COVID-19 and the serious threat to vulnerable federal employees

By Brandon Lardy | April 3, 2020

While the share of federal employees at the highest risk of exposure to the coronavirus is relatively low, the threat of illness poses a challenge: how to protect the health and safety of federal employees working to stop the spread. Health care workers in the Veterans Health Administration, the nation’s largest health care network, are particularly vulnerable due to their age.

High-risk populations in the federal workforce

VA medical centers, which typically function as outpatient facilities, are treating veterans suspected or confirmed to be infected with the virus. As of March 30, VHA employees have administered more than 13,000 tests and are caring for almost 1,200 patients.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care professionals in contact with COVID-19 patients are at high risk of contracting the virus. Physicians, nurses, medical technicians and other health care staff make up 15% of the federal civilian workforce and are the second-largest group of employees in government after administrative and clerical employees. About 75% of them work for VHA, with the remainder spread across other medical and public health agencies such as the Army Medical Command, Indian Health Service, and the National Institutes of Health.

The highest-risk population: older health care employees at VHA

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults 65 years and older are at the highest risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. About 14% of VHA medical officers fit that category. Additionally, almost 13% of medical officers and 12% of nurses are between 60 and 64 years of age.

A recent report by the VA inspector general showed medical centers are short on personal protective equipment, elevating the risk to the most vulnerable health care providers. If the coronavirus spreads through this vulnerable population, the VA could experience increased absenteeism and staffing shortages at VA medical centers, further hampering their ability to respond to the growing pandemic.

The need for innovative management

Some federal agencies are expanding telework opportunities in light of state or local stay-at-home orders. But this can prove difficult for medical personnel who work with patients face-to-face.

Employees who aren’t in the medical field may also have difficulty teleworking—a 2018 OPM report indicated that, in fiscal 2017, only 43% of federal employees were eligible for telework. In a 2019 survey, 27% of respondents said they didn’t telework because they needed to be physically present on the job.

Federal leaders must safeguard employees, while enabling them to accomplish their missions, particularly the most vulnerable employees or those who can’t practice social distancing – such as VA medical professionals, airport screening officers, food inspectors, air traffic controllers and national security professionals.

Government needs to manage effectively in this altered world we’re all experiencing, and federal leaders must be innovative, weigh risks carefully and develop sound, adaptable strategies to ensure workers can do their jobs.

For resources to help federal employees navigate work during COVID-19, read our blog posts Teleworking 9 to 5: Tips for working from home, Communicating in a public health crisis, Emergency preparedness tips from former U.S. Coast Guard commandant Thad Allen and Four tips to help you complete a self-assessment.

Please visit coronavirus.gov for more information on how to prepare and protect yourself from COVID-19.


Brandon Lardy