WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is striving to insulate the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic from a shutdown that looms if Congress cannot agree on a plan to keep the government funded past midnight Thursday.
Federal regulators would continue their review of coronavirus vaccines and treatments, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would pursue its pandemic-related responsibilities, including tracking cases, hospitalizations and deaths, according to interviews and a contingency staffing plan issued by the White House’s budget office.
And while the National Institutes of Health would keep only one-fourth of its nearly 5,000 staff in their jobs, the government’s main engine of biomedical research would “continue to support priority COVID-19 research and development, grants research and oversight and contracting activities,” according to an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans.
If a shutdown materializes, the official said, the administration “will take every step it legally can to mitigate the impacts … on our pandemic response.”
Nevertheless, some Department of Health and Human Services staff, overworked and exhausted after more than a year-and-a-half of trying to contain the nation’s worse public health crisis in a century, are unhappy they might temporarily forgo paychecks because lawmakers cannot agree on funding the government.
“Come on, government leaders, can you guys work just as hard [as] we’re working so the government can keep functioning?” said a CDC official, speaking on condition of anonymity to share a frank assessment. “We’re trying to get our s— together, couldn’t you get your expletive together, too?”
Taken together, HHS intends to keep 57% of its employees working through a shutdown, according to a contingency staffing plan for the department. That would be slightly more than the 50% who worked through the most recent full shutdown of the department, in early 2018.
The sprawling department oversees the vast majority of the response to the pandemic, which has caused at least 43 million coronavirus cases and more than 692,000 deaths.
In developing the contingency plans to protect the pandemic response, administration officials relied on long-standing federal law that forbids the government to spend any money Congress has not appropriated, but carves out certain exceptions. One of those is to protect life and safety, and there is a public health category within that exception. Agency officials who developed shutdown staffing lists of essential personnel, and budget officials who reviewed those plans, determined that activities needed in pandemic times, such as running a large-scale vaccine distribution operation, could fit under the exemption for activities needed to protect the safety of human life, according to the administration official.
In addition, any work paid for through pandemic relief packages Congress has enacted since the spring of 2020 also would be allowed to continue, shutdown or not.
The administration’s flurry of planning has played out as Congress’s Democratic leaders race to find a path to avert a shutdown when the new federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1, in the face of a wall of Republican opposition.
Under a recent federal law, many workers who stay on their job, as well as those who are furloughed, would forfeit paychecks while the government is closed but would be paid once the shutdown is over.
One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the administration’s internal planning, said health officials now expect minimal disruptions to the pandemic response and are less concerned than they were days ago about the potential ripple effects. The official said the plans reflect a great deal of flexibility on which work and workers are vital.
“We’ve been told that all responders working on the CDC COVID-19 emergency response are deemed essential and remain at work,” said one senior CDC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk publicly.
Still, the official, who has been through previous shutdowns and has been working without days off for most of the pandemic, said the government closing can cause financial havoc for people who lack savings to get through perhaps a few weeks without pay. “When we do end up with a shutdown, it’s a waste. None of us get paid. Why are we here … again?”
A core group of agency staff has been rotating for response duty repeatedly throughout the pandemic and many say they are exhausted.
“We’ve been in this response for over a year-and-a-half, and each one of us is trying to do our best to get this pandemic over with,” said the CDC official who chided Congress.
Another CDC scientist working on the pandemic is unsure whether their job would be defined as essential. But, the scientist said, “perhaps working during a pandemic for nearly 20 months, putting out one fire after another, makes a possible shutdown feel like just another day.”
If the shutdown occurred, 46%, or 6,448, of the CDC’s staff would keep working, according to the contingency staffing plan for HHS.
They would include members of nine task forces, including ones that track coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths; collect and analyze data on vaccine effectiveness; analyze breakthrough infections; monitor virus variants; track vaccinations; and investigate long covid.
CDC staff would also continue to prepare recommendations for the use of booster shots from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, as well as use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 if authorized by the FDA.
Within the FDA, 69%, or 12,700, of its employees would continue to work, either because they are involved in the coronavirus response or because they focus on activities funded by user fees from the pharmaceutical and other industries, according to the contingency staff plan for HHS.
The agency’s reviews of coronavirus vaccines and treatments would continue throughout a government shutdown, according to the HHS plan. The essential staff include those who face an especially hectic period over the next four to six weeks as they decide whether to grant emergency use authorizations for booster shots for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for more children.
Even though such activities would continue, it is “completely unrealistic” to believe they would not be affected by a shutdown, said a former Food and Drug Administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “You lose massive support services, there are all these rules on who you can and can’t talk to. It affects morale,” said the official, noting many in the agency already are exhausted by the unprecedented pandemic workload. “FDA will get [the pandemic work] done, but … it’s not business as usual.”
The agency also would continue working on safety-related issues, such as drug shortages and counterfeit products.
Two former agency officials said FDA employees have “PTSD” from prior shutdowns, especially the most recent one in December 2018 and January 2019, which lasted a record 35 days. Only part of HHS closed that time.
“This stuff has real effects on people’s lives,” said one of the former officials, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “People are concerned about keeping teams and research going.”
While pandemic work would continue, routine inspections or lab work that is not critical for the protection of public health or funded by user fees would be suspended.
“There’s a reason we should take government shutdowns very seriously, especially now,” said Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy official who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It’s going to be messy.”