FEMA Preparing for Possible Shortages of Bio-Hazard Gear as Ebola Fears Rise
By Stew Magnuson
The Obama administration is looking into evoking the Defense Production Act to stem possible shortages of bio-hazard protective gear as fears of an Ebola outbreak grow, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official said Oct. 15.
Jim Kish, deputy assistant administrator for response at FEMA, said that there is currently no shortage of gear that would protect personnel from the deadly Ebola virus, but the administration is looking into the possibility that there could be a run on such items if the contagion spreads.
“As the situation matures inside the United States … private sector organizations, local jurisdictions, federal agencies are all going to recognize the need to procure and field and expend personnel protective equipment,” Kish said at the Association of the United States Army annual conference in Washington, D.C.
“I’m not stating that there is a shortage today, but the notion about how we are going to address any potential [shortage] in that area, in terms of planning activity, we’d be negligent if we weren’t thinking about it right now,” he added.
The Obama administration may evoke the Defense Production Act, Kish said. That authorizes the president to require businesses to give federal contracts priority over previously existing contracts "to promote the national defense," according to the law.
Kish criticized the collective Ebola response so far: “Things are maybe not set quite right in the public health arena,” he said.
Over the weekend, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson tasked FEMA to be the integrator of information and operational coordination for DHS’ response to the Ebola cases.
The lead federal agency remains Health and Human Services, through its agency the Centers for Disease Control, Kish said. But DHS has a widening role.
“As of this morning, we found out that there might be a growing need for that kind of thing as well,” he said, referring to the case of the Dallas-area nurse who flew on a commercial flight after treating an Ebola victim.
In light of that case, the Transportation Security Administration may be called in to carry out some kind of measures, he said. Customs and Border Protection, which screens inbound passengers, already has a role in the response, he said.
Along with the nurse who was allowed to fly, another who treated the patient has come down with the virus. The patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, had flown from Liberia, and had a high fever, but was sent home from the Dallas-area Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. He has since succumbed to the disease.
In terms of integrating DHS’ Ebola information, Kish said, “We have a fairly good template and a good battle rhythm going.”
“We feel like we are probably looking at something we haven’t seen the edge of yet because we are learning as a nation, and seeing more every day,” he added.
HHS’ office of refuge resettlement would be responsible for screening any large number of immigrants coming over from Ebola-stricken countries, he noted.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders on the House Homeland Security Committee Oct. 15 called on DHS’ Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry to suspend visas from Ebola-stricken countries such as Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“While we remain confident in CBP’s ability to adequately screen individuals with overt signs of disease, given the virus’ long incubation period of up to 21 days, individuals carrying the virus may not show symptoms when they leave West Africa or upon entry in the United States,” the letter said.
“Taking such action to temporarily suspend some of the 13,500 visas would improve the American public’s confidence of public health officials to limit the spread of Ebola to the United States, while simultaneously permitting a robust effort by the U.S. government and global health agencies to combat this vicious disease in West Africa,” read the letter signed by the chairman of the committee Rep.
Michael McCaul, Texas, and the chairs of the five subcommittees.