Trump downplays need for ventilators as New York begs to differ

By Quint Forgey and Matthew Choi
·6 min read

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York says his state needs tens of thousands of ventilators to respond to the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump doesn’t believe him.

Speaking with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night, Trump again minimized the impact of the infectious outbreak in the United States, casting doubt on the demand for so many of the respiratory devices in hospitals on the front lines of the disease.

“I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” he said. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now, all of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”

New York has become the new epicenter America’s public health crisis, as health care workers struggle to treat rocketing numbers of patients with diminishing supplies, including masks, gowns and ventilators. In severe cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, the machines can allow patients to breathe with incapacitated lungs — a common outcome of the disease.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a news briefing on Thursday that she was told New York had enough ventilators to meet current needs. While there may be shortages in urban areas like New York City, she said, there are parts of the state “that have lots of ventilators and other parts of New York state that don’t have any infections right now.”

“Over a thousand or two thousand ventilators that have not been utilized yet,” Birx said. “Please, for the reassurance of people around the world, to wake up this morning and look at people talking about creating DNR situations — do not resuscitate situations for patients — there is no situation in the United States right now that warrants that kind of discussion.”

But during his daily news conference on Tuesday, Cuomo had said that the state would need a minimum of 30,000 ventilators to be able to respond to the climax of the outbreak, which is predicted to hit the state in about two weeks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had delivered only 400 ventilators, Cuomo said, although the Trump administration announced later in the day that it would ship 4,000 more from the federal stockpile.

“What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” Cuomo asked reporters, angrily accusing the administration of “missing the magnitude of the problem.”

“You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators,” he said.

By Thursday, Cuomo said the state had begun converting several thousand anesthesia machines into ventilators and approved the “splitting” of ventilators between two patients — a practice the governor said was “not ideal, but we believe it’s workable.”

“We are talking to the federal government about more ventilators” and still “shopping for ventilators, ourselves,” Cuomo said, adding that stockpiles of ventilators were located “all across the state” to deploy to regional hospitals.

But “the number of ventilators we need is so astronomical,” Cuomo warned, pegging the “apex number” of ventilators that could be required in New York at 40,000. The governor said New York is currently in possession of 12,000 ventilators, and he did not know when the state would reach peak demand.

“We don’t have an estimate for when we would get there,” Cuomo said, “and hopefully, we never do.”

Cuomo’s comments appeared to irk some top administration officials, notably White House trade adviser Peter Navarro.

“Just a day or so ago when he was talking about not getting the ventilators he needed, that morning FEMA had sent 2,000 additional ventilators,” Navarro told Fox News on Thursday. “That afternoon, there were 2,000 additional ventilators sent. My office personally had shepherded 400 ventilators the day before. And there will be more to follow.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio clarified on Friday morning that the city had indeed received 2,500 ventilators over the last week or so, but said it will soon need 15,000.

“When the president says the state of New York doesn’t need 30,000 ventilators, with all due respect to him, he’s not looking at the facts of this astronomical growth of this crisis,” de Blasio told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams sought to defend Trump’s remarks on Friday, saying that “when you look at some of the projections out there, they’re based on worst case scenarios.”

According to public health experts, Adams told “CBS This Morning,” the “models in many cases are way off.” He also claimed the administration had “people on the ground” in New York City “who have told us that there are 1,000 ventilators sitting in a warehouse right now that haven’t been used.”

Asked about that charge during a news conference on Friday, Cuomo responded: “Yes, they’re in a stockpile because that’s where they need to be. We don’t need them today because we’re not at capacity today.”

The governor also reiterated the state’s projection that it could need as many as 140,000 beds and 30,000 ventilators as the virus comes to a head. “Those are numbers. Not, ‘I think, I feel, I believe,’” he said.

The president, meanwhile, weighed in again on the lack of critical medical equipment on Friday, criticizing General Motors and CEO Mary Barra for apparently falling short on a mass order of ventilators.

“As usual with ‘this’ General Motors, things just never seem to work out,” he wrote on Twitter. “They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, ‘very quickly’. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke ‘P’.”

The president subsequently clarified that he meant for ‘P’ to refer to the Defense Production Act, the federal statute that would allow the administration to direct U.S. industry to ramp up production of emergency medical supplies. Trump invoked the act last week but has declined to implement it despite the urging of state and local authorities.

Trump also called on General Motors to reopen its shuttered plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and “START MAKING VENTILATORS, NOW!!!!!!” He likewise demanded that Ford Motor Company “GET GOING ON VENTILATORS, FAST!!!!!!”

Minutes later, however, Trump announced that the federal government “just purchased many Ventilators from some wonderful companies,” writing that he would disclose “Names and numbers” later Friday.

Shortly thereafter, the president alleged that “Thousand of Federal Government (delivered) Ventilators” had been “found in New York storage” — an apparent reference to the stockpile Cuomo mentioned — adding: “N.Y. must distribute NOW!”

David Giambusso contributed.