President Donald Trump on Friday shot down the prospect for any kind of nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus, resisting a step that California, New York and now Illinois have already taken.
“I don’t think so,” Trump told reporters Friday when asked whether California‘s strategy could be adopted nationwide.
Trump, who instead announced another series of mitigation efforts spanning the federal government, maintained that California and New York were exceptions.
“Essentially you’ve done that in California. You’ve done that in New York. Those are two hotbeds,” he said. But, he added, “you go out to the Midwest, you go out to other locations, and they’re watching it on television, but they don’t have the same problems. They don’t have by any means the same problem.”
While the president said he would continue to work with governors, “I don’t think we’ll ever find that necessary,” he said of a nationwide lockdown.
Even as his administration has ramped up its coronavirus response, Trump has appeared hesitant at times to take steps that would further kneecap a U.S. economy that is already in an unprecedented free fall. Even without a nationwide lockdown, millions of Americans have already essentially self-quarantined, posing a mortal danger to the service and hospitality industries and threatening to thrust the entire U.S. economy into a recession.
The dramatic economic slowdown has prompted talks between the White House and Congress not just on a massive bailout package for suffering industries but also of plans to cut checks to individual Americans. Taken together, costs for the government’s economic response are expected to soar past $1 trillion.
What Trump did announce was that he had finally put the Defense Production Act, which would allow him to order private corporations to manufacture desperately supplies, “into high gear,” days after saying he would not yet trigger the Korean War-era statute. But aside from name-checking General Motors, the president declined to say what companies he had ordered into action and how many items he had ordered.
He also announced the partial closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to nonessential travel, a move that mirrors the closure of the northern border with Canada earlier this week. Trump rolled out a number of new measures aimed at providing relief to American consumers as well, saying the Education Department would allow federal student loan borrowers to suspend payments for at least 60 days and that the IRS is pushing back its deadline to file taxes by three months.
The president and his coronavirus task force were repeatedly questioned throughout the nearly 90-minute briefing on everything from their failures to produce widespread access to test kits for the respiratory illness to health care workers’ unmet pleas for personal protective equipment or treatment machines like ventilators.
But a day after saying that it was states’ responsibility to procure supplies, and that the federal government was not a “shipping clerk,” Trump signaled a move to nationalize the supply chain and improve the allocation of resources for health care providers. He announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would take over emergency response, asking governors to coordinate with their regional FEMA administrators.
Experts had urged such an approach because the federal government has powers to boost production that states do not and a federal approach can allocate scarce goods to the places that need them most, not just the state that calls up manufacturers fastest. Trump alluded to that dynamic on Friday.
“We need certain equipment that the states are unable to get by themselves,” he said. “So we’re invoking [the Defense Production Act] to use the powers of the federal government to help the states get things that they need, like the masks, like the ventilators.”
Still, the new approach appeared to be uneven. Asked about concerns raised by Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, a day earlier that the federal government was outbidding states for critical supplies, Trump acknowledged such occurrences but contended that “smart” states call and tell the government to withdraw its bid.
Trump insisted that there were “millions” of supplies, including masks and ventilators, heading to states. And while he did not offer many details on that front, manufacturing giant 3M announced during the briefing that it has doubled its global output of coveted N95 respirator masks since the outbreak began, increasing its output “to an annual rate of over 1.1 billion per year, or nearly 100 million per month.”
But the president also wrongly suggested entities like shuttered car factories could be retrofitted instantaneously to accommodate the need for supplies, a reconfiguration that in reality could take almost a year.
“We’re getting calls from automobile companies. We’re getting calls from other companies saying they have plant capacity,” Trump said. “They want to make ventilators, they want to make other things. We are literally being besieged, in a beautiful way, by companies that want to do the work.”
The task force also continued to defend its coronavirus testing lags, and despite Trump’s top expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, conceding earlier Friday that “clearly, more needs to be done” to expand the availability of testing kits, Trump denied that access to kits was an issue.
“We’re hearing positive things about testing,” Trump asserted to reporters, despite anecdotes all over from those who say they are exhibiting symptoms of the disease and still cannot get tested. When pressed on the issue, Trump shot back with a dig at the reporter personally and telling her, “Yeah, well, OK, I’m not hearing it.”
But even Fauci stepped up to the lectern to acknowledge that there were still flaws in the process, telling reporters that “we are not there yet” in terms of meeting the demand for tests.
“I get the same calls that many of you get. Someone goes into a place who has a symptom and wants to get tested for one reason or another and they can’t get it,” he said. “That is the reality that’s happening now.”
But Fauci pointed to improvements that had been made in getting people tested. “Is it the same as a few weeks ago?” he said. “Absolutely not.”
The exchange appeared to irritate the president, who then returned to repeat previous attacks on his predecessor, deflecting blame for the recent stumbles and criticizing what he claimed was a “broken system” he’d inherited.
“We have, now, a great system. And it’s almost fully in gear but it is able to test millions of people. We inherited a broken, old, frankly a terrible system. We fixed it and we’ve done a great job.” Trump complained. “We haven’t been given the credit that we deserve, that I can tell you.”
Despite Trump’s suggestion that tests are being carried out smoothly, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that FEMA would stand up “a laboratory task force to answer” questions about a lack of supplies for tests, like cotton swabs.
“Usually it’s the lab people do not understand there are actually alternative supplies in the marketplace, that they are perfectly free to use,” he said, saying that the government had just purchased 200,000 swabs on the open marketplace that they were sending to governors.
“It’s a complex system with 330 million Americans and all of these labs,” Azar explained. “So sometimes there’s a lab that doesn’t understand how much flexibility they have and how much supply there is out there. We’re working through the new FEMA integration center to help correct that for folks.”
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