What Is a National Emergency?

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to curtail the spread of the virus. While this has been made official during a press conference, there is still some confusion over what exactly a national emergency declares, makes possible, and the next steps. Within the last week-and-a-half, several public events have either canceled or postponed, even sports organizations like the NBA have suspended the rest of their season due to the outbreak. Today, the president issued his federal emergency declaration that will allow the U.S. access to additional money, upwards of $50 billion, needed in the fight against the virus.

If a President calls for an emergency or disaster declaration according to CNN, additional money will be freed up which will put the Federal Emergency Management Agency in motion. However, there are two different types of declarations that are authorized by the Stafford Act: emergency declarations and major disaster declarations. Both will allow access to additional supplies or logistical help, but the difference between the two is scope and money.

What a declaration will do is allow FEMA to step up and coordinate the logistics moving forward. FEMA supports both the Health and Human Services Department and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Trump did announce that while the U.S. currently lacks in coronavirus testing kits, the country will soon be tested on a larger scale, and calling for a national emergency could be his answer for saving lives. FEMA will be able to put up temporary medical facilities and help those within it to be transported safely. Each state will work to determine what they need as a whole, with FEMA discussing those numbers stay-by-state.

During the Obama administration, when health crises' including Zika, H1N1, and SARS hit the population, FEMA only maintained a supporting role to HHS because a declaration was never issued. This was revealed by Obama advisor Michael Coen, a senior official for emergency management at IEM and former FEMA chief. This puts into perspective how large of an outbreak the coronavirus really is.


"None of those became as big of an outbreak as we're seeing with COVID-19. But those were examples of FEMA being in support of HHS in some way, but without the use of a Stafford emergency declaration or major disaster declaration," he said. From here, more declarations may be issued down the line so that the federal government can reimburse state and local governments for all costs.

"To unleash the full power of the federal government in this effort today, I am officially declaring a national emergency," Trump said Friday afternoon. "Two very big words. The action I am taking will open up access to $50 billion... for states and territories and localities in our shared fight against this disease."