Several tons of PPE are loaded onto a plane in South Korea bound for the United States. Photo courtesy of Embassy Seoul
By Rob Noel
As the COVID-19 pandemic was taking root in the United States in early March—with the total number of cases yet to hit 3,000—the federal response was already shifting into full gear.
Hiro Rodriguez, senior advisor to Keith Krach, under secretary of state for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, began receiving calls from private sector colleagues who wanted to help. Rodriguez, like Krach, had spent his entire career in business before joining the government sector last year.
On the afternoon of March 14, he received a call from the White House asking him to join a meeting of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) new Supply Chain Task Force.
“I’d never set foot in FEMA before,” recalled Rodriguez. “A couple hours later, I was sitting on the back-bench in the FEMA conference room listening to the task force meeting. I’m sure they were thinking ‘Who is this guy?’”
FEMA’s Supply Chain Task Force, initially composed of private sector volunteers, was charged with finding tranches of personal protective equipment (PPE) around the world, facilitating procurement, importing the supplies, and ensuring swift distribution to the U.S. medical front lines.
“I knew this was going to require a starring role from [the Department of] State, with massive coordination across the interagency, the private sector, and foreign governments,” he said.
What followed was the largest emergency airlift of medical supplies in U.S. history, dubbed Project Airbridge. It required around-the-clock work from thousands of diplomats in more than 15 countries, all while facing international lockdowns and significant personal health risks.
By the end of the meeting, Rodriguez had become the unofficial bridge between the FEMA task force and the Department. But he knew he needed partners within the Department, and he was aware that his colleagues were already ramping up contacts with the private sector and other agencies to find supplies and bring them into the U.S.
Rodriguez’s first call was to Pam Pontius, a 12-year veteran of the Foreign Service, who had served at diplomatic posts in India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as in Washington. Her latest role as Krach’s point-person on trade and supply chains made her the perfect fit for the complex endeavor.
Rodriguez also brought in several members of the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB). He asked that James Crow in EB’s Agricultural Office be detailed alongside him to the FEMA task force. Meanwhile, EB’s Ari Sulby, Mike Gunzburger, and Martin Vaughan reached out to posts worldwide to inventory export restrictions and identify potential sources of goods. Their work on coordinating data and leads would prove instrumental to the FEMA task force operations.
Rodriguez and Pontius also engaged the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), including Josh Glasser and Kathleen Stevens in its Office of International Health and Biodefense, who had experience with global outbreaks of H1N1, Ebola, and Zika, among others.
It was immediately clear that the majority of PPE would come from Indo-Pacific countries like China, Malaysia, and Thailand, so Rodriguez and Pontius also recruited the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) and its Director of the Office of Economic Policy Sarah Beran.
“Sarah and her team were indispensable,” Pontius said. “They ran a 24-hour control center to coordinate with every embassy and diplomatic post on the ground.”
Within days, Beran, Pontius, Rodriguez, and the EB and OES teams were directing a region-wide blitz to find PPE compliant with U.S. standards and navigate the maze of procurement issues, import-export regulations, and logistical hurdles required to bring the equipment onto American soil.
Soon, the team had identified more than 500 international businesses offering PPE. They assisted desks and posts as a wide range of issues arose, like troubleshooting PPE donations to the United States from Abu Dhabi, Turkey, and Estonia.
Bangladesh provided an early success story. A Bangladeshi clothing manufacturer agreed to begin making medical gowns. Embassy Dhaka ensured the manufacturer had the proper specifications, while Rodriguez and the FEMA team worked to line up a procurement contract.
Much of the PPE transported by FEMA and the Department was procured by American companies such as Salesforce, Hanes, Walmart, and others, showcasing the importance of public-private cooperation in a time of emergency.
The business community also played an indispensable role in transportation. Krach spoke to the presidents of FedEx and UPS to secure assistance in airlifting PPE into the United States. Rodriguez spoke with major U.S. medical distributors to seek their help getting supplies from the airplanes to U.S. hospitals.
