Staff at the Womack Army Medical Center Urgent Care clinic prepares a COVID-19 testing kit before entering the patient’s room March 26, 2020. (Photo by Twana Atkinson/Womack Army Medical Center)

PERSPECTIVE: It Is Not Too Late to Get the Coronavirus Response Right

Let’s be clear: the federal government has failed. If we maintain the status quo, the cavalry is not coming.

Pandemic prevention efforts were ineffective. Pandemic preparedness efforts were ineffective. Pandemic coordination efforts were ineffective. Is it too late to appropriately mitigate and respond to the current COVID-19 outbreak here in the United States?

Possibly. But not if we take decisive, truly exceptional action – now. Not next week or next month. Now.

How anemic and underwhelming have the preparedness and mitigation efforts of the federal government been thus far in this crisis? Allow this status to speak for itself.

“FEMA and Our Partners Remain Actively Engaged to Support State-Managed Coronavirus Response” read the headline on a March 28 official advisory from the Department of Homeland Security. Completely abdicating leadership and belatedly declaring COVID-19 a “state-managed” threat is the depths to which we have sunk. A state-level emergency manager recently labeled the federal effort thus far a “complete systemic failure.” He is correct (and used language much more polite than some I’ve heard).

There is a time and place for politics, blame, and finger-pointing – and this is not it. We, as a nation, need to promptly embrace a true whole-of-government approach. We need to promptly embrace a holistic, cross-sector effort unseen in this divided nation since at least the post-9/11 era – perhaps not since the Second World War. The difference in lives lost could vary by the tens-of-thousands. And that mitigation and response effort must start now. A few recommendations for areas worthy of immediate action:

Put a leader with subject-matter expertise in charge. When General Honore was named the “czar” of the Hurricane Katrina response, he inherited a mess in some ways very similar to the one we find ourselves in now. The preparedness and mitigation efforts had largely failed. Civilian fatalities had resulted. And the various levels of government lacked any real coordination. Naming a highly qualified and experienced civil servant – a senior military logistician, or a former Surgeon General – would send a powerful and unifying message that an expert is in charge of a newly revamped whole-of-government effort. The Coronavirus Task Force has taken some vital initial steps, but it is time for a true unified command.

Build on what is working. Placing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of the federal response was the right decision, if belated. FEMA, more than any other agency or division within the federal government, possesses the knowledge and the raw know-how to deal with a truly nationwide crisis. This change came late in the game in terms of the pandemic’s progress, but it could still yield enormous benefits if leveraged immediately and supported by the full weight of the federal government. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must both continue to be relied upon for their continued subject-matter expertise. Yet unleashing FEMA and letting them do what they do best is the right call during the response phase.

Follow the single-point ordering model. FEMA’s preferred methodology for a large-scale incident is to have a single logistics and ordering unit ultimately in charge. This follows the core incident management function of area command. With multiple areas of simultaneous operations, the demand for some specific materials will exceed the available supply. In the current pandemic crisis, these highly sought-after products include effective virus tests, ventilators, masks, gowns, and face shields. There is currently no visible system in place at the national level to make the hard decisions for how to prioritize where these materials should be routed, and from the standpoint of many states and locals the result is a chaotic, expensive, disorganized mess. Just yesterday, Illinois received an oft-delayed federal shipment of 300,000 N95 masks – only to find the entire shipment consisted of much less effective surgical masks instead. Make no mistake, repeated errors like this are costing American lives as you read these words.

Fully leverage the military. The U.S. military, both active-duty and guard/reserves, possess a range of powerful and often unmatched skillsets. There is no other segment of government with this combination of logistical experience, capabilities, and equipment. Large Navy hospital ships are now in position on each coast to relieve some pressure on overburdened local hospitals. The Army Corps of Engineers has already made substantial progress in standing up mass-care medical centers across the nation. This model should be immediately emulated and duplicated across the breadth of the U.S. military’s capabilities, with strict civilian controls and full transparency regarding deployments.

Utilize a coordinated private sector. We hear stories all across the country of distilleries switching production to generate gallons of hand sanitizer, or of small garment manufacturers cranking out hundreds of protective masks. And yet these well-intentioned efforts remain entirely ad hoc and uncoordinated. The coronavirus “czar” should immediately designate a hand-picked, high-ranking private sector representative tasked with coordinating the massive potential energy that is the American private sector, whether through voluntary measures or via the Defense Production Act. Much like the military, this is a vast, available resource that is simply not being applied to the threat we face.

Be honest and direct with the American people. This situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Inconsistent or outright contradictory information from the Executive Branch has plagued the early phases of this crisis and must not continue. The designated subject-matter expert placed in charge of the nation’s response should be the key conduit of reliable and truthful information. This battle will ultimately be won or lost at the state and local level, but the federal government speaks to the nation in a unique and powerful way. Ultimately, addressing the American public with a trusted, consistent, and unified voice of authority is absolutely invaluable during a period of crisis. Citizens need to know what is being done on their behalf, and what is coming next.

This is not the time or place for assigning blame about how botched the initial efforts have been. It is the time and place for unified, decisive, and innovative leadership. Tens of thousands of American lives hang in the balance. The buck stops here – with you and with me, and with holding our leaders accountable. Now.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Thomas Henkey served for six years as Senior Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Chicago, where he was responsible for disaster planning and response, as well as special events, physical-security, infrastructure, transportation, and homeland security and antiterrorism analysis. Mr. Henkey also has nearly 15 years of experience in a range of private-sector and nonprofit safety and security management roles. In 2017, publisher Elsevier released his new text Urban Emergency Management. He is currently the Director of Emergency Management for Titan Security Group, and an adjunct instructor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service. Mr. Henkey is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), a Certified Institutional Protection Manager, and a member of the International Association of Emergency Managers, the ASIS Cultural Properties Council, the Chicago Public-Private Task Force, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the vice-chair of the Chicago Cultural Properties Security Group, as well as vice-chair of the BOMA-Chicago Preparedness Committee. Mr. Henkey holds undergraduate degrees from St. Louis University, and a Master’s Degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from American Military University.

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