Agencies Ramp Up COVID-19 Deployments Again to Address Outbreaks

“This whole-of-federal-government, wartime-like approach—it continues,” said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator.

“This whole-of-federal-government, wartime-like approach—it continues,” said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator. Patrick Semansky / AP

White House launches “surge response teams” just as agencies were starting to bring back federal personnel.

The Biden administration is once again deploying federal employees across the country to confront rising cases of COVID-19 in some areas, launching new teams to assist communities struggling with outbreaks. 

The “surge response teams” will be led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, administration officials said. The White House and its pandemic response coordinators opted to stand up the teams as the Delta variant of the coronavirus has led to outbreaks in communities with low vaccination rates and threatens many more. The deployed federal personnel will be dedicated to those areas, with the White House noting there are about 1,000 counties in the United States with a vaccination rate of less than 30%. 

“Given what we are seeing with the spread of Delta in some communities in the country, we’re intensifying our efforts to help states prevent, detect, and respond to hotspots among the unvaccinated by mobilizing COVID-19 surge response teams to be at the ready to deploy federal resources and, where needed, federal personnel,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. “The federal government stands ready to meet the moment and work with our state partners to respond to the Delta variant.”

The response teams will boost testing in trouble areas to allow for contact tracing, provide therapeutics and increase vaccination efforts. CDC personnel will provide expertise for containing the spread through data analysis, field investigations and other public health efforts. 

The announcement follows efforts at FEMA to draw down its deployed personnel as it prepared for hurricane season. It additionally recalled employees sent to the U.S.-Mexico border "so our staff can rest and prepare," FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told lawmakers last month.

“I recognize that many of our staff have been activated in support of COVID-19 response operations and numerous other disaster declarations for over a year, and we will ensure that our deployed workforce gets the rest and training to be ready for what comes next,” Criswell said. 

Circumstances have dictated at least some degree of reversal on that pledge. 

“This whole-of-federal-government, wartime-like approach—it continues,” Zients said. “And the surge response teams are just another approach, given the Delta variant and the time that we find ourselves in.”

An administration official declined to say how many teams are prepared to deploy, explaining agencies will “provide teams based on each community that asks for needs.” The official added the White House is “in conversation with a number of local communities.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the White House has discussed deploying teams to Missouri and Mesa County, Colorado. 

“We’re in touch with a range of officials around the country, and we’re eager to have these teams out helping communities get vaccinated and protect themselves from the virus,” Psaki said. She added the White House and CDC are identifying areas with rising cases and then working “in a collaborative way” to deploy the personnel. 

President Biden on Tuesday also touted the work of the surge response teams, saying federal personnel will “fill gaps in staffing” at the local level and provide technical expertise. The teams will help prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks, the president said. 

“We’re stepping up our preparations to respond to the outbreaks we’re going to see among the unvaccinated,” Biden said of the teams.

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