A nurse receives the COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has found plenty to correct about the way that federal health officials have handled the national response to public health emergencies.

In a report published late last week, the oversight agency’s investigators documented what they said were “persistent deficiencies in the Department of Health and Human Services’ ability to lead and coordinate the nation’s preparedness for, and response to, public health emergencies.”

Over more than a decades’ time, these issues have affected the nation’s response not only to COVID-19, but to past emergencies including the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the Zika and Ebola crises, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, they reported.

HHS has consistently fallen short in five areas of what has been deemed an effective national response, the investigators wrote. These include:

  • establishing and exercising clear roles and responsibilities; 
  • developing an interoperable network of systems to provide near real-time public health situational awareness, which has been a requirement by statute since 2006; 
  • communicating about disease outbreaks, including information about COVID-19 testing;
  • establishing transparency when distributing information such as the scientific reasoning for changes to the COVID-19 testing guidelines; and 
  • building a workforce to achieve its emergency planning and response mission and goals.

The GAO has made 155 recommendations to help remedy the situation, and 91 of these recommendations were yet to be implemented as of April, they reported.

“A whole-of-nation multidisciplinary approach to preparedness and response is essential. HHS partnership and engagement with nonfederal entities, including state, local, tribal and territorial governments, and the private sector are key elements of this approach,” the authors concluded.

The full report is available on the GAO’s website. 

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