Supply Corps Officers Lead Supply Chain Task Force for National COVID-19 Response

March 12, 2021 | By Cmdr. Richie Jenkins, Cmdr. Leslie Donelson, Lt. Colin Amerau, Capt. Jim Leberko

By Cmdr. Richie Jenkins, SC, USN; Cmdr. Leslie Donelson, SC, USN; Lt. Colin Amerau, SC, USN; and Capt. Jim Leberko, SC, USN (ret.)

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VIRIN: 210312-N-ZY219-0202

“You don’t go looking for history and find it yourself. History finds you. Since you really don’t know which one of you history is going to find, you all have a certain obligation to be ready.” - General Martin Dempsey, USA (ret.) 18th Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff.

Throughout the 225-year history of the U.S. Navy Supply Corps, it’s not difficult to find stories of those who were thrust into history and called on to serve the nation in times of crises. Our heritage is built on the tremendous contributions of our supply professionals across the spectrum of military operations, from major combat operations to humanitarian assistance and disaster response. In 2020, the nation was forced to confront a different and new threat. The threat remains with us as of this writing. This new threat, while invisible, left lasting visible devastation and death in its wake. It penetrated our shores and led to an unprecedented economic shutdown and subsequent whole of nation response. This threat would become known by all Americans as the novel coronavirus that caused the disease COVID-19. For members of the Joint Staff’s Logistics Directorate (J4), the request for assistance to support the nation’s response came on March 16, 2020 from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Although we thought we knew what would be expected of us, no one dreamed of what the mission would turn into.

A New Mission

Three days earlier on March 13th, President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The declaration triggered the Whole-of-America response effort that required White House and federal agencies to work closely together, and also fostered coordination across state, local, tribal, territorial, private sector, and community-based organizations. The declaration prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assume a leading role in the response. FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center became fully manned and operational. The group of seven Joint staff officers, led by Rear Adm. John P. Polowczyk, quickly integrated with HHS’s Assistance Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). HHS ASPR had in place three lines of effort to combat the pandemic: 1) Healthcare Resiliency, 2) Supply Chain Resiliency, and 3) Medical Countermeasures. Each would eventually become its own task force and each had their own strategic challenges to overcome. On the evening of March 18th, Dr. Robert Kadlec would task Rear Adm. Polowczyk to lead the Supply Chain Task Force (SCTF). In an instant, our abruptly manned task force was responsible for delivering critically needed ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and eventually pharmaceuticals to the point of need. It was a race against time.

Strategy, Interagency, and the White House

Some in the media and around the nation were calling for the Department of Defense (DoD) to play a greater role in the response, some even argued for DoD to lead the overall effort. Polowczyk’s new responsibilities, and those of Col. Pat Work, Col. Nathan Swartz, Cmdr. Dean Goad, Cmdr. Richie Jenkins, Lt. Col. Chris Bowers, Col. Brian Kuhn and Lt. Colin Amerau were the first step in a more substantial role for DoD. Shortly thereafter, the DoD would support requests for assistance from New York and California for hospital ship support, the National Guard Bureau would continue to support community testing, and the Joint Interagency Task Force would assume a larger role in the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS)-Next. The group re-located from HHS to FEMA Headquarters immediately after being assigned to lead the SCTF. This placed us in the middle of the largest, most complex interagency environment many of us had ever been a part of. To succeed in this environment, we needed to exercise the skills that Supply Corps officers are taught from day one: ask for assistance, build relationships, pursue the right answers, and communicate clearly. As soon as we arrived at FEMA, White House staff were all around us along with over 20 federal agencies. The White House Task Force immediately sought answers. In Supply Corps parlance, it was similar to providing “CASREP” updates to the White House multiple times a day. The tough reality was national demand estimates for ventilators and PPE far exceeded global supply. The SNS was not intended or outfitted for a widespread pandemic and was quickly being depleted. Competition for the same supplies between countries, and even among states, was fierce. It was clear the SCTF needed a well-rounded strategy that didn’t just consider overseas sources of supply. Polowczyk, in concert with HHS and FEMA, implemented a strategy of delivering the nation’s medical equipment and supplies through a data informed approach while utilizing four lines of effort: 1) Acceleration-deliver existing medical equipment as quickly as possible, 2) Allocation-deliver supplies in the right quantities to the right locations of need, 3) Preservation-work with federal, state, and local officials to extend the life of in use supplies to the safest extent possible, and 4) Expansion-use powerful authorities such as the Defense Production Act to quickly expand the marketplace to create more domestic sources of supply.

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This strategy was quickly backed by the White House. Given our new responsibility and strategy, it didn’t take long for the nation to see and hear from the Navy rear admiral who would lead the effort to get critically needed equipment and supplies to the nation’s healthcare professionals. On March 23rd, Polowczyk stepped to the White House Press Room lectern to reiterate his plan to the assembled press and public that he didn’t intend to re-create the domestic medical supply chain. The SCTF was already in the midst of forging relationships with the medical-surgical industry suppliers and distributors who knew the market. From this point on, he made frequent trips to the White House for task force meetings and Situation Room deliberations. Polowczyk’s aide and a Joint Operational Logistics Intern Lt. Colin Amerau, stated “Life in the West Wing was sink or swim; the environment is not something I had ever experienced; the relationships I built throughout this process were vital to the success and coordination between the SCTF and all other government and private entities.”

