WASHINGTON (CN) — Tests for the novel coronavirus remain woefully inadequate in the United States as disease sweeps the nation, but President Donald Trump claimed Wednesday that there is a focus to speed up the production of masks and ventilators.
Standing closely alongside several members of the White House coronavirus task force at a briefing this afternoon, Trump said he expects to invoke the Defense Production Act as soon as Wednesday afternoon to expedite the supply chain for ventilators and other personal protective equipment.
“Right after we finish this conference, I’ll be signing it and it’s prepared to go,” Trump said.
The 1950 legislation allows the U.S. government to significantly expand the manufacturing and production of items deemed necessary to preserve national security.
Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that the department will immediately release 5 million N95 masks from its strategic reserves directly to the Health and Human Services Department. The first 1 million masks are ready for distribution today, Esper said.
Up to 2,000 operational ventilators — a critical tool used to treat respiratory infections caused by the virus known as COVID-19 — will also be available “for use as needed,” Esper said.
To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 100 people in the U.S. and infected at least 7,000.
Trump agreed with a reporter Wednesday when asked whether he believed the coronavirus put America on “wartime footing.” Indeed it was during the Korean War that Congress passed the Defense Production Act, a move that among other things compelled the Detroit manufacturing industry to shift production from automobiles to tanks.
Today, as the U.S. military ramps up its response to the outbreak in New York City, two U.S. Navy hospital ships are preparing for deployment to help free up beds in area hospitals.
While the type of treatment available aboard the ships could evolve in coming weeks, Defense Secretary Esper said trauma specialists onboard are expected at this point to handle only the most extreme cases.
The USNS Comfort, based in Norfolk, Virginia, and the USNS Mercy, based in San Diego, California, could arrive in New York as soon as next week.
As the Treasury Department announced plans to begin issuing stimulus checks to Americans as part of a $1 trillion economic-stabilization package, and the Senate negotiates on comprehensive relief measures spanning numerous industries, Trump said Wednesday that all home foreclosures and evictions in the U.S. would be suspended through April.
A representative from Housing and Urban Development did not immediately return a request for comment.
Succor was also offered to doctors and nurses during the briefing who are typically barred from practicing medicine outside of the state in which they are licensed. Pence said that the Department of Health and Human Services will now grant medical providers permission to practice across state lines. This is aimed at easing the strain already being experienced by staff-strapped hospitals and urgent care facilities.
The White House asked all Americans to delay elective medical procedures, too, a maneuver that could free up critical supplies to hospitals around the U.S.
Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and member of the White House coronavirus task force, also urged Americans to delay elective dental procedures. Not only does it preserve equipment, Verma said, it protects nurses and hygienists from unnecessary exposure.
Answers on the federal response to increased testing capabilities were somewhat murky during the briefing. Pence said only that the U.S. is increasing tests “by the thousands every day.”
In Virginia, the state’s Department of General Services reported just 24 hours ago that its public health labs are only at a 600 tests-per-day capacity. The CDC estimated Tuesday that so far 25,000 specimens have been tested across the entire U.S.
Any reported data from March 12 to 16 is excluded, however, from the CDC figure. That lag makes the statistics unclear, but a group known as the COVID Tracking Project has been compiling data from state, district and territory health departments.
As of Wednesday, the tracking group estimates roughly 71,000 have been tested, with roughly 7,000 positive cases confirmed.
President Trump said the administration is in talks with “several groups” about developing a “self-swab” test for the coronavirus. But the president said it was still unknown whether these types of tests would be as accurate as those administered by medical professionals today.
The Food and Drug Administration would need to approve the self-swab kit first. Trump said Wednesday he may hold a press conference with FDA officials as soon as this afternoon or Thursday.
When pressed why asymptomatic professional athletes have been tested but thousands of everyday Americans are forced to endure long lines and uncertainty, the president remarked: “You would have to ask them.”
“Perhaps that’s the story of life,” he said.
The briefing came shortly after Trump announced via tweet that the U.S. and Canada have reached a mutual agreement to close their shared border this week. The step is one of many that are necessary to limit spread of the virus.
Deborah Birx, an allergist and immunologist who serves as the task force’s coordinator, expressed concern that young people may not be taking the pandemic seriously enough. Reports emerging from France and Italy have shown “some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” Birx said.
“We think part of this may be that people heeded the early data coming out of China and coming out of South Korea of the elderly or how those with pre-existing medical conditions were at particular risk,” she said.
The millennial generation may actually have a “disproportional number of infections” in their demographic, she added.
Seema Verma echoed Birx’s concerns.
“We cannot have these large gatherings of people who are off work socializing in large groups,” she said before emphasizing that asymptomatic or symptomatic young people could spread COVID-19 calamitously to the elderly or people with underlying conditions without even knowing it.
Trump also held fast to describing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” much to the frustration of the World Health Organization’s executive director for emergency programs, Mike Ryan.
“It’s really important that we be careful in the language we use,” Ryan said during a press conference Wednesday, emphasizing that blame should not be the focus.
“This is a time for solidarity, this is a time for facts, this is a time to move forward,” Ryan said.
Trump said he did not believe China was “inflicting” the virus on the world, but believed the U.S. could have received an “earlier warning.”
When the president was asked by PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor whether he also thought it was wrong that a White House official recently referred to the virus as the “Kung flu,” and whether he thought such language put Asian Americans at risk, Trump remarked: “No, not at all.”
CDC Director Robert Redfield last week said using such terms was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” since the virus expanded far beyond China.