US government's slow response to coronavirus measured in lost opportunity

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – When Ford’s chief executive, Jim Hackett, announced Tuesday that the carmaker would team up with General Electric to build ventilators, he tempered the good news with a note of caution: “We’re talking about early June.”

That was just one of several examples that underscored the price of the Trump administration’s slow response to evidence as early as January that the coronavirus was headed to the United States.

For the first time, it is now possible to quantify the cost of the lost weeks, as President Donald Trump was claiming as recently as February that in a “couple of days” the number of cases in the United States “is going to be down to close to zero”.

Ford’s timeline suggested that if the administration had reacted to the acute shortage of ventilators in February, the joint effort between Ford and General Electric might have produced lifesaving equipment sometime in mid- to late April.

The administration also said Tuesday that for the first time it was using the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, to mandate the production of 60,000 coronavirus test kits.

That is a tiny fraction of the tens of millions needed, and it raised the question whether the scarcity today would exist had the White House moved faster more than a month ago, after the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention fumbled its first effort to send out a test. Commercial laboratories could have produced their own tests earlier, according to industry officials.

The gap between the production timelines and the need for immediate supplies led to a scathing assessment from Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. New York accounts for more than 25,000 cases, more than half the total in the country, he said, but it has received only 400 ventilators from the federal government.

“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” Cuomo said. “What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000 ventilators? You’re missing the magnitude of the problem, and the problem is defined by the magnitude.”

Trump is caught between his desire to be proactive and optimistic, and the crushing realities of the numbers. For the past two weeks, the administration has usually avoided indicating the number of ventilators, masks or personal protective equipment that it has distributed.

That changed on Monday (March 23), when Rear Adm. John P. Polowczyk, a senior logistics officer for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, began specifying delivery quantities.

So far those figures have not compared the number of deliveries to the number of equipment needed. And that gap seems huge.

Cuomo crystallised the issue on Tuesday when he said that “the timeline doesn’t work”.

“I don’t need ventilators in six months,” he said. “And I don’t need ventilators in five months, four months or three months.”

The reality is that timing is impossible, producers of the equipment say. For example, Medtronic, one of the leading manufacturers of ventilators, now makes about 225 of its high-end machines each week, up from 100 in more normal times. But it is a daunting task because there are 1,500 unique parts supplied from 14 countries. The company is aiming for 500 a week, a Medtronic spokesman said. Even that would not satisfy current demand.

Last week, Trump urged states to fend for themselves, looking for whatever they could find on the open market. But that only underlined how poorly prepared federal stockpiles were for a pandemic – a situation that the last three administrations had rehearsed in an effort to improve plans. The president’s comments set off a scramble that only accelerated the criticism of how the White House has handled the allocation of scarce supplies.

Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, argued that in sending each of the states off to find their own equipment, “we’re competing against each other, we’re competing against other countries.”

The result, he said, was “we’re overpaying”.

Trump responded that Pritzker and other governors “shouldn’t be blaming the federal government for their own shortcomings. We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!”

But it is increasingly clear that the federal government will not be able to back up the states, at least at the scale needed, for the first wave of patients. And by letting companies voluntarily produce the necessary equipment, rather than under orders in the Defence Production Act, the administration is not responsible for whether the quotas are met, or if the output reaches hospitals.

Ford’s new partnership with GE Healthcare and 3M aims to produce about 1,000 respirators a month, using fans from F-150 trucks, the most widely sold in the United States, and parts made on 3-D printers. But Hackett noted that those parts would have to be merged with electronics produced by other suppliers.

Plastic face shields, which are far less complex, will begin to be delivered this week in smaller quantities in Detroit, officials at Ford said, with a goal of producing 100,000 a week.

Peter Gaynor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, told CNN on Tuesday that the administration was only using the Defense Production Act when it was needed.

While Trump signed an executive order last week invoking the law, he did not immediately use it. Instead, he elected to count on companies volunteering to make the equipment and materials. Trump said six million masks were donated to FEMA in recent days. But it is not clear if that is accurate, or when and where they will be delivered.

Industry officials have been in and out of the White House in recent days, trying to build a database of stockpiles and suppliers. But they said that system was largely being built from scratch.

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