States Are Begging Trump To Give Them Ventilators. He's Still Refusing To Order More: An Analysis
President Trump has tools at his disposal to address the shortage of medical equipment needed during this pandemic. He isn’t using them, so governors and mayors are stepping in — but they need more help.
After weeks of public health advice to “flatten the curve” because our health care system can’t handle the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Defense announced on March 17 that it could quickly provide millions of respirators and thousands of ventilators to hospitals, ICUs, and doctors nationwide. The medical community has been in desperate need of them for more than a month.
So the reaction from many public health officials, governors and reporters was: Why did this information come nearly two months after the first COVID-19 case was detected in the U.S.? What were you waiting for?
The Defense announcement, which took many people by surprise, only inflamed ongoing frustration among Americans and state and local officials about the federal government’s mismanaged, erratic response to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump has delivered confusing national addresses to the public with major inaccuracies that the White House has later corrected, like a travel ban on Europe that ultimately didn’t apply to U.S. citizens. And as COVID-19 cases increase by the thousands daily, he’s refusing to invoke one of the most important, available tools at his disposal, the Defense Production Act. It would speed up the manufacturing of necessary medical equipment.
Hospitals across the country have been reporting shortages of both equipment and tests for weeks. A month after the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the U.S., the CDC had only publicly confirmed 35 total cases across the country. As testing has become more widely available, due to pressure from state and health officials, that number has ballooned to more than 59,000 confirmed cases nationwide — as those officials warned it would. The Trump administration finally declared a national emergency on March 13.
During this unprecedented crisis, Trump is following his usual playbook by failing to communicate with his own Cabinet officials. On March 16, Trump told several governors on a phone call, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves.”
The next day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the federal government had respirators and ventilators that they could give to states, to the surprise of those same governors:
The same week, Health Secretary Alex Azar had told reporters he couldn’t say how many ventilators were in the U.S. “for security reasons.”
The Defense Production Act is a wartime-era law allows the federal government to direct private manufacturers to start producing equipment for the security of the country as soon as possible. Only the president has the legal ability to activate it.
As advocates for invoking the law pointed out, the defense industry could fairly easily start producing the emergency respirators and ventilators that so many hospitals need. Manufacturers have been ready: the CEO of Ventec Life Systems, which mass-produces ventilators, told Forbes that the company could ramp up production “five-fold” over the next 3 to 4 months — but the government hadn’t asked them to. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Italian governments were placing mass-production orders with ventilator companies in Germany and elsewhere.
On March 18, Trump tweeted that he still doesn’t think the U.S. needs to use the DPA yet:
I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2020
And frontline healthcare workers, members of Congress, and presidential candidates are still calling him out for it:
The President’s refusal to use his power under the Defense Production Act to get our companies making the equipment we are ALREADY running out of is bewildering to me. States CANNOT do it. The time was YESTERDAY not tomorrow.— Jim Himes (@jahimes) March 19, 2020
Yesterday, President Trump said he was invoking the Defense Production Act, then turned around and said he wasn't planning to use it. The President should exercise these powers now. We need more ventilators, protective equipment, and critical supplies. We need action, not words.— Joe Biden (Text Join to 30330) (@JoeBiden) March 19, 2020
Schumer on Trump not enacting the Defense Production Act: "If you talk to our New York healthcare providers, they're desperate for ventilators. They're desperate for PPE equipment. Some places, they don't even have enough swabs ... This is inexplicable." @MSNBC— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 25, 2020
You can kill someone by suffocating them with a pillow, or you can kill someone by doing nothing even as they suffocate. That’s Trump. He won’t use the Defense Production Act for equipment for our medical heroes & won’t order ventilators from manufacturers. Tragic for our nation.— Barbara Boxer (@BarbaraBoxer) March 25, 2020
Lives are at stake. Trump must start taking this national emergency seriously.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 19, 2020
Without delay, we need to use the Defense Production Act to mass produce and distribute urgently needed medical equipment to every state and territory in America. https://t.co/1rI1PGqBOg
In the clip above, Trump is doubling down on the idea that governors should be fending for themselves, despite not having access to a federal law like the Defense Production Act.
Trump has delayed aid and production because he has been downplaying the crisis for weeks. On March 16, he finally admitted that the outbreak is “bad” — but then he rated his response to the pandemic as 10/10.
Even more galling are reports that the federal government is outbidding state governors who are trying to do just as Trump tells them. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D) was told by one manufacturer that he was "competing with FEMA to get ventilators." Because the federal government has so far refused to streamline, centralize, or take charge of the process, FEMA is putting in orders with manufacturers that are separate from individual state orders. In another case, Pritzker was told that he was "competing with countries other than the United States" for orders as well.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said when he tried to purchase personal protective equipment (known as PPE) for medical professionals, he was outbid by the federal government. He brought this up on a phone call with Trump, who acknowledged pricing may have been an issue. But the president did not offer any solutions or offer to centralize the process to avoid this happening.
So where are we at now?
Governors and mayors, while trying to get the federal government’s help, have also been taking steps to address the equipment crisis on their own. After SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that “ventilators are not difficult to produce,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked him to produce thousands in order to help NYC hospitals already facing shortages.
@elonmusk New York City is buying!— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) March 19, 2020
Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP — we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We’re getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!
We’re reaching out to you directly.
The CEOs of General Motors and Ford said that they are looking into producing ventilators as well. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence continue to assert that because the private sector is stepping up, there's no need to really initiate the Defense Production Act. But even with the current offers and donations from the private sector, hospitals and governors are still begging for more supplies. The whole process would move as fast as possible if the federal government put in the orders and guaranteed payment, but these companies still haven’t gotten marching orders from the Trump administration.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Trump should "immediately use the powers of the Defense Production Act to mass produce and coordinate distribution of these critical supplies, before the need worsens and the shortages become even more dire. There is not a day to lose."
Experts say America already "wasted" the month of February because of dithering by the federal government in terms of taking the coronavirus seriously.
More than 800 Americans have died already. We've lost many days.
So what is the President waiting for?