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The Disastrous Response of the Federal Government to the COVID-19 pandemic

A recent paper published in the PAR Journal, written by myself, Andrea Patrucco, Zhaohui Wu, Christoper Yukins, and Tanner Slaughter, reveals some insights into the reasons for failure of the federal government response to COVID-19 pandemic. The paper, A new acquisition model for the next disaster: Overcoming disaster federalism issues through effective utilization of the Strategic National Stockpile was a multi-year effort. To tackle this scale and complexity of this challenge, we were introduced to a network of state acquisition officials through the National Association of State Procurement Officers (NASPO). Between October 2020 and February 2021, members of the NASPO network were invited to participate in a research project to understand the array of state procurement strategies deployed during COVID-19. Forty-seven of the fifty states CPOs were included in the study. While the scope of the interview was broader, a significant number of questions with state representatives focused on the interaction with the federal government, the relative resources received from the federal levels (in terms of inventory of critical goods, supply market knowledge, and monetary funding), what worked and what did not work in terms of federal support, and what types of reforms are required to improve the coordination between state and federal governments. The number of interviews and interviewees was not predetermined; interviews were conducted until a diverse range of concepts and themes began to emerge from the data and a sufficient level of theoretical saturation was reached. Due to the impossibility of conducting face-to-face interviews, meetings were conducted via various video links, and each participant was subsequently contacted via email for follow-ups.

According to FEMA (2019), an emergency is any natural or man-made incident that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption, severely impacting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions. Emergencies vary based on the speed of their onset, the magnitude of their impact on affected populations, and the local infrastructure and government’s capacity to respond and recover If an emergency exceeds the local government’s response capacity and necessitates state and federal intervention, this is a “disaster”. In the U.S., disaster management is usually classified into the phases of (1) mitigation, (2) preparedness, (3) response, and (4) recovery (FEMA, 2019). Large-scale disasters generate national crises, necessitating collaborations between agencies and different levels of government to effectively manage these phases. In such situations, disaster management is a crucial intergovernmental function for mitigating the repercussions of the disaster on society. Typically, the state and local governments are responsible for disaster management. However, when lower-level government capacities are depleted, federal government intervention is required to provide funding sources and resources. Over the years, disaster management research has demonstrated that federal assistance is required when disasters have a nationwide impact, especially during the response phase.

Federal Inaction

In the U.S., disaster federalism during COVID-19 led to “federal inaction, indifference and sometimes outright hostility”, revealing a deep divide, with different public organizations competing for the same resources against each other rather than collaborating. This disconnect is at least partially the result of the federalist structure of the American government, in which the U.S. Constitution divides powers and responsibilities between state and local governments and the federal government (State and local governments have “police power,” which is the general authority to regulate behavior without specific enumeration. They are constitutionally charged with “frontline” pandemic response duties, including the implementation of lockdowns of areas or industries, quarantine of affected populations, and other public health measures such as mandatory immunization programs.) Consistent with this role, state and local governments can tailor their responses to the unique circumstances in their respective jurisdictions.

In contrast, the federal government typically lacks police power or other comprehensive authority when it comes to public health; in the context of a pandemic, the federal government is primarily limited to its ability to spend federal funds. In most instances, the federal government lacks direct regulatory authority, but it has greater access to resources than state and local governments (. States and local governments are the primary implementers of pandemic response policy, while the federal government is expected to play a supporting role by using its spending power to acquire and distribute resources among states and localities.

Prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States in February 2020, the SNS’s medical assets amounted to approximately $8 billion. However, the stockpile had not been adequately replenished for many years. Particularly, it was discovered that the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) had not been replenished since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, that the expiration dates of many of the products (such as masks) had passed, and that many of the items were unusable. The Trump administration attempted to invoke the DPA, which allowed the President to direct private companies to prioritize orders for the federal government for national defense purposes, in order to partially address these issues. The federal government required corporations such as 3M and General Motors to produce respirators and face masks.

However, the U.S. Congress acknowledged that these actions had “sporadic and relatively narrow” effects (Congressional Research Service, 2020). The supply of critically needed medical supplies remained insufficient throughout the initial months of the crisis, and, in March 2021 (one year after the national emergency declaration), the Food and Drug Administration still identified a number of medical devices, including various forms of PPE, as being in a persistent state of shortage.

The SNS’s failures have drawn scrutiny from the public, government agencies, and committees. For example, a New York Times report details that, even during the early efforts to increase the Stockpile’s supplies to respond to COVID-19, $626 million was diverted to purchase anthrax vaccines from Emergent BioSolutions—money which, according to some involved in managing the SNS, should have been used to buy PPE and ventilators.5 In April 2020, a shipment of ventilators was diminished by more than 2000 due to a contracting dispute, which had prevented government contractors from adequately maintaining the ventilators in storage.6 By November 2020, only 142 million N95 masks had been delivered and were being held in inventory by the SNS.

Through the interviews held with state officials, it was clear that they perceived that the federal government did not seem to have a systematic allocation strategy for the distribution of PPE and that the patterns of doing so appeared to be erratic or “ad hoc.” During the initial response to the emergency, an attempt was made to source supplies on an expedited basis to address rapidly increasing hospitalization rates and the corresponding shortages of desperately needed supplies, such as ventilators. Furthermore, many planning and interventionist strategies were implemented to compensate for the difference in critical materials by foraging supplies, such as universities’ 3-D printing of face shields. However, these precautions were insufficient to prevent fast supply exhaustion, and by late March 2020, most materials in the SNS had run out.

Meanwhile, any scarce resources available were being competed for by various federal agencies as well as state and local governments, resulting in inequitable distributions of stockpiled materials, supply hoarding, and severe medical supply shortages across the country, benefiting better-funded areas at the expense of their less wellprepared counterparts. Federal responses to this situation came only after the SNS had been depleted of key materials, resulting in the DPA being invoked to secure a supply of PPE in mid-to-late March. Unfortunately, the global supply of raw materials needed to manufacture these goods was already depleted by April. During this time, the White House failed to define the federal government’s role, and several intergovernmental clashes (federal vs. state, state vs. state, state vs. local) further slowed a timely response to the crisis, resulting in many deaths.

In the next blog, I will go through some of the recommendations we derived for avoiding these failures in the future…