Fire State Officials Who Failed Us in COVID

by James C. Sherlock

If senior members of the state bureaucracies escape accountability for their failures before and during COVID, the agency cultures won’t change and it will happen again.  

I am going to review below the extent of their written responsibilities for pandemic planning and the high quality planning support they were given before COVID struck.  

It is clear that the planning framework, guidance and assumptions from 2012 proved prescient in COVID.  

Those responsibilities were widely ignored within the government of Virginia in the nearly eight years between when the directive was published and COVID struck. Readers can judge for themselves how much it mattered that the required planning was not carried out.

Post-COVID “lessons learned” written by the state bureaucracies will be utterly insufficient if left to stand alone. There is only one overarching lesson learned. Some did not do their jobs and people died as a direct result.

There is only one proper management response – strict accountability within the senior career ranks of state employees for those who failed to do their jobs with fatal results.  

The Governor must assign someone to lead an effort report who failed most consequentially. The State Inspector General is best suited.  

Then he must fire for cause — God knows there is cause — those who deserve it. Or similar failures will happen again.

Plan on it.

ANNEX #4 – A Summary

The point of reference is Virginia’s Emergency Operations Plan –HAZARD-SPECIFIC ANNEX #4 PANDEMIC INFLUENZA RESPONSE (non-clinical).

I think readers will be informed and perhaps angered by an outline of what this prescient and detailed pre-COVID directive required of the agencies of government.  

This Annex has the status of a state directive to the agencies assigned responsibilities. 

Purpose. The non-clinical annex was designed to be used in concert with VDH’s clinical Pandemic Influenza Plan “… to provide a sound basis for pandemic influenza preparedness and to establish the organizational framework and operational concepts and procedures.” I’ve never seen a clinical plan but, charitably, perhaps there was one.  

Together the two documents were to frame the Commonwealth’s approach to respond to and recover from pandemic influenza. The non-clinical annex assigned responsibilities to a long list of state agencies below.

Every state and territory was gifted by FEMA an Annex like this to provide standardization nationwide. Each was written by a FEMA-funded federal contractor who started with the basic Annex framework and customized it for each state. Virginia approved its version and published it in August of 2012.

It provided common planning assumptions, policies and a concept of operations from which the Virginia agencies assigned roles and responsibilities in the Annex were to build state-specific plans.

Roles and responsibilities. Lead Agency – Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM)

Support Agencies and Organizations

  • Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS)
  • Secretariat of Commerce and Trade (SCT)
  • Department of Education (VDOE)
  • Virginia Department of Health (VDH)
  • Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP)
  • Department of General Services (DGS)
  • Virginia Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM)
  • Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI)
  • Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
  • Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT)
  • Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)
  • Virginia Port Authority (VPA)
  • Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA)
  • Virginia State Police (VSP)
  • Department of Military Affairs (DMA)
  • Virginia Employment Commission (VEC)
  • State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV)
  • Virginia Community College System (VCCS)
  • Office of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security (SVAHS)
  • Economic Crisis Strike Force (ECSF) Agencies

The agencies at the core of the responses of which many were most aware included: 

  • VDH– the heart of the matter.  Its responsibilities have been given a full airing in this space but VDH was not alone; 
  • VDOE, VCCS and SCHEV — responsible for planning for the safety and operation of schools in a pandemic; 
  • VEC — responsible for planning for a huge surge in unemployment claims; and
  • VITA — responsible for the functionality, availability and reliability of information systems.  

Scope and applicability — remember this is from 2012:

“designed to mitigate the health, public safety, social, and economic impacts in the public and private sectors throughout the Commonwealth. Pandemic influenza occurs when a novel virus emerges that has the ability to infect and be transmitted between humans. The disease spreads rapidly, as humans have little or no immunity to the new strain of virus. The virus has the ability to mutate, which makes the development of an effective medical response more challenging. The virus spreads primarily by virus-laden droplets which are distributed as infected people cough, sneeze, or speak. Symptoms begin to appear 1-2 days following exposure. The rapid spread of the disease and the high level of absenteeism will have a significant impact on the social and economic fabric of communities, and essential service across all sectors will be compromised.”

Planning assumptions again from 2012:  

Planning assumptions were detailed and remarkable in their accuracy.  Examples of fourteen planning assumptions provided included: 

  • Pre-event planning is critical to ensure a prompt and effective response to a pandemic influenza, as its spread will be rapid, recurring (in multiple waves), and difficult to stop once it begins.
  • Workforce absenteeism may rise as high as 40% at the height of a given pandemic wave….
  • All operations and services within the public and private sector will be compromised in varying degrees ….; however, proper planning and adequate resources may sustain essential operations/services and mitigate the effects of the event …
  • Pre-event planning is critical …, as its spread will be rapid, recurring (in multiple waves), and difficult to stop once it begins.
  • “… universal susceptibility of the public to an influenza virus and the
  • “…anticipated pervasive impact on all segments of society.”
  • Although technical assistance and support will be available through the federal government prior to, during, and following the event period, it will be limited in contrast to other natural and human-caused events that impact a specific geographic area in a more defined, shorter, and nonrecurring timeframe.
  • “A comprehensive and integrated strategy will require the involvement of all levels of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and citizens.”
  • “…there will be a significant and sustained increase in demand for medical services during each wave that will overwhelm the healthcare system and compromise the overall standard of care provided.”
  • “Vaccines will not be available for approximately six months following identification of the virus and will be in limited quantities when made available, necessitating the need to develop and implement a distribution plan.” (discussed yesterday)

Attachment 1 to the Annex defined the phases of a pandemic from the WHO.  Attachment 2 defined a strategy for mitigation provided by HHS and CDC.

Appendix A is the state’s Agency Action Matrix for each stage of the pandemic.  It is quite detailed in defining what to do.  Each agency with roles and responsibilities was directed to define how to do it in Virginia. 

The sum of those plans was what was supposed to be exercised and then executed in response to COVID.