Agencies must monitor COVID-19 transmission rates to quickly change masking and safety requirements in line with the virus’s prevalence in areas where agency facilities are located, according to recent White House guidance.

The instructions released Aug. 6 by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force advised agencies on how to best adhere to recent requirements for universal masking in high-transmission areas and restrictions for employees who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Agencies are expected to evaluate the COVID-19 transmission rates published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in not only the county where an office is located, but also in surrounding counties where employees or other visitors may commute from or travel through.

Such evaluations should occur on a weekly basis, and agencies are expected to change their safety guidance as soon as possible if their area moves from low and moderate transmission to substantial and high transmission rates, rather than waiting for a weekly or even daily trend to emerge.

Based on those CDC transmission rates, with nearly 90 percent of the counties in the U.S. classified as either high or moderate transmission, a majority of federal offices are likely to have heightened safety measures, such as mask requirements for all people entering a facility.

Those high transmission rates are a very different picture than just a month ago, when a majority of the country was experiencing low to moderate COVID-19 transmission.

Information accessed from the CDC COVID-19 data tracker.

Moving down from increased levels of safety rules, however, will require agencies to take a more measured approach.

“When the level of transmission related to a given federal facility is reduced from high or substantial to moderate or low, the level of transmission must remain at that lower level for at least two consecutive weeks before the agency utilizes those protocols recommended for areas of moderate or low transmission by CDC guidelines and guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force,” the guidance stated.

As of Tuesday, the Office of Personnel Management operating status still listed the nationwide policy at a maximum telework posture for all eligible employees, meaning that employees at many federal buildings in high-transmission areas may already be staying away from the office anyway.

Agencies have been required to either set up COVID-19 testing on-site at their offices to ensure that unvaccinated employees are not coming into work sick or allow employees and visitors to provide proof of a timely, negative test prior to entering the building.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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