By Gwen Camp
February 22, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Big, bold moves in the first 100 days are proving to be important for the Biden-Harris administration to restore confidence and hope in our government and its handling of the fight against COVID-19. They are off to a roaring start.
It was encouraging to see a smiling Dr. Anthony Fauci, newly returned to the White House briefing room and the Sunday shows, declare that restoring public trust in government is one of President Joe Biden’s top COVID priorities.
Building back better means a hard look inward. In the emergency management field, many of our structural failures have been public for decades, when we usually work hard not to make headlines.
We have much to learn from disasters past in how to respond to the catastrophe of COVID-19, its economic crisis and our long overdue racial reckoning, which continues with disparities in access to vaccines and personal protective equipment.
In 2011, an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., on a day that had started out joyfully with the high school’s graduation. I was on the ground in the morning, rolling past leveled churches, big box stores and thousands of destroyed homes.
We were on our way to finding out this tornado had killed 161 people. It wrecked the high school, hospital and a nursing home, and injured more than 1,000 others.
All of the cell towers and communications were down, but a few coffee-shop employees had shown up to work, unbeckoned, to provide a little bit of normalcy — even without electricity.
In this tiny beacon of hope in a strip mall, each time a survivor saw a friend or acquaintance, they knew another one had made it out alive, and it was another round of bear hugs and happy tears. I feel this same bittersweet joy now every time I see another friend get their first vaccine.
In moving from response to recovery after every disaster, we knew to use local businesses, particularly minority-owned shops, to keep the economy and community strong.
In moving from response to recovery for our current catastrophe, we need to scale this massively. We are a powerful economic engine that needs to be reactivated.
Two days after the inauguration, Fauci declared that the shortage of N95 masks, which our frontline workers so desperately need, is now behind us.
The Strategic National Stockpile was down to less than 13 million N95 masks last spring. It now has 15 times that number, according to Brigadier Gen. David Sanford, director of the Supply Chain Task Force.
This took almost a full year of investment and cooperation between industry and government. 3M, for example, is now running respirator production 24/7, producing 95 million masks per month in the U.S. market alone.
Trucking companies, snowmobiles and even a dog sled team are helping with the “last mile” problem of getting vaccines into arms. Amazon and other big box companies are offering their expertise to support this unparalleled logistics operation. Local restaurants, hard-hit themselves, are feeding kids who are out of school. People and companies are building systems where their government has not, and we need to support them.
The Biden-Harris administration is using every government tool at their disposal. It was wise to make plans to use the Defense Production Act of 1950, a fascinating Cold War relic, for vaccine distribution. What they should not use it for is government-only approaches when we have American manufacturers and workers who have already risen to the occasion.
If not a supply challenge, why aren’t these PPE supplies getting to the communities that need them most?
As Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, President Biden’s COVID-19 equity task force leader, is no doubt finding, the gap is in the data.
Large institutions have been flush with supplies. The state of Washington had more than 30 million N95 masks in a warehouse in November, enough for each of the state’s health care workers to have nearly 100 masks.
But, across the country, the shelves at community health centers and rural hospitals, many of them disproportionally serving communities of color, were threadbare.
Coordinated federal data collection and sharing will connect those supplies – be they federal, state or private sector, to those with remaining demand.
This numbers-driven approach has been embraced for vaccine distribution. Until we get to herd immunity, which may not be until Thanksgiving, reliable access to PPE, particularly in communities hardest hit by COVID-19, remains vital to stopping this pandemic’s spread.
Gwen Camp was the director of intergovernmental affairs and director of individual and community preparedness at FEMA during the Obama administration .
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