This story was updated at 2:56 p.m. EST.
EPA is seeking emergency approval to gather data on its workforce for a contact tracing program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency has requested that the Office of Management and Budget grant approval for collecting staff information for "an effective COVID-19 Contact Tracing program," according to a notice published in the Federal Register last Thursday.
"Because of the substantial risk to life, safety, or health of the workforce and the public, EPA requests an emergency approval to collect the necessary information," said the notice. "This information is necessary to identify individuals in the workforce who are COVID-19 positive and to notify and trace persons in the workforce who were in close contact with the COVID-19 positive employee."
Under the program, EPA will gather information not only on its employees but also its contractors, interns, grantees and volunteers.
The data to be collected includes the infected person’s name, supervisor and health status as well as close contacts in their office, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and buildings and floors visited when they could have spread the virus, according to the notice.
EPA estimates that its tracing program participants will number 250 in total. The agency also estimates 63 hours per year will be the total time expended by staff for its information request and will come at zero cost for the taxpayer.
American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, EPA’s largest union, representing about 7,500 employees, is pleased to see EPA’s request for a contact tracing program, Gary Morton, the union’s president, told E&E News.
Morton said the union has sought to negotiate requirements for "preventive measures," like contact tracing, personal protective equipment, masks and social distancing, to stop the spread of COVID-19 in EPA’s workplace.
"Finally, the EPA is starting to take its obligation and responsibility seriously to protect the health and workplace of its dedicated employees," Morton said.
EPA spokesman James Hewitt told E&E News on Dec. 9 that OMB provided EPA with a temporary emergency six-month approval. "This request formally documents that emergency approval request," he said.
"EPA began working on its Contact Tracing Application in June 2020 after weeks of coordinating with [the Department of Homeland Security]," Hewitt said. "While EPA fast-tracked the development of the application, there are many technical and administrative factors that the agency had to address to develop it. The ICR request enables EPA to deploy its enterprise Contact Tracing application not just for COVID-19 but all future contact tracing needs."
Dozens of EPA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least one staffer has died from the virus. In addition, over the past year, the agency typically informed staff in emails of potential exposure to a positive case and that they might be contacted if they had been in close contact with that person.
EPA’s push for data behind a staff contact tracing program comes as the agency struggles with its reopening process during the pandemic.
EPA employees have been teleworking since last March, but the agency in May announced plans to reopen in a phased approach. Yet as COVID-19 cases surged across the country, the agency has paused its reopening plans for weeks and will review whether to move forward on Jan. 7 (Greenwire, Dec. 18, 2020).
Many EPA offices are in phase one or two of the agency’s reopening plan, where employees can come to the office but are still encouraged to work from home.
Phase three of the plan has caused worry among staff. That is when EPA employees would be expected to return to the workplace, although they could request telework if they have health risks or family care issues.