A day in the life of federal COVID-19 response

Dr. Herbert Wolfe, SIA Professor of Practice
Dr. Herbert Wolfe, SIA Professor of Practice

Update (July 2021): When this story was originally published in April 2020, Dr. Wolfe was the executive director of the Office of the Chief Medical Officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He is now deputy assistant secretary for health security at DHS. The article has been updated to reflect his current job title.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Dr. Herbert Wolfe is a professor of practice with the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) and also currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for health security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). An expert on national security, global health, and biodefense, Dr. Wolfe previously served as the director for medical preparedness policy at the White House National Security Council; senior adviser to the director at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; a scientist at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); and as an active-duty physician assistant in the U.S. Public Health Service. At SIA he will teach classes on global public health and global health security.

Dr. Wolfe’s work at DHS has unsurprisingly shifted, becoming entirely dedicated to assisting the federal government’s response to the pandemic as he leads a team that provides key support to the White House Task Force and National Response Coordination Center.

Given his unique perspective as an active member of the federal government’s efforts to combat the novel coronavirus and a university professor, we asked Dr. Wolfe his thoughts about the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic. His insightful answers address how the crisis has changed the day-to-day responsibilities of DHS; the impact on the field of international affairs; and how students and schools should respond to the new realities brought about by COVID-19.

SIA Communications Specialist Andrew Gabriel conducted the following interview with Dr. Herbert Wolfe via email. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

How has the pandemic impacted your job on a day-to-day basis? Walk me through a typical workday for you since the crisis began. If “typical” doesn’t exist, walk me through a particularly eventful day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted my office and the day-to-day activities in several key areas—including mission focus, interagency (whole of government) support, the health and welfare of the workforce, and daily operations. We have shifted entirely to COVID-19 as our priority-mission focus with other critical programs and projects being placed into a “hold” pattern during this pandemic. Meaning it is all hands on deck for COVID-19. My team is a key supporting office in the whole-of-government approach that is led by the White House Task Force and the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC). [NRCC is a multiagency effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).]

We are also focusing on the health and welfare of the 240,000 employees at DHS. We have many front-line operators that require us to: provide timely safety and health guidance; deliver, maintain, and keep inventory of personal protective equipment (PPE); and carry out key actions for case contacts and potential exposures. Lastly, the office has continued our 100-percent operational capability by working virtually to ensure we are following prudent public health guidance.

There is no “typical” day, but mostly our work involves 12-hour-plus days consisting of policy and interagency coordination calls, answering public health and medical taskers from DHS and U.S. government senior leadership, and reviewing scientific and technical products.

What is one aspect of the crisis you are involved in that many people are not thinking about or aware of?

Return to Work Guidance. While we are weeks, maybe month(s), away from any national (or regional) change in posture, the unknowns of this novel virus require extensive planning on how we will safely and effectively start to return the federal workforce, and the nation, to work. This complex planning must include five elements:

  1. Widely available testing (we are still not there yet as of April 12) to identify all COVID-19 infected individuals;
  2. Continued national (CDC) and SLTT [State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial] guidance to isolate all COVID-19-positive individuals;
  3. Robust contact tracing to find all individuals who have been in contact with infected individuals;
  4. Requiring all individuals identified though contact tracings to self-isolate for 14 days; and
  5. Antibody testing to identify those who may be immune.

How can antibody testing contribute to return-to-work plans?

Serology is a method used to identify evidence of immunity in someone who has recovered from infection. With accurate and widely available serological testing, we can identify people who are potentially immune and therefore no longer vulnerable to infection. While we need to better understand the strength of the immune response in mild cases and how long people remain immune from reinfection, we believe there is a period where most people will have sufficient antibodies to offer protection. People who are immune could return to work, serve in high-risk roles such as those at the front lines of the health care system, and serve in roles that support community functioning for people who are still physically distancing (e.g., the elderly who continue to quarantine at home).

Given these events, what can schools and universities such as SIA and Penn State do to help meet current and future needs?

Universities and academic health systems should focus on timely applied research solutions—almost as an academic-ready response force to address international health security issues where the government is either unable to respond quickly or lacks the expertise.

In what ways should this crisis influence a student’s educational and professional thinking/trajectory?

Outside of the more immediate impact of remote learning and an abrupt academic schedule change, I believe this pandemic, just like many life-changing events, will vary in its impacts. The personal and academic resilience of our Penn State students will likely determine any changes to their academic and/or professional pursuits. This pandemic will alter the financial landscape of many private-sector corporations, greatly change the legislative agenda for the U.S. Congress and may likely provide some new career options (or clarity) given the lessons observed from COVID-19.

Thank you, Dr. Wolfe, for taking time from your incredibly busy days to speak to us about the impact that this crisis has had on you, DHS, and international affairs. We all thank you for your hard work during this crisis and wish you and your family the best of health.