DLA Aviation leader shares experiences from COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force assignment

Commentary by Chris Davis, director, Strategic Acquisition Programs, DLA Aviation

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On April 10, I traveled to Northern Virginia for a 60-day assignment serving on the COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where I was able to see the pandemic’s global impact.

When Air Force Brig. Gen. David Sanford, Defense Logistics Agency Aviation commander, selected me to join him on the task force I was honored; however, I will admit, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was, and still is, a time of unprecedented worldwide demand for personal protective equipment brought on by the fight to combat the virus’ spread.

As the task force’s senior contracting advisor, I worked directly with Brig. Gen. Sanford in his role as deputy director to Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the director of the COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. I also worked with 16 government organizations including FEMA, HHS, Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as senators, congressmen, state and local officials, and domestic industry leaders.

At times, the pace of demands and requests made me feel like I was drinking from a fire hose. I could start the day working on meeting demand for protective gowns, and by 10 a.m. be talking to an elected official who was following up on proposals from one of his constituents. That afternoon, I’d discuss with senior corporate officials how to leverage the Defense Protection Act to increase domestic capability for personal protective equipment.

Prior to this, I had never worked with so many government agencies at one time and that made mission execution very difficult. We were supporting Rear Adm. Polowczyk; however, we did not own any support elements. FEMA was the lead execution agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services had the requirements and the funding.

Working out of FEMA’s headquarters building in Washington was surreal. The commute was great but seeing all the empty streets was eerie. We had daily temperature checks before we could enter the building and half a floor to ourselves as we maintained social distancing requirements between each other. We were also required to wear face coverings when social distancing could not be maintained.

It was a balancing act, working 12-hour days, seven days a week, finding critically needed items to meet Defense Department, local and state demands. Meeting demand was complicated not just because of spikes in demand, but also because most personal protective equipment production was done overseas at the start of the crisis. In addition to supporting and expediting direct contracts, we were also establishing and vetting capabilities of new U.S.-based suppliers for critical safety and medical items like ventilators, N-95 respirators, test kits, aprons, scrubs and exam gloves needed by medical professionals.

Buying requirements for personal protective equipment and Defense Production Act Title III funds execution grew quickly in support of state requirements and the need to replenish our Strategic National Stockpile before the upcoming fall season. These points, coupled with the fact that FEMA needed to get ready for the hurricane season, led to increased DOD support. Every day was like a firefight as we tackled problems while trying to figure out how to transition the execution for buying personal protective equipment from FEMA to DOD.

The level of expertise, knowledge and contacts of team individuals opened doors and helped us quickly establish contacts. Without the team’s combined knowledge and contacts, we would not have been able to accomplish the wins we did in such shortened timeframes.

Just like in any other business, relationships also made all the difference in our support. It is impossible to get anything done in such a joint environment if you don’t build the relationships that allow for candid conversations and direct feedback. My experience gave me insights to how senior leaders collaborate at higher levels of government and allowed me to build networks with agencies I had not been previously exposed to at DLA Aviation. I interacted with senior officials on trade and manufacturing policy, on production expansion strategies, and with state and local leaders supporting industry needs. These were experiences I will never forget.

Relationships like these were key when the supply chain for disposable level 1 isolation gowns started drying up. Kim Glass, president and chief executive officer for the National Council of Textile Organizations, brought the task force together with industry representatives from Hanes, Standard Textile, Milliken and Parkdale Mills to work with the Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop specifications for a new and approved washable gown. We worked with the companies creating proposals that resulted in contracts to meet demands for 100 million gowns.

Coordination among various agencies and industries also helped us keep a critical U.S. industry – beef, pork and poultry production – operational. Brig. Gen. Sanford and I were asked to work with the Department of Agriculture and meat manufacturers to assess industry requirements for personal protective equipment needed to keep plants open across the U.S. One Nebraska meat processing plant requested we coordinate with HHS and the CDC to get approximately 1,800 COVID-19 test kits. The kits were needed to determine if asymptomatic employees had the virus and which employees were virus-free and could return to work.

Overall, the COVID-19 Supply Chain Task Force facilitated the purchase and delivery of hundreds of thousands of masks, face shields, gloves and other personal protective equipment to these critical plants to prevent our nation’s food supply from “going dark” and closing their doors. We also supported needs such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ urgent request for 1,800 surgical and 200 N95 masks, 2,000 gowns and 40 goggles or reusable face shields to conduct a clinical study of a COVID-19 treatment. The April request arrived on a Friday, and we were able to connect them with a supplier that shipped the items out to them that following Monday.

I was released from the task force June 5. It was an experience I hope I never have to repeat; but, as with all experiences, there are lessons to be learned. Things that stand out as worth sharing with my fellow DLA Aviation employees include the importance of maintaining robust supply chains in the U.S. and ensuring we focus on relationships across the whole of government and industry. However, I would say the largest lesson I learned is how interdependent our nation truly is at all levels of both state and federal government along with our private sector. We really need everyone playing on the same team in order to combat complicated issues such as this pandemic.