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Lessons Learned from Ebola and Natural Disasters Help Federal Agencies’ COVID-19 Response

The COVID-19 pandemic required federal agencies to adapt their regulations to meet emergent needs. 

Twenty-three of the 24 major agencies the Government Accountability Office (GAO) surveyed in October 2021 reported implementing regulatory flexibilities in response to COVID-19. Regulatory flexibilities can include actions that modify regulatory standards, as well as activities that modify their applicability (e.g., through waivers or exemptions) or enforcement. A majority of agencies reported increased use of multiple types of flexibilities in response to COVID-19 compared to before the pandemic.

Officials from each of the five agencies GAO interviewed—the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Transportation, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration—reported designing and implementing flexibilities based on internal expertise developed from prior events. For example, officials reported that their experiences managing previous disease outbreaks, constrained funding situations, and natural disasters—such as Hurricanes Sandy and Maria—helped them develop responses to COVID-19. Officials from these agencies stated that they generally did not rely on specific plans, policies, or other tools given the unique challenges posed by COVID-19.

One example given in GAO’s June 23 report on its findings explained how officials from the Department of Transportation (DOT) used lessons learned from addressing Ebola cases in the U.S. as a guide to assist inexperienced private sector entities with managing issues around a novel illness spreading in the U.S. The onset of the pandemic saw widespread shortages in products that can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as hand sanitizer. DOT’s experience with responding to Ebola helped officials implement a flexibility for the transportation of hand sanitizer from new manufacturers with little experience in meeting DOT hazardous materials shipping requirements.

Meanwhile, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials said that they used their experience from prior disasters such as Hurricane Maria to implement a flexibility that simplified the application for FEMA’s Public Assistance Program. According to FEMA officials, while the idea of simplifying the entire application process was new, it was designed based on a pilot used in prior disasters. The simplified process allowed applicants to avoid previously required in-person consultations with FEMA and significantly decreased the amount of time it took applicants to receive aid.

Fifteen of the 24 agencies GAO surveyed reported having already completed an assessment of at least one regulatory flexibility to understand successes or challenges with using them. Ten agencies reported having used at least one such assessment to inform their decision-making, such as whether to modify an existing flexibility or use a new flexibility. Officials from several of the selected agencies reported that their agencies had not conducted assessments of at least one of the flexibilities discussed with GAO. Among reasons why assessments were not conducted, officials said that some flexibilities were intended to be temporary, and that their focus remained on responding to and recovering from the ongoing pandemic.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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