Source: Dave Matthews

Although released a week or two ago, I’ve found myself several times returning to the federal employee vaccine compliance numbers released by the White House Briefing Room.  Looking at those numbers, some things just aren’t adding up as they should.  When consideration is made the fact that the administration has paused and pushed back any “enforcement” actions against employees from the end of November until sometime in January, the numbers start to look a lot more suspicious…and so do the motives behind the numbers that were released.

The White House compliance numbers are very high and seem to involve only two separate methods of “measurement,” which both appear designed to hide the nuances of the actual compliance rates within departments and agencies.

First, there is a reported “agency-wide compliance percentage,” which is defined as the “percentage of agency employees covered by a vaccination requirement with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination or a pending or approved exception or extension.” 

This definition produces results showing agencies with compliance rates ranging from 94.7% (Department of the Interior) all the way up to over 99.6% (Department of Transportation), with an overall average of 97.58% across the 24 departments and agencies identified.  There is no breakout for numbers of “fully vaccinated” employees versus partially vaccinated or the number of pending or approved exemptions or “accommodation requests.”

The only real data that can be pulled from this measure appear to indicate between 0.4% and 5.3% of federal employees, with a 2.4% average across departments and agencies, who have not complied in some way with the mandate.  The most likely reason would be a failure to provide the agency with a response concerning the status of vaccination or failure to request some form of exemption or accommodation. 

According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Executive Branch has employed a bit more than 2 million personnel, on average, from the fiscal year 2008 to 2017.  Over that same time period, the OPM also showed an average retirement number of a little more than 61 thousand employees per year.  A quick calculation reveals that, on average, approximately 3.0% of Executive Branch employees retire per year.

Without looking at the actual numerical size of each agency and its compliance rates, it would seem that one reason for failure to provide a response or request an exemption might just be that those “non-compliant” employees are actually individuals who are retiring.  The OPM even cites that between 2008 and 2017 the most popular month to retire is in January, followed by December.  Could the “pause” in enforcement through January of 2022 be designed to enable those “non-compliant” employees the opportunity to retire before any disciplinary actions are taken?  If so, why would the reporting not show “planned retirements” versus classifying these individuals as “non-compliant”?

So far, it might appear that the “agency-wide compliance percentage” measure merely informs us that normal or slightly above normal rates of retirement may be occurring.

The second method of measurement, however, is the “agency-wide vaccination percentage,” which is defined as the “percentage of agency employees covered by a vaccination requirement with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination.”  This definition produces results showing agencies with compliance rates from 87.7% to 97.8%, with an average across all departments and agencies of 91.9%.  The only data that can be pulled out of this measure is the possible percentage of employees seeking an exemption to the requirement.

Based upon this, on average, about 5.7% of all department and agency personnel have requested an exemption to the vaccine requirement, whether religious or medical.  The Agency for International Development and the Department of State has the fewest exemption requests, at 1.3% of personnel, while the Department of Veterans Affairs has 10.2% of its employees requesting exemptions, followed by the Department of Agriculture at 9.5% and the Small Business Administration at 9.1%.

The only somewhat reliable number that can be derived from the “agency-wide vaccination percentage” appears to be the number of exemption requests because of the highly specific definition of the “measure.”  Going back, the definition states that it measures the “percentage of agency employees covered by a vaccination requirement with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination.” 

The Safer Federal Workforce definition of “fully vaccinated” is “2 weeks after [employees] have received the requisite number of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine[.] … For Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, or AstraZeneca/Oxford, that is 2 weeks after an employee has received the second dose in a 2-does series.  For Johnson and Johnson (J&J)/Janssen, that is 2 weeks after an employee has received a single dose.”  OPM guidance reiterates the definition that “[p]eople are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second shot in a two-dose series, or two weeks after a single-shot series.”

The “agency-wide vaccination percentage” definition appears, then, to be specifically worded to avoid the use of the term “fully vaccinated.”  Could not the data reasonably have included one metric for “fully vaccinated” employees and one for “partially vaccinated” employees?

The question, then, might be, why are the definitions and metrics in the White House Briefing Room update so imprecise and so unhelpful?  Several theories are worth entertaining, but they all seem to come down to something along the lines of an informational imbalance and power dynamics over employees…along with a healthy dose of face-saving.

Much like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there is an informational imbalance between what the departments and agencies know and what their employees know.  Americans are familiar with and, unfortunately, accustomed to being lied to, either through commission or omission, by the government and mainstream media.  Perhaps the definitions and measures of vaccine compliance among federal employees were intentionally diluted so that they would provide the appearance of rates being higher than they really are for either optics or bargaining power over employees.

Is the vagueness part of a war of disinformation?  Politicians and the media have basically been in a campaign to pressure the unvaccinated to give in for quite some time; might these metrics just be another front on that campaign?  Under such a belief that they are in the minority, how might distorted numbers affect the perceived power and choices of non-vaccinated federal employees?

It is worth noting that to date, no departments or agencies appear to have approved any religious or medical exemptions or accommodations, despite the fact that exemption requests were required to be submitted by employees at some point in advance of the November 22 vaccination deadline.  The Safer Federal Workforce website indicates that for those employees to meet the November 22 date, they would have had to receive their last dose of a vaccine no later than November 8.  Based upon this, departments and agencies can be assumed to have had employee requests for exemption and accommodation since at least late October or early November.  Why the long delay in approval?

It is worth noting that just a few days ago, the Navy “uncovered last-minute ‘discrepancies’ with its data-tracking system that revealed a larger pool of unvaccinated sailors than had been projected.”  Are there more “discrepancies” yet to be discovered?  In light of the vague numbers and newfound discrepancies in the Navy, the idea that we are in a disinformation campaign regarding vaccination rates seems to add up a bit more than the administration’s vaccination reporting numbers.