“This is real. Take your safety and the safety of other seriously,” said Devon Heberlig ’11, director of the Division of Emergency Planning and Safety Operation for the Department of Human Services.
Heberlig has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Pennsylvania since the start of the year. His job is to plan, organize, direct, and lead a range of human services for Pennsylvanians during and after an emergency or disaster.
“Much of our planning focuses on human services, mass care, which includes feeding, sheltering, and emergency behavioral health as well as disability integration,” he said. “Since COVID-19 emerged, our main focus has been on feeding and supporting the impacted nonprofit feeding structure, such as our partners at the food banks and the voluntary organizations active in disaster.”
Heberlig has worked with agencies across the state and country to coordinate efforts, identify unmet needs, and share resources. Communication remains one of the biggest challenges, as Heberlig said ground truthing—or verifying what’s true and what’s not—is difficult. “It is hard to make sound and timely decisions with incomplete and inaccurate information.”
When the entire state is under an enduring emergency, it’s also hard to prioritize who gets what when. “There is a rush to acquire scarce resources, and their limited supply makes allocations difficult, so hard choices are being made daily,” he said.
As the effects of the pandemic continue to impact the state, Heberlig said they look to data trends in different states and countries for a sense of what’s to come. By studying what’s worked and what hasn’t in other places, Pennsylvania can adjust its response.
In the coming weeks, Heberlig said Pennsylvania will shift its focus to recovery efforts. The state and country will start to see fewer cases, and medical treatments are being developed. But many issues, such as mental health and economic impact, need to be addressed.
“The economic impact has a real bearing on what happens next,” he said. “With unemployment being so high, those who lost jobs many become food and financially insecure, placing even more pressure on state government. The DHS Emergency operations team, along with other commonwealth agencies, are working together to ensure no one goes hungry. In the first few weeks, hundreds of thousands of meals have been allocated to support the community at foodbanks and voluntary organizations.”
Heberlig said the best way Pennsylvanians can help is to stay informed and prepared. “Listen to the CDC— even though guidance changes, there are some very smart medical professionals trying to keep you safe.”
The most important advice? “Don’t panic. Be informed.”