U.S. global vaccination program employees look to leave over lack of funding

The USAID Covid-19 Task Force — about 200 strong at its inception in 2020 but with fewer now — held a meeting last week to talk about the effect of Congress not allocating money for the agency’s global Covid efforts. The executive director of the task force, Jeremy Konyndyk, told team members he would understand if they were looking for other jobs — and would write letters of recommendation if needed, according to one of the people who was on the call.

The agency’s upheaval marks another challenge in the already-difficult work of boosting vaccinations around the world — especially in developing countries, like many in Africa, where fewer than 20 percent of the population have gotten the shots. Public health experts have repeatedly said global vaccination efforts could save thousands of lives and help prevent variants that could again disrupt life in countries with high vaccination rates.

Over the last two years, top Biden administration officials and global health leaders have touted USAID’s global vaccination work as vital to larger, international immunization goals. Its new Global VAX program, announced late last year, was supposed to push the agency’s work even further by swiftly ramping up immunization rates in 11 developing countries.

Now, programming focused on vaccine uptake seems to be coming to a close at a time when rising caseloads are being seen amid the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron — and as even more subvariants are emerging globally.

Because more funding is in doubt, employees working on the global Covid response at USAID have begun telling agency partners they can no longer count on plans set for future months. Goals set for later in the year are being either rethought or dropped, one of the people with knowledge of the matter said.

Many of those strategies centered on delivering available doses, expanding available Covid-19 treatments and strengthening health systems more broadly — the goals global health leaders say are most important at this stage of the pandemic.

Last week, after news broke that Congress would cut $5 billion for global pandemic responses from the Covid-19 supplemental funding package, USAID employees said they began scrambling to find new jobs.

Under the American Rescue Plan, many were hired as Schedule A employees — with the understanding the positions would end when the work was done or when funding ran out. But with global vaccination now a major focus for ending the pandemic, Schedule A hires, contractors and others were shocked to learn they would likely have to stop the work in the coming months. While dozens are now considering leaving before the funding runs out, scores more could be affected across global pandemic response teams.

Konyndyk had been more optimistic about future funding in earlier calls with the task force team, the person on the calls said, but the tone shifted during the most recent call. While he and other leaders at the agency have been outspoken about the effect of ending the programs, they could do little to keep the work going as it currently is without congressional action.

“We are at a point now where without additional funding we are going to have to start winding down our programming,” Konyndyk told The New York Times in an opinion column that ran earlier this week with the headline “The unbelievable stupidity of ending global Covid aid.”

He’s been blunt that new variants could come from not acting globally — something he has characterized as “the biggest risk we face domestically and globally.”

But even with the risk of new variants, several USAID workers on the task force said they have no other choice but to look for new jobs.

“I think everyone is sort of disheartened,” a global health employee at USAID said. “It’s been our life for the past two years, so it’s just sort of hard to detach from that.”

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