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Opinion Five ways the federal government can help health-care professionals get critical gear

A Mount Sinai Health System hospital holds personal protective equipment training in New York on March 5. (Sharon Pulwer/For the Washington Post)
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Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, represents Michigan’s 8th Congressional District in the House.

The coronavirus pandemic is a generational event. Much as our firefighters, paramedics and police officers ran toward the flames on 9/11 while crowds ran away from the twin towers, today our nurses, doctors and first responders are running toward the crisis. As most Americans shelter at home, our health-care workers are on the front lines — and too many are heading into battle without proper gear.

Every phone line and social media feed in my district has been flooded with nurses and doctors reporting that they are reusing equipment or are simply out of masks, gloves, gowns and equipment to test for coronavirus. They are confused and worried. We all should be. Without protective gear, they are risking their lives to save others.

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I have spent much of the past two weeks trying to understand how to get more personal protective equipment — often called PPE — into Michigan from the federal government. The supply situation is incredibly messy. The coronavirus is an unprecedented public health crisis, one that would stretch any administration, but crises are not new for anyone who has worked in national security. During my 14 years at the CIA and later at the Pentagon, I participated in and led dozens of crisis task forces on topics as varied as confronting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to responding to the Islamic State’s takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria. My experiences have taught me that there are important things the executive branch can do, now, to improve situations across the country:

The first and most urgent task is to cut through the chaos by naming a single federal emergency medical supply czar with the authority to coordinate this herculean task. Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services are engaging manufacturers nationwide that are retooling to make vital equipment, but missing in all the efforts is a designated leader to spearhead a unified plan of action. Dealing with a single coordinator who has the president’s trust and a free hand to wrangle multiple federal entities into a coherent plan would relieve a lot of worried minds in state capitals and hospital wards. Naming a supply czar would make other necessary steps more easily achievable.

Second, the administration should centralize FEMA procurement of medical supplies. Michigan and other states have been scouring the globe for supplies and competing with each other — at the president’s urging. Many members of Congress have attempted to become fly-by-night matchmakers, trying desperately to find companies or even individuals who can deliver trusted supplies to our states. This is not the way to run a supply chain, much less efforts to save American lives in a public health crisis. FEMA needs to centralize supply and make it possible to obtain equipment in strategic and cost-effective ways.

Next, the administration must consistently use the Defense Production Act to organize the retooling of manufacturers in Michigan and elsewhere. I introduced bipartisan legislation in the House early last week to force the administration to use the act. The president took some good steps in invoking authorities in recent days. But the federal government needs to use the act where it will be most helpful: to give companies the specific types and quantities of supplies required; to place large, bulk orders in advance; and to guarantee those orders. Big and medium-size manufacturers and suppliers can justify the significant expense of producing essential supplies if they have specific guidance, backed up by orders, and those orders are given the Defense Department’s high-priority rating. In addition, the president should stop attacking the very companies that are retooling to help in this crisis. Such criticism certainly won’t encourage other firms to step forward.

We also need a coordinated approach to transportation and logistics to carry out a strategic plan for supplies. Commercial aircraft that are idle and, if necessary, the military’s fleet should help speed supplies to where they are needed. Military planes are airlifting PPE purchases to the United States, a good first step — but far more must be done.

Last, the administration should order a comprehensive review of all Food and Drug Administration restrictions on what gear health-care professionals can use and, whenever safely possible, try to ease them. For example, gloves, masks and other protective gear used in other industries and in other nations could help keep our health-care providers safe, but some equipment doesn’t meet existing federal restrictions. Rapid FDA action is needed to accelerate the flow of this critical protective gear.

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Americans rightfully feel ashamed when we see our front-line troops are going into battle without the proper equipment. The tearful medical professionals I have spoken to need hope today that help is coming tomorrow. In this moment of national crisis, we need a leader with an action plan.

Read more:

Larry Hogan and Gretchen Whitmer: What governors need from Washington during this health emergency

Craig Spencer: A day in the life of a New York emergency room doctor

Joshua Gotbaum: Use the Defense Production Act for more than just ventilators

Ruth Marcus: Nurses and doctors are the heroes of this moment

Megan McArdle: Why the Defense Production Act won’t get us ventilators any faster