What, Exactly, Is VDEM Doing In the COVID-19 Emergency?

by Carol J. Bova

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) is responsible for writing the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan (COVEP) which “provides the framework for how the state will support impacted local governments, individuals and businesses.”

A Virginia Municipal League (VML) web page provides Virginia localities a Continuity of Operation Plan (COOP) template from VDEM. The page refers to Va Code Sec. 44-146.18 B.6. which encourages but doesn’t require localities to have a COOP.

This Continuity Plan is a recovery plan and functions as a companion plan to the [Locality’s] Disaster Recovery Plan and the Emergency Operations Plan. The Continuity Plan provides a framework designed to minimize potential impact to operations and allow for rapid recovery from an event, which may or may not cause the activation of emergency response or incident action plans.

“While the Code [of Virginia] refers to VDEM as providing guidance to localities,” writes VML, “the worksheet will have to suffice as that guidance for now – VDEM staff are currently working night-and-day on immediate emergency planning and response. Try instead to work with your local emergency coordinator or work together with a neighboring community if you need to develop your own COOP.”

VDEM staff is working night and day? Administrators are too busy to help local governments figure out how to maintain operations during the COVID-19 emergency? What, then, is VDEM doing?

The template reviews the process to follow to develop a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), and it has a description of how to use an optional Security and Privacy Statement to prevent having to supply information under FOIA.

Public disclosure of this document would have a reasonable likelihood of threatening public safety by exposing vulnerabilities. It contains sensitive and confidential information that is not subject to FOIA under Virginia Code §2.2-3705.2. Accordingly, (Locality) withholds this plan from full public disclosure. Refer any request for a copy of this document to (Local Attorney of the Locality or designated staff).

Plans might contain some details about risks. The document provides the example of highways or train lines carrying hazardous materials near the government complex. But that sort of information can be determined from any local map. In any case, exercises that might reveal security measures or tactics in case of terrorism or some other attack could be addressed in a separate, confidential document.

It seems more likely than not, the purpose of such a privacy statement is to prevent transparency of local government operations and to obscure who would be given control of local government in an emergency.

An even bigger question is what is VDEM’s role is according to the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan (COVEP,) prepared by VDEM and signed by Governor Northam September 3, 2019. If you recall, that’s the plan that deleted any reference to the previous pandemic response plan. [See, “Yes, Virginia Does Have a Plan to Fight the Pandemic,” by James C. Sherlock, March 31, 2020.]

In the “disappeared” Pandemic Response Plan, VDEM was to be the lead agency in addressing all non-clinical issues and needs that might arise during an outbreak of pandemic influenza and would have provided “necessary guidance to responders, government agencies, businesses, and citizens throughout the Commonwealth.”

VDEM does have to maintain the Virginia Emergency Operations Center and Situations Awareness Unit, and a webpage of documents. However, the agency is not dealing with transportation of hazardous substances. There’s no mass sheltering or recovery operations. Although COVEOP sets VDEM as a lead agency, the governor hasn’t activated the Economic Strike Force yet. (Va Code § 2.2-205.1.) And there’s no physical damage for VDEM to address.

Are VDEM administrators working with FEMA or manufacturers to coordinate supplies for nursing homes and hospitals? A search on the VDH site for VDEM and VDH returns 0 responses. So what is it they are doing instead of being available as a resource to localities?

Carol J. Bova is a writer in Mathews County and on the staff of Chesapeake Style magazine.

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5 responses to “What, Exactly, Is VDEM Doing In the COVID-19 Emergency?

  1. That is an excellent question. Whatever the agency is doing, the Governor’s initial executive order declaring an emergency related to the coronavirus authorized the agency to receive $10 million to do it. As part of the executive order, the Governor authorized the agency to activate the state’s Emergency Operations Center, but it is not clear to me what function that facility has in dealing with this emergency. And none of the task forces set up by the Governor has involved VDEM.

    VDEM normally would have the responsibility of administering any FEMA disaster funding received by the state. I think there was some funding from FEMA early on during the pandemic, but I am not sure.

    As reported earlier by Jim Sherlock, the Governor did give VDEM the responsibility of “finalizing contracts with private labs to expand COVID-19 testing in Virginia.” That would have kept some of the VDEM staff busy, but, considering the state of testing in Virginia, they certainly were not working day and night.

    Finally, Jeff Stern, the VDEM director, has been busy looking for a new job. The Governor announced yesterday that he will be leaving next month for FEMA to head that agency’s training of state and local emergency response officials.

    When things get back closer to normal, it will be interesting to see how much of that $10 million was spent by VDEM and for what.

    • Thanks to The Virginia Mercury, we know VDEM did sign a $585,000 contract on the April 3 through 24 work by McKinsey & Company, Inc. for COVID-19 Response Assessment for PPE, “to help Virginia pursue all action possible to close supply and demand gaps for PPE… .” (Why would VDEM need to hire someone to “Help the State understand scenarios of progression of the virus” when UVA who did the modeling has been working with Virginia since early January? Maybe the explanation is in the redacted sections that followed.)

      The price quote was revised in Week 4 to $573,680 on April 24 with the additional scope “to provide support to operationalize additional interventions to unlock PPE supplies;” develop a methodology for, and size state-wide PPE requirements (beyond public health system requirements); design and build analytical dashboards for future decision-making…”

      Is this where VDH’s new dashboards originated?

      • There are many other details of what McKinsey & Company were to work on, but the extreme redactions make it difficult to list them.

      • That McKinsey report crossed my mind recently. At some point, someone needs to look at what was supposed to be the product and what the state actually got for its half a million bucks.

  2. In the category of ” can things get any worse?”… why yes:

    Fredericksburg-area health department nurse tests positive for virus; 13 other staffers await results

    A nurse with the Rappahannock Area Health District, which oversees health departments in Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, has tested positive for COVID-19.

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