Eugene Chernetsov /

The Federal Government Is Unprepared for a Large-Scale Animal Disease Outbreak

Feds are looking to boost hiring efforts for veterinarians.

Federal agencies do not have enough veterinarians to respond to a major crisis, according to a new report, nor do they know how many animal physicians they would need in such an event.

The Government Accountability Office said agencies are not adequately monitoring and developing their animal doctors. In addition to their normal responsibilities, the vets would play a critical role in responding to a widespread viral outbreak.

Most veterinarians in the federal government work at the Agriculture Department, where they maintain the health of American livestock and oversee the humane treatment of animals during slaughter, and at the Health and Human Services Department, where they conduct research related to animal and human disease. Since 2009, in response to GAO-determined shortcomings, the departments have attempted to boost their veterinarian workforce planning efforts.

Despite those steps, and efforts by the Office of Personnel Management and Congress, GAO said the veterinarian workforce “remains high risk.” The auditors said HHS and USDA must do a better job determining and addressing skill gaps and addressing other human capital needs. They also said OPM should give agencies direct-hire authority when a “critical need” for animal physicians arises.

USDA has done a better job of making improvements than HHS, GAO found. Still, Agriculture has no plans for how it will augment its workforce to “respond to a large-scale emergency.” If, for example, there were an outbreak of the highly contagious foot-in-mouth disease, or the highly infectious Newcastle disease, USDA would not be well positioned to respond, GAO said.

The department has made some estimates to determine its needs in such an emergency, but GAO said they are not reliable. Its current workforce, the auditors added, is only capable of handling a routine workload.

USDA agreed “more could be done” to improve its emergency-response preparation, while OPM said it would evaluate the need for direct-hire authority for veterinarians.

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