Through Feb. 2021, over 7,000 of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees reported being infected with COVID-19, and 24 have sadly died.
The virus meant that over 20,000 employees were unable to work at some point due to related illness or quarantine, but employee absences didn’t generally have a significant impact at air, land, or sea ports, which saw declining traffic. Absences did however affect some Border Patrol operations.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has praised CBP for its COVID-19 response and found that the component implemented policies intended to protect employees and the public, and adjusted operations, such as by moving some processing activities outdoors.
In its June 14 report, GAO said that between January and December 2020, CBP updated guidance on COVID-19 precautions and how managers should address possible exposures.
The watchdog found that CBP also used a variety of workplace flexibilities, including telework and weather and safety leave to minimize the number of employees in the workplace, when appropriate. As well as moving some processing functions outdoors, CBP field officers encouraged social distancing, and provided protective equipment to employees and the public. Some field locations took steps to modify infrastructure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as installing acrylic barriers or improving airflow in facilities.
Challenges implementing operational changes were not unheard of though, and included insufficient equipment for telework at three field locations, and shortages of respirators at a quarter of the ports of entry GAO reviewed.
CBP adjusted operations in response to COVID-19 and executive actions. As travel and trade volumes declined, some ports of entry reallocated personnel to other operations, such as cargo processing. In contrast, starting in May 2020 Border Patrol encounters with noncitizens steadily increased. As a result, Border Patrol requested additional resources. It also shifted its deployment strategy to operate as closely to the border as practical to intercept individuals who could be infected with COVID-19. Accordingly, some Border Patrol sectors modified interior operations, such as limiting resources at immigration checkpoints. CBP also assisted in implementing a Centers for Disease Control order that provided the ability to quickly expel apprehended individuals.