Lessons from Past Emergencies Could Improve the Pandemic Response

These problems could have been avoided, Brunjes said, if the federal government had recognized and mitigated some of the issues that arose during past crises:

·  During 9/11, the lack of interagency radio capability thwarted rescue efforts. Emergency responders from different agencies were unable to communicate with each other throughout the 2001 disaster, which led to an effort among law enforcement and other aid agencies nationwide to improve radio systems over the next several years. In the years that followed, new emergency management policies and innovative technologies helped avoid similar problems in subsequent disasters.

·  The evacuation of millions of people during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 prompted the need for emergency shelters and other services, fast. Several federal agencies purchased temporary beds, trailers and portable school buildings that went unused or were overpriced. The U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized the overall response as vulnerable to “fraud, waste and abuse.” In the aftermath, new laws were passed to make emergency procurement more accountable.

·  The case most similar to the current pandemic — the H1N1 swine flu in 2009-2010 — showed how the response to COVID-19 might have been different if government had taken the issue seriously and acted quickly. As the H1N1 crisis continued, resources wore thin and coordination across states was stymied. In response, the federal government developed a dashboard to track and share information about critical supplies, aiding in the rapid distribution of vaccines.

In addition to the lessons of better communication and contracting accountability from Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, the government’s experience with H1N1, a smaller-scale pandemic than COVID-19, shows the importance of interagency planning and procurement throughout. That includes the use of existing, issue-specific resources, such as the pandemic guidebook and organizational structure that the federal government developed during H1N1.

“If the previous administration had retained human capital and not gotten rid of the pandemic team, this would have been a lot smoother. There was a lot of knowledge about how to go through this process,” said Brunjes, a former emergency policy analyst for the Department of Homeland Security’s research institute.

The new study was written early in the COVID-19 pandemic, he added, but nothing in the course of events would have changed the researchers’ recommendations. The Biden team has seen the need to take a more central role in communication and management of the response, Brunjes said, and though the administration acted quickly in rolling out a vaccine program, there remain significant equity concerns over who has received the shots. With vaccines alone — all the first and second doses still to be administered, not to mention any booster doses in the future — there should be an even more transparent supply chain and system for determining what agencies need, how much and when.