Leanne Montenegro, 21, covers her eyes as she doesn't like the sight of needles, while she receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a FEMA vaccination center at Miami Dade College in Miami.

Leanne Montenegro, 21, covers her eyes as she doesn't like the sight of needles, while she receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a FEMA vaccination center at Miami Dade College in Miami. AP file photo

The Biden Administration Is Recruiting Feds Across Government to Assist With COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign

The Homeland Security Department is using a provision of post-Hurricane Katrina law for just the second time ever for the initiative.

The Biden administration has begun soliciting federal employees across government to work on its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, employing a rarely used federal law to ramp up its efforts. 

The Homeland Security Department sent out a request for federal workers to join its Surge Capacity Force, opening up opportunities for agency staff to deploy to federally run or assisted vaccination sites across the country. It made the request under the provisions of the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which created the mechanism for employees to sign up for the deployments on a voluntary basis. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating the federal vaccination sites and already opened up Surge Capacity Force opportunities to fellow DHS employees in February. It previously tapped into the program after Hurricane Sandy, during the 2017 hurricane season and in 2019 as part of President Trump's crackdown at the border. Only in 2017, however, did the government seek feds from across government under the post-Katrina law. FEMA opened up the vaccination details on a governmentwide basis on April 1. 

In one agency email sent out to employees obtained by Government Executive, management said the deployed staff would help the Biden administration reach its goal of putting 200 million “shots-in-arm” within its first 100 days. 

“Please consider volunteering,” the agency wrote. “Your help will be vital as we battle COVID-19 through a robust national vaccination campaign.” 

Employees who volunteer for the deployments would work in non-medical roles to assist with vaccination efforts and do not need any specific experience, as they would receive relevant training “to maximize their effectiveness in a disaster response environment.” They would also be provided with a vaccine themselves if they want one. 

The solicitation follows a similar one the administration made last month seeking volunteers to deploy to the southern border to help process and care for an uptick in migrants arriving from Mexico and Central America, though that request did not rely on Surge Capacity Force authority. FEMA is also assisting with those efforts, but the solicitation went through the Office of Personnel Management and the employees are reporting to the Health and Human Services Department. 

While acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan urged agency leaders to proactively encourage employees to sign up for the HHS detail, not all have complied. After sending an agencywide email to staff explaining how to sign up and saying it “supports this humanitarian effort,” the Social Security Administration subsequently discouraged managers from approving their employees’ applications due to workload concerns. One employee said she felt “toyed with” after receiving what amounted to an insincere offer, noting she had hopes of “making a difference for these kids." 

The border deployments will last four 120 days, compared to 45 days for those detailing to vaccination sites. FEMA has sent about 3,000 employees to vaccination sites and is fully running 30 mass vaccination centers. It declined to say how many volunteers it was seeking from other agencies. The emergency response agency is standing up community vaccination centers fully run and staffed by federal employees, providing funding and staffing to state-run sites and deploying mobile vaccination centers.