“One of the issues we’re struggling with is the demand increase,” said Ed Pesicka, CEO of the health-care logistics company Owens & Minor. “You know, used an anecdotal example of one hospital in New York that traditionally uses roughly [10,000] to 20,000 masks a week [and is] now using [200,000] to 300,000 masks a week. So you multiply that times the entire U.S., let alone the same demand outside of the U.S.”
Trump seized on that increase to make a point.
“How do you go from 10 to 20, to 300,000? Ten to 20,000 masks to 300,000?” he said. “Even though this is different, something is going on, and you ought to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000? . . . Somebody should probably look into that, because I just don’t see, from a practical standpoint, how that’s possible to go from that to that.”
It’s not terribly complicated. An increase from 10,000 to 300,000 is a thirty-fold increase. Consider the sorts of shifts that might drive that increase: a virus that’s far more contagious than things like the seasonal flu, and a flood of patients pulling in health-care workers from throughout the hospital. The former shift means that protective equipment needs to be worn and changed more often. The latter means that more people need to wear it. That thirty-fold increase is the far end of the scale. Pesicka also talked about an increase from 20,000 to 200,000 — a jump only a third the size.
Later, after criticizing New York state for warehousing ventilators instead of distributing them immediately to hospitals, Trump revisited Pesicka’s comments, claiming that “the biggest man in the business is, like, shocked” at the increase — a sentiment that Pesicka did not express in his public comments.
Trump’s suggestion that the masks were being purloined quickly gained attention, prompting his campaign to go into damage-control mode. It focused on a statement from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) from March 6.
“There have been thefts of medical equipment and masks from hospitals, believe it or not. Not just people taking a couple or three. I mean actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. He added that he has asked the state police to investigate marketplaces that are selling masks and “playing into this, exploiting anxiety.”
All of this distracts — intentionally — from Pesicka’s main point: the need for protective equipment is surging and straining the ability of manufacturers and distributors to provide it. For all of Trump’s touting of how much is being done, which continued during a lengthy interview on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning, it’s nonetheless obvious that the resources were not on hand to meet the surging needs of hospitals across the country.
The Trump campaign has repeatedly cited Post reporting indicating that the national stockpile of medical supplies was not replenished after a surge in need in 2009, ignoring that three of the subsequent years were ones when Trump was president. Trump’s comments Sunday were probably driven in part by a Post report that an early-February request for $2 billion in funding to replenish the strategic stockpile was slashed to $500 million at the end of the month, a 75 percent cut.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that New York hospitals are losing 10 percent of their masks to theft. There’s no evidence that the scale of whatever losses are still occurring is that dramatic, but let’s just say it is. Does that change that there is a dire shortage of masks and a need for more? Does that reduce the number of masks that are needed? Should the federal government instead provide only the 10,000 or 20,000 that hospitals used to get?
Trump has repeatedly suggested that there is somehow something suspect about New York’s requests in particular. Perhaps he sincerely thinks there is, given the way in which some enrichment schemes in the city have historically worked. But his insistence to Fox News’s Sean Hannity that New York was requesting more ventilators than it needed last week -- as well as his arguments on Fox on Monday that the state did not buy ventilators that were available when they were for sale in 2015 (and when the coronavirus at the center of the pandemic likely did not exist), that the state is not distributing ventilators (because it’s waiting to see where they’re needed) and that New York hospitals are allowing masks to be stolen by the thousands -- all have a main focus: shifting blame away from himself and onto Cuomo and others.
This is a political strategy. It’s one that served him well in the 2016 general election campaign, focusing negative attention on Hillary Clinton and helping suppress enthusiasm for her candidacy. His victory that year can be attributed to people who didn’t like either major-party candidate, a group he won by double digits, including in the three states that gave him his electoral vote margin. Here, again, he is offering America another focus of its frustration.
For his base of support, it’s icing; most don’t need his redirection in order to stay loyal. For everyone else, though, it introduces a conversation about where points of failure exist that are not centered in the White House. His campaign officials respond to questions about Trump’s comments about the 300,000 masks as though they are incensed that the president’s claims should be treated with skepticism or were not obviously true. In reality, they and Trump are thrilled to have the conversation be one in which they can equate Cuomo’s narrow, old comments with Trump’s sweeping, new ones -- and one in which masks being swiped from a hospital lobby in Boston is a reason that New York doesn’t have the masks it needs now.
Both on Sunday and in his interview Monday morning, Trump spoke about how the virus has affected a hospital in Queens, near where he grew up. It’s hard not to live in the area, as Trump did for most of his life, and not be affected by the obvious strains and fear that New Yorkers are experiencing.
For a president focused on winning reelection in seven months, though, it’s also hard to resist trying to figure out which opponent needs to be scapegoated to make yourself look better by comparison.