During the early months of 2021 as the scarce COVID-19 vaccine supply was beginning to increase, the federal government in record time established 39 mass vaccination sites in 27 states that administered vaccines to 5.6 million people seeking protection from the infectious coronavirus disease.
This unparalleled initiative, along with the federal support provided to approximately 1,600 other smaller vaccination sites around the country, was led by then-Acting Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Robert Fenton, whose work allowed states, tribes, territories and localities to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to the public at a critical time during the pandemic.
“We simply wouldn’t be where we are today in our nation’s fight against COVID-19 without the expertise and leadership of Bob Fenton,” said Jeff Zients, the former White House coronavirus response coordinator. He became an indispensable leader in the whole-of-government response—contributing to a historic, nationwide vaccination program.”
Under a tight timeline, Fenton stepped in as the acting FEMA leader to develop the operational model for federal mass vaccination sites and place a focus on equity by ensuring many of the sites were located in underserved and historically marginalized communities with a high risk of COVID-19 exposure and infection.
A key innovation of FEMA’s model was a hub-and-spoke approach, where fixed vaccination sites such as stadiums were launched alongside mobile or pop-up vaccination sites nearby, allowing greater access for those who might not otherwise have had access to vaccinations.
FEMA provided equipment, supplies, technical assistance as well as medical and nonmedical military personnel to establish the large sites in partnership with state and local authorities.
In addition, FEMA under Fenton’s guidance provided support to the smaller fixed and mobile vaccination sites, such as funding for staffing and transportation as well as different types of equipment, from syringes to folding chairs to protective gear.
Overall, the support for the large and small vaccination sites included more than 9,000 personnel and $5 billion dollars in financial assistance to 57 states, tribes and territories.
“FEMA finalized eligibility criteria and implemented this reimbursement in days, and provided countless hours of technical assistance to ensure states, tribes and territories were utilizing the reimbursement effectively,” said Rosa Po, the White House COVID-19 Response Team chief of staff. “This resulted in more shots in arms, more personal protective equipment delivered and more COVID testing locations for Americans in a shorter time frame.”
Through his successful coordination in response to the pandemic, Po said Fenton played a significant role in contributing to the delivery of more than 220 million doses of vaccine within the president’s first 100 days in office, more than doubling the initial goal set by the White House.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Fenton’s work was exceptional.
“Bob Fenton led a multiagency vaccination effort that protected hundreds of thousands of people from COVID-19. No playbook or precedent existed, the stakes were high and he delivered,” Criswell said.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Fenton was as highly successful in setting up the vaccination centers as he has been in other important endeavors because of his strong leadership capabilities.
“Bob Fenton leads by empowering others, giving everyone the chance to be their best in the service of our country,” Mayorkas said. “His own talents and dedication to mission are extraordinary, as he demonstrated in not only the heroic work of bringing vaccines to communities everywhere, but also in his leadership of the historic Operation Allies Welcome.”
In addition to his contributions to the COVID-19 response, as acting FEMA administrator, Fenton oversaw relief efforts in response to the severe winter storms that caused widespread damage in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas in early 2021.
After concluding his service as acting administrator, Fenton also led Operation Allies Welcome, which involved the resettlement of approximately 76,000 vulnerable Afghan refugees in the United States after the American pullout of troops from that war-torn country
Now back in his role as Region 9 administrator based in California, the 26-year FEMA veteran said it was “critical to get the vaccines out quickly to the people who needed it the most.”
Fenton said this meant building partnerships with officials across the country, getting people to put politics aside and working together. He said part of his effort involved convincing political leaders including governors and members of Congress that like any other disaster, it was critical to prioritize those who are at the highest risk first.
“It had to be a collective effort, a whole-of-America response,” Fenton said. “We needed to get buy-in and build a ‘one team, one fight’ mentality. FEMA is trusted and we accomplished our goals.”