The EPA is sharing with its employees the data that guides its office reopenings, rolling out a new software tool to staff on Friday containing detailed coronavirus data from across the country.
The new program, known as the EPA Facilities Status Dashboard, could quell some of the concerns raised by Environmental Protection Agency staffers and their unions, who have consistently called on the agency to either slow down or halt its reopening plans.
“There is anxiety,” said Doug Benevento, the EPA’s associate deputy administrator. “People have general questions about what are we looking at with respect to making a decision.” He also said it’s “just good policy to have it be transparent, so employees can see what it is that we’re looking at.”
Some of the data is also suggesting the Washington, D.C., region, where the EPA is headquartered, may soon be ready to reopen, according to Benevento.
“That’s in a launching period,” he said. “I think that can be strongly looked at.”
Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, the EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator for science, noted that the data for the Washington region has been encouraging over the past two weeks. But she also said the recent large protests in the nation’s capital and nationwide over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police could reverse that progress across the country.
“It will not be surprising if we see an uptick in cases,” she said. “Whether that uptick is enough to change the trend line, we’ll just have to see.”
The availability of the program seemingly answers demands made June 8 by the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the EPA’s biggest union, which called on the agency to release data showing it’s safe for staff to return to the office.
The AFGE also called on the EPA to immediately stop its efforts to open some of its regional offices, saying not enough is known about coronavirus-imposed health risks.
The online tool, developed by the EPA’s scientists and programmers, will be used to help agency leadership make decisions about which of the EPA’s 127 offices to start bringing back online; when it’s safe to shift them into the next phase of the White House’s three-step reopening plan; and whether to stop a reopening that’s underway because local conditions have changed, Orme-Zavaleta said.
The tool can show region-specific data on reports of influenza-like symptoms, known cases of Covid-19 infection, and local hospital capacity—all of which feeds into the EPA’s reopening decisions, Orme-Zavaleta said.
The program draws on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, and other sources, said Wayne Cascio, EPA lab director. It also analyzes those figures to measure statistical significance, he said.
The dashboard “isn’t the sole determinant of when we move into Phase 1, or move from Phase 1 to Phase 2, but it is something that the administrator does take into account,” said Benevento, referring to the White House’s three-phased plan.
In Phase 1, the White House guidelines call for employers to return employees to work in stages. In Phase 2, employers are urged to keep common areas closed or enforce moderate social distancing protocols.
EPA staffers are encouraged to keep telecommuting until an office reaches the third and final phase of the White House’s reopening plan, Benevento said.
Agency Responses a Mixed Bag
Most federal agencies have been taking a careful, go-slow approach to reopening their offices, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a not-for-profit group that promotes government efficiency.
But across the federal bureaucracy, the response has also been “all over the place; there’s not a single template,” Stier said. “Every agency has taken this in its own way.”
Some agencies face challenges that others don’t, he said. He cited the Transportation Security Administration, which must place personnel in airports, and the Internal Revenue Service, which Stier said has had trouble keeping some of its call centers active remotely.
Benevento said the EPA has been “a little more conservative” than other federal agencies, taking at least five weeks from the start of an office’s reopening before workers are allowed to return.
At least six of the EPA’s 10 regional headquarters have moved into a seven-day complete closure to ensure any coronavirus present is inactive. The agency recently walked back the reopenings of its Boston and Dallas offices after virus statistics in those cities started spiking upward.
Orme-Zavaleta said the agency will “continue to watch the data until we get back to that downward trend.”