As the galloping omicron variant forces businesses and schools to struggle with staffing, one of the nation’s top national security agencies is also feeling the strain.
The State Department is experiencing a stunning surge in COVID-19 cases, three U.S. officials told HuffPost this week. One said the situation is internally being called “Chernobyl,” a nod to the worst nuclear disaster in history.
The uptick in cases is affecting both the agency’s headquarters in Washington and some of its overseas embassies and consulates, which handle local diplomacy and key immigration work, according to a congressional aide.
The wave comes as officials working on foreign policy are grappling with fast-moving international crises: plummeting humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan that are inextricable from U.S. policies; Russian threats against neighboring Ukraine; and civil strife in Kazakhstan and Ethiopia.
Combined with the broader consequences of the virus’s spread, agency staff are facing a major strain.
“Your average State worker bee is having to deal with schools being back to remote [learning], kids at home, and having to juggle unclear quarantine timelines, etc. … not to mention protect their own well-being and health,” the aide said.
A State Department spokesperson downplayed the situation via email.
“The Omicron variant is infecting an increasing number of people in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, including some State Department employees. However, the holidays and max telework posture means that many of these cases were reported by people who had not been onsite or in the workplace before onset of symptoms or positive test,” the spokesperson wrote.
They added that the agency is pursuing “maximum safety” and encouraging personnel to obtain vaccine booster shots, including through the department’s own clinic.
In December, State Department leadership directed as many employees as possible to work remotely.
But some staff say the agency is still putting them at risk and making it harder for them to cope with being sick if they do contract the virus.
A career staffer told HuffPost that personnel “feel pressured to be in [the] majority of the time and it’s a bit scary.”
Because many key decisions about staff are delegated to lower-level bosses, they wield far greater power than State’s top managers, which can limit the effect of high-level safety guidelines, the employee added.
The staffer was sick with the virus last month and felt they could take only one day of sick leave. (They worked from home for the rest of the time.)
State Department morale has plummeted in recent years and the agency has lost scores of experienced employees — mostly because of mismanagement by former President Donald Trump but also due to long-running management issues and systemic discrimination against minorities. President Joe Biden and his top advisers have repeatedly pledged to address those problems, reduce attrition and reshape the department to better represent the U.S. and advance American interests.
For now, though, the agency’s struggles reflect the country’s ongoing failure to get a handle on the coronavirus. And as the U.S.’s representative to the world, it’s a prime target for critics of America’s pandemic response.
On Monday, the State Department issued a travel advisory discouraging travel to Canada. David Menschel, a prominent civil rights attorney and activist, quipped on Twitter: “Maybe the U.S. State Department should issue a travel warning for the United States since COVID is twice as prevalent, per capita, in America right now as it is in Canada.”