John Copenhaver has responded to hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires, but he said he thinks they all pale in comparison to COVID-19.
He says that it will require the entire nation pulling together to get past it.
"This kind of disaster -- a biomedical disaster -- is a different kind of disaster," he said. "And it requires a combination of expertise to respond effectively."
During his time with FEMA under the Clinton administration, Copenhaver responded to dozens of disasters, but he says he never dealt with anything like COVID-19.
"When the president named FEMA as the lead response agency, I thought that would be the appropriate agency to coordinate the response, though it's such a huge task," he said. "It needs to be really FEMA working really closely with CDC, health, medical authorities."
He thinks the response needs to be unified and not different from county to county -- for instance, where DeKalb County has different regulations in place than Cobb or Fulton Counties.
"If one area effectively responds, but other areas that are within a certain geographical distance don't, then you have a problem with people coming into the area that didn't respond as effectively -- into the area that you managed to contain the virus and starting the cycle all over again," he said.
Copenhaver says he thinks the United States should learn from countries that got the virus under control quickly, like South Korea -- where they had widespread testing and immediate isolation for people infected.
"Looking at the success, looking at what they did, for instance, in South Korea, and saying, if they did that, then we can do that," he said.
Copenhaver said he believes the United States response now will be effective, though it may have taken too long to get here.
"The lag time in between things getting worse -- which happened so quickly with this virus -- and the spin-up of operations for the government to respond, is causing fear and frustration in some people," he said. "But they need to know there really are world-class people that are a part of this response effort."
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