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Missouri state leaders hope the level of inter-department cooperation spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay.

Though the use of an outside consulting firm to foster that cooperation has been criticized by some state lawmakers, leaders also said the state's response needed consultants' aid.

Drew Erdmann, the state's chief operating officer, said collaboration between state departments is not necessarily new, but the scale, intensity and tempo has ramped up since the start of the pandemic in the state in March.

Erdmann and Sarah Steelman, commissioner of the Office of Administration, described how a fusion cell of hundreds of people within all levels of state government and with outside parties such as the Missouri Hospital Association and Missouri Foundation for Health participate in calls about pandemic response in the morning most days each week.

Top-level cabinet department directors and deputy directors also converse about pandemic response a couple days a week, they said.

Erdmann said that level of cross-departmental collaboration is "unprecedented."

While Missouri's prison system has had hundreds of cases among inmates and staff so far, Erdmann credited the collaborative approach to pandemic response as helping things not be as bad as they've been elsewhere. For example, he said just one prison in Ohio has had 2,500 cases.

He said at the start of the pandemic, all state departments with congregate living facilities came together to talk about health screenings and personal protective equipment, and "that never would have happened before."

Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven said the fusion cell was most helpful in working with the Department of Health and Senior Services, pediatricians and school district leaders while crafting guidance for districts to focus on questions school and district leaders had.

Vandeven said coordination was also helpful working with the State Emergency Management Agency to distribute masks, and with the Missouri National Guard to distribute food.

Having everyone come together each day helped in eliminating duplicate efforts among agencies, she said.

Rob Dixon, director of the Department of Economic Development, said the fusion cell has helped his department's staff cut down on turnaround times, and it will be difficult to go back to a slow, siloed approach.

Dixon said a fusion cell model is more how the U.S. military operates in dynamic and fast-paced situations.

These collaborative efforts were not developed for free, however, and Dixon's allusion to a military model hints at the involvement of a Virginia-based consulting firm founded by retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

As of Sept. 24, the state had paid $829,701.98 to McChrystal Group LLC — including $770,500 for professional services and the rest for reimbursements, according to state spending data.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the payment came from a no-bid contract worth $248,000 a month, according to the Associated Press. The contract runs through Dec. 31, but the cost could be reduced if state employees replace company workers.

The money comes from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds — after the state took over payment in May from the Missouri Foundation for Health.

"I don't think it could have happened in the way it's happening," MO HealthNet Director Todd Richardson said of the state's response, had it not been for the McChrystal Group's involvement.

Dixon said paying for the group "was a good use of taxpayer money."

As for what happens when the pandemic ends, Richardson said the model of collaboration that's taken hold "has a ton of promise," and he added, "I think we're building out some muscle."

Steelman said the basics of the approach "are going to apply to every emergency situation facing the state" — be it earthquakes, tornadoes or civil unrest.

"We are constantly learning from each other," Steelman said, adding, "We will respond better, I think, as a state" to future emergencies.

She and Erdmann added a top priority at the moment is planning for distribution of an eventually-hoped for vaccine for COVID-19.

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