There is no question that health providers are the front-line heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. The integrity, selflessness and sheer bravery needed to deliver care in the midst of a highly infectious disease with no proven treatment or cure is awe-inspiring.
So why then are we allowing them to further jeopardize themselves by shorting them on the equipment they so desperately need? In the richest nation in the world, why are we asking people to break out sewing machines to make masks that may or may not suffice? Why are we forcing doctors to split ventilators, reuse masks and jeopardize their safety?
There is a way to alleviate these shortages. President Donald Trump must make full use of the Defense Production Act, and without delay. The announcement Tuesday that the government finally will use the act to procure more test kits is long overdue and falls short.
Passed in 1950, the act gives the federal government sweeping powers to compel industries to manufacture what is needed, for fair market compensation. It is not — as some federal officials, including Trump, have claimed — “nationalizing,” and it is wrong of them to so irresponsibly mislead the public.
Americans should applaud the companies in Minnesota and elsewhere that already have stepped up. 3M is manufacturing N95 masks at top capacity. Mayo Clinic already has produced an accurate coronavirus test and eliminated the state’s 1,700 backlog of test samples that had been frozen for lack of federal tests kids. There are others, all contributing.
But there is a greater need than what any handful of private companies can manage on their own. They cannot clear and prioritize their supply lines in the way the federal government can under the act. They cannot assume responsibility for coordinating 50-state distribution of those needed supplies.
States should not be in a bidding war with one another or the federal government. Among its other provisions, the act provides for the federal government to pay a fair market value for the products it requires. Then it can distribute such aid to states as needed.
Vice President Mike Pence said recently that New York state would get up to 4,000 ventilators from the national strategic reserve. But it needs 30,000. In Washington state some doctors and nurses were washing out masks between patients to preserve precious supplies, an unhygienic situation that jeopardized them and their patients.
Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro recently said, “We are getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.”
Obviously that approach has fallen far short. This country needs a robust, well-coordinated federal response that gets states and medical providers what they need now, not months from now. Companies must be assured that the federal government will use its power to clear the path for supply chains needed to speed the massive, rapid production of masks, respirators, ventilators, hand sanitizers, whatever providers need to deal with this pandemic.
There should be no need for the daily, emotional pleadings of American public officials and medical providers for the basic equipment needed to treat a global pandemic. America should be producing enough not only for its own needs, but also to aid Italy, Spain and other countries without such capability.
If this is, indeed, a war, the first order of business is to equip our front-line troops — the health care professionals risking their lives to care for us.