An Important Challenge to Employees of the Commonwealth

by James C. Sherlock

I ask the employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia to be agents for its positive change. I will address you directly.

The issue is state readiness, or rather lack of it, for the COVID epidemic. You are in the best position to know that your agency was surprised and overwhelmed when COVID struck.

It did not need to be that way.

I have written here extensively of the failure of state departments to prepare for a pandemic flu emergency as they were directed to do by the state emergency operations plan published in 2012. Those directed preparations included planning, training and exercises that involved you, the professional staff of state agencies.

Many of you know that none of that happened in your organizations.

I filed complaints with the Office of the State Inspector General who is employed specifically to investigate such issues. But I think the complaints of an outsider will go nowhere.

The fault for lack of preparation lies with so broad a swath of the executive department of the state that only a high volume of inside complaints will drive the investigation and thus the changes that are necessary.

I am going to ask you as employees to engage to fix the system from within.

You are not politicians, but people who work every day to make the Commonwealth work. You were even more let down by your management than were other Virginians.

You were left to absorb the criticism and the personal distress over the failures of such programs as distribution of PPE, distribution of COVID tests, distribution of vaccines, the chaos in the schools, the utter failure of the state’s unemployment compensation system, and much else.

The fact is that the leadership in many agencies manifestly failed for years to do their jobs as they were directed by the Governor in the state emergency operations plan.

They should have had all of the pandemic responses that affect your responsibilities planned out and exercised well before COVID struck.

The detailed instruction on the preparation required for a pandemic flu emergency was issued in August 2012 as Commonwealth of Virginia, Emergency Operations Plan, Hazard-Specific Annex #4 Pandemic Influenza Response (Non-Clinical) (Annex 4).  It was issued by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and coordinated with every agency with responsibilities.

You will not be able to find it on the VDEM public web pages, because VDEM removed it from public view immediately after I wrote of it at the end of March 2020. Perhaps it is available on a government intranet.

The agencies with directed pandemic emergency preparedness actions in that 2012 order are:

  • Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS)
  • Secretariat of Commerce and Trade (SCT)
  • Department of Education (DOE)
  • Virginia Department of Health (VDH)
  • Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP)
  • Department of General Services (DGS)
  • Virginia Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM)
  • Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI)
  • Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
  • Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT)
  • Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)
  • Virginia Port Authority (VPA)
  • Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA)
  • Virginia State Police (VSP)
  • Department of Military Affairs (DMA)
  • Virginia Employment Commission (VEC)
  • State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV)
  • Virginia Community College System (VCCS)
  • Office of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security (SVAHS)
  • Economic Crisis Strike Force (ECSF) Agencies

It contained prescient predictions about the course of a pandemic and directed specific agencies to prepare and exercise specific plans  Despite the clear language of the Annex, in many agencies the plans were not written, personnel were not trained, exercises could not be conducted and systems were not tested under simulated stresses of a pandemic.

Those failures cost unnecessarily severe losses of life, suffering and economic distress among the citizens.

There were also significant financial losses to the state and federal governments the level of which need to be explored by an outside auditor.

The Annex projected major layoffs in a pandemic. VEC did not prepare, resulting in massive financial losses in COVID to both fraud — $40 million in fraudulent payments estimated by the VEC itself — and to overpayments (amount undefined) within Virginia’s unemployment insurance program. The unemployment system still is not working properly a year later.  

Unemployment claims processing is another one of those Virginia programs like COVID testing and vaccinations that ranked last-in-the-nation out of the gate during COVID. Last. In. The. Nation. Only systemic failures could product those results.

So, if you work for any of those agencies, I hope you will check Annex 4 (assuming you can find it) and see what pandemic readiness responsibilities were assigned to your organization. If you work at VDEM and know who removed Annex 4 from the public website, report that to the IG as well.

The goal statewide is to try to make sure the same failures don’t happen again.

Go here to file a complaint. You will be fulfilling both your duty as a state employee and your duties to your fellow citizens.

Get every employee you trust to file one as well. If anyone senior to you in your organization asks employees not to complain, file a complaint about that as well.

See my earlier column  for Virginia’s Fraud and Abuse Whistle Blower Protection Act and the definitions of terms to use in a complaint.

And thanks in advance from the citizens of Virginia.