President Donald Trump has stepped up efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus after weeks of trying to diminish the seriousness of the pandemic.
On Friday, Trump shifted to a more sober tone, announcing a national emergency and blaming his administration for his coronavirus failures. The same day, a federal government plan leaked to the New York Times warned that the pandemic “will last 18 months or longer”.
Prior to the emergency declaration, Trump said the virus would miraculously disappear, ordered certain information to be kept classified, and joked about the public health panic, saying, “I haven’t touched my face in weeks — I miss it.”
A copy of the leaked unclassified 100-page government report said that the pandemic could include “multiple waves,” resulting in widespread shortages that would put a strain on consumers and the U.S. health care system.
The leaked report also said that “critical infrastructure and communications channels” between state and local governments “will be stressed and potentially less reliable.”
The plan outlined several possible options for federal responses and encouraged Trump to consider “key federal decisions,” including invoking the 1950 Defense Production Act. A Korean War-era law, the act authorizes a president to take extraordinary action to force American industries to produce critical equipment and supplies such as ventilators, respirators and protective gear for health care workers.
The act requires businesses to accept contracts to produce goods demanded in national security emergencies, New York Magazine reported.
At least 57 House Democrats including Senators Ed Markey and Bob Menendez support the Defense Production Act. Some have already called on the president to ramp up production. The report also suggests that Trump consider tapping the Strategic National Stockpile — a medical supply inventory created in 1999 for a national emergency like COVID-19 to distribute supplies and equipment.
However, in a press conference on Tuesday, Trump was reluctant to invoke the Defense Production Act. “We’ll make that decision pretty quickly if we need it,” he said. “We hope we don’t need it. It’s a big step.”
Governors have called on Trump to strengthen the federal response to the crisis but the president has largely failed to do so at this point in the crisis, Matt Stieb wrote for The Intelligencer.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Veterans Affairs — which serves as the backup healthcare system during national crises — and the National Disaster Medical System are all “waiting for orders,” New York Times reported.
Rather than to delegate responsibility to the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the normal protocol — Trump has kept the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as the coordinating department in charge of the response.
FEMA “have relationships and know where to look for things,” President Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, told the New York Times. “Without that, it’s not clear to me who would be doing the coordination and facilitation function.”
The 18-month figure in the leaked report is in line with best-case estimates of how long it will take to develop a vaccine and make it widely available, arstechnica reported. There could be millions of deaths in the U.S. during that time, but social distancing and other containment measures could limit the death toll, according to Imperial College London research.
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“During World War II, our country adapted to the demands of the time to produce mass quantities of bombers, tanks, and many smaller items needed to save democracy and freedom in the world,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and 57 other House Democrats said in a letter last week. “We know what the demands of this time are, and we must act now to meet these demands.”
In early March, Trump met with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, pressuring them to make vaccines quickly. The administration is working with companies to expedite vaccines, therapeutics and foreseeing supply chain challenges, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on March 2.