The Interior Department is taking aggressive steps to protect its employees and visitors to national parks and other public sites as the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread.
Interior is directing employees to confirm their COVID-19 vaccination status by the end of the month, and it will mandate those who are not fully vaccinated, or decline to respond to the request, to submit to "regular testing" for the disease, mandatory mask wearing, "physical distancing" and even potential restrictions on travel.
The email, sent Friday to the roughly 70,000 Interior employees, directs them to fill out an "online attestation form" regarding their vaccine status no later than Aug. 27.
Employees must answer whether they are "fully vaccinated," which is defined in the form as being at least two weeks removed from the second Pfizer or Moderna shot or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
All others are considered "not yet fully vaccinated" if they are not two full weeks removed from receiving two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, at the time they sign the form. Ditto for those who have had only one Pfizer or Moderna shot, have not received any vaccine shot or "decline to respond."
"Employees who choose not to complete the form will be assumed to be not fully vaccinated for purposes of application of the safety protocols," the attestation form states.
Those who have not been vaccinated "due to medical or religious reasons" must check the "I have not been vaccinated" or the "I decline to respond" box on the form.
Those employees who give "a knowing and willful false statement" could be "punished by fine or imprisonment or both."
It adds, "I understand that making a false statement on this form could result in additional administrative action including an adverse personnel action up to and including removal from my position."
For now, "only Interior employees are required to attest to their vaccination status," the email to staffers states. But it adds that Interior "will be implementing similar policies for contractors and visitors" to national parks and other public sites overseen by the agency "in the near future."
An Interior spokesperson declined to comment.
The attestation form is consistent with direction from President Biden last month that all federal employees would be required to provide their COVID-19 vaccination status, or face additional restrictions that vaccinated employees would be able to avoid.
The Interior Department’s latest move also conforms to its formal online COVID-19 response for agency employees that’s modeled after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance. It requires "all federal employees, onsite contractors, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask inside of federal buildings in areas of high community transmission," such as Washington, D.C.
"We strongly encourage all employees and contractors to get vaccinated as soon as possible," it says.
The email and online attestation form come days after EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told employees in an email last week that the agency is working on similar mandates regarding vaccination status (E&E News PM, Aug. 11).
It also comes less than two weeks after Interior Secretary Deb Haaland revealed in a memorandum to agency employees that 35 employees had died, and more than 4,000 had been infected, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year (Greenwire, Aug. 6).
Haaland, in a separate internal memorandum last week, informed employees that vaccination attestation forms would be sent out "in the coming days and weeks."
The majority of Interior Department employees and other federal staffers have been working remotely since early last year, when the pandemic first became widespread and vaccines had not yet been approved.
Ed Shepard, president of the Public Lands Foundation, a Bureau of Land Management retirees group, said that while PLF has not taken a formal position on the issue, the latest effort appears to be warranted.
"We are concerned for the safety of the BLM and Interior employees and compliance with the CDC guidelines is appropriate."
It’s not clear how the majority of the Interior Department employees feel about being required to complete the attestation form, or the push for vaccinations as the delta variant spreads.
A BLM employee who asked not to be identified said he supports the new effort.
"There are anti-vaxxers who bemoan this new requirement," he said. "They have no problem taking their doctor’s advice on every other medical issue, but rebuff this vaccine when it’s overwhelmingly been proven safe and effective."
Along those lines, a BLM legal assistant in a state office last month sent a cryptic email to employees warning that recent calls for employees to wear masks in federal buildings "has no legal standing."
"None of these mandates including the upcoming ‘you will be vaccinated or else’ have been passed by the U.S. Congress PERIOD," according to the email, which was quickly removed. "A mandate is not a Law!"