Update: Officials said Friday night that flu response would be preserved. Read more here.
WASHINGTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t be able to support its annual influenza program if the government shuts down at midnight, according to the contingency plan for federal health agencies posted Friday. This year’s timing coincides with an especially severe flu season that has not yet reached its peak.
The most recent shutdown, in 2013, saw the majority of CDC flu staff furloughed, MedPage Today reported. “State health departments [were] still collecting flu data, but their information [was] not being sent to the CDC. Among other things, that means the agency has no idea of the geographic spread of the disease — something that’s often used to smooth out the delivery of vaccine.”
Other data collected by the CDC include flu hospital admissions and flu deaths. The 2018 shutdown contingency plan does not explicitly say which of the CDC’s flu activities would be halted.
In the case of a shutdown, government employees whose work is not deemed “essential,” according to strict legal statute, are sent home. The only exceptions are in cases in which the position does not rely on annual federal appropriations, or in which the employees are engaged in “activities that involve the safety of human life and protection of property.”
Broadly, the fiscal year 2018 contingency plan largely resembles earlier agency plans. Roughly 50 percent of all health and human services employees would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. At the FDA, 58 percent of employees would remain in place. The CDC would keep 37 percent of its employees on board, and at the NIH, 23 percent. In 2013, the FDA kept about 55 percent of its employees on board, while the CDC and NIH kept 32 and 27 percent, respectively.
As in past years, the FDA would have to cease many of its safety and health inspections and other compliance activities, along with much of its laboratory research. User-fee funded programs, especially those that regulate tobacco products, would largely continue, according to the plans.
The CDC’s plan largely reflects the contingency documents laid out in past years although it includes a new commitment to “ensure that staff that are currently supporting the ongoing hurricane response” will continue working. The NIH outline is an exact duplicate of the plan laid out ahead of the government shutdown in 2013.
Former officials across several HHS agencies, including at the FDA and CDC, told STAT the actual implementation of agency contingency plans was subject to some interpretation. In the case of the 2013 shutdown, the officials described wide uncertainty about which employees could remain in place.
“In 2013, it honestly was not clear whether the agency could use user fee funds even though those were funds that were not coming out of appropriations,” said an individual who was a senior FDA official at the time and requested his name not be used.
And at the CDC, as the 2013 shutdown dragged on, remaining staff pressed the Office of Management and Budget to allow some initially furloughed employees to return for critical functions, according to Ed Hunter, who was director of the CDC Washington office at the time.