January 20, 2022

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In Miami, a former FEMA director offers a quick fix on mass COVID-19 tests

The FEMA director under President Bill Clinton said Friday he’s in talks with Miami to assemble multiple drive-through testing sites in the city, facilities that could be operational next week under a venture that includes relatives of President Donald Trump’s housing secretary.

“You do the swabs and in two hours you’ll get the results,” said James Lee Witt, who runs a disaster-response consulting firm in Little Rock, Arkansas. after running the Federal Emergency Management Administration in the 1990s. “I’m hoping we could get started next week some time.”

Witt’s potential role in the heart of Miami’s COVID-19 response came from a news release not issued by the city government but by Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. It stated the venture that includes Witt and Merlynn Carson, daughter-in-law of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, could be administering up to 1 million tests next week.

On Friday, Carollo said the administration of City Manager Art Noriega was close to producing an agreement for an unknown cost.

“It’s being worked on right now,” Carollo said. That’s all I can tell you. … My last conversation with the manager was last night. He said everything was moving forward.”

According to Carollo and Witt, the potential arrangement came from Carollo’s office cold-calling the well-known former FEMA chief.

“I get 25 calls a day,” said Witt, owner of the Witt Global Partners consulting firm in Little Rock. “Somebody down there called and said, ‘Do y’all have any test kits?’ ”

A spokesperson for Noriega referred questions to Carollo’s office. The Carsons were not immediately available for comment.

On its face, the arrangement has the potential to dramatically address one of the debacles of the ongoing coronavirus crisis locally and nationwide: an extreme shortage of tests.

While Carollo and other city administrators and officeholders were quickly tested for COVID-19 after a positive diagnosis for Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, that type of diagnostics has not been available to most residents as they complain of flu-like symptoms or potential exposure.

Witt said the group of firms working with him has about 1 million testing kits available as private-sector production has ramped up allowing for-profit labs to process results. He said the group can purchase another 400,000 kits a week. And he has a company lined up to build tents for five drive-through facilities in Miami.

Witt said he doesn’t have a contract with Miami yet, but he’s ready to go. He said sites are being selected for tents where the tests would happen, and that building could begin this weekend.

Anyone seeking a test would need approval from a doctor and an appointment, made through a hot line. No details have been made available.

“We’ll set up call centers,” he said, “and follow the CDC guidelines.”

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