WASHINGTON (CN) — House lawmakers confronted White House officials Thursday with a report that the country did not, and more critically will not, command enough protective medical equipment to meet the surge in cases of Covid-19.
There are more than 2 million cases of the novel coronavirus recorded in the United States, where more than 30 states have seen an uptick in cases over the last few weeks after registering some 130,000 deaths.
Tasked with overseeing the federal government’s response to the pandemic, the House’s Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis met Thursday as much of America grapples with pressure to reinstate lockdown measures that ground most of the country to a halt for months this spring.
“How is it possible,” exclaimed Committee Chairman Jim Clyburn, “that more than five months into this crisis, our country is still facing a possible shortage of 30 million N95 masks?”
The South Carolina Democrat quoted President Donald Trump as having said the U.S. would procure 160 million masks by July. So far, however, the stock contains 130 million masks.
Rear Admiral John Polowcyzk, who oversees the supply-chain stabilization task force operated through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, defended the shortfall.
Trump’s projection did not account for states that acquired their own masks, he said, nor did it account for all workers wanting — or needing — masks.
As noted by Representative Carolyn Maloney, however, a recurring complaint from the private sector has been that the administration offered no guidance, even as the crisis got worse, for production and distribution of personal protective equipment and other supplies. Maloney’s home state of New York had been a global epicenter of the outbreak early on but is now leading the country in containment, a feat largely credited to the state’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat.
Maloney released a 13-page report ahead of Thursday’s hearing that details committee’s discussions to date with in-house legal counsel, senior officials procurement experts and other representatives from six leading distributors of medical equipment: Cardinal Health, Concordance Healthcare Solutions, Henry Schein, McKesson, Medline, and Owens & Minor. They labeled Trump’s coordination not just inadequate but in many cases nonexistent in the pandemic’s early months.
According to one Owens & Minor official, the government treated phone calls with its company as largely “educational.” With masks in particular, the company said the government did not address, as far back as March 16, questions about how it could expedite exports from China to the U.S. or acquire raw materials faster.
Private companies needed the federal government to communicate and designate regions most in need and share that data. No private company was in the position to make those calls, the Health Industry Distributors Association, or HIDA, told lawmakers. The association acts as a liaison between members of the health care distribution industry and the Trump administration.
Polowcyzk hedged under questioning, noting his appointment was relatively late at the pandemic’s outset. He was appointed by Trump on March 19. To that point, however, Maloney noted that Polowcyzk was in place for nearly two weeks when HIDA made a follow-up request for guidance.
Instead of procuring equipment directly, the administration has turned to Project Airbridge, an initiative championed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, which offers free transportation for certain companies importing PPE to America.
The program does not require suppliers to disclose pricing information even though it comes at taxpayer expense. For companies that consulted with the committee, the project has been a boondoggle, often leading to unnecessary competition and pressure to purchase from foreign suppliers.
One company, for example, told lawmakers the Trump administration directed them to procure over a billion masks and gowns from BYD, a Chinese electric car and battery manufacturer through Project Airbridge. The prices were exorbitant, however, and negotiation dragged for weeks before collapsing.
Rebutting widespread reports that Kushner’s influence on medical supplier negotiations was widespread, Polowcyzk said Thursday that Kushner was not involved directly in any contract acquisition matters at FEMA.
Congressman Bill Foster, a former physicist who now represents the 11th District of Illinois, called the path forward on the testing supply chain no less murky.
“The biggest challenge the federal government is facing is the doubling of cases,” the Democrat said at the hearing, addressing Admiral Brett Giroir, who has overseen testing as part of the White House coronavirus task force.
“How many more doublings can we tolerate before the supply chain breaks?” Foster asked. “Do you see any way to keep up with the demand that doubles and doubles and doubles again?”
Giroir was cautious but confident Thursday, predicting testing capacity will be at 40 to 50 million people per month by the fall.
“We’re a little bit linear but we’re going to get a little more exponential as supply chains kick in for some of the point of care tests,” said the admiral, who serves as assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department.
Kevin Fahey, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition at the Department of Defense, told lawmakers he expects test kit production capacity could expand by December, nearly a year since the virus first erupted in China.