As concerns over the coronavirus outbreak grow across the country, state officials and the White House have been in ongoing discussions about whether to declare a disaster or emergency declaration — a move that would, among other things, make it easier to release funds.
At least 24 states plus Washington, D.C., have declared emergencies, which allows them to waive certain regulations. However, a governor has to ask the President to isslue a declaration that would free up federal funds and kickstart the process to provide additional resources.
As of Wednesday afternoon, no governors from the states most affected by the coronavirus appear to have made a request. But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in conjunction with Sens. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, and Gary Peters of Michigan, sent a letter asking Trump to “immediately” consider disaster declaration requests for the coronavirus.
A source familiar said the White House was actively considering a disaster declaration under the Stafford Act, and the administration has been involved in the conversations with lawmakers and local officials as to what exactly this would look like. There are two types of declarations that a governor could request from the President – emergency declarations and major disaster declarations, both of which are authorized by the Stafford Act.
“At this time, FEMA is not preparing an emergency declaration in addition to the [Health and Human Services Department] public health emergency,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a statement. “HHS is the lead agency on the Federal government’s response to the coronavirus. Consistent with its mission, FEMA has been promoting preparedness activities and is currently a supporting agency to HHS delivering crisis action planning, situational awareness, reporting, interagency coordination, course of action development and logistics supply chain analysis through a Crisis Action Task Force located at the HHS Secretary’s Operations Center.”
If a declaration is eventually declared, it would put FEMA – the agency within the Department of Homeland Security that would be activated by a declaration – in a position to help provide additional supplies, assist with logistics like the transport of residents if needed, and put up temporary medical facilities, said Daniel Kaniewski, who previously served as deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA and is now a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies.
As states consider their options, FEMA is preparing for a larger response, said Steve Reaves, president of the union, which represents FEMA workers.
There are ongoing discussions within the administration about issuing a declaration, Reaves said. That declaration would be separate from Trump’s national emergency declaration last year over the southern border crisis.
Administrations have previously issued declarations to unlock FEMA funds in the event of natural disasters and health crises. For example, former President Bill Clinton issued an emergency declaration in 2000 over the West Nile virus, authorizing millions of dollars in federal funds to reimburse affected local governments.
But during other health crises – including Zika, H1N1 and SARS – FEMA maintained a supporting role to HHS and declarations were never issued, according to Michael Coen, a senior adviser for emergency management at IEM and former FEMA chief of staff during the Obama administration.
“None of those, became as big of an outbreak as we’re seeing with Covid-19. But those were examples of FEMA being in support of HHS in some way, but without the use of a Stafford emergency declaration or major disaster declaration,” he said.
FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told lawmakers Wednesday that his agency is supporting the Health and Human Services Department, adding that FEMA warehouses are stocked with commodities across the country.
“We are ready to support HHS, who is in the lead for the COVID-19, and until that changes, we will remain in support,” he added.
There are a few ways FEMA can prepare for the possibility of a declaration, like reviewing contracts to see if they can increase orders and examining the outbreak hotspots to see what additional supplies and services will be needed, Reaves said. To that end, the questions floated inside FEMA include: “What do we do next if this moves up? What’s our roadmap forward? What do we do at the next level?” Officials are meeting on a daily basis to assess the situation and discuss next steps, he added.
While FEMA is usually associated with natural disasters, like tornadoes and hurricanes, the agency is also prepared to respond to pandemics. “The difference between the two is scope and money,” Reaves said, referring to emergency declarations and disaster declarations. “Historically, our emergencies have been funded at a lower level than our disaster relief.”
Declarations can also start as one type of emergency and then change to another to access more resources, he added.
Over recent weeks, the number of coronavirus cases has continued to grow as more test kits have rolled out, fueling concerns about administration preparedness. States and cities have taken their own precautions, like clamping down on large public gatherings and deploying the National Guard, but the question over whether Trump will declare it an emergency or disaster remains.
CNN reached out to New York, California, Washington, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Oregon – the states with the most known coronavirus cases – to see if there were plans to request FEMA assistance.
An official in Washington state, among the states hardest hit by coronavirus, told CNN that they’re “reviewing all options in terms of federal assistance.” Georgia has not made a request and will announce it publicly if the state makes a request, the governor’s communications director, Candice Broce, said.
Oregon, which also declared a state of emergency, is reviewing its options. “Governor Brown is requesting swift federal action to make available all necessary resources to stem the spread of the coronavirus,” said Charles Boyle, press secretary for Gov. Kate Brown.
“Similarly, we are asking the federal government to consider taking any actions that are necessary to make sure the national response to this evolving public health threat continues unimpeded. State agencies are in ongoing conversations with FEMA about what funds are available to aid in Oregon’s response efforts, and exploring what declarations may or may not be needed at a federal level.”
Other states did not immediately return request for comment.
“People naturally think of FEMA first,” said Coen, because they’re seen responding to natural disasters on TV, but HHS is the lead for public health in the federal government.
“FEMA shouldn’t be the solution for every crisis,” Coen said. “FEMA needs to be prepared for the tornadoes that happened last week. They’re still dealing with recovery in Puerto Rico and the 2017 storms.” Coen noted, however, that if there is an unmet need – for example, if field hospitals need to be built – there could be a larger role for FEMA.
Last week, Trump signed a $8.3 billion response package to help combat the virus. The agreement provides $7.8 billion in appropriations to address the outbreak of coronavirus as well as an authorization for $500 million in mandatory spending to fund a telehealth program in an effort to expand access to health services for seniors.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared coronavirus a public health emergency in late January. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance on quarantines to prevent the spread of the virus.