GAO Report Finds Federal Agencies’ Flu Preparedness “Uneven,” Recommends Monitoring

In testimony before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on June 16, Bernice Steinhardt, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said some federal agencies are not fully prepared for a possible flu pandemic and recommended that the Department of Homeland Security monitor and report on agencies’ readiness.

GAO’s report, “Influenza Pandemic: Greater Agency Accountability Needed to Protect Federal Workers in the Event of a Pandemic,” considered how the 2.6 million federal employees and their work would be impacted by a pandemic.

“Worker protection strategies are crucial to sustain an adequate workforce during a pandemic,” the report stated. “During the peak of an outbreak of a severe influenza pandemic in the United States, an estimated 40 percent of the workforce could be unable to work because of illness, the need to care for ill family members, or fear of infection.”

In testimony before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, Steinhardt summarized GAO’s findings:

  • Agency progress in pandemic planning is uneven.
  • Three case study agencies exhibited differences in the degree their individual facilities had operational pandemic plans.
  • There is no mechanism in lace to monitor and report on agencies’ progress in developing pandemic plans.

“Given agencies’ uneven progress is developing their pandemic plans, monitoring and reporting would enhance agencies’ accountability for protecting their employees in the event of a pandemic,” the report stated.

Uneven Performance

In its survey of 24 agencies employing federal workers, GAO discovered “a wide range” of pandemic planning activities. GAO narrowed its examination to three case study occupations – correctional workers, product staff disbursing federal checks and air traffic controllers – and found varying levels of pandemic preparedness within these federal agencies.

For example, GAO found that while the Bureau of Prisons has “considerable experience” limiting the spread of disease in facilities and has planned for antiviral medications, correctional workers only recently have been required to establish plans for a possible pandemic. The Department of the Treasury’s Financial Management, meanwhile, has stockpiled PPE (respirators, gloves, hand sanitizers) and has pandemic plans at four regional centers. Air traffic control management facilities, however, have not yet established pandemic plans, and the Federal Aviation Administration recently concluded that long-term use of respirators may not be practical for air traffic controllers.

Recommendations

The GAO report recommended “that the Homeland Security Council (HSC) request that the Secretary of Homeland Security monitor and report to the Executive Office of the President on the readiness of agencies to continue their operations while protecting their workers during an influenza pandemic.”

This monitoring and reporting request should include an assessment of agencies’ progress and establish a reporting time frame. In addition, Congress should consider requiring DHS to report on its agencies’ progress in developing pandemic plans, GAO said.

According to GAO, HSC said it would give “serious consideration” to the report’s findings.

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