State Department tightens COVID-19 restrictions on workforce


The State Department on Monday said it is imposing stricter precautions against COVID-19 among its staff, reducing the onsite agency workforce in the nation’s capital amid an increase in cases in the region.

The announcement was made in an internal email from Under Secretary for Management Brian Bulatao that was obtained by The Hill. Bulatao, in his email, said the agency would be returning to phase one of its “Diplomacy Strong” strategy, implemented in May, that guided returning staff safely to the office.

The restrictions apply to State Department agencies in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, maximizing the number of individuals allowed to telework and imposing restrictions on visitor access, size of gatherings and certain consular operations.

Bulatao said the agency would return to phase two in the region on January 18, “while we evaluate data and assess local health conditions on an ongoing basis,” he wrote.

Since May, the Department has been operating under Diplomacy Strong, its three-phase initiative in maintaining operations amid the medical, health and safety conditions at each location.

“Protecting and promoting the health and safety of the Department’s workforce is our top priority. We continue to follow our Diplomacy Strong framework, a conditions-based, phased workforce reentry approach and to use data to inform our decisions,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to a request for comment by The Hill.

“After carefully assessing the local conditions and in close coordination with the Bureau of Medical Services, Department of State facilities in the National Capital Region (NCR) have returned to Phase 1 as of December 21,” the spokesperson said. 

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia are increasing, as cases around the U.S. continue to rise. D.C. plans to end indoor dining Dec. 23 in an effort to stem the number of new infections that have taken place in recent weeks.

The regression to phase one at the State Department comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned to Foggy Bottom on Monday following less than a week of quarantine after coming in contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. The secretary initially tested negative upon entering quarantine, a State Department spokesperson said at the time.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that an individual can end a seven-day quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 on the fifth day.

A State Department spokesperson responded to a request for comment by The Hill saying that “The Secretary continues to test negative for Covid-19” but did not address when the secretary was last tested.

Pompeo has come under criticism for planning holiday parties with hundreds of guests that critics pointed out flouted health and safety guidelines outlined by the State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local officials.

At least two parties for diplomats were canceled last week following the secretary’s decision to quarantine, and the secretary had canceled an in-person speech at the State Department for a party for families of diplomats serving in dangerous locations. That party drew less than 70 people.

While Pompeo is often seen wearing a mask in public, critics charge that the Trump administration’s cavalier handling of precautions around COVID-19 – with infections having occurred among the president, his family and senior staff following refusal to wear masks – have had a negative impact on the ability of the agency to function. 

“It is hard to find a corner within State that has not been impacted functionally by the pandemic, particularly in light of the administration’s inability to take COVID-19 seriously from the onset and by Secretary Pompeo’s ongoing failure to lead by example,” said one congressional aide.

It’s unclear the number of individual COVID-19 cases among staff at the State Department. The agency ended in July a practice of publishing the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths among staff in the U.S. and overseas, and the archived data represents only a four-month period.

The last numbers, updated on July 16, documented 515 current cases of COVID-19 among staff serving abroad; 765 staff abroad who had recovered from the virus; and 14 deaths from COVID-19 among staff overseas. Domestically, the agency recorded three staff deaths from COVID-19, but did not include any number of infections among staff stateside. 

At that time, 7,900 staff overseas were working from home.

Updated at 2:42 p.m.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Mike Pompeo State Department

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