With coronavirus deaths in the U.S. rapidly approaching 15,000, we are now learning that the federal government’s national stockpile of medical supplies is almost depleted. Meanwhile, the failure to ramp up testing to the needed degree remains a “signature failure,” as the New York Times puts it.

One person who is well positioned to shed light on what all this means is Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state. His state was an initial epicenter, but there are signs the curve is flattening, which means Inslee both has extensive experience of how federal failures hampered the response and is already contemplating what comes next.

In an interview, Inslee, a Democrat, shared fresh details on how President Trump’s lack of “urgency” is directly contributing to equipment shortages hobbling response efforts — and hinted at an alarming scenario ahead.

“We could use a stronger voice out of the White House to mobilize this nation,” Inslee told me. “We need a giant leap for mankind now, not just small steps.”

Inslee discussed difficulties in procuring equipment that are inexplicable and infuriating. As dogged reporting has shown, the federal government’s handling of medical supply chains has left states and health-care providers scrambling in a state of confusion and without badly needed supplies.

As many experts have noted — and as Inslee reiterated — this is in part a direct outgrowth of Trump’s failure to fully deploy the Defense Production Act to marshal private sector resources.

The inability to procure needed supplies for testing remains a major problem for Washington state, Inslee noted, but the specifics of why this is the case are notable.

One major problem is that the federal government’s haphazard approach has created a vast mismatch in availability among disparate parts needed to make testing possible.

A day after Vice President Pence met with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) about coronavirus, President Trump slammed the governor and called him "a snake." (The Washington Post)

For instance, Inslee noted, the state has unused testing capacity right now in large part because it lacks one thing: the swabs needed to take samples.

“It seems ridiculous that the United States can’t produce enough swabs to solve this problem,” Inslee told me. “I have 50 or 60 long-term care facilities that have infections in them that we literally have not been able to do the testing we want of remaining residents and staff.”

Inslee said his state might have finally found a supplier to meet this need — for now — but he added that the shortage of another part (such as vials) will surely become a problem in the very near term.

The overarching issue, Inslee told me, is “an inadequate supply chain” that’s “grossly inadequate to the demand.”

A month of lost time

Inslee said this problem is directly traceable to “at least a month” of lost time, because “the president was downplaying this problem and had not engaged the full force of the federal government.”

“We should have been a month ahead on the supply chain compared to where we are,” Inslee said.

In another unsettling example, Inslee noted that he recently asked the CEO of a private company that is manufacturing the transport medium for tests if it could ramp up production with double shifts.

“She said, ‘Well, maybe — we have to find a way to finance that,’” Inslee told me. This surprised him, because it seems like something the federal government should already be communicating with such manufacturers about.

“I would have thought the federal government would have talked to every single manufacturer in the nation who either makes this, or could make this, by this point, and said, ‘Look, we’re going to finance a double shift,’” Inslee told me. “That hasn’t happened.”

These problems appear to flow directly from a kind of schizophrenic approach adopted by the federal government. Trump initially told states they were mostly on their own, which led to a bidding war among states seeking supplies from a range of manufacturers and suppliers. Now the feds have sought to exert control over distribution, but it appears piecemeal and partial.

In Inslee’s telling, this has resulted in a double whammy: a shortage of supplies and a lack of coordination of availability of parts. This could be mitigated by a much more robust and coordinated response via the Defense Production Act.

“We still haven’t had the federal government use all its resources to really mobilize the full force of the manufacturing base of the United States,” Inslee told me.

Carlos Covarrubias had to close his practice when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but emotional and spiritual support remain a lifeline to anxious patients. (Shane Alcock/The Washington Post)

An ominous warning

Along these lines, Inslee warned of another looming problem.

As coronavirus cases recede in the coming months, if anything, more testing will be required. That’s because when people reassemble, it will be urgent to jump on cases in which people again show symptoms, and test them, to avoid a second wave.

“As we want to reopen our schools, as we want to reopen our industries, the amount of testing we need will actually increase,” Inslee said. “In the second wave, we have to have testing, a resource base, and a contact-tracing base that is so much more scaled up than right now. It’s an enormous challenge.”

Inslee stressed that many federal government officials are working very hard and that in many cases, needed equipment has been delivered, for which he is thankful. But he reiterated his call for Trump to exercise “urgency to really mobilize this whole industrial supply chain.”

“What we need now, what won World War II, was a quartermaster,” Inslee said. “That’s how you win wars. That’s what we need — a quartermaster.”

Recently, Trump was directly confronted with glaring evidence of this. His own administration released a report documenting urgent shortages faced by hospital administrators around the country, who offered constructive suggestions on how the federal government can help save American lives.

In response, Trump lashed out in a rage, and pretended those problems are simply nonexistent.

Needless to say, that’s not the quartermaster we need.

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