Govornors, mayors and front-line health care workers confronting rising numbers of critically ill coronavirus patients said Sunday they have not received meaningful amounts of federal aid, including the shipments of desperately needed masks and other emergency equipment that administration officials say they have already dispatched.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer echoed that urgency, saying her state’s hospitals are dealing with about 800 confirmed cases of the virus — up from only one just 12 days ago — and are struggling with serious shortages of both test kits and protective equipment for medical workers. The shortages have forced hospitals to adopt risky practices like reusing masks and having staff wear bandannas when no mask is available.
A lack of personal protective equipment puts medical personnel at greater risk of becoming infected or placed in quarantine, exacerbating hospitals’ existing staff shortages.
“We’ve got to have those masks,” Whitmer said. “Had the federal government really started focusing when it became clear that the whole world was going to be confronting this, we would be in a stronger position right now … Lives will be lost because we weren’t prepared.”
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor, whose agency was not activated to run the pandemic response until Friday, painted a more optimistic picture in Sunday morning appearances on ABC and CNN. He said masks and other equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile are well on their way to states — particularly hard-hit areas like Washington and California.
“They have been distributed. They’ve been distributed over the past couple of weeks. They’re shipping today. They’ll ship tomorrow,” Gaynor told ABC. “We are shipping from our national stockpile, we’re shipping from vendors, we’re shipping from donations. It is happening.”
But Gaynor sidestepped repeated questions on exactly how many masks were being shipped and when they would be in the hands of doctors and nurses who need them.
“I can’t give you a rough number,” he said in another interview on CNN, adding that governors should not depend on federal disbursements and should try on their own to obtain masks and other equipment.
“If you find it on the market, go ahead and buy it. FEMA will reimburse you for it,” he said. “This is a shared responsibility.”
Several governors pushed back, warning that pitting states against one another, the federal government, and other countries in a bidding war on the private market is no way to respond to a pandemic that requires a coordinated national response to obtain and allocate emergency goods.
“It’s a wide, Wild West…out there,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said of his attempts to obtain supplies. “And indeed we’re overpaying, I would say, for [personal protective equipment] because of that competition.”
“We need the federal government to get us those test kits,” Whitmer agreed. “We need PPEs. And frankly a patchwork strategy of each state doing what they can is — we’re going to do it if we have to, but it would be nice to have a national strategy.”
Governors, congressional lawmakers and mayors continued to plead with the White House over the weekend to use the powers of the Defense Production Act to speed up manufacture of masks, ventilators and other scarce supplies as many hospitals say they’re set to run out within days.
President Donald Trump tweeted Sunday morning that he has given a handful of car companies “the go ahead” to make ventilators and other unnamed “metal products” for hospitals, but gave no indication of a timeline or quantity. Converting factories from making cars to making medical equipment cannot happen immediately, and could take several months. In the meantime, hospitals need immediate help.
“We’ve gotten no indication of any factory on 24/7 shifts. We’ve gotten no shipments,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on NBC. “I can’t be blunt enough: If the president does not act, people will die who could have lived otherwise.”
Though Trump signed the defense act last week, Gaynor confirmed that the administration has yet to use it to order any companies to manufacture more products. He suggested such a step wasn’t necessary as companies are already stepping up.
“We haven’t had to use it, because companies around the country, donations, they are saying, ‘What can we do to help you?’ And it’s happening without using that — that lever,” he said. “If it comes to a point where we have to pull the level, we will.”
Both in private calls with the White House and in public interviews, lawmakers are insisting that time is now.
“We cannot wait until people start really dying in large numbers to start production, especially of more complicated equipment like ventilators and hospital beds,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told CNN. “We need to start this production right now to get ready for the surge that is coming in two to three weeks.”