The federal personnel director on Monday cautioned agencies against sending their employees to areas where the Zika virus is being transmitted, although she stopped short of a ban on such travel.
“With the worldwide mobility of the Federal workforce, agencies should monitor this situation closely. We urge supervisors and managers to be mindful of the health risks in determining the need for work-related travel to Zika-affected areas,” Office of Personnel Management Acting Director Beth Cobert said in memo to agencies.
“We recommend using appropriate flexibility to accomplish the necessary work using alternate means, such as teleconferencing. Supervisors should carefully consider requests from employees who wish to opt out of this travel, and/or solicit qualified volunteers if travel is necessary. Employees and families in affected areas should make every effort to minimize risk by preventing exposure to mosquito bites,” she wrote.
The memo strengthens language in an OPM blog post from last week saying that “Like all Americans, federal employees who plan to travel for business or personal reasons in the upcoming weeks and months may be understandably concerned.”
In both, Cobert suggested that employees who do travel to affected areas familiarize themselves with information about the virus and preventive measures from the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The locations with ongoing Zika virus transmission are likely to change over time, so be sure to check back to these websites before each trip you are planning to take,” she wrote in the blog post.
Several other agencies have cited the CDC’s position in cautioning their employees.
For example, a February message to Army military and civilian personnel said that “If you are pregnant and plan to travel to an area with ongoing Zika virus transmission, consider postponing travel until after delivery. If you are pregnant and traveled to an area with ongoing Zika virus transmission, your provider can arrange for testing to see if you were infected, even if you never experienced symptoms. If you are not yet pregnant, there is no evidence that Zika infection prior to conception poses a risk for any future pregnancies.”
Also, the Department of Defense’s Southern Command “is offering voluntary relocation out of affected areas to all pregnant DoD employees and beneficiaries, and all Army medical facilities have been notified of the concerns surrounding Zika infections and are prepared to assist patients who may have been infected,” it said.
At least one pregnant military service member has been relocated out of an affected area, according to news reports. A Southern Command spokesman did not immediately respond to a query about whether any other military or civilian personnel have been relocated.
OPM guidance last week allowed several agencies to use a short-cut procedure to speed the hiring of people to respond to the outbreak. The authority is targeted at the State Department, Health and Human Services, and Agency for International Development in occupations including nursing, microbiology, epidemiology, emergency management and IT.
The administration recently asked Congress for emergency funding to improve health services for pregnant women at risk of infection or diagnosed with Zika, and for children with microcephaly; accelerated research on vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics; and on mosquito control.
Said Monday’s memo, “As scientists learn more about this virus, we expect additional recommendations. CDC alerts and other key information are updated regularly on www.cdc.gov/zika/.”