Daniel Gerstein: Understanding the U.S.’s Shortfalls Concerning COVID-19

Originally published on May 7, 2020

The U.S.’s response to COVID-19 included inadequate biosurveillance systems, a disjointed emergency response network, and poor management of supply chain disruptions according to Schar School PhD in Biodefense alum Daniel Gerstein. Gerstein was acting undersecretary and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2014.

His most recent article—published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—is about why the U.S. was not prepared for the coronavirus pandemic.

“Early on in the outbreak, at a time when better preparations could have been made to forestall the worst impacts of a broad outbreak, the federal response was failing,” he writes. The op-ed includes his thoughts on how understanding the shortfalls of the U.S.’s response will help decision-makers understand how to prevent a future crisis, how to respond to another pandemic, and how to recover.

Gerstein recommends reexamining the nation’s emergency response systems in view of the tepid federal response to the COVID-19.

Currently, “emergency management in the United States is based on the understanding that all initial response is local,” he says. “When local authorities no longer have the capacity to mount an effective response, states provide necessary support. When the state capacity is exhausted, the president can make what’s called a Stafford Act declaration and provide federal support for disaster relief.”

“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed underlying cracks in the national preparedness and response system,” he says. “Going forward, the United States will need to question, and in some cases, relearn the lessons of crisis response and emergency management.”

If the federal government no longer intends to perform this role, then emergency management doctrine going back to the Congressional Act of 1803, which is considered to be the first piece of disaster legislation will need a makeover.

For more, read the essay in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.