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As pressure builds, Trump says he is using Defense Production Act to increase supply of masks

·Chief National Correspondent
·5 min read
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WASHINGTON — President Trump said Friday the federal government has begun to use the Defense Production Act to direct U.S. companies to produce emergency supplies of protective masks for health workers dealing with coronavirus patients, but is not using it to procure ventilators.

“We are using it … for certain things that we need,” Trump said under questioning from reporters at the White House. “I wouldn’t say ventilators. Probably more masks.”

“We have millions more masks that are coming,” Trump said. “They will be here soon. … We’re having them shipped directly to states.”

Trump said he had begun using the act on Thursday. His announcement came as pressure increased from Democratic lawmakers to utilize the DPA powers, in response to Trump’s confusing announcements on the issue this week.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer became the second top Democrat in Congress this week to call on Trump to use the power he said he had invoked on Wednesday that would allow the government to push private industry to produce emergency medical supplies for the American system.

A spokesman for Schumer told Yahoo News in an email that the New York Democrat spoke by phone with the president Friday morning and “urged” him “to immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to get ventilators & other important medical equipment to those who need it.”

Trump, according to Schumer’s spokesman, “told Schumer he would, and then … yelled to someone in his office to do it now.”

The readout from Schumer’s office adds to the president’s confusing actions this week regarding the DPA. On Tuesday he said he hoped he didn’t have to use the powers but did not say why. On Wednesday, he abruptly announced that he was invoking the DPA powers, but that evening he said he would use them only in a worst-case scenario.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks on Capitol Hill Tuesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

And on Friday at a White House press conference, Trump said that on Thursday night “we put [the DPA] into gear” but provided no other details.

However, the best way to effectively utilize DPA powers to avoid a worst-case scenario is to use them before it gets to a crisis point, multiple experts have told Yahoo News. Medical equipment supplies cannot be ramped up overnight. Supply chains and manufacturing processes are complicated and often require specialized materials and training for those doing the work.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Trump to “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,” Pelosi said. “We must put more testing, more protective equipment and more ventilators into the hands of our frontline workers immediately.”

Hospitals and medical workers are already complaining of a critical shortage of all sorts of crucial equipment, from protective masks, gowns and gloves to respirator masks and ventilators, which assist critically ill patients with their breathing.

“Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Thursday. “We will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks.”

The U.S. medical system has about 30 million N95 respirators for medical workers to wear while caring for the sick. One estimate is that the actual need in a worst-case scenario would be 300 million masks. The manufacturer 3M, which makes them, is already increasing its production.

Trump told a group of nurses at the White House Wednesday that the government was buying 500 million N95 respirator masks, but he did not tell them the order had been placed two weeks earlier and will reportedly take a year and a half to be fulfilled.

President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

There are about 160,000 ventilators, but as many as 740,000 could be needed, according to one study.

Private manufacturers of ventilators, such as Medtronic and Getinge, have already announced they are significantly increasing their manufacturing output. But there is a global competition for their products.

Other private industry giants have said they want to help, but it’s not clear how much they can actually do. General Motors and Ford have said they might repurpose factories to make ventilators, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also expressed interest in pitching in, but no concrete plans have been announced.

The DPA gives the federal government the power to incentivize, or even force, American companies to do things like increase production of medical supplies like ventilators, masks and protective gowns. The DPA also empowers the government to offer loans and loan guarantees to companies that currently manufacture emergency medical supplies, enabling them to dramatically increase production of those items.

Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush, told Yahoo News the DPA could also give the Trump administration the authority to instruct companies like Prestige Ameritech — which reportedly has an order for 100 million masks from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — to prioritize orders for the American health care system.

The White House was reported to be discussing the DPA three weeks ago but didn’t invoke it at that point.

Zakheim told Yahoo News that Trump should have invoked the DPA long before now. “We’re behind the eight ball, because we’ve been reactive. Here’s an opportunity to be proactive — if you even want to call it proactive at this point,” Zakheim said in an interview.

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