WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act Thursday to clear the pathway for manufacturers like General Electric and at least four others – for now – to produce lifesaving ventilators needed by patients acutely stricken with coronavirus.
The announcement came shortly before the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing and amid a staggering rise in confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide as the count surpassed 1 million. In the United States, the number of infections teeters near 239,000, according to the Covid-19 Johns Hopkins University tracker.
“The states are doing what they can but we’re backing them up,” Trump said of N95 respirator masks, gloves, face shields and ventilators during the briefing, noting more equipment was coming in two weeks.
“We’re not an ordering clerk, we’re a backup,” Trump said. “We’ve done an unbelievable job. But we’re a backup and ideally those hospitals should have had all that backup.”
The president used the legislation Thursday after weeks of murky press conferences at which he at times said he invoked the power but hadn’t activated it or activated it but had yet to fully enforce it. A readout of a call between Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in mid-March illuminated some of the confusion as the outbreak first began to worsen.
Tensions between Schumer and Trump ramped up again Thursday when the president fired off a politically charged letter to Schumer, trashing him personally and claiming Schumer’s focus on Trump’s impeachment hindered the emergency response to constituents in New York.
Trump and taskforce members like Vice President Mike Pence and supply czar Rear Admiral John Polowczyk insisted the federal response has been moving at a rapid and sufficient clip despite grievances aired by states and governors. Polowcyzk hailed the 500 ventilators sent to Washington state, 4,400 to New York, 850 to New Jersey, 400 to Michigan and 150 to Louisiana.
Thursday’s order from the administration on ventilator production is directed at General Electric, Vyaire Medical, Medtronic, ResMed and Hill-Rom. A spokesperson for General Electric told Courthouse News their company welcomed the effort to address supply chain constraints and has already doubled ventilator production capacity thus far.
It plans to double that amount by the end of June, the spokesperson said.
Across the U.S., Polowczyk said six flights have been completed and 28 flights are scheduled to beef up the supply chain over the next month. With the federal government sending 7,200 ventilators out so far, the rear admiral said hospitals “need to look to states first” if they are still coming up short.
But when asked what percentage of supplies on cargo planes are going to private companies instead of FEMA or the states, Polowczyk said the majority of product the federal government is moving is flowing right into the commercial market first.
Trump said Thursday he also invoked the Defense Production Act to force more face masks from 3M. The company already doubled its global output in January and in a statement said it would plan to produce 2 billion face masks internationally within the next year and “some additional capacity” coming online in the next 60 to 90 days.
3M will reportedly produce 50 million N95 respirators per month in June for the United States. Polowczyk said Thursday he anticipates 200,000 N95 face masks would arrive in New York by Friday.
Peter Navarro, Trump’s economic assistant turned National Defense Production Act policy coordinator, emphasized the pandemic has taught the U.S. a dangerous lesson about being overly dependent on global supply chains.
In the future, he said, the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense and Health and Human Services would insist on American-made medical supplies and equipment and insist on greater deregulation at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to facilitate manufacturing.
Navarro told Politico in an exclusive interview before the taskforce briefing that General Motors, tapped to produce ventilators under the DPA last month, had failed to provide him with updates on production levels. A representative for GM did not immediately respond to request for comment.
At the briefing, Navarro said another order will be issued to forbid would-be black market profiteers from bidding on personal protective equipment (PPE) and driving up the price. U.S. Customs and Border Protection would help the U.S. Postal Service crack down on these types of exports.
In his first public appearance for a taskforce briefing, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said he was optimistic the administration will solve the shortages plaguing hospitals throughout the U.S.
The House Oversight Committee released a batch of documents earlier Thursday noting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s fractional response to requests for personal protective equipment and ventilators spanning five states and in Washington.
“This truly is a historic challenge, but I am very confident by bringing innovative solutions to these hard problems we will make progress. We’ve been resourceful to find product all over the world and country,” Kushner said.
As Covid-19 virus continues to spread and equipment trickles in, Trump announced new federal guidelines Thursday for nursing homes that bar entry of non-medical personnel and require all nursing homes to assign the same staff to care for the same group of residents. Separate areas for the healthy and sick must also be designated.
The president also confirmed during Thursday’s press conference that he tested negative for coronavirus for the second time.
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