The question was important, straightforward and crucial to the country’s preparedness for dealing with the coronavirus crisis: Are U.S. hospitals equipped to treat a possible influx of patients afflicted with covid-19? Do they have enough intensive care units and enough ventilators?

And the official being questioned by Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum on Thursday night was in a position to know. After all, Seema Verma is the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which, as its website says, “oversees one of the largest federal agencies that administers vital health care programs to over 100 million Americans.” She is also on the White House coronavirus task force.

As hard as she tried, however, MacCallum could not get a straight answer.

“We’ve heard there’s a shortage of ventilators, even swabs,” the host said on “The Story with Martha MacCallum.” “What’s being done about that and how concerned are you that when these numbers [of patients] do start to rise … that there’ll be enough ICU units, enough ventilators, to help the people who do get sick in this country?”

“Well, that’s why we have an emergency preparedness system,” Verma responded. “We’re used to dealing with disasters … If you look at disasters that have emerged around hurricanes, in Puerto Rico, in Florida —”

MacCallum cut her off and asked: “So are you saying we do have enough?”

“One of the things we’re doing at CMS is to have rapid dialogue with health care providers,” said Verma. “We’re meeting with providers on a daily basis. … That’s why we’re putting out so much guidance.”

With frustration showing on her face, MacCallum tried again. “Yeah. I understand that,” she said. “Can I just ask you one more time, will there be enough?"

This time Verma just ignored the question, continuing her thread from her previous answer about guidance to health-care providers. “Before you go into your doctor, you can call them on the phone and have a discussion with them. We don’t want people to travel unnecessarily if they’re not feeling well.”

Verma went on before MacCallum made one more attempt.

“Before I let you go I want to ask you one more time, are there going to be people in this country who don’t get a ventilator when they need one?” she asked. “Can you reassure everyone out there tonight that there’s not a shortage of ventilators or ICU units?”

Instead of answering the fourth iteration of MacCallum’s question, Verma launched into praise for President Trump. “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action,” she said. “We’re not waiting for this to get worse.”

Running out of time and patience, MacCallum gave up. “Okay. That’s not a direct answer to the question."

MacCallum concluded by suggesting that the administration was operating on sheer hope that the hospitals would be all right.

She said she hoped so, too.

In fact, experts on the nation’s health care system do not think it is equipped to handle the potential number of people who will need care before the coronavirus pandemic runs its course.

“There are about 46,500 medical ICU beds in the United States and perhaps an equal number of other ICU beds that could be used in a crisis,” according to a study published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Even spread out over several months, the mismatch between demand and resources is clear.”

In an article this week in the Harvard Business Review, reportedlegitimate concern that the nation’s supply of 160,000 ventilators may be insufficient to care for the critically ill victims who are unable to breathe for themselves during a major outbreak. … Such patients,” it added “need intensive care unit beds. The U.S. currently has around 45,000, but in a severe outbreak of respiratory illness, as many as 2.9 million Americans might need ICU care.”

The specter of Italy, with a health-care system on the verge of collapse under the strain of the pandemic, hangs over the entire subject of hospital preparedness in the United States.

“Italy is a preview of what we may see in the U.S. very soon,” wrote Marty Makary, a professor at the Hopkins School of Public Health, in MedPage Today.