The Importance of Partnerships

The industry and governmental groups consulted by the SCTF ranged from hastily formed healthcare consortiums, industry groups, private healthcare consultants, national and state health departments and the medical-surgical supplier and distributors who became known as the “Big Six.” These included Cardinal Health, Concordance, Henry Schein, McKesson, Medline, and Owens & Minor. Collectively they represent over 90% of medical-surgical material distribution in the United States. They proved to be wonderful partners and were “all in” on supporting our efforts. The SCTF and Big Six quickly partnered together to create agreements for data sharing, enhancing visibility of the medical supply chain, and maximizing existing business relationships to deliver the volume of equipment and supplies needed to COVID-19 hot spots. Frequent calls with the Big Six chief executive officers were necessary and led to initiatives such as Project Airbridge. Project Airbridge, the effort to airlift in hours what normally would take weeks via surface movement, is not a new concept in DoD. However, the agreement between FEMA and the Big Six was routinely covered by the press and politically sensitive based on costs and allocation decisions. Project Airbridge was eventually scaled back, but history will judge it as a successful means by which the volume of PPE was delivered during the darkest days of COVID-19.

Supply Chain Visibility Enabling Data Driven Decisions

Without visibility into the supply chain, there was little chance of reporting to the nation the status of critical PPE, much less winning the war against COVID-19. When the SCTF began, the nation did not have comprehensive visibility into what PPE was available for distribution. National leaders were blind as to how much material was on hand, how much was being produced, where it was, and where it was going. It would be up to the SCTF to build what would become the Supply Chain Data Tower. On day one, Polowczyk contacted two former Navy Supply Corps captains, Bob Reichart and Jim Liberko, to develop a way to see the flow of PPE across the United States. Reichart volunteered to lead the team for the first week and built the initial team of supply chain and programming experts. Liberko came in from the Defense Logistics Agency and took over full time shortly after. In just three weeks’ time, the team built a visualization tool that ingested order, inventory, and delivery data from the Big Six. Standardizing the output of six different inventory management systems and producing an almost real-time picture of PPE inventory, movement, and delivery to the doorstep of every hospital and nursing home across the nation was a significant accomplishment. Eventually, the SCTF called upon Supply Corps Reservists Cmdr. Frank Brewster, Cmdr. John McCann, Lt. Ed Garnett, and Lt. Cmdr. Marquita Pfannenstiel, to assist with this impressive effort.

Polowczyk stated, “I am proud to say our Navy Supply Corps Reservists played an important part in the success of the task force. They each brought a wealth of professional expertise that aided in the rapid development of a supply chain tool that has given HHS, FEMA and the White House task force
visibility on the health of the medical supply chain. They did this in remarkable speed.” Today, the Supply Chain Data Tower ingests over 40 million rows of data a day and provides national leaders the ability to make more informed decisions on where to send critically needed PPE. Along with daily ad hoc queries, reports on PPE are sent to the White House and governors each week, providing them visibility into PPE flowing into their states. Expanding in capacity and purpose, the Supply Chain Data Tower now tracks over 48 pharmaceutical drugs and is receiving daily inventory levels from every hospital in the nation, along with inventory positions across each state warehouse and the SNS. The group of dedicated Supply Corps officers who excelled in the creation of the supply chain information tool changed the tide in the fight against COVID-19. HHS has adopted their creation as the premier logistics information tool for gaining supply
chain visibility.

Made for the Moment and Preparing for the Future

As of this writing, COVID-19 remains with us. While efforts continue to contain the spread of the virus, all aspects of our society and government are assessing how to deal with COVID-19’s aftermath. As response efforts extend into summer, Supply Corps and Joint logisticians from across DoD continue the fight alongside our industry and interagency partners. As of June 29th, the SCTF was transitioned into an advise and assist role and was renamed the Supply Chain Advisory Group (SCAG). Several members of the initial team returned to their commands and new members were called upon. For Supply Corps officers Capt. Harry Nicholson, Cmdr. Lesley Donelson, and Lt. Cmdr. Will Morrison, the opportunity has been met with enthusiasm and pride. Key deliverables for the SCAG over the transition
months will include: 1) Develop a sustainable SNS replenishment
strategy, 2) Deliver a scalable supply chain IT tower, and 3) Achieve domestic manufacturing momentum. When the task force completes its mission, it will deliver a “turnkey” system for government agencies to maintain for future crises and national emergencies.

The Navy Supply Corps officer’s unique background in supply chain, acquisition management, operational logistics, transportation, information technology, building relationships and leadership all played a significant role in helping the SCTF and SCAG meet the challenge of getting supplies where it was needed, when it was needed. As we look to the future, the Navy Supply Corps is central to helping HHS build a more resilient supply system for dealing with public health emergencies. While much work remains, the nation’s response will be equipped with a modernized SNS, supported by increased domestic production of critical medical equipment and supplies, and powered by cutting edge business systems. For the Supply Corps and Joint officers who contributed to the national COVID-19 response, history found them in 2020. They continue to serve admirably. They have all proven they were ready.

“I'm extremely proud of the Supply Corps officers that worked on the task force. These officers worked tirelessly for weeks essentially, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, under significant stress to get needed medical supplies to our front line healthcare workers. Their story must be told as it is an important part of our Supply Corps history…when the call came from our nation they responded with tireless energy and extreme professional
acumen.”

Rear Adm. John Polowczyk on the contributions of Supply Corps officers to
the Supply Chain Task Force.