WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the government shutdown loomed over the holidays, heads of federal agencies and departments overseeing health and public assistance services tweeted that, regardless of what was happening in Washington, they were attending, as much as possible, to business as usual.
In a statement over the holiday weekend, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said, “There may be a lapse in funding for the federal government, but that will not relieve USDA of its responsibilities for safeguarding life and property through the critical services we provide.”
According to the statement, 61% of the Department of Agriculture’s employees would continue to work through the first week of the shutdown, but that number would decrease the longer the shutdown continues.
Some of the agency’s offices to be hit hardest by the closure include the office of Food and Nutrition Services that oversees the Child Nutrition, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). By the end of the fifth day of the shutdown, staffing will be cut by 95%.
As of Tuesday, the department website displayed a message stating, “Due to a lapse in federal funding, this USDA website will not be actively updated. Once funding has been re-established, online operations will continue.”
Eligible households will still receive monthly SNAP benefits for January. But other domestic nutrition assistance programs such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, WIC, and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations will only be operational based on available resources. Additional federal funds and commodities will not be provided during the shutdown.
Child nutrition programs including School Lunch, School Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Feeding, Summer Food Service and Special Milk will continue through February.
The Department of Agriculture will maintain meat, poultry, and processed egg inspection services. Inspections of food imports and exports will also continue throughout the shutdown.
An end to the shutdown didn’t appear to be in sight. After a call with US Troops, the President said, “I can’t tell you when the government is going to be open. I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they would like to call it.”
Protecting and enhancing the well being of Americans
The Department of Health and Human Services expects that nearly 8,000 federal employees would not be returning to work on Wednesday as the shutdown continues. That number equals about a quarter of the department’s employees.
Most of the department is funded through the fiscal year, and those positions and divisions that are being placed on leave are funded through Agriculture and Interior appropriations.
For the Department of Health and Human Services, among the activities that would continue are Indian Health Service clinics, response efforts from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and specific activities under the Food and Drug Administration, including responding to emergencies and managing high-risk recalls.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reassured the country that the department’s public health missions are being maintained, despite the holiday and shutdown.
“Thousands of my @HHSGov colleagues routinely work weekends and holidays, and many are tasked with working through shutdowns, to fulfill our mission to protect and enhance the health and well-being of all Americans. I’m grateful for their commitment & proud to be their colleague,” Azar said on Twitter.
According to the Department, the FDA’s missions that are critical to public health, such as tracking and responding to outbreaks related to foodborne illness and the flu, supporting high-risk food and medical product recalls, pursuing criminal and certain civil investigations when public health may be at risk, screening food and medical products imported into the United States, and addressing other critical public health issues will continue through the shutdown.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb expressed his gratitude to FDA employees who were continuing to work through the closure. “I’m so proud to lead an agency driven by so many dedicated people. Working on a holiday, and through a government shutdown, to fulfill their commitment to America,” Gottlieb said on Twitter.
As of Tuesday night, the agency website displayed a message titled “FDA Lapse in Funding” on the top of its homepage. The message says, in part, that “agency operations continue to the extent permitted by law, such as activities necessary to address imminent threats to the safety of human life and activities funded by carryover user fee funds.”
According to HHS, about 41% of the FDA’s staff would be furloughed as of Wednesday, December 26.
The Department said that approximately 65% of staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will not be returning to work that day either.