OIG finds quick action but minimal guidance on DHS workforce vaccination initiative

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) COVID-19 Vaccination Initiative quickly identified staff in priority vaccination groups but provided minimal guidance for components, says a new report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) a pandemic due to the rapid spread and severity of the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collaborated with other federal agencies to develop and implement a national vaccination program. This established recommendations to determine population groups for initial COVID-19 vaccination distribution. Recommendations included placing healthcare workers in the immunization priority 1a group and placing essential non-health, frontline workers, such as those in law enforcement and national security roles, in priority 1b group.

DHS Headquarters and some of its components employ first-aid healthcare professionals and essential front-line workers, including those responsible for law enforcement and national security missions. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Health Services and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Health Services Corps employ health care professionals such as nurses and doctors, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the United States Secret Service employ essential frontline personnel. law enforcement officials such as Border Patrol agents and special agents.

Through its Emergency Use Authorization (USA), the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first COVID-19 vaccine on December 11, 2020. Prior to the US, DHS anticipated the need to coordinate vaccinations for some employees . To prepare to vaccinate these employees against COVID-19, DHS asked its constituents to use CDC recommendations to determine which employees to place in priority groups 1a and 1b. DHS has not directly received an allocation of vaccine stock to its employees. DHS has partnered with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which has an established health infrastructure, to make the vaccine available to DHS staff in priority groups 1a and 1b.

The OIG found that DHS moved quickly to identify staff in priority vaccination groups, but did not rely on its existing policies and provided minimal guidance to components, resulting in inconsistent responses across the Department as to what types of staff were considered eligible. DHS expects components to use their discretion to determine employee eligibility because they better understand their unique missions and needs. As a result, component responses varied in terms of the job series considered eligible for priority group placement. During its review, the OIG heard from an employee of the vaccination initiative who stated that there were too many employees in the priority groups and noted that it was because no one at DHS wanted to say no to including employees.

According to the OIG, DHS only partially committed personnel resources and delayed the establishment of a full-time comprehensive task force to manage the effort. Between October and December 2020, DHS staff vaccination efforts relied primarily on DHS Headquarters and Office of Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction staff. Realizing the need to accelerate the vaccination program, DHS engaged FEMA to recruit and activate a full-time staff to ensure the success of subsequent vaccination efforts. On January 25, 2021, then acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske introduced a new vaccination task force, Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (VOW). The Operation VOW team told the OIG that the vaccine initiative was a dynamic situation, with one noting that “there didn’t seem to be a plan” and stating that “DHS was flying the plane and building it at the same time.” While the pandemic has obviously been a dynamic situation, the OIG says DHS can avoid delays in the future by developing emergency response protocols, including guidelines for establishing and equipping incident response teams.

The watchdog also noted in its report that DHS communications with its employees were inconsistent or unclear, causing confusion among some employees. The OIG found that DHS emails and videos contained misleading statements about which employees would receive vaccines.

One example that highlights the confusing communication was a February 2021 email thread between a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) representative and a Veterans Affairs (VA) point of contact describing the TSA’s uncertainty about an upcoming vaccination event. . DHS has provided the date, times, and instructions for an upcoming vaccination event at a local VA facility, but only to a subset of qualified TSA personnel in that area. A TSA representative discovered the error, realizing that some qualified employees had not received the notification. The TSA representative asked the VA point of contact, who noted that she had already received and answered several questions regarding this same issue. The TSA representative confirmed that the VA site representative had, in fact, contacted all names on the list provided to the VA by DHS, but did not determine why some qualified employees were not notified of the event by DHS.

The OIG admitted that some communication issues can be expected in such a dynamic situation, but said DHS should consider dedicating the necessary resources to ensure consistent and accurate communications with employees and partners in the future.

Qualified employees told the OIG that they had problems recording and scheduling vaccine appointments through the ServiceNow system. On several occasions, users have informed staff about issues such as missing link or broken links to access the site to opt-in to receive a vaccine. Of the 166,145 employees in priority groups 1a and 1b, 96,367 (58%) chose ServiceNow to receive the vaccine.

Operation VOW set a goal of making the first dose of vaccine easier for 80% of eligible employees by May 1, 2021, but only about 29% reported having received the first dose at a VA medical center by that date. The OIG said challenges in collecting data from employees and in getting the data accurate once they obtained the information have complicated DHS vaccination efforts. After tasking the components with collecting data to report the total number of vaccines needed by the VHA to administer to eligible DHS employees, it was determined in multiple instances that the components submitted data with missing or erroneous information, resulting in scheduling delays in ServiceNow. The Operation VOW team described the data provided by the components as riddled with errors, such as missing information and incorrect email addresses. A TSA employee described manually searching over 600 missing email addresses to ensure the TSA sent data as complete and accurate as possible. The OIG said it is unlikely that other components have taken the same steps as the TSA to ensure personal data is complete and accurate. The watchdog wants DHS to consider, design and implement a methodology to conduct oversight of employee data.

The OIG report also includes a recommendation that DHS designate, direct, and oversee component representatives to maintain essential employee lists. DHS said that it currently has a policy in place that addresses the intent of the recommendation and that the DHS Director of Human Capital will consider whether additional guidance is needed based on further analysis of the OIG report’s findings.

Read the full report on the OIG

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