WASHINGTON - The U.S. Postal Service's mission to deliver 500 million coronavirus test kits has cast it in an unprecedented role in the nation's pandemic response just as covid-19 infections have peaked within its own ranks and its network is under immense strain.
Online orders began rolling in this week for the free rapid tests, which are scheduled to ship by the end of the month. The agency has hired thousands of seasonal workers and converted more than 40 facilities into ad hoc fulfillment centers in what experts have called the largest disaster-relief mobilization in its 247-year history.
The stakes for country - and Postal Service - could hardly be higher. Americans are still struggling to access at-home coronavirus tests as the omicron variant is driving caseloads near record highs in parts of the country.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy hopes the test kit assignment will relieve political heat on the agency caused by his controversial 10-year cost-cutting plan and its tumultuous performance during the 2020 presidential election - which was heavily reliant on mail-in ballots - according to four people familiar with his thinking. A good outcome could help the Postal Service win funding for a much-needed fleet of delivery trucks and restructure its massive debt burden.
Success, though, is far from assured, postal officials privately concede. The program requires the agency to take on entirely new duties and a fresh public face in the fight against the coronavirus. Test kit processing snags, IT failures or delivery issues could set the agency's reputation back decades.
And rising workforce quarantines have already affected mail service. On-time delivery rates for first-class mail fell to 84.5% the week of Jan. 14, the agency's worst score since the pandemic began and well below its 95% target.
"Even if you know how to do it, it's never been done before. A lot can go wrong," said one senior postal official. "But if we can pull it off, wow."
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The undertaking, as well as a separate non-postal effort to distribute 400 million high-quality N95 masks, is part of the Biden administration's response to omicron-powered coronavirus spike that caused nearly 9 million people to miss work in late December and early January.
Among them are the 19,742 postal workers in quarantine Friday after a positive test or exposure to the virus. It is the largest contingent to miss work since the agency began, according to the American Postal Workers Union.
What's more, health officials at postal installations are so overwhelmed by employee reports of new cases that they're unable to track and trace close contacts of newly infected individuals, or authorize those who've recovered to return to work. The issues are compounded, local union officials say, by other workers refusing to call in sick out of a fear of discipline.
And while the agency is set up to move billions of pieces of mail - letters, advertisements, ballots, parcels, even cremated remains - it's never managed its own off-the-shelf inventory or developed this kind of consumer-fulfillment operation.
This report is based on interviews with 32 current and former postal officials and agency employees; White House and union officials; and independent logistics and health experts. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to give candid assessments of the administration's and Postal Service's preparedness for the test kit shipment program.
Observers say the Postal Service is working furiously to retain seasonal employees for the campaign and reconfiguring its sprawling transportation network to handle the parcels. Agency leaders appear cautiously optimistic about the program, according to seven people directly involved with the effort, though worries persist about the wobbly postal IT system and rising workforce infections.
Rank-and-file workers report enthusiasm for the project even as regional supervisors have yet to receive instructions on how local postal facilities will handle the tidal wave of incoming test packets.
"The 650,000 women and men of the United States Postal Service are ready to deliver and proud to play a critical role in supporting the health needs of the American public," DeJoy said in a statement. "We have been working closely with the administration and are well prepared to accept and deliver test kits on the first day the program launches."
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As a wave of omicron infections swept the country in December, White House officials originally scoffed at the idea of mailing test kits to American homes. They changed tack weeks later.
Postal officials were giddy about the decision, said four people involved with the plans. DeJoy, long a Joe Biden foil, was intensely involved in conceiving the Postal Service's logistics footprint, the people said, drawing on his private-sector experience.
The agency has converted 43 package sorting plants launched during the holiday season to store and process the test kits, and extended the contracts of 8,000 seasonal employees to staff those sites, according to union officials. It plans to ship 2 million packages - each holding four test kits - every day.
Seasonal employees will work on 75-day renewable contracts; the Postal Service anticipates scaling down the operation by mid-April, though its future is largely dependent on the pandemic's course and how the White House chooses to distribute another 500 million test kits.
The administration has so far not commented on how it plans to provide those tests.
"The strategies that yielded improvements to our peak season performance will allow the Postal Service to distribute test kits efficiently nationwide," agency spokesman David Partenheimer said in a statement. "These strategies, including additional staffing, an investment in new processing equipment and operational efficiencies, and an expanded facility footprint, mean test kits can get to the Americans who want them in a timely and efficient manner."
Postal workers will manage and track the inventory of tests. Agency engineers will oversee the customer ordering process, which generates mailing labels and postage for each package. Then postal staff will "pick and pack" test kits into parcels, reminiscent of a private-sector e-commerce operation.
