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Officials' 'Short-Term Memories' Got In The Way Of Texas Pandemic Preparation

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
The Texas Division of Emergency Management placed orders for almost $1.6 billion in PPE to protect health care workers from the new coronavirus.

From Texas Standard:

In 2018, Texas state health officials were preparing for the possibility of a future pandemic. But by the time COVID-19 reached Texas last spring, not much more had been done. As a result, the state was caught flat-footed like much of the rest of the country as the pandemic worsened.

Almost 16,000 Texans have died so far from COVID-19, and a recent investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that Texas failed to prepare for a major outbreak when it had the chance.

John Tedesco helped report the series, and he told Texas Standard that several factors contributed to Texas' lack of preparation against the coronavirus.

When state health officials met to talk about a future pandemic in 2018, the federal government had drastically cut funding it provided to states for emergency preparedness – to less than half the amount Texas was getting in 2007. As a result, Texas didn't purchase enough needed supplies like personal protective equipment, or PPE, needed in the event of an emergency.

"Our supplies, as we saw, just weren't – there just wasn't enough to go around," he said.

Texas tried to make up for that after the fact, spending about $1.6 billion on PPE this year.

And there were warning signs. Texas had dealt with disease outbreaks in recent years, including a small number of Ebola cases in 2014, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. But Tedesco said state officials' "short-term memories" got in the way of preparing for future outbreaks.

"There were past pandemics ... there were some lessons that were learned, and those lessons were that we weren't really ready, even for those milder outbreaks," he said. "Officials move on to the next thing and they think that the past crisis is dealt with and, you know, we don't prepare for the next crisis."

Texas does have a centralized agency, the Division of Emergency Management, that's tasked with coordinating pandemic preparation and response. It's a fairly new agency, and struggled to effectively communicate and coordinate with local officials when COVID-19 began to spread.

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