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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

OIG Finds Swift Action But Minimal Guidance in DHS Workforce Vaccination Initiative

OIG says DHS may avoid delays in future by developing emergency response protocols including guidelines for establishing and staffing incident response teams.

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) COVID-19 vaccination initiative swiftly identified employees in vaccination priority groups, but provided minimal guidance to components, says a new report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG).

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the 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 set out recommendations for determining population groups for initial COVID-19 vaccination distribution. Recommendations included placing health care personnel in vaccination priority group 1a, and placing non-health care, frontline, essential workers, such as those in law enforcement and national security roles, in priority group 1b. 

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

Through its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first COVID-19 vaccine on December 11, 2020. Prior to the EUA, DHS anticipated the need to coordinate vaccinations for some employees. To prepare for vaccinating these employees against COVID-19, DHS asked its components to use the CDC recommendations to determine which employees to place in priority groups 1a and 1b. DHS did not directly receive an allocation of vaccine inventory for its employees. DHS partnered with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which has an established healthcare infrastructure, to make the vaccine available to DHS personnel in priority groups 1a and 1b.

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

According to OIG, DHS only partially committed staff resources and delayed establishing a comprehensive, full-time task force to manage the effort. Between October and December 2020, DHS employee vaccination efforts relied primarily on DHS headquarters and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office employees. Realizing the need to accelerate the vaccination program, DHS engaged FEMA to recruit and activate a full-time team to ensure success of ensuing vaccination efforts. On January 25, 2021, then-Acting DHS Secretary, David Pekoske, introduced a new vaccination task force, Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (VOW). Operation VOW staff told OIG that the vaccine initiative was a dynamic situation, with one noting “there appeared to be no plan” and stating “DHS was flying the airplane and building it at the same time.” While the pandemic was obviously a dynamic situation, OIG says DHS may avoid delays in future by developing emergency response protocols including guidelines for establishing and staffing incident response teams.

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

One example highlighting confusing communication was a February 2021 email thread between a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) representative and a Veterans Affairs (VA) point of contact describing TSA’s uncertainty about an upcoming vaccination event. DHS provided the date, times, and instructions for an upcoming vaccination event at a local VA facility, but only to a subset of eligible TSA employees in that area. A TSA representative discovered the mistake, realizing some eligible employees had not received the notification. The TSA representative inquired with the VA point of contact who noted she had previously received and answered multiple inquiries regarding this same issue. The TSA representative confirmed the VA location representative had, indeed, contacted every name on the list provided to the VA by DHS but did not determine why some eligible employees were not notified of the event by DHS. 

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

Eligible employees told OIG that they had trouble registering and scheduling vaccine appointments through the ServiceNow system. On multiple occasions, users informed staff of problems such as no link or broken links to access the site for opting in to receive a vaccination. Of the 166,145 employees in priority groups 1a and 1b, 96,367 (58 percent) opted in through ServiceNow to receive the vaccine. 

Operation VOW set a goal to facilitate the first dose of the vaccine for 80 percent of opted-in, eligible employees by May 1, 2021, but only about 29 percent reported receiving the first dose at a VA medical center by that date. OIG said challenges in gathering employee data and achieving data accuracy once they obtained the information complicated DHS’ vaccination efforts. After tasking components to gather data to inform the total number of vaccines needed for VHA to administer to DHS eligible employees, it was determined in several instances that components sent data with missing or erroneous information, resulting in scheduling delays in ServiceNow. Operation VOW staff described the data provided by the components as fraught with errors such as missing information and incorrect email addresses. One TSA employee described manually researching more than 600 missing email addresses to ensure TSA was submitting data that was as complete and accurate as possible. OIG said it is unlikely that other components took the same steps as TSA to ensure the personnel data was complete and accurate. The watchdog wants DHS to consider, devise, and implement a methodology for conducting oversight of employee data. 

OIG’s report also includes a recommendation for DHS to designate, direct, and oversee component representatives to maintain rosters of essential employees. DHS said it currently has a policy in place that addresses the intent of the recommendation and that the DHS Chief Human Capital Officer will consider whether additional guidance is necessary based on the further review of findings in OIG’s report.

Read the full report at OIG

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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