By: Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs
During this difficult time when everyday life is disrupted, classes are cancelled and work hours are cut for many around the country, we are all pulling together to do what we can to #FlattenTheCurve—to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. Social distancing and the manner in which it changes our way-of-life is not easy, but alongside other public health practices like washing our hands and covering our coughs, social distancing can actually save lives. Not only does staying at home help protect older people and those with compromised immune systems, it also helps protect the people in our community who are on the front lines of this battle—first responders and health care workers. These are the workers who are essential, who cannot stay home, and who are providing critical care for loved ones and community members.
On Monday the White House released updated guidelines for all Americans for the next 30 days. It is critical that we all do our part to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Slowing the spread will not only save lives because there will be fewer people with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), it will allow our first responders and health care workers to save even more lives in the months to come. We know that health care for medical emergencies like heart attacks and chronic diseases like diabetes will need to continue in the future. To protect our first responders and health care workers for the future, we need to slow the spread of the coronavirus today. Right now these #HealthCareHeroes are putting concerns for their own health and safety aside while serving their communities during this coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Some of those first responders and health care heroes work here at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA staff have been working tirelessly to accelerate our processes, conduct lab research on this new virus, and communicate our new policies and procedures, in addition to administering emergency use authorizations that allow the nation’s labs to develop new tests for this previously unknown virus. Participating on all of these teams are the FDA’s U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps officers, uniformed service members who work in health care-related careers such as pharmacy and health sciences. Among HHS agencies, the FDA is privileged to have the second highest number of Commissioned Corps officers serving in our ranks—more than 1,100 officers in total. This allows us to truly be on call 24/7 to protect America’s food supply and essential medicines, and to ensure the safety of life-saving medical devices, vaccines and the blood supply, during this pandemic.
USPHS Commissioned Corps officers are highly-trained public health professionals who work nationally and internationally in careers such as medicine, veterinary sciences, dentistry, nursing, epidemiology and biomedical research to serve underserved and vulnerable communities. During the President’s 30 Days to Slow the Spread nationwide effort and beyond, the Commissioned Corps officers are focused on helping the most vulnerable among us. Their willingness to make personal sacrifices for the health and safety of the nation is both inspiring and reassuring. The FDA Commissioned Corps officers not only provide necessary medical care and monitoring, they also offer a warm and steady hand to those who are experiencing uncertainty and worry.
Commissioned Corps officers deploy across the U.S. to assist in COVID-19 screening at airports and ports of entry. They serve on military installations and at local health care facilities to provide care and comfort to those in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19. Here at the FDA headquarters at the White Oak campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, Commissioned Corps officers support our response efforts in many ways, including serving in leadership positions on the COVID-19 Incident Management Group and Agency Executive Group, assisting HHS personnel with training health care workers on the use of personal protective equipment, advising on logistics and procurement of materials for community based drive-thru testing sites, and answering phone calls and inquiries around the clock from Americans who have questions about the effect of the coronavirus on food, drugs, and medical devices.
As FDA Commissioner I have the opportunity—and honor—to support the work of our Commissioned Corps officers. As a former Commissioned Corps officer at the National Institutes of Health, I witnessed first-hand their unwavering commitment to public health, and I believe they emulate the very best in public service. Commissioned Corps officers do not hesitate to jump into uncertain and evolving public health situations for the opportunity to provide care and comfort to the American people. I am grateful for their readiness and service.
Recently, I spoke with some of the officers who have returned to their home duty stations after deployment and heard how much they are doing to support our mission. I also practiced elbow bumps with USPHS officers who are answering the phone 24/7 at our toll-free phoneline, 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332), and thanked them for their dedication and service. I cannot overstate how impressed I am with these experts. I am humbled to be able to work again with the Commissioned Corps in such a crucial way. Our colleagues’ service to the nation is greatly appreciated and I commend them.