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At State Department, Some Concerned That Political Appointees Are Jumping the Line to Get COVID-19 Vaccine

Lack of communication over surplus doses has prompted suspicion and anger.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A nurse prepares to inject a health care worker with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Tor Vergata hospital in Rome on Dec. 28.
A nurse prepares to inject a health care worker with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Tor Vergata hospital in Rome on Dec. 28. Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

An unanticipated surplus of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. State Department set off a frenzied competition for which employees would get protection from the virus first, fueling suspicions among career employees that political loyalists were attempting to jump the line just as they prepared to leave their jobs—prioritizing themselves ahead of career staffers with underlying illnesses.

The State Department vigorously denied it was playing favorites, claiming that it was distributing the vaccines to staffers who were carrying out operations critical to the functioning of America’s diplomatic mission. But the rollout—which has been marked by a frantic rush to identify candidates—infuriated career diplomats in some bureaus who said they were largely kept in the dark until reporters and congressional staff began asking questions.

Two State Department officials said senior political appointees, including Pamela Pryor, the acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, and Eric Ueland, the acting undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, have either received the vaccine or are scheduled to receive it. A State Department spokesperson initially declined to comment, saying the Privacy Act prohibits the release of information on employees’ vaccination status without their consent. But the spokesperson subsequently said after the publication of this story that Pryor had declined the offer of the vaccine and had not taken it.

“I have read with surprise and dismay a Foreign Policy article…that names me as purportedly having received the COVID-19 vaccine,” Pryor said in a statement. “That information is incorrect. I have not received said vaccine and am on no schedule to receive it.”

“Confusion today about sudden, unanticipated vaccine availability, so bureaus are scrambling to come up with prioritized lists,” one U.S. official told Foreign Policy in a text message, describing the rollout as disorganized and haphazard. “No clarity on why there are shots suddenly available, how many, or why no planning has been done before now to have a list of prioritized employees, including those with pre-exist[ing] conditions.”

The push to vaccinate America’s diplomatic corps comes at a time of deepening distrust between the Trump administration’s political appointees and career employees, who feel the administration has ignored public health guidance calling for social distancing and the wearing of masks.

Those concerns were heightened by the decision of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to host a series of mostly indoor holiday parties with hundreds of invitations sent to U.S. officials, foreign diplomats, and party loyalists—and by an initial plan to vaccinate White House staffers in the first round of vaccinations.

President Donald Trump reversed the White House policy following a storm of criticism. The State Department holiday parties ended up drawing dozens, not hundreds, of guests. The department insisted it instituted health precautions including masks and social distancing requirements at the parties.

This week, the heads of State Department bureaus sent out emails informing staff of the vaccine surplus and saying the doses would be given to essential State Department employees—those required to travel or work at Foggy Bottom headquarters.

“We received word that there is a short-notice opportunity to have the first of the two-part Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine administered tomorrow AM,” Robert Ramey, the deputy director of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, wrote to staff on Tuesday. “I am reaching out to see who might be interested and qualify.”

Pompeo also indicated in a memo that the additional vaccines would go to essential workers. Other staff with underlying illnesses would have to wait.

Department officials decided in recent days that the heads of each bureau should decide how to best dole out the extra doses among their staff, officials said. From there, some top bureau officials offered vaccines to employees who had to come into the office or may have been considered more high risk.

But several officials said the lack of communication with staff over the criteria for dispensing the shots fueled concerns that the vaccines would be reserved for loyalists.

“At the end of the day, there are these 30-something-year-olds getting them, who are going to be leaving in a few weeks, while career colleagues who have medical issues or family members who are vulnerable now have to wait,” said another official familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There’s the irony that these politicals that are going into the office, business as usual, flaunting the mask rules, those are the ones that are rushing to get it first,” the official added. “I find that despicable.”

Officials suspected that the Bureau of Legislative Affairs initially intended to limit distribution to officials in the department’s front office, where most of the political appointees are based. Those concerned were heightened when many career staffers were not notified that a new stock of vaccines had become available.

A State Department spokesperson denied the allegations of favoritism, saying that not a single political appointee in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs would receive a vaccine in the current round.

“It is categorically false that political appointees have been or will be given preferential treatment, and in fact, no political appointee in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs is receiving one of the vaccines in the first round,” the spokesperson told Foreign Policy in a prepared statement. “Allegations to the contrary are entirely false.”

“The Department was able to distribute its initial allotment according to categories of employees performing mission-essential functions under heightened risk of exposure,” the spokesperson added. “Leadership continues to consult the data to articulate a fair and equitable allocation methodology, weighing the availability of vaccine with the risk posed to our workforce at each post and domestic facility.”

In the weeks leading up to the disbursement of vaccines, the State Department expected to receive an initial batch of more than 13,000 Pfizer doses, which would be enough to vaccinate about 6,500 people. (The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots, a priming dose followed by a booster shot.) As of mid-December, they had received fewer than 1,000 doses, officials said.

The department prioritized vaccinating medical and diplomatic security personnel, as well as employees stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other high-risk locations, “due to local conditions that can exacerbate the disease burden and the challenges of providing medical support services in these locations,” according to a Dec. 15 memo from Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary of state for management.

“We are working closely with Operation Warp Speed (OWS) and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure the Department receives its requested allotment of vaccines on an accelerated timeline to support mission-critical work both domestically and overseas,” he added, referring to the operation to speed up the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. “We expect to receive vaccines incrementally over the next several months, and, therefore, will need to prioritize distribution.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer