Lessons from DHS's early COVID-19 vaccine campaign 

Clear and consistent communication and collecting better data could help in future pandemics, a watchdog found.

Clear and consistent communication and collecting better data could help in future pandemics, a watchdog found. Morsa Images / Getty Images

Issues early on hampered DHS meeting its vaccination goals, but then vaccinations became widely available. 

Although almost 90% of Homeland Security Department employees were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2021, the department faced logistical, communications and data challenges early on that hold lessons for future emergencies, a watchdog said recently.

Before vaccines were made widely available to Americans, the Homeland Security Department partnered with the Veterans Affairs Department in early January 2021 to administer vaccines to certain priority groups of DHS employees (over 166,000 fell into these groups) as it didn’t receive a direct allocation of vaccines. Later in January 2021, DHS launched “Operation Vaccinate Our Workforce (Operation VOW)” to accelerate vaccinations. 

“[The Office of Inspector General] recognizes DHS efforts to vaccinate its priority group 1a and 1b employee populations,” which were those in health care, law enforcement and other frontline and essential roles, said a report from the Homeland Security inspector general office released last week.  “Although Operation VOW has ended, there are lessons to be learned from this effort as DHS will undoubtedly face situations again in which it needs to act quickly and decisively to identify and interact with certain groups of employees across its components.” 

The department worked quickly to identify the employees eligible for vaccinations early on, but it gave discretion to department components to determine employee eligibility, which resulted in inconsistencies, said the report. DHS has set definitions of “mission critical personnel,” but it didn’t use them in this situation. Additionally, “DHS only partially committed staff resources and delayed establishing a comprehensive, full-time task force to manage the effort.” 

Throughout the vaccination initiative, DHS’s communications to employees “were inconsistent or unclear, causing confusion among some employees,” the report continued. Also, regarding communications, employees had difficulties using the software platform ServiceNow to register and schedule their vaccine appointments. 

“DHS successfully vaccinated some employees, but missing and erroneous personnel data in DHS systems used to facilitate vaccinations contributed to DHS falling short of reaching its vaccination goals,” said the report. 

After the slow ramp up, DHS helped 58,000 employees receive vaccinations as of April 6, 2021, Government Executive previously reported, which represented about 27% of the workforce. All U.S. adults became eligible for COVID vaccines by April 19, 2021. As of November 30, 2021, 96% of DHS employees were in compliance with President Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal employees, more than 89% of employees had received at least one vaccine dose and 88% were fully vaccinated. Government Executive asked DHS for updated numbers, but it did not respond by the time of this article’s publication. 

The watchdog identified areas where DHS could improve to better prepare for future emergencies. This included: establishing a staffing plan for emergency responses ahead of time, ensuring that communications during emergencies are “clear and consistent,” and exercising oversight over employee data and giving department components guidance to ensure consistency of data across the department. 

The IG made one formal recommendation, which was for the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer to “designate, direct and oversee component representatives to maintain rosters of essential employees in each category defined by existing DHS policy.” DHS agreed with this suggestion.  

Jim Crumpacker, director of DHS’s liaison office for the IG and the Government Accountability Office, wrote in his response that DHS already has a policy from 2012 that “addresses the intent of the recommendation,” but the coronavirus vaccine initiative was “unique.” The human capital officer will determine if additional guidance is needed now based on this report, he added. 

This article was published first on GovExec.com, a FederalSoup partner site ("Here are some lessons from Homeland Security’s early COVID-19 vaccine campaign.")

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