The US Government Accountability Office (GAO)'s recent report on the COVID-19 pandemic response and past work on other disasters has identified potential challenges the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) faces in responding to the pandemic and any future nationally significant biological incidents. These challenges may be further complicated by the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and additional expected case increases in the fall, says GAO. 

According to GAO, FEMA might face the following challenges:

  1. Contracting. In December 2018, GAO found inconsistencies in how FEMA coordinated and communicated with states and localities on advance contracts—those that are established prior to disasters and are typically needed to quickly provide goods and services. GAO made recommendations to improve FEMA's efforts and it is taking actions to address this issue.
  2. Medical supply acquisition and distribution. In June 2020, GAO reported on concerns about the distribution, acquisition, and adequacy of supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile and other sources. GAO will continue to monitor these issues through ongoing and future work.
  3. Deploying disaster workforce. In May 2020, GAO reported on staffing shortages and other workforce challenges FEMA faced in recent disasters. The large number of declared COVID-19 disasters coupled with hurricane and wildfire seasons adds other potential challenges. GAO made recommendations designed to enhance the information FEMA officials have to manage the workforce, which FEMA agreed to implement.
  4. After-action reporting. Analyzing lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic response may help FEMA and other agencies take corrective action for the remainder of this response and for potential future biological incidents. In May 2020, however, GAO reported that FEMA had not consistently completed prior after-action reports. FEMA agreed to implement recommendations designed to improve after-action reporting.
  5. Interagency planning for biological incidents. In June 2020, GAO reported that the National Biodefense Strategy sets goals and objectives to help the nation prepare for and rapidly respond to biological incidents to minimize their effect and could drive interagency preparedness efforts. However, implementation was in early stages at the start of the pandemic, and in February 2020 GAO made recommendations designed to address key implementation challenges, including clarifying roles and responsibilities. As shown in the COVID-19 response, FEMA's role in these efforts will be critical. GAO will continue to monitor preparedness and strategy implementation.

"The COVID-19 pandemic shows how biological threats have the potential to cause loss of life and sustained damage to the economy, societal stability, and global security. During the pandemic, 57 major disaster declarations were simultaneously issued for all U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories—the first time in history this has occurred. FEMA had obligated about $5.8 billion for the response as of May 31, 2020," says GAO.