As hospitals plead for supplies, FEMA director has no answers on mask shipments

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

FEMA Director Peter Gaynor, appearing on network news broadcasts Sunday morning, was unable to answer questions about when resupplies of desperately needed protective masks would be available to health care workers.

“Can you tell us this morning when those masks will be distributed and how many?” asked ABC News’ Martha Raddatz.

“They have been distributed,” said Gaynor. “They’ve been distributed these past couple weeks.  They’re shipping today. They’ll ship tomorrow. ... They have been shipping, we are trying to focus those shipments on the most critical hotspots in the country. Places like New York City, Washington State, California.”

“But will the health care systems there be overwhelmed before masks get there?” asked Raddatz. “I know you’ve been shipping some masks, but these 600 million ordered are very important and critical at this point. Will they get them in time before the health system is overwhelmed?” 

Gaynor repeated his answer without giving specifics. When he was asked about the amount remaining in the national strategic stockpile, he also didn’t give specific numbers, saying there were still supplies but that they were prepared to go to zero in the stockpile to meet demand. Raddatz pushed him on why that hasn’t happened yet. 

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

“You say you’re shipping them out where they’re needed first,” asked Raddatz, “you’ve still got some in the stockpile, I’m wondering why the stockpile hasn’t been depleted.  Have you seen the urgent pleas from health care workers?”

Gaynor said he was “well aware” of the high demand for the items.

“So again, why haven’t those been shipped to those urgent care facilities?” said Raddatz. “If you have those masks in the stockpile as you say you have, and they’re shipped why weren’t they shipped before? How are we in such bad shape at this point in terms of supplies.” 

“My focus is today,” said Gaynor. “Filling all the demands that are in the queue. Filling the demands that we get today, tomorrow and through the next month that we connect the supply with the demand and meet that need.”

Interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Gaynor also gave no specifics, saying the situation was fluid and “not about an exact number,” but he declined to give even a rough number of the masks going out to states.

“The inability of the federal government to give a number in terms of masks alarms people” said Tapper, adding, “It makes people concerned that there aren’t masks going out the door. I’m not saying that that’s the case, but without a number, that doesn’t fill people with confidence.”

“Are you confident you have the ventilators and the N95 masks this country is going to need in the next six weeks?” asked NBC News’ Chuck Todd.

After stating that they were bringing in supplies from a number of areas, Gaynor conceded, “We will ever have enough? I’m not sure. But our goal is to make sure we aim critical resources to the places that need them the most and then we’ll triage as we go.”

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the government was preparing guidelines for how hospitals should proceed if they run out of supplies. Health care workers spent the past week speaking out about the dangers of personal protection equipment shortage and scouring for their own supplies.

At Saturday’s White House briefing, neither Trump, Pence nor Gaynor answered a question about the specifics when the masks would be available. Gaynor was so evasive that Trump eventually asked him to clarify his response.

“When will the masks start coming in?” asked Trump when Gaynor responded to a question about specifics by describing the process of the supply chain. “They’re out there now,” Gaynor said.

Gaynor was confirmed to his post in January, after serving as the acting administrator since March 2019, when the previous chief, Brock Long, stepped down in the wake of a report that found he had used government vehicles for his personal travel. Gaynor’s previous job was as the director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. Trump originally announced he was nominating Jeffrey Byard to replace Long, but that nomination was withdrawn after a federal investigation into a barroom altercation involving Byard. 

The president said an order for 500 million masks had been placed by the federal government but some estimates say it could take 18 months to fill. Trump has so far declined to use the Defense Production Act to increase domestic production of the masks. Gaynor confirmed this during his Sunday interviews despite Trump saying Friday he would begin using the DPA.

“Sooner than weeks, it’s going to be days, I would hope. We’re going to try to make it days to the best possible way that we can,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, replied, when asked about a mask delivery time line.

It was also during the Saturday briefing when Trump said it bothered him that medical personnel were throwing away masks after use, suggesting they be cleaned instead, because “we have very good liquids for doing this.” N95 masks, one of the most widely used types, are not intended to be used more than once, according to the FDA.

Trump attempted to downplay the lack of supplies when asked by reporters on Saturday, but Fauci confirmed there were shortages.

“It is happening. You’re not making things up,” Fauci responded to a question from a reporter about the situation in hospitals. “I know that because I’m experiencing it myself.”

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