouraged jurisdictions to vaccinate staff at correctional facilities at the same time as the detained population “because of their shared increased risk of disease.” To date, more than 9,000 ICE detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died from related symptoms.
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union that represents CBP officers, blamed DHS for not taking early steps to ensure frontline employees would quickly receive vaccines. While he said CBP personnel should have had immediate access to the vaccine, he called the partnership with VA “a step in the right direction” with efforts expected to grow in the coming weeks.
“No employee should have to travel more than 50 miles in order to receive a vaccine from a VA facility,” Reardon said. “To that end, NTEU will work with leaders at CBP and DHS to help accelerate vaccine distribution to employees in all 328 ports, including to those who work in especially remote areas of the country.” He added the CBP workforce, which has seen more than 6,600 COVID-19 cases and 24 related deaths, has lost too many to the pandemic and would welcome “a more aggressive and organized vaccination program from DHS.”
Nate Peters, a CBP spokesperson, said 80% of the agency’s workforce would be eligible to receive a vaccine in Phase 1A or 1B of distribution. In addition to VA, CBP is working with local jurisdictions to arrange for employees to receive inoculations.
“CBP will continue to prioritize the well-being of our workforce during this evolving situation and to identify opportunities to expedite the delivery of vaccines,” Peters said. He added individuals in CBP custody will not receive vaccines through the agency due to the short timeframe before they are transferred.
Randy Noller, a VA spokesperson, said the partnership with DHS will last until the COVID-19 vaccines become “widely available to the public.” VA is responsible for scheduling appointments with eligible employees who have said they are interested in being inoculated. Those eligibility determinations have caused confusion and logistical hurdles, however, including the geographic barriers the Biden administration is imposing. At TSA, for example, employees were originally told they could sign up for a vaccine through VA if they lived within 200 miles of one of the facilities offering it to DHS staff. Headquarters told its leadership this week that figure is now cut to just 50 miles, though the news did not reach all of the rank-and-file in time and some employees drove long distances to receive a dose only to be turned away upon arrival due to ineligibility. Officials also lamented the logistical difficulties in getting their employees to vaccination sites, one carload at a time.
“They’re now hindering the process,” one TSA official said of DHS management. “This thing has been mismanaged from the start.”