FEMA administrator unpacks multilayered approach to COVID-19

“58 percent of the individuals that we vaccinated were from minority populations, which really shows that outreach and engagement made a big difference,” says FEMA’s Deanne Criswell

Free COVID-19 test kits are starting to arrive in the mail this week after people began ordering them from the government’s official website. Next up, pharmacies will began offering free N95 masks, considered one of the best items in the defense against COVID-19.  

The White House effort comes as the COVID-19 Task Force continues to find minority America is being hit disproportionately by this deadly disease more than two years into the pandemic. Dr. Cameron Webb, who sits on President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Response Team, emphasized, “Omicron has been particularly unforgiving in Black America. We’ve seen cases shoot up since mid-December, and it’s particularly among young Black folks [between the ages of] 18 to 29, 30 to 39. “

Webb continued to reiterate the call for Americans to protect themselves against the virus by getting “boosted” and to “take this seriously” as there are upticks of cases “in the south, also Illinois, [and] Ohio.”

COVID-19 at-home rapid test kits are given away during a drive-thru event on Dec. 30 in Hollywood, Florida, where Broward County distributed a limited supply of the kits to residents while supplies lasted. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

However, concerns about the federal government’s response to COVID-19 have not eased. This latest iteration of worry is about the Biden administration’s efforts to hand out COVID-19 test kits.

Currently, Americans are receiving four COVID-19 test kits in the mail, if they chose to order them. According to a 2019 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, minorities are more likely than White people to live in households with more than four occupants.

Dr. Webb countered, telling theGrio exclusively, “[The] average household size is about 2.6 percent for Black adults, a little bit lower for white adults, in the Hispanic community it is higher. It’s between three and four persons per household. It varies by region, it varies by community.” 

“I want to be clear about the purpose of the test kits that we’re sending out. It’s part of our national strategy of testing, which has lots of different components. And so I want to take a step back and make sure people realize this isn’t the only way that we’re getting these tests out to people,” Webb said. 

Blacks have had a major disadvantage in the American healthcare system since it’s founding, according to Dr. Melissa Clarke, the cofounder of the Black Coalition Against COVID.

“Eighty percent of Black and brown workers can’t work from home. They don’t have that luxury, and so they’re in harm’s way every day in terms of the risk of getting infected. Then we have healthcare disparities that exist. So in terms of testing, access to testing, access to healthy foods, access to insurance, access to healthcare providers, all those things are less for African-Americans, mainly based upon where we live,” Clarke explained.

President Joe Biden speaks about the government’s COVID-19 response, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The White House stresses that the effort will not stop with test kits. N95 masks are also coming soon.

“We also have initiatives targeted toward the hardest hit, highest risk communities, which include a lot of communities of color. [We will be] sending 50 million tests directly to community health centers that serve 75 percent Black and brown people,” Webb said. 

Dr. Clarke highlights that the key to close disparities surrounding COVID-19 can’t just be a one time thing. “It needs to be a continual. It can’t be just a one time we’re sending out four tests this month or providing masks today because this needs to be ongoing.”

The federal government’s approach to combat this deadly disease is multi-layered. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is going to some of the hottest COVID-19 spots in the nation, where masks and vaccines are not in full use. 

This latest effort comes after lessons learned over the past two years, with many hospitals overrun with COVID-19 patients and lack of supplies.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on January 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said, “We have learned so much over the last two years and we have been in constant communication with our state partners, our local public health officials, the hospital systems through my regional administrators, as well as Health and Human Services regional administrators. We are talking to them on a continuous basis so we understand and can project what their needs are.” 

In his first press conference of the year, President Biden admitted that more testing should have been done earlier but he claims they are moving in the right direction. “We’re prepared today for what’s coming. In March of 2020, we were not ready. Today, we’ve stockpiled [sic] enough — we’ve stockpiled enough gowns, masks, and ventilators to deal with the surge of hospitalizations among the unvaccinated,” Biden said. 

“One of the first things that FEMA did was to support vaccinating our underserved communities, and we set up community vaccination centers with a focus on reaching minorities and underserved populations. What we found through that effort is 58 percent of the individuals that we vaccinated were from minority populations, which really shows that outreach and engagement made a big difference,” Criswell said.

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