A small group of activists from the American Federation of Government Employees local 424 and the National Association of Government Employees local R3-19 outside the Baltimore VA Medical Center April 22.

A small group of activists from the American Federation of Government Employees local 424 and the National Association of Government Employees local R3-19 outside the Baltimore VA Medical Center April 22. Julio Cortez/AP

More Agencies Begin Delivering Masks, PPE to Employees

Deliveries mark a shift at agencies that initially banned masks or told employees they were on their own for protective equipment.

Several agencies are ramping up their delivery of personal protective equipment to employees who are still reporting to their normal work stations during the novel coronavirus pandemic after months of leaving workers to fend for themselves to find masks and other materials. 

Inspectors at the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service will soon receive masks from their agency for the first time after the agency procured 30,000, according to multiple employees briefed on the matter. The announcement came after dozens of food processing plants were forced to close or reduce hours as coronavirus hotspots developed among their ranks, and President Trump signed an executive order last week seeking to compel all of them to reopen. The FSIS inspectors, who work side-by-side with plant employees, have to this point had to bring their own masks or rely on the private establishments where they report to supply them. 

To date, at least 140 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and two have died from related symptoms. 

The issuance of masks to employees marks a stark turn for FSIS, which initially barred employees from wearing masks at plants out of concern it would cause panic at the plants they inspect. It then allowed employees to wear them if plant supervisors signed off. At a tele-town hall last week, FSIS Administrator Paul Kiecker said employees at plants not supplying masks would have to find their own protective equipment. The agency said it would reimburse employees up to $50 for mask purchases. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency began delivering PPE to federal agencies for employee use this week. It is unclear if the FSIS masks came from FEMA and an FSIS spokesman did not return a request for comment. 

It is also unclear how long the 30,000 basic masks are expected to last for FSIS’ 6,500 employees or whether the agency expects regular deliveries. FSIS has also procured 6,000 plastic face shields for its inspectors. Federal inspectors previously expressed fear and anger over Trump’s executive order and the lack of PPE, saying the agency had taken no steps to explain how it would protect them in light of the plant reopening initiative. FSIS efforts to reassign employees from shuttered facilities to those with new outbreaks also raised concerns it will exacerbate the spread by moving workers from one hotspot to another. The agency has instructed those with known exposure to the novel coronavirus to continue reporting to work.

VA, meanwhile, recently told employees it was expanding the population of workers who would receive masks from the department. In a memorandum dated May 1, VA said it conducted a “point prevalence study” and found staff and patients at VA nursing homes and spinal cord injury units had tested positive for COVID-19 but were asymptomatic. VA therefore opted to provide masks to all staff, residents, patients and visitors at those facilities beginning Thursday. 

VA noted the masks were not considered PPE, but instead were face coverings as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only staff providing direct care to anyone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 would receive a surgical or N95 respirator mask. 

“All other staff, trainees, volunteers, veterans, inpatient residents, and visitors are required to wear a face covering during their time at the VA facility,” VA said. “The appropriate respiratory protection PPE will be provided to staff conducting home visits to veterans.” 

The department has struggled to supply employees with adequate protective equipment throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Many employees, including those at nursing homes and spinal cord facilities, were previously only receiving one surgical mask per week and only if they were directly interacting with potential COVID-19 patients. Employees with known exposure to the virus have been told to continue working with a mask, which they received once per week or, in some cases, once per shift. 

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, praised the new policy, saying it marked VA finally moving to supply all of its health care workers with protective equipment. 

“Ensuring our VA health care workers’ safety during this global pandemic must be a top priority,” Tester said. “Getting critical PPE to better protect our brave nurses and doctors on the front lines is an essential step in slowing the spread of the virus and keeping our communities healthy. VA’s decision—a long time coming—means a safer environment for vulnerable veterans who are at a higher risk for developing complications from infection.”

More than 10,000 individuals in the VA system have tested positive for COVID-19, including more than 1,200 employees. VA previously reported a higher number of positive cases in its workforce but said it has revised the way it counts the figure. 

FEMA and the Health and Human Services Department began making deliveries this week to provide "face coverings to federal departments and agencies with mission essential functions to promote health and safety in the workplace and in their execution of public-facing missions,” a FEMA spokesman said on Monday. The State Department has begun delivering face coverings to all of its facilities around the world after receiving an HHS shipment. The IRS last week recalled 10,000 employees, initially telling the workers they would have to bring their own masks. The agency subsequently said it had enough masks to provide one to all recalled employees who did not bring their own.