US begs for medical aid as coronavirus fatalities soar
The Trump administration is appealing to countries around the world to give or sell the US items as basic as hand sanitiser and as complex as respirators to combat the surging coronavirus pandemic.
In a list obtained by CNN, the State Department lays out 25 items, telling diplomats to ask their host countries for these supplies with a clear priority on items available “today” and a secondary focus on equipment and items available in weeks.
The requests come as President Donald Trump touts his domestic response and declines to deploy the full power of the federal government’s Defense Production Act to produce and funnel crucial supplies to struggling states and hospitals. It’s not clear how many countries the US has appealed to.
The list spans the gamut of equipment that overburdened American hospitals are seeking. The simpler items include biohazard bags, N-95 masks, gloves, gowns, surgical caps, shoe covers, sharps containers, protective eyewear, hand sanitizer and Tyvek suits.
The more complex items on the list include metered-dose inhalers, ventilators, elastomeric respirators and powered air-purifying respirators.
The South Korean government said that Trump personally made at least one of the appeals, calling President Moon Jae-in Tuesday to ask if Seoul could provide the US with medical equipment.
The administration is making these private appeals as Trump is striking a starkly different note in public. At Tuesday’s daily coronavirus briefing from the White House, not long after he had called the South Korean leader, the President veered into campaign-style rhetoric, declaring that, “America will never be a supplicant nation.”
“We should never be reliant on a foreign country for the means of our own survival,” Trump said. “Marshaling our economic strength is a key feature of defeating the virus, producing the material, supplies and equipment that we need. And they’re doing a really fantastic job,” Trump said, appearing to praise private sector companies.
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Senior Trump trade official Peter Navarro told The New York Times that the administration was even reaching out to China, which administration officials have repeatedly blamed for not communicating clearly enough about the disease.
“My job at the White House right now is to help find whatever the American people need and buy it from wherever we can, and if we need to send a plane to go get it, we’ll get that done using the full force of government and private enterprise,” Mr. Navarro said in an interview.
“If China or any other country has some masks, gloves or other products we need for the American people, we welcome that with open arms,” he said.
A senior State Department spokesperson said Tuesday that they had “reached out to missions and have asked missions to determine whether certain countries may have excess capacity of the ability to manufacture supplies, whether there are companies in that country that may consider exporting supplies to the US”
“Hopefully we can match up external suppliers, external sources with states and entities in the US that actually need them,” they said.
Diplomats tasked with making the requests say the directive came with a strong sense of urgency, with some told to get answers by the end of the day. In some cases, the orders didn’t make clear whether the US was asking for donations or offering to pay, leaving embassies in the deeply uncomfortable position of dancing around the issue.
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In his Sunday briefing, Trump emphasized US readiness, listing some of the very items that diplomats have been asked to solicit. “We have millions of masks being done. We have respirators. We have ventilators. We have a lot of things happening right now.”
But there’s little clarity about the amount of crucial supplies the US actually has on hand. Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News Tuesday that the Strategic National Stockpile, the government reserve meant to support hospitals in a crisis, has “some 20,000 ventilators and we’ve been making those available to states,” naming California, Washington, New York and New Jersey.
But on March 15, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the President’s coronavirus task force, told CNN that the US had 12,700 ventilators on hand. “If you don’t have enough ventilators, that means it’s obvious people who need it will not be able to get it. That’s when you’re going to have to make some very tough decisions.”
New York alone had over 25,000 known infections on Tuesday and 210 dead. Its governor, Andrew Cuomo, angrily told reporters that he needed “30,000” ventilators.
Cuomo’s stance echoes state leaders across the country who say the federal government still isn’t fully addressing their pleas for millions of masks, ventilators and other supplies.
As of Wednesday morning, CNN Health’s tally finds there are now at least 53,209 novel coronavirus cases in the US and that 709 people have died. Less than 24 hours prior, on Tuesday at noon, the US had at least 48,000 coronavirus infections and 600 deaths.
Even as the President declared Tuesday that “we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel” and that he hoped to see the lifting of restrictions on movement and social gatherings by Easter, the World Health Organization warned that the growing trajectory of cases and deaths means the US could become the next global epicentre of the pandemic.
“The potential is there but you’ve still got time to turn it around,” WHO spokesman Margaret Harris told “New Day” on Wednesday morning. She emphasized the urgent need to test, find every case, track those who have been exposed and isolate them. “And finally, getting the people who are ill to treatment and when you do that, really, really protect your health workers,” she said.
But governors are scrambling to make up major gaps in critical medical equipment that could help protect those health workers. They say they need Trump to fully deploy the Defense Production Act to take over distribution of supplies because the current process forces the 50 states to compete with one another, the federal government and hospitals to obtain them.
The 1950 DPA allows the federal government to direct domestic production during an emergency. While the law’s priorities provision is commonly used in emergencies such as wildfires or hurricanes to ensure that government orders get filled first, the allocation portion hasn’t been used since the Cold War.
Invoking that element of the law gives the government authority to completely control the entire supply chain, from forcing companies to manufacture critically needed items, to taking over distribution and allocation of those supplies.
Trump has signed the DPA but not actually used it, bowing to pressure from business leaders who say there are too many unknowns and have instead volunteered to produce whatever is needed. The President reflected their views in a Sunday tweet, saying that when the DPA was announced “it sent tremors” through the business community.
At Tuesday’s pandemic briefing, the President remained focused on urging private companies to provide needed equipment — even as his outreach to foreign countries continued — and insisted things were going well. He did not address distribution and allocation, the other critical issue that states say would end counterproductive competition among them for life-saving supplies.
“The federal government is using every resource at its disposal to acquire and distribute critical medical supplies,” Trump said Tuesday. “We didn’t have to exercise or utilize the DPA in any way. The fact that we have it helps, but we didn’t have to. And for the most part, we won’t have to.”