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FEMA to Move Out of Lead Virus Role to Focus on Reopening (3)

April 29, 2020, 8:52 PM

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is trying to remove itself as the lead agency on the federal Covid-19 response and is in discussions to hand over its responsibilities to another federal agency, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The move signals a shift in the Trump administration’s priorities, from the initial rush to increase the supply of necessary equipment to states and health-care workers to a longer-term strategy to reopen the U.S. economy.

FEMA is working with the Department of Health and Human Services on transition plans, and some functions and staff will likely return to HHS, which had been running the coronavirus response before FEMA took over on March 18, a FEMA spokesperson said. The agency hasn’t made any decisions about the kinds of adjustments that will be made.

Lizzie Litzow, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency’s job “is not done.” In a tweet Wednesday, she wrote, FEMA “will lead operational coordination of #COVID19 response until directed.”

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

FEMA has worked to increase the country’s supply of ventilators, personal protective equipment and hospital beds. Now that the administration has contracted to purchase tens of thousands of ventilators and has Project Airbridge, a program that is flying in personal protective equipment to the U.S., up and running, FEMA officials are suggesting the biggest part of their job is done, the people said.

Hurricane Season

The two primary administration tasks, testing and surveillance, are being led by Brett Giroir, an HHS assistant secretary, and Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator. The Defense Department is also working with the HHS to equip the Strategic National Stockpile as needed.

FEMA officials say they are also concerned about their staff being ready for hurricane season, which starts in June. They still plan to keep some staff in the field for Covid-19 response, but believe the current infrastructure is no longer necessary.

FEMA expanded the capacity of its National Response Coordination Center and has prepared another facility to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as any disasters in the months ahead, the FEMA spokesperson said.

Lawmakers have expressed concern about the capacity of FEMA to handle everything.

“FEMA is clearly going to have to change its emergency response operations to be able to handle natural disasters while still handling a pandemic response,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said earlier this month.

(Adds FEMA tweet in fourth paragraph)

--With assistance from Billy House.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Shira Stein in Arlington at sstein51@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net

Laurie Asséo, Max Berley

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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