Mere hours before Congress failed to reach a budget deal and the government shutdown, officials who protect the nation’s health said they had received no official guidance on what to do in the event of a government shutdown.
Staffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Vox (on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their jobs) that they’d heard nothing about what specific protocols to follow if the government had to close.
Just before 3pm on Friday, the acting secretary of Health and Human Services sent out an email, saying the agency was “working to update our contingency plans.”
After 6pm, notifications went out telling staff if they were furloughed or not. Furloughed employees were asked at that late hour to “begin identifying the required actions you’ll need to complete to effect an orderly should a shutdown occur.” Only after midnight on Friday did employees learn they should come to the office for half a day Monday to tie up any loose ends.
One CDC staffer, who worked at the agency during the last government shutdown in 2013, expressed “alarm as a taxpayer that there’s been no official guidance, or a set of protocols in place.”
Several employees said they felt the 2013 transition to a shutdown went much more smoothly. Back then, for example, emails with planning information, including identifying employees who were furloughed, started to come in on September 26, five days before the government shut down on October 1.
“The fact we’re getting no guidance is symptomatic of the dysfunctionality of this entire [administration],” the staffer said. “Having no guidance 12 hours out on the deadline day — it’s not how you run any kind of an organization.”
“I consider this issue nonpartisan — the issue of proper and timely procedures,” the employee added. “This should be a bureaucratic function.”
Another staffer told Vox, “The lack of official guidance on what to specifically do is ridiculous. We’ve had to ask our managers about what happened last time.”
With so little specific guidance, several CDC employees expressed confusion and worry about what to do if this impasse drags on.
CDC employees do critical work of protecting public health
Employees of the government’s health agencies do the critical work of preventing and tracking disease outbreaks, running clinical trials, performing research, and overseeing food inspections, as I wrote with Vox’s Brian Resnick.
With this budget impasse, funding stops flowing to the agencies, which means investigators at NIH can no longer enroll new patients in clinical trials, food inspectors at FDA will have to stop doing the work of overseeing the safety of the food supply, and lab technicians at CDC may not be able to carry out their epidemiological research.
According to the government’s 2018 contingency plan for a government shutdown, 50 percent of staff across Health and Human Services agencies will be furloughed. The retention rates at specific agencies vary, but the plan suggests only 37 percent of the CDC’s 13,600 employees will be retained. At the two other key health agencies in the department, the NIH and FDA, the numbers are only 23 percent and 58 percent, respectively.
In another sign of confusion at the agency, CDC changed their plans late on Friday regarding their flu surveillance program, which is monitoring this year’s unusually severe seasonal flu epidemic. As Buzzfeed reported, hours before Congress’ midnight deadline, CDC put a new contingency plan in place, saying their “immediate response to urgent disease outbreaks, including seasonal influenza, would continue.” (This was a change from earlier in the same day, when the flu program was slated to stop.)
Right now, the CDC employees who talked to Vox wondered whether this was another example of Trump-era governance, or whether staff and budget cuts across the health agencies were hampering the leadership’s ability to plan.
“When I see the lack of organization and procedural norms, it makes me question what’s going on,” one said, “why isn’t this happening? Is this a directive? Did they not know?”
How’s prep for a government shutdown going at CDC, NIH, FDA? Reach Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org, on KeyBase at jbelluz, or through PGP: F65A 5539 A081 B01E 1E8D 498D 6489 E570 AEAB E972