FEMA finds itself in uncharted waters with coronavirus

FEMA finds itself in uncharted waters with coronavirus

When a staffer working at Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) headquarters tested positive for the coronavirus late last month, agency leadership set about informing those who may have been exposed.

FEMA leaders gathered others working on the same floor as the infected individual and put them in a room standing “shoulder to shoulder,” according to an official familiar with the episode, exasperating some who worried about crowding people together when the government was urging the public to practice social distancing.

The handling of the positive test underscores the unusual position FEMA finds itself in as the lead agency in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Typically asked to respond to wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters hitting a localized area, FEMA has been thrust into uncharted territory. While it has dealt with public health matters before when regions are decimated by hurricanes or impacted by hazardous materials, FEMA has yet to confront something of the nationwide scope of the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency is being asked to manage a massive national supply chain and distribute ventilators, drugs, masks, gowns, gloves and other materials around the country. It must communicate with governors from all 50 states, acknowledge requests from the White House to pursue different avenues and ramp up its capabilities quickly after being pressed into a leadership role well after the virus had spread across the nation.

After some initial struggles to find its footing, current and former officials believe the agency is starting to hit its stride.

“It's not ideal that FEMA is having to step in and manage the pandemic specifically since it’s right before wildfire season and hurricane season, but they’re really the only agency in the federal government that can handle the incident command needs that are being presented to the nation as a result of COVID-19,” said Brock Long, a former FEMA administrator in the Trump administration.

FEMA has 2,578 workers supporting the coronavirus response out of a total 20,550 agency employees, an agency spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. The remaining roughly 18,000 employees are on hand to respond to other emergencies or disasters should they occur.

The agency is attempting to meet demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical supplies by expanding domestic production of gloves, masks, goggles, gowns and other items. FEMA has also acquired shipments of those items from overseas as needed, including a flight from Asia that arrived March 29 with 80 tons of supplies for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

FEMA said each flight will have varying amounts of PPE and acknowledged it will not have insight into the quantity until the flights are actually loaded.

The agency has also looked to rapidly acquire PPE to replenish the national stockpile, and it is urging the reuse of certain materials when it's safe to do so.

Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who is leading the supply chain task force efforts at FEMA, has described the process at recent White House briefings, where he's touted the millions of gloves, N95 masks, surgical masks and gowns that have been allocated to hot spots facing acute outbreaks of the virus. 

Polowczyk said Sunday that the agency is also working to distribute shipments of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE has pushed as a potential therapeutic for the virus despite limited evidence.

“As challenging as it is for FEMA and the entire federal government, my view is it would be even more challenging if FEMA were not involved,” said Daniel Kaniewski, the former deputy administrator for resilience at the agency.

“I think the federal government has finally hit its stride as far as their role in supporting state and local government,” added Kaniewski, who now works at Marsh & McLennan.

But the recent progress has not come without obstacles and criticism. 

FEMA had been playing a secondary role in the early stages of the pandemic, assisting Health and Human Services in its role as the lead agency. It was not until March 13, when there were more than 2,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., that Trump declared a national emergency and freed up billions of dollars in additional resources for FEMA.

The agency said it officially took a leading role on March 18, when there were more than 13,000 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Even as FEMA gets acclimated, it has contributed to frustration among governors who have struggled to acquire desperately needed materials to combat the virus. Trump has repeatedly urged states to procure their own equipment and use the federal government as a backup, but governors have in recent days complained that FEMA has swooped in to buy up many of the needed supplies.

Members of New York’s congressional delegation wrote to FEMA on Tuesday calling for more transparency in how the agency is distributing supplies and the creation of a centralized system where states can procure equipment from FEMA.   

The virus itself has also led to some issues. In addition to the handling of the positive test on March 24, NBC News reported Tuesday that members of a supply chain task force must work remotely after one member tested positive.

“Like many large employers, FEMA has employees who have tested positive,” a FEMA spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “Individuals who need to be aware of their names and locations have been made aware. FEMA has taken every precaution recommended by the CDC to protect all employees.”

The agency said the individuals who tested positive  did not come within 6 feet of the vice president or other “principal” members of the task force who had visited FEMA headquarters.

The virus response will also put an additional strain on FEMA, which is facing a potentially daunting natural disaster season.

Forecasters at Colorado State University projected an active hurricane season this year, with as many developing into Category 3, 4 or 5 storms. Climate change has further exacerbated wildfires in California and flooding in coastal regions of the country.

A FEMA spokesperson said the agency is “preparing and maintaining the Agency’s readiness for other disasters” while responding to the pandemic.

Long, the former administrator who now serves as executive chairman at Hagerty Consulting, said he's hopeful the pandemic will serve as a “wake-up call” for the country to develop a “culture of preparedness” at an individual level, at a state and local government level and at a corporate level to ease the burden on agencies like FEMA.

“I just think that America needs to champion and rally around FEMA right now, rather than point the blame at them,” he said. “They’re like the sixth man coming off the bench in a basketball game down by 20 and being told to win the game. And there are a lot of things working against them that are out of their control.”