WASHINGTON — President Trump said Tuesday he was not prepared to invoke the authorities that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector can ramp up production of emergency medical supplies, despite a growing chorus of voices urging him to do so.
“We’ll make that decision pretty quickly if we need it,” Trump said at a midday White House press conference, when asked about invoking those authorities, known as the Defense Production Act. “We hope we don’t need it. It’s a big step.”
Medical experts have cited the possibility that hospitals and medical providers will be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients in the coming weeks. The U.S. medical system does not have enough hospital beds, respirator masks for medical workers and ventilators to assist sick patients with breathing to meet the number of cases expected to emerge over the next few weeks.
The Defense Production Act (DPA) was enacted during the Cold War to allow the president to cajole — and even coerce — industry into producing products deemed necessary for national defense. In this case, the DPA would allow the U.S. government “to incentivize a company who already makes [emergency medical supplies] to make more of them,” said Jeff Bialos, a veteran Washington attorney who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial affairs in the Clinton White House.
Bialos, whose post in the Clinton administration intersected with the government’s DPA powers, told Yahoo News that in his view, the current health emergency justifies the use of the DPA powers. “I have little doubt they could do it,” he said.
Yet even with the DPA, it would typically take industry time to ramp up production. Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon’s comptroller under President George W. Bush, told Yahoo News that Trump should already have invoked the DPA.
“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.
The White House was reported to be considering invoking the DPA almost three weeks ago, in late February. But at the time, Trump was dismissing the coronavirus threat. “Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said then, adding that there were only 15 cases in the country, and promising that “the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”
On Tuesday, Trump confirmed the White House had discussed the DPA “over two weeks ago.” But he justified his decision thus far not to use its powers, by telling the press that some states still do not have many verified cases of coronavirus.
“Some states have two people, three people, no people — again, in the case of West Virginia,” Trump said, referring to the number of cases.
But the low number of known coronavirus cases in states like West Virginia is probably due to the fact that the state has not conducted enough tests to know who has it. The state has only 500 test kits and has conducted only 84 tests, according to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.
Trump is “being reactive. He’s saying we don’t need it yet,” Zakheim said. “There’s enough doctors out there saying we do need it right now.”
The DPA would allow the federal government to offer loans and loan guarantees to companies that currently manufacture emergency medical supplies, enabling them to dramatically increase their production of those items.
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.
There are about 160,000 ventilators, which assist sick patients with their breathing, but as many as 740,000 could be needed, according to one study.
A group of 57 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the president last Friday, urging him to invoke the DPA immediately.
“During World War II, our country adapted to the demands of the time to produce mass quantities of bombers, tanks, and many small items needed to save democracy and freedom in the world,” said the letter, which was written by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich. “We know what the demands of this time are, and we must act now to meet these demands. We urge you to invoke the Defense Production Act without delay.”
But comparisons to World War II manufacturing are “just not realistic in a short timeframe,” Bialos cautioned. “Industrial processes are complicated and can’t be changed on a dime,” he said.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Tuesday that the Pentagon will give 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 specialized ventilators to domestic health systems in the United States.
Esper also said the Pentagon is looking at setting up field hospitals, perhaps near civilian hospitals and with the goal of taking non-coronavirus trauma patients to relieve hospitals of that load.
But Esper acknowledged that the real solution of increasing medical supply inventory will have to come from private-sector companies.
“When you look at the numbers of people that are projected that may need ventilators, 2,000 doesn't put much of a dent into it. We can offer what we have,” Esper said. “The private sector, the manufacturing side, whoever makes medical machines of this type, how do you prime that pump to get the production up?”
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