It sounds easy, industry experts said. It is not. The program requires accountability for each test kit, not just each mailed parcel. The software behind customers' test-kit order form must integrate with operations from the 43 package annexes. And the Postal Service needs to extend commitments for trucking and freight air contractors to ensure tests are delivered in one to three days.
Test kits shipped within the continental U.S. will be delivered via first-class package service, and those sent to Alaska, Hawaii, offshore territories and foreign-based military and State Department employees via priority mail, Partenheimer said.
The Department of Health and Human Services will reimburse the Postal Service for its costs, said Partenheimer and HHS spokeswoman Kirsten Allen, though neither specified an amount.
Success, experts say, is highly dependent on the Postal Service's IT system - which the agency declined to discuss - and its staffing capability.
"If they have to get something to everybody, they have the obvious, obvious infrastructure to do it. But I think the challenge remains getting it into the system," said Leo Raymond, managing director at Mailers Hub, an organization that provides market information and support for commercial mailers. "It's not whether they can deliver it. It's the logistics of getting it to the delivery resource. That that's where the trick comes in."
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Mounting covid-19 infections among postal staff remain a wild card. According to interviews with 13 postal workers and union officials in 11 states, the agency's pandemic response has been uneven and largely left to local supervisors.
Al Friedman, president of the Florida State Association of Letter Carriers, said he's fielded more than 100 calls from workers and shop stewards since early January with reports of postal workers being required to continue working despite showing coronavirus symptoms.
As a wave of infections swept through one Pennsylvania office, one transportation manager rushed to shore up mail shipment plans before their own covid-19 symptoms worsened. Elsewhere in the facility, colleagues who were not eligible for more than a few days of sick leave kept at the job, wary that a week's worth of isolation could lead to discipline.
"My manager called me and said, 'I'm sick, you're sick, what are we going to do?' the person said. "Everybody is at the point where they're scared to take off work. . . . I know I definitely got it at work, because this is the only place that I go."
In Fremont, Ohio, infections sidelined 14 of the 50 employees at the local post office, said Jennifer Lemke, the executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 170.
Postal health officials in the district, which serves both Toledo and Cleveland, have been swamped with new cases and have not been able to track and trace new infections, or approve workers to return to their posts.
Return-to-work guides circulated to supervisors and union officials and obtained by The Washington Post have caused more confusion.
One guide, distributed Jan. 5, says employees who are staying home because they are symptomatic but have not tested positive for the virus, can return upon satisfying three criteria. The document, however, only lists two succeeding items.
Another guide, updated Jan. 16, instructs supervisors to conduct a "verbal discussion with the employee" before referring their case to Postal Service occupational health nurse administrators. The guide specifically prohibits supervisors from taking "any written notes" from these conversations.
The absence of clear instruction has employees returning to work - or remaining on leave - on their own timelines, Lemke said.
"It ranges all over the place," she said. "We have one employee that said, 'Hey I've been out five days, I have no symptoms, I'll come back to work, but I'll wear a mask.' But masks are sort of new thing here."
Partenheimer, the postal spokesman, said that the agency's pandemic mitigation plans - which include social distancing when appropriate, a "liberal" covid-19 leave policy, distribution of personal protective equipment and more frequent facility cleanings - "continue to perform well."
The agency mandates mask-wearing in jurisdictions that have their own mask mandates, Partenheimer said. Masks are required for nonpublic facing employees that cannot maintain social distance in the workplace.
Some workers and union officials had hoped that the Postal Service would move quickly to comply with the Biden administration's vaccine-or-weekly test requirement for large employers to stem the growing number of infections, but the Supreme Court largely struck down that policy earlier this month. While postal workers are government employees, the agency does not fall under a similar Biden policy in place for federal workers and contractors.
Instead, the Postal Service asked for a temporary waiver from the vaccine-or-test policy, citing concerns that it would "likely to result in the loss of many employees - either by employees leaving or being disciplined."
DeJoy and seven of the eight members of the agency's governing board confirmed to The Post that they had been fully vaccinated. The board's longest serving member, Republican Robert M. Duncan, and Deputy Postmaster General Doug Tulino did not respond to requests for comment.
Partenheimer said postal workers are not "currently" required to be vaccinated or provide evidence of negative coronavirus tests as a condition of employment.
Still, postal workers said they were optimistic about the Postal Service's ability to distribute the test kits. The mail service is at its highest staffing complement in recent memory after DeJoy instructed hiring managers to begin onboarding holiday seasonal workers months earlier than in years past. And even with infections rising, workers say morale is high.
"There isn't really another infrastructure in place in the country that will do what we do," said one letter carrier in Los Angeles. "The core value of the Postal Service to begin with is [delivery to] every address, every day, to keep every community and every business and every [person] off the grid connected to the world, if they want to be. In those corners, there isn't another way to do it. It's kind of what we signed up for."
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The Washington Post's Taylor Telford contributed to this report.