The Biden administration is elevating the Health and Human Services Department’s pandemic and disaster response division after months of discussion about fixing gaps and shortcomings exposed during the coronavirus pandemic, three people familiar with the internal deliberations said.
The decision, shared in an internal HHS memo, would make the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response its own operating division, putting the assistant secretary, Dawn O’Connell, on par with directors of other sweeping departments, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
“This change allows ASPR to mobilize a coordinated national response more quickly and stably during future disasters and emergencies while equipping us with greater hiring and contracting capabilities,” O’Connell wrote in the memo. “This change is an important next step for our organization which has continued to grow and evolve since its creation in 2006 – the pace of which has quickened over the past year.”
The move, first reported by The Washington Post, comes more than two years after the CDC’s early stumbles in Covid-19 testing and as challenges tracking case and treatment data remain.
“Even early in the pandemic, there were issues around CDC’s coordination across the [Health and Human Services] Department,” said the office’s former director, Robert Kadlec, explaining why the reorganization is desirable. “They felt like they were the guys in charge.”
Kadlec served in the role during the Trump administration, when early clashes — and dire warnings about the pandemic from then-CDC officials such as Nancy Messonnier — put the agency on a collision course with the White House.
A person familiar with the internal discussions told POLITICO that O’Connell approached HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about the reorganization several months ago. The person insisted it was not about shortcomings at the CDC, but better staffing the ASPR.
But others criticized the reorganization as a misguided effort that would undercut the CDC and its efforts to strengthen its response network.
“This is unfortunate. It presupposes ASPR performed well through the pandemic, and it has not,” Trump-era FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote on Twitter. “The right – but harder approach – is reform CDC; which has to be [the] tip of the spear in pandemic response.”
The change will strengthen O’Connell’s ability to staff key offices and expand the National Disaster Medical System, an HHS and Veterans Affairs Department network to deploy trained professionals during emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic, said Kadlec. He argued that when the office was initially created in 2006 — as a response to Hurricane Katrina — federal officials discussed making it an independent operating division.
The Trump administration assembled Operation Warp Speed, an HHS and Pentagon partnership to accelerate Covid-19 vaccine, treatment and test development, in part because of limits to the assistant secretary for preparedness and response’s ability to quickly staff up and catalyze funding decisions through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, Kadlec said.
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