The Most Pressing Question in America’s Fight Against Coronavirus
There’s a lot to process right now, in the time of coronavirus, which means the questions to prioritize feel daunting. The one that keeps returning to the top of the list though, is straightforward:
Why aren’t Governors and Mayors receiving more of the life-saving equipment they repeatedly demand from the federal government in the midst of a global pandemic to stave off an exponentially growing body count? More specifically, why has the DPA (Defense Production Act) been “invoked”, but not used?
Though states and cities are now receiving federal assistance, it arrives late, incomplete and foregoes the country’s biggest untapped resource: the DPA. FEMA’s description of the DPA outlines its singular power as “the primary source of Presidential authorities to expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base to support military, energy, space, and homeland security programs.” If authorizing the DPA is the “primary” source of Presidential authorities, it’s unclear what it will take before the non-primary sources have been considered exhausted.
The Break Glass in Case of Emergency Moments
For weeks, beleaguered but undaunted Mayors are doing all they can to get their message out.
NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio holds press conferences on a Friday to prepare the public for dwindling medical supplies, “I’m telling you, in two weeks’ time or three weeks’ time, we will have nothing left”, only to have to change that on Sunday to “We’re about 10 days away from seeing widespread shortages.” Washington Governor Jay Inslee gives televised interviews to warn “We might have 1,000 people infected today in Washington but this doubles every week in an epidemic like this and so seven weeks from now, we might have 60,000 people plus infected”. Governors in states hit hardest like New York write op-eds with titles like “Andrew Cuomo to President Trump: Mobilize the Military to Help Fight Coronavirus”.
Each day, city and state officials are publicly pleading with the federal government for the same unchanging must-haves in this actual life and death situation:
- COVID-19 Tests
- PPE (Personal Protective Equipment): swabs, masks, gloves, gowns
- Medical equipment: ventilators
- Basic necessities: Beds
- Military mobilization
- Temporary / Pop up hospitals
The Federal Response
For still unexplained reasons, this administration has chosen to forego the DPA. It appears they’re beginning to reckon with the urgency as the White House finally declared a national emergency on March 13. On March 20, in coordination with FEMA, they approved a declaration stating New York was the site of a “major disaster location”, thereby freeing up federal aid.
On Monday, the New York Times reported the President said major disaster declarations were also in process for California and Washington, indicating those states wouldn’t have to pay for deploying National Guard units. He went on to say he had directed FEMA to supply four large federal medical stations (1000 beds) for New York, eight stations (2000 beds) California and seven stations (1000 beds) for the state of Washington.
The messages from the President about the DPA vary day to day, sometimes within the same day. On March 18 he said, “We’ll be invoking the Defense Production Act, just in case we need it”. Later that day on Twitter, “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.
At the next day’s press conference: “First of all, Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work and they are doing a lot of this work. The federal government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping, you know, we’re not a shipping clerk. The Governors are supposed to be, as with testing, the Governors are supposed to be doing it.”
How Cities and States Are Going it Alone
We reached out to the communications teams for Governors and Mayors at the frontlines. Each spokesperson made sure to note that some forms of federal assistance had arrived. Nearly all mentioned repeated asks for the DPA to go beyond being “invoked”.
Though New York has FEMA’s help to build hospitals, Colin Brennan, NYS DHSES director of communications (working with Governor Cuomo), explained why the DPA must be initiated, “Outside of these hospital space-related requests, the Governor is urging the federal government to take action on a number of issues as soon as possible.
Most recently, he called on the federal government to immediately implement the Defense Production Act and nationalize the contracting and acquisition of medical supplies. National shortages are also impacting other states, leading to price gouging by companies, hospitals competing with one another and states competing with other states and even other countries for supplies. Implementing the Defense Production Act would give the federal government legal authority to mandate private companies to manufacture these critical supplies for all states.”
Funding has been an issue. Brennan noted, “The Governor has requested that the Congressional Delegation amend the initial COVID-19 aid legislation, as a technical issue in the original bill has prevented New York from receiving any funding, despite leading the nation in cases.”
Mayor De Blasio’s deputy press secretary, Julia Arredondo, sent NYC’s list for PPE from the Strategic National Stockpile:
- N95s: 2.2 million requested. 78,000 received (NOTE: CDC relaxed guidance on the use of expired respirators and they can be effectively used by healthcare workers)
- Face Shields: 800,000 requested. 36,000 received.
- Gloves: 600,000 requested. 104,000 received.
We were referred to the multiple letters De Blasio has written, including one from March 20, to Vice President Pence, “We urge your administration to use the DPA to the fullest extent possible. The President is granted immense power and flexibility to direct the activities of the private sector to keep our nation safe. While President Trump has invoked it, he has refused to actually use it thus far – waiting for what he calls a “worst case scenario.”
Respectfully, it makes no sense and our country is quickly approaching this “worst case scenario.” The DPA can prevent this from happening, but only if it is used to its maximum capability, right now.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s press secretary, Mike Faulk confirmed making three federal stockpile requests since Feb. 29. One was fulfilled, another partially met, and a third order from HHS (coveralls, surgical gowns, gloves, masks, N-95 respirators) was expected to have arrived last weekend.
Faulk laid out how federal assistance is and isn’t taking place, “Federal assistance is happening, as evidenced by the fact they have met some of our requests, but we have asked for and continue to ask for more assistance with meeting our public health and economic needs.” As far as acting alone, he wrote, “We are also working diligently on identifying and procuring additional PPE through non-federal sources to address the severe shortages we’re seeing across the state.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s communications director Ernesto Apreza detailed their experience beginning in February after the administration announced guidelines for redirecting travelers from certain countries to various cities’ airports, including theirs. Durkan was in touch with Pence before most other Mayors, outlining the needs for additional PPE and more testing.
Apreza noted, “There has been recent action that is promising, and we hope resourced [sic] continue to move quickly. Today, the President announced a disaster declaration for the State of Washington and we hope this will help the region get critical resources even faster.”
As for why federal assistance is not coming through in the ways needed, he wrote, “What we can infer is that there was a delay in how serious the administration was taking this pandemic.”