The Biden administration is reorganizing the federal health department to create an independent division that will focus on responding to health emergencies.
The move comes after much frustration and criticism has been directed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Washington Post reported.
For example, administration health officials seeking to acquire more COVID-19 rapid coronavirus tests amid the omicron variant surge last winter struggled to set up the necessary contracts, sources told the Post.
Under the reorganization, expected to be phased in over two years, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) gets elevated into a separate division. ASPR falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.
The roughly 1,000-person ASPR division will be charged with coordinating the nation’s response to health emergencies, sources told the Post.
The change will allow the department "to mobilize a coordinated national response more quickly and stably during future disasters and emergencies while equipping us with greater hiring and contracting capabilities," Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell, who would run the new division, wrote to staff members, the Post reported.
O’Connell notified lawmakers about her organization’s latest changes on Tuesday as HHS has the authority to reorganize divisions without congressional approval, a source told the Post.
Supporters of the plan note that the changes will help ASPR avoid internal battles with other HHS divisions. Some public health experts, though, say that a critical part of pandemic response is working with state and local health agencies — something CDC is better prepared to do.
ASPR was created in 2006 as a response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters.
"These changes are complementary to the broader ASPR reorganization, which we will begin implementing in the second half of the year," O’Connell wrote in her memo, the Post said.
"While the name change is immediate, enhanced capability in hiring and contracting will be made over a period of time to ensure a seamless and gradual transition of key responsibilities from the assistant secretary for administration to our ASPR team."
The Post reported that officials in other parts of HHS said they supported the plan. CDC spokesman Kevin Griffis said in a statement that the agency is "supportive of Assistant Secretary O’Connell’s vision for ASPR — a critical partner for us in addressing public health threats."
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