The dimensions of the supply problem approach wartime in size and scope. No one was prepared for a pandemic; now everyone must shoulder extra effort. The government has estimated that if the pandemic lasts a year, 3.5 billion respirator masks may be necessary to protect health-care workers and patients. The United States has about 12 million N95 respirators and 30 million surgical masks, with an additional 5 million N95 respirators that may be expired. This is not enough. Already, at major hospitals in Seattle and the District, mask shortages have become so acute that doctors and patients are being asked to reuse them, not dispose of them as previous guidance from the CDC recommended.
At a Los Angeles emergency room, doctors were given a box of expired masks and when they tried to put them on, the elastic bands snapped, the New York Times reports. At Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, doctors were informed they were down to one week’s supply of respirator masks.
Masks and other equipment are necessary to protect front-line health-care workers from infection. If they are sickened, the whole system could buckle. A surgeon told the Times, “We are at war with no ammo.”
Shortages are also reported in the chemicals known as reagents for virus test kits that isolate fragments of the virus’s genetic material. The International Reagent Resource, established by the CDC, is a system that distributes the chemicals and assures quality. But sources told The Post there are shortages and the supply chain is backed up. Also running out are the swabs needed to carry out the tests. Again, these supplies are the linchpin in any successful effort to carry out widespread testing to blunt the spread of covid-19.
President Trump suggested in a news conference this week that the shortages are a problem for the governors to deal with. “The federal government’s not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping,” he said. “You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.” Then on Friday he said the government had ordered the production of millions of masks and that these would be delivered directly to states. He offered contradictory statements about the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law allowing the government to address supply shortages by giving directives to industry to ramp up production, first asserting he had invoked its authority and then saying he had not used it because companies had responded voluntarily.
We are told that factories making masks are already running at full tilt; it may take time and investment to create new assembly lines to manufacture needed supplies. Instead of passing the buck to governors, Mr. Trump ought to deploy every tool at his disposal to address the shortages now.
If this is a wartime scale of a problem, where is the wartime response?