After Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland said in a video address taped earlier in the week that 34 staffers at the agency had died from COVID-19, the department’s communications director, Melissa Schwartz, wrote on a Twitter on Aug. 6 that one more person had died, bringing the tally to 35.
Schwartz also updated the number of agency employees who have, to date, contracted the CCP virus, boosting that figure to more than 4,000 from Haaland’s earlier mention of around 3,900, though the secretary noted in her remarks that the number was continuing to increase.
Haaland expressed concern about the spread of the Delta variant of the virus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers more transmissible and potentially more resistant to vaccines.
“Though many people are vaccinated, our country still faces increased rates of COVID-19 infections and more aggressive variants,” Haaland said, noting that the Interior Department would be requiring its on-site staff and contractors to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status.
“To help fight this devastating disease, we are following CDC guidance and putting our masks back on.”
The CDC recently updated its mask-wearing guidelines, recommending facial coverings for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people when entering high-transmission areas.
“Each state and community faces different threats, so if you are in an area with substantial to high COVID transmission rates, everyone—employees, contractors, and visitors—must wear a mask in all federal buildings, no matter your vaccination status,” Haaland said.
Following the CDC’s move to a stricter posture on mask-wearing, a number of Republican governors came out in opposition, with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey saying that the CDC’s announcement would “only diminish confidence in the vaccine and create more challenges for public health officials.”
Haaland’s remarks about masking at the Interior Department follow new rules announced on July 29 by President Joe Biden, who said federal workers and contractors would have to either show proof of vaccination or wear masks, engage in social distancing, and submit to regular COVID-19 testing.
“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say if ‘I’d just got the vaccine,’” Biden said in the East Room of the White House. “This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”
On Aug. 6, White House COVID-19 data director Cyrus Shahpar said that, to date, half of the total population of the United States has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.