To defeat COVID-19, Kansas needs strong federal leadership

"When you look at the amount of resources states like Kansas have compared to New York or California, leaving the states to fend for themselves is not only impractical, it is unfair," writes Tom Bell. (Anton Petrus/Getty)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Tom Bell recently retired as president and CEO of the Kansas Hospital Association.

We just finished (for the most part) an election that was not only held in the middle of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, but one in which that pandemic was a major political issue. Unlike the political commercials, however, the pandemic didn’t go away after the election.

Nevertheless, the conclusion of the election does provide us the opportunity to refocus, remove the politics and actually move forward to manage, and ultimately defeat, this virus.

To push ahead, though, we have to change our focus and acknowledge that strong federal leadership is needed.

For the most part throughout this struggle, President Donald Trump has indicated he wanted the governors to be “running things.” Granted, there was a time when he claimed “total authority” regarding restrictions governors may have put in place, but generally the federal government has wanted the buck to stop at the state level.

To the extent any federal leadership has existed, it’s been at best disengaged, voicing support for protective measures out of one side of its mouth while through actions demonstrating little interest in such measures. At its worst, federal “leadership” has been destructive. For example, instead of supporting frontline health workers, the leader of the federal government has, on numerous occasions, falsely accused them of inflating COVID death numbers.

Due at least in part to this lack of federal leadership, we are now at a place where parts of our health care system are in danger of being overwhelmed; where personal protective equipment is once again in short supply and where states are back to competing with each other for scarce resources.

My general belief is that because state government is closer to the problem and how it impacts individuals, the state is often better equipped to deal with a given problem. While there is some truth to that here, the crisis that is this pandemic literally cries out for federal leadership.

This virus doesn’t acknowledge state boundaries. It doesn’t really care whether a state is mostly rural or urban or somewhere in between. And it certainly pays no mind to what party comprises the state Legislature or sits in the governor’s office.

The reality is that states don’t have agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with both the knowledge and the resources to recognize and respond to health security threats in an organized way. Neither do states have an organization like FEMA, whose literal mission is to prepare the nation for disasters. Moreover, states don’t have anything like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which we all depend on to ensure the quality and safety of therapeutics and vaccines. Finally, when you look at the amount of resources states like Kansas have compared to New York or California, leaving the states to fend for themselves is not only impractical, it is unfair.

I’m not arguing for a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. Differences from state to state must be recognized and embraced. I’m also not suggesting that a stronger federal leadership role is a panacea — it is not.

I am arguing, however, that in this instance the federal government is uniquely suited for a strong leadership role and that the abandonment of that role has not served us well.

We have lots of work to do before we are through with the pandemic. The sooner the federal government reclaims its proper role in this effort the better.

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