Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator Peter Gaynor struggled Sunday to detail how many masks and other pieces of personal protection equipment (PPE) the federal government has stockpiled — and how much of this stockpile has been sent to health care providers dealing with the coronavirus.
The Trump administration has faced questions about its role in coordinating the distribution of protective equipment in recent weeks as health care workers and state officials have become increasingly vocal about a severe shortage of masks and other forms of PPE that allow them to conduct coronavirus tests, treat infected patients, and minimize exposure risk for patients seeking non-coronavirus-related treatment.
Sunday, Gaynor appeared on several talk shows; on each, he was asked about what FEMA — which has been tasked with PPE distribution — is doing about the shortage. And in each appearance, he refused to share details of his agency’s response.
When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Gaynor for an estimate of the number of masks the Trump administration has bought, and how many of that number have been distributed to providers, Gaynor said, “I can’t give you a rough number.”
The administrator added, “I can tell you that it’s happening every day. And my mission is operational coordination of all of these things. And that’s my focus.”
As coronavirus has spread across the globe, there’s been a worldwide shortage of the personal protection equipment necessary for health care workers to stay safe from the virus. The US — which identified its first coronavirus patient at the end of February and has more than 32,000 confirmed cases as of March 22 — has such a shortage of needed medical supplies that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is already suggesting workers resort to homemade masks.
Wednesday, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, which allows the administration to direct private manufacturers to make supplies in a time of need in order to help alleviate this shortage.
But despite Trump claiming he’s put the act into “gear” to ask private manufacturers to begin making those needed supplies — from masks to ventilators — it isn’t clear that this is actually the case. When asked whether the administration has directed companies to create supplies, Gaynor told Tapper, “We haven’t yet.”
Gaynor was less definitive about when the supplies he said FEMA has will be more available — and when current PPE stock will be replenished. He told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that “there are manufacturing lines coming up and running” to help produce more personal protection equipment, but that those lines can only do so much.
“Again these are finite, limited resources,” Gaynor said. “Will we ever have enough? I’m not sure. But our goal is to make sure we get these critical resources to the places that need them the most.”
FEMA was only recently integrated into the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, which is being led by Vice President Mike Pence; Thursday it was announced the agency would coordinate the entire federal Covid-19 response.
The administration has faced much criticism about the pace of its response to the coronavirus pandemic — as well as the fact FEMA was not more fully integrated into the response efforts previously. But Gaynor dismissed these criticisms Sunday.
“I’m not going to look back at what should have been, what wasn’t done,” he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz on This Week. “Today I’m trying to focus on today and tomorrow and where we want to be in a couple weeks.”
Local leaders demand more help from the federal government on supplies
FEMA’s involvement in the coronavirus response was supposed to help streamline the federal government’s response. But many of the nation’s state and local leaders said Sunday that its ability to help has been limited by past mistakes.
“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,” Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said on This Week.
“At some point we’re going to have to analyze where all of the failures were. We’re going to have to make decisions based on what happened and what didn’t happen. Lives will be lost because we weren’t prepared.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Meet the Press that Trump should be using the Defense Production Act to its full extent to make desperately needed ventilators and to mobilize the military for medical aid. Instead, “he won’t lift a finger to help his hometown,” de Blasio said.
“I can’t be blunt enough,” de Blasio said. “If the president doesn’t act, the people will die that could have lived otherwise.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said on State of the Union that FEMA has helped centralize requests for help but his state is still receiving only a sliver of the medical supplies it needs.
“It’s a fraction of what we’ve requested. We need millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of gowns and gloves and the rest,” Pritzker said. “So we’re out on the open market competing for these items that we so badly need and we’re succeeding in some ways but we still need more.”
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said on Meet the Press that while things are improving, there’s still a need for more medical supplies despite the recent activation of FEMA.
“We’ve pushed for action and we are getting some progress,” he said. “Now it’s not nearly enough, it’s not fast enough, we’re way behind the curve.”
Ramping up production will be key for health care providers in the coming weeks. As Vox’s Dylan Scott has reported, most of the US’s hospitals are seeing demand for PPE like masks double — and just two weeks ago, Premier Inc., a major hospital supplier, said in a memo, “Most hospitals have only a couple weeks of supply.”