CHDS EEP Webinar Taps Top Public Health Experts on Pandemic Status, Preparations

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters a third year in the U.S., and with the nation in the midst of an Omicron variant-driven surge, three senior leaders within the U.S. Government’s COVID-19 public health response shared their thoughts on a range of pandemic-related issues during a Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Education Program webinar on Jan. 25.

Entitled “Stunting the Surge: What Leaders Need to Know for 2022 Pandemic Planning,” the webinar focused on the senior officials providing the latest updates on the Omicron variant and discussing planning considerations for local and state leaders in preparation for 2022, including the next phase of the nation’s pandemic response.

Clockwise from top left: James Blumenstock, Admiral Rachel L. Levine, Dr. Barbara Mahon, and Dawn O’Connell

The webinar featured CHDS public health subject matter expert and moderator James Blumenstock leading a discussion with a panel that included: Admiral Rachel L. Levine, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Dr. Barbara Mahon, MD, MPH, COVID-19 Emergency Response Incident Manager, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After EEP director Dawn Wilson provided an introduction to the webinar, Blumenstock introduced the topic and the panel, noting in his opening remarks that the U.S. in January had marked the two-year anniversary of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has included more than 70.6 million confirmed infections and about 864,000 deaths as of the date of the webinar.

“As a nation, we continue to work tirelessly to identify and implement policies, strategies and tactics that are effective, manageable, and tolerated by, if not acceptable to, the public we trying to protect,” he said. “Science, technology, and our knowledge about COVID have evolved over the last 24 months making our response stronger and more focused, but so has the threat potential of the biological enemy we are trying to neutralize.”

He also noted that the “unprecedented situation” had resulted in the emergence of conflicts about the “appropriateness and necessity of various preventive measures resulting in confusion, discord, and erosion of trust and confidence,” noting media headlines on state mask mandates being overturned by the courts, COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates remaining high even as the pandemic overall ebbs, and the uncertainty of a “new normal” with the disease shifting from pandemic to endemic.

Blumenstock kicked off the panel discussion by asking Levine about current efforts to stunt the Omicron-driven surge. Levine responded by saying the COVID-19 pandemic “hit us very hard” but adding that “we now know what works” to combat the spread, including masks, vaccines, and boosters, and comparing it to previous battles against small pox, polio, and the like. Levine said public health is working on more tests and treatment options, and providing mobile support teams to support local hospitals and clinics during the current surge.

Finally, Levine urged everyone to stay the course and be united in the fight against the virus. “Please don’t give up. We can do this but we have to do this together.”

Asked about the availability of therapeutics including monoclonal antibodies and antivirals, O’Connell noted there are millions of available treatment course of authorized therapies for fighting the virus including six that the federal government had distributed, though two have since been taken off the distribution list because they had been shown to be ineffective against the Omicron variant. O’Connell added that a fifth therapeutic is close to being ready for distribution, and work continues on new therapies and therapeutics. At the same time, she acknowledged there is a “supply crunch” and the administration is distributing therapeutics based on need, working closely with state and territorial public health agencies.

In response to a question about the CDC’s recently updated Quarantine and Isolation recommendations, released on January 4, Dr. Mahon reiterated that the changes were made based on available scientific evidence. She said the shorter recommended quarantine and isolation times were intended to balance the Omicron-driven rapid rise and large number of cases with the potential effect of those measures on a “functioning society,” including mental health and staffing and supply chain shortages.

She noted that the Omicron surge has resulted in higher case numbers than seen thus far during the two-year pandemic including about 700,000 cases, 20,000 hospitalizations, and 2,000 deaths per day, though it appears those numbers are beginning to fall.

Mahon confirmed that individuals should still, when possible, avoid travel and public places where they are unable to wear masks 10 full days after exposure or onset of symptoms or a positive viral test result, in accordance with guidance.

Mahon also said that updated CDC guidance for K-12 schools and early childhood education institutions is forthcoming.

The panel also addressed questions on what government can do to instill confidence as COVID-19 knowledge evolves amid efforts to spin that as misinformation; how to deal with pandemic fatigue, particularly in the healthcare industry; how the administration is handling school safety during the pandemic; and, “end game strategies” for adjusting to a “new normal” under COVID-19.

During a question-and-answer session with participants, the panel addressed topics including the administration’s support for international distribution of therapeutics, efforts to deliver “clear and consistent” public messaging, and how emerging variants are being tracked.

A total of 799 participants joined the webinar.

In conclusion, the panelists spoke about the lessons learned during the pandemic and fighting COVID-19 into a third year.

Levine said a lesson of the pandemic is “we’re all interconnected” and “our decisions affect many others.” O’Connell acknowledged the pandemic has been “challenging” with many “curveballs,” but said she is committed to “keep working on this until we get out on the other side, whatever that looks like.” And, Mahon said it’s “hard to overstate how difficult the pandemic” has been for people, who are “exhausted” and “at the breaking point,” but added “we’re all rowing in the same direction and that’s the way we have to have it.”

The webinar was held in partnership with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), Big City Emergency Managers (BCEM), Correctional Leaders Association (CLA), Governors Homeland Security Advisors Council (GHSAC), International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM), National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), National Governors Association (NGA), Naval Postgraduate School Foundation and Alumni Association, and the CHDS Alumni Association.

A recording of the webinar is available online at the CHDS website.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment |, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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