We’re short on the supplies we need. But what would the act do, anyway?
The infectious disease experts are telling everyone to wash your hands often, cover your coughs and sneezes and – if possible – stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19 as it races through the United States and more Americans get sick.
But not everyone can or will stay home. What’s more, there are thousands of Americans are already sick, and likely thousands more. And we’re terribly short on the supplies medical workers need to treat the infected and avoid the infected themselves.
These shortages are becoming a huge problem as the hospitals begin to fill. Everyone – from healthcare chains and state governments to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – is competing for critical items like facemasks to slow contagion and ventilators to keep sick patients breathing. And this is driving spikes in their price.
Gotta love the market during a pandemic! Here’s an example from the Washington Post:
Soaring demand and competitive bidding is driving prices up. Premier, a health-care company that purchases equipment and supplies for 4,000 acute-care hospitals, used to pay about 30 cents for an N95 mask but is now seeing prices between $3 and $15 per mask, Group Vice President Chaun Powell said in an interview.
Against this grim backdrop of disaster capitalism many governors and legislators are asking President Trump to use something called the Defense Production Act to bring order to the market for medical supplies, increase production and stopping the price gouging. Here’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York putting it plainly:
I’m calling on the Federal Government to nationalize the medical supply chain.
The Federal Government should immediately use the Defense Production Act to order companies to make gowns, masks and gloves.
Currently, states are competing against other states for supplies.
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 22, 2020
I had to look it up, too: The Defense Production Act (DPA) is a federal law passed in September 1950 during the Korean War. It gives the federal government authority to direct private companies to meet the needs of national defense, and over the years “national defense” has been interpreted to mean not only during times of war but also in response to domestic emergencies like natural disasters. Disasters like, uh, a global pandemic for which there is no cure sweeping through the United States.
The federal government isn’t yet using the DPA to respond to the coronavirus – technically. While President Trump signed an executive order last week invoking the act, he hasn’t actually done anything with it. He says he doesn’t need to.
“Companies are heeding our call to produce medical equipment and supplies because they know that we will not hesitate to invoke the DPA in order to get them to do what they have to do,” the president said on Tuesday. “It’s called leverage.”
It’s hard to tell if leveraging the threat of the DPA is working to boost production quickly, but domestic manufacturers are racing to meet these needs on the fly. Apparel brands and textile manufacturers are working together to produce facemasks, and the auto industry retooling factories to build ventilators and respirators. Those companies deserve a lot of credit for overhauling their production lines on the fly to make the things the country needs to tackle this unprecedented crisis.
But as heroic as those efforts are, it’s unclear if such a piecemeal strategy is effective in the face of a fast-moving crisis that has shocked the global economy. For example, the deal for masks came together after administration officials worked the phones, but there’s simply not a lot of existing medical supply manufacturing in the United States, at least not for N95 masks. And industry executives have long warned about this thin capacity, writes the New York Times:
Mike Bowen, whose company, Prestige Ameritech, makes masks in a factory in North Richland Hills, Tex., said that he told officials in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations that about 95 percent of surgical masks are manufactured outside the United States, including by American companies that moved factories overseas to reduce costs. Mr. Bowen said he had repeatedly told federal officials that American hospitals would be at the mercy of other countries in a pandemic.
“Aside from sitting in front of the White House and lighting myself on fire, I feel like I’ve done everything I can,” Mr. Bowen said. Recently, Mr. Bowen said, his company has been fielding roughly 100 calls a day from hospitals and others desperate for more masks.
President Trump has said the federal government is “not a shipping clerk,” and that states should seek out medical equipment on their own. Meanwhile, calls are increasing from both Republicans and Democrats to use the DPA to streamline production of desperately needed items in short supply.
I guess we’ll see how the leverage strategy works out over the coming weeks and months! Nothing like applying a few pages from The Art of the Deal during a pandemic. But who knows, maybe the president will see something on TV and change his mind about this tomorrow. There are nearly 60,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States as of this writing.