A National Guardsman looks on at the Utah National Guard's mobile testing site for COVID-19 Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

A National Guardsman looks on at the Utah National Guard's mobile testing site for COVID-19 Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowner/AP

Coronavirus Cases Are Spiking at Federal Agencies

More than 100,000 federal personnel have now tested positive for COVID-19, with some agencies experiencing acute upticks.

As novel coronavirus cases in the United States have climbed in recent weeks to record-breaking numbers, federal agencies across government are also experiencing spikes within their workforces. 

More than 100,000 federal personnel have now tested positive for COVID-19, nearly triple the total in mid-July. Almost 3% of government workers across the military and civilian agencies have now contracted the virus. About 50,000 civilian workers have tested positive, in addition to more than 62,000 members of the Armed Forces. 

Large segments of the federal workforce continue to work remotely as the pandemic rages, though slowly more employees in the last few months have been recalled to their normal work stations. Employee groups have met that process with resistance, frequently saying the Trump administration has not taken proper steps to prepare federal offices for a safe return. The administration quietly developed and released governmentwide office reopening guidelines last month, soliciting private sector advice for its non-binding recommendations. 

Despite the guidelines, the administration has faced criticism from Congress and watchdogs for its failure to create a comprehensive plan to safely return employees to their offices. At least 16 different inspectors general have launched investigations into their agencies' return-to-office plans. Since the outset of the pandemic, federal workers have complained of insufficient protective supplies, equipment and distancing policies. 

While a full picture remains incomplete as several agencies have refused to make their figures public, here is a look at some of the offices that have experienced the worst outbreaks. 

  • Defense Department: At Defense, 14,817 civilians have tested positive for the virus, more than triple the total in mid-July. The Pentagon entered "phase two" of its reopening plan at the end of June, enabling up to 80% of employees who typically report there to return to their offices. More than 62,000 military members have tested positive, in addition to nearly 6,000 contractors. Sixty-eight civilian Defense employees have died from the novel coronavirus. 
  • U.S. Postal Service: More than 16,000 USPS employees have tested positive for COVID-19 among its workforce of 630,000. That figure has grown 11% in the last 10 days alone. Nearly 3,600 USPS employees were actively infected with COVID-19 at the beginning of the month, while another 4,500 were in quarantine. That amounted to about 1.3% of postal employees who could not work, which postal management said led to slower ballot delivery in certain areas in the lead up to the election. 
  • Veterans Affairs Department: Cases are spiking across VA, with a record-number of veterans in its network—more than 9,000, as of Thursday—currently testing positive. More than 7,700 employees have contracted the virus, a 146% increase since mid-July. Sixty-six of those workers have died as a result of their symptoms. VA employees have expressed significant concern about the lack of personal protective equipment, policies that threaten discipline or loss of pay if they do not come in after exposure and poor communication from management.
  • Customs and Border Protection: CBP is leading the Homeland Security Department with its case count of 2,920. Nearly half of those have taken place in Texas. At Immigration and Customs Enforcement, about 200 employees have tested positive, as well as more than 7,000 immigrants in ICE detention. 
  • Transportation Security Administration: Cases have more than doubled at TSA since mid-July and now stand at 2,685. More than 500 of those are current, and more than 4% of the workforce has tested positive at some point during the pandemic. After going months without seeing any cases, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City is once again experiencing the most cases of any airport in the country.   
  • Bureau of Prisons: The Justice Department agency has experienced perhaps the worst outbreak of any federal agency per capita, with about 7% of its workforce contracting the virus. All told, more than 2,500 bureau employees have tested positive. Nearly 20,000 federal prisoners have also contracted COVID-19, or about 14% of the federal inmate population. 
  • State Department: State stopped providing figures on its cases in mid-July, with a department spokesperson on Thursday declining to provide up-to-date details or explain why it is no longer publicly posting the information. More than 1,400 State employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of that timeframe, while a whopping 7,900 were remaining at home to quarantine. At least 17 State employees have died from the virus. 
  • Health and Human Services Department: HHS has spearheaded and coordinated much of the federal response, and so far 780 employees have tested positive for the virus.
  • Internal Revenue Service: At least 1,139 IRS employees have tested positive, according to information provided to the National Treasury Employees Union. Thousands of IRS employees who had been working remotely or who were on paid administrative leave due to the agency’s insufficient telework capacity have since been recalled to the office.