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FEMA’s tasks pit COVID-19 vaccinations against hurricane prep

The agency faces staff burnout concerns as personnel are stretched thin running sites across the country as storm season approaches

Staffing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is at critical lows as the agency has been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts say is setting back preparations for hurricanes.

With about five weeks to prepare for hurricane season, 77 percent of staff are already deployed, according to a memo released at a short daily briefing Sunday. The United States saw a similar level of depletion of FEMA staff in reserve in 2017, when three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall and wildfires raged.

President Joe Biden assigned the federal government more responsibility than the Trump administration did for ending the pandemic that has killed at least 572,000 Americans. But the vaccination push has run headlong into preparations for natural disasters.  

Of 23 FEMA “cadres” — groups of FEMA staff with particular expertise — 17 are in the red zone, which means less than 25 percent of its personnel are available. 

The shortages are especially acute among highly skilled officials. Only three federal coordinating officers, officials appointed by the president to manage the operations for a disaster, are available to be deployed, with 49 already in the field. 

FEMA is responding to 118 major disasters across the country, 59 stemming from COVID-19.

“Usually at this time in the spring — April, May — FEMA is typically coordinating with state partners along the coastline, doing disaster drills. Emergency management staff is doing briefings with counties and parishes … for when hurricane season kicks off on June 1st,” said Elizabeth Zimmerman, former associate administrator of FEMA during the Obama administration. “The majority of that is not happening.”

FEMA anticipates dipping below the 2017 record for fewest people in reserve in early May, according to Zimmerman, now a senior executive adviser at IEM, an emergency management consulting company.

More federal involvement

The agency has been under pressure since Biden deployed FEMA for a nationwide vaccination campaign. In January, Biden pledged to open 100 FEMA-operated mass vaccination sites. More federal involvement in the vaccination push was a central component of Biden’s COVID-19 plan. That was a departure from the Trump administration’s hands-off, states-first approach toward getting shots in arms.

The Biden administration fell short of the promised 100 sites but launched 36 federally operated sites over the past four months, some of which are now temporarily closed, and 40 temporary pop-up sites. 

Another 10 mobile vaccination units are deployed to Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and South Dakota.

Meanwhile, FEMA has repeatedly reached out to other federal agencies for volunteers to help with the mass vaccination centers, according to emails shared with CQ Roll Call. 

That authority has been available to the Department of Homeland Security since the Obama administration. A so-called DHS surge is not uncommon in disasters, experts said. 

But it signals that FEMA lacks the people it needs, especially those qualified to administer shots.

“We’re pulling a warehouse worker to go out and run a vaccine site. That’s what we’re doing,” said Steve Reaves, president of American Federation of Government Employees National Local 4060, which represents FEMA employees. 

Experts are concerned about how burnout could affect the nation’s readiness heading into hurricane season, as FEMA staffers are ushered from one disaster to the next.

Every state is under a national disaster declaration at the same time for the first time in history. The FEMA National Response Coordination Center at the agency’s headquarters, which typically runs 24 hours a day to monitor a crisis, has been activated for more than 400 days. The previous record in 2017 was 70 days, according to former FEMA official Joseph Nimmich.

Juggling priorities

Some experts say the number of permanent FEMA staffers has not increased enough to keep up with increasingly frequent and more severe natural disasters occurring because of climate change. 

“The ever-increasing number of declared emergencies and disasters, not to mention nationwide events such as the pandemic, will continue to put unsustainable pressure on FEMA,” Nimmich told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this month. 

The period before hurricane season is also usually a time when many people at FEMA take vacation.

“Many staffers and reservists have been working full bore with no break for the last 16 to 18 months,” said Zimmerman.

But public health departments have said they were also overburdened and needed federal help, according to FEMA’s National Advisory Council member Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready, which works on preparedness.

“Public health is in the same position,” said Louissaint. “There is no better entity [than FEMA] to deal with that coordination of various resources and organizing those into a response.” 

Still, Reaves, the union leader, said he worries that FEMA relies too much on shuffling employees who are supposed to be temporary. 

“Employees are pulling down historic overtime. People are overworked and overburdened. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me,” he said.

Reaves wants lawmakers to appropriate more funding as part of FEMA’s annual budget for more permanent employees, instead of relying on temporary hires through the Disaster Relief Fund.

“There are about 5,000 permanent FEMA employees for 330 million Americans,” he said in an interview. “Holy cow.”

Shifting circumstances

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials have signaled a recent strategy shift, putting a greater emphasis on getting vaccines to pharmacies, clinics and doctors’ offices and moving away from the mass FEMA-staffed sites.

“We’re working with states to get primary care providers vaccine doses so more Americans can get vaccinated at their doctor’s office the same way they are accustomed to getting other vaccinations,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday. 

Experts say this transition makes sense as the priority becomes reaching people who are unsure about the vaccines, don’t have a car or can’t get time off from work to go to a mass site. 

“We still need high-throughput sites, but sites should be targeted to achieve the highest rate of return,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. 

FEMA transitioned management of some of its first mass vaccination sites in Los Angeles and Oakland to California officials last week. On the other hand, two more federal community vaccination center pilot sites will open in Kentucky this week.

Shortages of vaccines and softening demand could also be playing a role in the movement away from federal mass sites, even as Biden surpassed his goal of 200 million vaccinations in 100 days.

Some sites were closed or shifted to administering only first shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines when FEMA pressed pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after reports of exceedingly rare but potentially dangerous blood clots.

The pause was lifted after an independent advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the benefits far outweigh the risks, but shortages of the vaccine will likely continue for weeks. A subcontractor making drug substance for the vaccine also has been mired with manufacturing issues, holding up millions of doses.

Role in pandemic questioned

Declines in demand also led to the closure of mass vaccination sites. Meanwhile, questions have been raised about whether FEMA, an agency with expertise in floods and wildfires, should have been given such a prominent role in a pandemic.

Louissaint said the country needs both emergency management and medical expertise in a public health emergency. 

“FEMA has unique strengths when it comes to being able to deal with the logistics and coordination in any complex disaster,” said Louissaint. “You need both.”

But Reaves said he agrees with former top FEMA officials who have described the agency as having become the nation’s “911.”  

“You want someone to pass out meals, blankets and water? That’s us. Giving out shots has never been our thing,” he said.

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