WASHINGTON — Hundreds of government health workers called on to help respond to the pandemic and potentially administer vaccines are still waiting for the opportunity to be vaccinated themselves, according to three officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.
Two months after federal officials authorized the first coronavirus vaccine for use, there is still no plan to allot vaccine supply to fully inoculate the commissioned corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, a 6,000-person force that has been deployed to care for coronavirus patients, set up vaccination sites and perform other health tasks on behalf of the federal government. Instead, members of the corps have been encouraged to visit military treatment facilities such as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – where some officers have been turned away, unable to convince staff they were eligible for the vaccine – or try to get shots in states where they’ve been deployed.
The corps is a uniformed service of the government, just like the military, and health department leaders have said all of its members should be eligible for shots under the Pentagon’s vaccination priority list.
“It’s been very challenging for officers to get vaccinated,” said one senior officer who has yet to be vaccinated and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject. The officer, who had heard similar concerns from at least eight other officers, including some who oversee large teams, estimated that more than half the corps had yet to be vaccinated.
“There has never been a clear plan for our commissioned officers,” the officer added. “The message is basically, ‘You’re part of the commissioned corps. Good luck, get it where you can get it.'”
Members of the corps are scattered across all 50 states and around the world, ranging from working as front-line caregivers in Indian country, to serving as staff in federal agencies around Washington, D.C. Its officers have played a central role in the U.S. response to the pandemic from its earliest days, deploying on missions to help evacuate Americans from virus hot spots – sometimes at elevated risk to themselves – and setting up some of the first coronavirus test sites.
The Biden administration’s pandemic response plan, announced in January, repeatedly touts the corps as a key element in the president’s plan to ramp up vaccinations.
“The Administration will deploy thousands of federal staff, contractors and volunteers to support state and local vaccination efforts,” it states. “This includes utilizing the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps to deliver direct clinical training and vaccination program development across the country.”
Health and Human Services Department officials did not respond to questions about how many members of the corps had been vaccinated. The corps has asked officers to self-report when they getinoculated, complicating leaders’ abilities to centrally plan how many of their officers are receiving shots, said twoof the officials.
“Within days of taking office, Biden administration officials became aware of some of these problems and have spent the past couple weeks working to address these issues and ensure vaccine supply for the commissioned corps,” said an HHS official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss in-progress plans.
“The administration has secured additional doses directly for members of the commissioned corps – they will be directly administered in partnership with [the Defense Department] at Walter Reed in the coming days,” the official added. “We are actively working on further solutions for additional corps members across the country.”
The corps, which reports to the assistant secretary for health and the U.S. surgeon general, is under the direction of acting surgeon general Susan Orsega, who has been negotiating getting the corps its own supply of vaccine doses rather than having the group covered through the roughly 1 million doses allotted to the Defense Department, officials said. Department leaders last week determined the corps should seek out its own supply of vaccine doses instead of jockeying for a share of doses with the sevenother uniformed services, such as the Army or Navy, said one official.
“We thank all of you who have wanted to get the coronavirus vaccine, but we recognize that you haven’t been able to get the vaccine through either your local health department, or your state or even the military treatment facility,” Orsega told corps members in a virtual town hall on Thursday. Audio from the town hall,which was convened to discuss the corps’ role in administering doses of the vaccines, was obtained by The Washington Post.
“Please know that the support is absolutely overwhelming from the department and the immediate office of the secretary” of HHS, Orsega added, thanking officers for sharing their challenges getting the shots. “We’ll be sure to share more information as it becomes available.”
Orsega on Friday afternoon also sent a staff-wide email with instructions on how corps members could get vaccinated, including a memo that she encouraged officers to present at military treatment facilities as proof that they are vaccine eligible. The email and memo, which were obtained by The Post, came several hours after The Post first asked HHS whether there was a plan to vaccinate the corps.
In her email, Orsega acknowledged that officers had raised concerns about receiving shots at military facilities, saying that corps leaders were working on “resolving these problems.” She also cautioned officers not to expect a quick fix. “We anticipate those officers who receive their health care in the private sector . . . may face even more challenges trying to get vaccinated until local jurisdictions ramp up their vaccination programs and the vaccine becomes available in retail pharmacies,” she wrote.
Orsega, a rear admiral in the Public Health Service corps, has been the corps’ operational leader since 2019. She assumed the role of acting surgeon general after President Joe Biden asked Jerome M. Adams, a Trump appointee, to resign last month before his term expired in September. Vivek H. Murthy, who served as President Barack Obama’s surgeon general, is still waiting for Senate confirmation before resuming the post under Biden.