Department officers helped U.S. companies tap into existing relationships with local officials and untangle red tape. They worked with countries to safely reopen critical factories in the midst of lockdowns, such as rubber glove facilities in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, EB worked to ensure overseas manufacturers could obtain the U.S.-made parts they needed to continue making life-saving ventilators.
As the global rush for PPE intensified, new import-export regulations popped up almost daily, and the logistical challenges steadily mounted.
“We would get a late-night call saying, ‘We have a plane coming into Malaysia and it doesn’t have clearance to land. What do we do?’” recalled Beran. “With a 12- to 14-hour time difference and most people teleworking, it was a challenge just to get the right people connected, but our embassy in Kuala Lumpur made it possible for nearly two dozen flights to depart Malaysia.”
Almost overnight, Department economic officers throughout the world found themselves on the front lines of Project Airbridge—and nowhere more so than Mission China. With a majority of PPE in Project Airbridge coming from China, the Mission’s PPE task force faced a herculean task.
“We needed to confront immense uncertainty in China’s policy environment,” said Embassy Beijing Economic Minister Counselor Matt Murray. “For example, when the Chinese government received criticism about sub-standard PPE, it responded by cracking down on the number of products that could be exported and imposing arbitrary certification requirements that disrupted supply chains.”
Clearing the hurdles required close coordination with federal agencies from the Department of Health and Human Services to FEMA to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so Embassy Beijing set up a daily interagency conference call in Washington. Rodriguez, Pontius, and Beran also joined. The 12-hour time difference meant everyone was either up early or working late into the night.
“During the busiest stretch, we were all working 16- to 18-hour days,” said Murray.
The calls centered on the multiple plane loads of PPE leaving China for the United States every day. Behind every departure was a long train of diplomatic processes. Inbound flights needed clearance to land, flight crews needed visas, and agreement had to be reached regarding where crews would stay and how they would be tested for the virus. In several cases, pilots tested positive, and special arrangements had to be negotiated to ensure they could fly out.
Meanwhile, embassy officers worked to expedite customs clearances and drop requisition orders. They coordinated with municipal-level customs officials, who were required to confirm that every pallet of material had been approved by both Chinese officials and the FDA. Once materials were ready to load, embassy officers ensured cargo handlers were available and that each flight was cleared to depart.
Project Airbridge remains ongoing, but its results are already staggering: more than 1.2 billion units of PPE and counting have been flown to the United States. Fortunately, Rodriguez, Pontius, Beran, and Murray believe the processes to ensure continued success are firmly in place. When they look back on the frenzied phone calls and sleepless nights, they know it was worth it.
“Our team of economic officers throughout Asia made it possible to bring back 180 planeloads and counting of PPE for first responders, and that’s an incredible achievement,” said Beran.
“The coolest part for me,” Murray added, “was to see this cohort of dedicated mid-level FSOs [Foreign Service Officers] across multiple posts get on the phone, or trade emails, or send texts to coordinate among themselves and fix problems. I’m confident our future is in very good hands.”
As for Rodriguez, the events that followed that Saturday afternoon call from the White House were the experience of a lifetime. They left him in awe of the public servants around him.
“In the private sector, you would give anything to keep someone like Pam Pontius on your team,” he said. “And she is representative of what I see every day from our Foreign and Civil Service officers.”
Pontius expressed similar feelings about working with a colleague who was able to leverage his private sector experience and business relationships to help Americans in a time of crisis.
“Hiro brought more than just his private sector contacts and tireless work,” she said. “He brought that enterprising, start-up mentality that anything is possible and every problem can be overcome.”
The partnership between Rodriguez and Pontius has been called a “dream team” by their boss Krach. But the dream team isn’t taking time to rest on their laurels. Rodriguez, Pontius, and their partners throughout the Department are already tackling a new challenge: preparing for deployment of a vaccine by securing and facilitating supplies of hundreds of millions of syringes and needles. Krach is certain this effort will be as successful as the last.
“Hiro and Pam are proof that when the private sector and the U.S. government put their heads together, miracles can happen,” he said.
Rob Noel is a speechwriter and senior advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.