President Donald Trump on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to get medical equipment to hospitals in the fight against the coronavirus.
But don’t expect new masks, ventilators, gloves and goggles to show up in the field right away.
The Trump administration has yet to complete a comprehensive assessment, despite weeks of discussion about using the act to help prevent the medical system from being overrun, according to current and former administration officials. Even Trump said on Wednesday that he’s in no hurry to order the supplies.
In an executive order issued Wednesday afternoon, Trump granted authority primarily to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to determine “the proper nationwide priorities” and to allocate all necessary health and medical resources and services.
Azar will work with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the heads of other agencies as appropriate, the order says.
“To ensure that our healthcare system is able to surge capacity and capability to respond to the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that all health and medical resources needed … are properly distributed to the Nation’s healthcare system and others that need them most at this time,” the order says.
Invoking the DPA means that if the government places an order with a private company for any medical equipment to treat the coronavirus — masks and ventilators are the two prime examples — then that company would be required to fulfill the government’s order before anyone else’s.
But while it gives the government priority, invoking the act does not do anything to increase production of these items, which increasingly are in short supply.
“It doesn’t help capacity,” said Doug Jacobson, an international export-control lawyer in Washington. “If you only have capacity to produce X number of units, it doesn’t help that. It just simply reprioritizes where the supply chain is oriented to.”
A White House spokesperson didn’t respond when asked whether the administration is positioned to immediately begin placing orders with private companies, or what those orders would might like.
And Trump followed up the order with a tweet in which he indicated that he is in no rush to use the authorities. “I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future,” he wrote. “Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!”
Lawmakers and former government officials who have been responsible for disaster preparedness and participated in exercises to game out responses in such national crises expressed alarm at the seemingly blasé approach.
“The government should be placing purchasing orders for this equipment and they should know what they are asking for,” said Katrina Mulligan, former director for preparedness and response in the National Security Division of the Justice Department and former member of the National Security Council staff. “And right now, it appears that neither of those things are happening.”
“They have not done this assessment,” said Mulligan, who is managing director of national security and international policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It is shocking. It is malpractice.”
Taking full advantage of the authorities by definition poses significant challenges.
“It’s been used, but not like this,” said Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon official and National Security Council staffer in the Bush and Obama administrations. “It’s a pretty big step.”
She, too, said it remains unclear how quickly the powers can now be set in motion most effectively and efficiently.
“So far, we haven’t seen the White House actually issue any orders to manufacturers,” Magsamen said. “That’s the next step. They have to issue orders so that the private sector and manufacturers can figure out how to fill them. The White House has to do its own homework in terms of assessing its ventilator reserves, which hopefully is underway.
“Somebody in the federal government needs to be doing that assessment so that you can have an informed ask of the manufacturing community,” she added. “I’m hoping they’ve been working on it for some time.”
Chris Brooks, chief strategy officer for Seattle-area Ventec Life Systems, said he’s fielding inquiries and orders from more than 60 countries, including the U.S. government. But with the U.S., he said the focus is still on working out what exactly it needs.
“I want to say we’re doing everything we can to ramp up as quickly as possible and to put products in place to be able to make as many [ventilators] as possible,” he said. “Certainly, with a definitive answer about what that need is, we could provide a definitive answer as to whether we could meet that need.”
Mulligan said what is required is “a 50-state breakdown of how many days of personal protective equipment do you have, where your gaps are the biggest.”
Then, she added, “you would identify the manufacturers domestically who produce those items. Do you have the capacity to do more within your current manufacturing capacity? Can you ramp up production? For the last month, we could have been figuring these questions out. There is absolutely no reason why we are starting that now.”
In fact, talk of invoking the Defense Production Act to help deal with the current crisis dates back at least to late February.
“We will use the Defense Production Act as necessary to enable that our contracts go to the front of the line on contracting,” Azar told reporters on Feb. 2. “So that is an authority that we have, and we intend to use it to acquire anything that we need to acquire.”
Azar said he could not specify all the items it will be used to produce but noted, “of course, we’ve been very clear in the supplemental of the core items that we’ve got to do, which is personal protective equipment.”
That includes protective equipment for health care workers. “We’ve spoken of procuring at least 300 million N95 masks,” Azar said. “We need additional gowns … as well as gloves. So that kind of personal protective equipment most immediately.”
Azar also stressed that “if we need to, we will use it. We won’t hesitate.”
Trump on Wednesday defended the timing. “Well, you know, hospitals are supposed to have ventilators, too,” he told reporters. “And when we have thousands of ventilators — it sounds like a lot, but this is a very unforeseen thing. Nobody ever thought of these numbers. Nobody ever saw numbers like this, even with regard to testing.”
Others have been pressing the administration to ramp up its special authorities more quickly.
“America is not as ready as we should be,” said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, who co-wrote a letter this week to Trump pressing him to utilize the DPA.
“In France, factories that once manufactured fancy perfumes are starting to churn out needed hand sanitizer instead,” he said. “You can’t do these things overnight. It takes planning and coordination. President Trump is finally taking needed steps, but we’ve got to do more.”
There could be other delays, however. Mulligan pointed out that the production law requires any expenditures above $50 million to be approved by Congress.
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