By Maria Caffrey, Union of Concerned Scientists
We are in the midst of a global health crisis like none other in recent history. If you are like me, then you are following stay-at-home orders. Perhaps you worry about how to limit your exposure to the virus while you are performing any essential activities like getting groceries, or you are wondering how long it will be before we see our friends and family again face-to-face.
But if you are an employee of the Department of the Interior (DOI), or know somebody who is, there is one more question that should be on your mind right now: Why isn’t the Interior Department publicly sharing data about COVID-19 infections amongst its staff?
The DOI employs around 70,000 people, not including the contractors and other personnel who also work within their facilities. To protect their health and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many of these people have been ordered to work from home.
A great many others, however, have been deemed “critical personnel” and are still working at their regular locations; some are still interacting with the public, including park rangers and any vendors who perform essential services. And so it is extremely troubling that the DOI has made the decision not to publicly track how many of their employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, prompting questions on whether the DOI may have something to hide.
The national parks situation
It doesn’t help that the DOI has unnecessarily exposed national park service rangers and other frontline staff to a public that has been visiting national parks in droves since the shutdown began. Though many parks have shut down entirely at this point—including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon—many others still remain open.
Back in March, I strongly urged the National Park Service (NPS; one of the agencies within Interior) to close all its parks. A month later roughly 140 of 419 parks had closed completely and up to two-thirds of all parks are implementing some form of partial closure.
Based on newly revealed newly recealed memos, these closures have been described as “only allowing individual parks to close if there is significant pressure from local communities and governments to close them.” This follows a shambolic initial response marked by confusion within the agency over whether park superintendents had the authority to close the parks they manage.
Couple this with Secretary Bernhardt’s reckless invitation in late March to “enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks” at the same time that many park superintendents were struggling with whether and how they should be reducing access or shutting down. Bernhardt’s call to visit clearly did not seem to consider the health and safety of National Park Service personnel who interact directly with the public.
Why COVID-19 data are so important
One key weapon in the fight against COVID-19 is contact tracing, one of the most powerful tools that scientists have to slow the spread of the virus. When a person tests positive for the novel coronavirus, health officials trace who they have been in contact with so that those who may have been exposed can self-quarantine and potentially reduce exposing others (including the people they live with) to the virus. Data matter hugely in all of this, especially since widespread implementation of this technique is in its earliest stages right now, and even the most nascent efforts have been spotty at best depending on what resources are available in each state.
Robust and transparent data about COVID-19 infections is essential if we want to make science-based decisions to control the spread of this virus. Tracking and notifying the public of potential exposure could save lives. And yet the Trump administration announced earlier this month that it is not requiring any employers outside the healthcare and frontline industries to track employee exposure, which prompted the former head of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), Dr. David Michaels, to express disbelief at the decision.
Given the time-sensitive nature of this crisis, it is troubling that the Interior Department seems to be following the administration’s lead and thus far has barely divulged any information on the number or locations of DOI staff confirmed to have been infected. By choosing to withhold information on how many of its employees are sick, they are hindering efforts to limit the spread of this virus.
To date, it is estimated that at least 10 National Park Service employees and two park police officers have tested positive for COVID-19, though details have been scarce. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had better information on where these employees were located, especially if they have been interacting with the public? Shouldn’t we be told if one of these people was a park ranger or other staff member on the front lines of this pandemic?
And remember that this is almost surely an underestimate of actual COVID-19 cases within Interior, given that the currently available numbers are based primarily on anecdotal reports that have individually emerged. There has been no comprehensive reporting from the agency to date on confirmed cases or potential exposure, nor mention of any tracking of contractors or park vendors.
Time for transparency
Some federal agencies have been more transparent in their COVID-19 reporting, though there is a clear lack of consistency across agencies. For example, the Transportation Security Administration has revealed that more than 400 of its staff have tested positive for COVID-19, 54 of whom have recovered and three have died at the time of writing this. Is it too much to ask that the DOI be equally transparent in its reporting?
In issuing their reporting guidelines, OSHA (which is under the Department of Labor) explained their decision to limit information as a way to “help employers focus their response efforts on implementing good hygiene practices in their workplaces, and otherwise mitigating COVID-19’s effects, rather than on making difficult [work-related] decisions in circumstances where there is community transmission.” In other words, potentially allowing businesses—and federal agencies—to wash their hands of responsibility and claim that their employees are not getting sick while on the job.
I hope that the DOI isn’t avoiding sharing potentially life-saving information because they are trying to avoid any spotlight on their management during this crisis. Public safety depends on transparency. The Interior Department needs to realize that and act accordingly.