— Trump, remarks at the White House, May 15
“He took a ventilator job where the country basically had no ventilators.”
— Trump, remarks at the White House, May 18
“We had none, essentially. We had very few, and they were obsolete. They were broken.”
— Trump, remarks at the White House, May 19
“When we came here, you had very few ventilators in this country. … The cupboard was empty, and we filled up the cupboards.”
— Trump, remarks at the White House, June 18
The president certainly has been offering a relatively consistent message — when the coronavirus pandemic struck, there were “no ventilators,” “none” or “very few,” and those few were “obsolete.”
Those phrases suggest the number of ventilators left behind by the Obama administration in the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) was zero.
So we were a bit surprised when Vice President Pence wrote in the Wall Street Journal on June 16: “The Strategic National Stockpile hadn’t been refilled since the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, and it had only 10,000 ventilators on hand.”
Ten thousand certainly seems like a lot more than zero.
But now it turns out that even that number was a lowball figure. And it’s been known for months.
Our colleagues at FactCheck.org published on June 22 details from two statements it received from the Department of Health and Human Services — that there were 16,660 ventilators in the SNS available for distribution at the start of the pandemic and that the federal government had distributed 10,640 of them as of June 17. (Another 2,425 ventilators were in maintenance as of March, HHS says, though the New York Times reported in April that 2,109 were unavailable because the government had let a maintenance contract lapse.)
Critically, one of the HHS statements said that “in January 2017 the total number of ventilators in the SNS inventory immediately available for use would not have been much different than what the SNS had immediately available for use in March 2020.”
In other words, the Obama administration had left the SNS stocked with enough ventilators to deal with the initial crisis. At least 7,920 had already been distributed by April 6, according to a document released by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
But it turns out the administration had already publicly released a figure of 16,600 back in March. “There were about 16,600 ventilators in Strategic National Stockpile before equipment recently shipped to states. The number is now less,” an HHS official told CBS on March 26. A CBS report on March 30 pegged the figure that had been shipped as “thousands.”
As the CBS report noted, ventilators are expensive to procure and to maintain in emergency-ready condition, which is one reason the SNS was not overflowing with ventilators.
When we asked the White House for an explanation of Trump’s comments, an official suggested it is worth recalling the fears at the time that the United States faced a massive shortfall in ventilators.
Indeed, when the House committee released its report in April, it cited an estimate that 139,000 ventilators might be required. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), citing a dire need for ventilators, declared: “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die.” Pressure built for Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to order companies to build ventilators in a crash program — a step he eventually took.
“Despite dire warnings about ventilator shortages from the media and Democrats at the beginning of the pandemic, every single American who has needed a ventilator has received a ventilator,” the official said. “This administration has managed to procure 100,000 ventilators to be manufactured in 100 days — that’s three times the amount produced in the average year. ... The Trump administration is now working to ensure a fully stocked, resilient national stockpile capable of responding to any challenges we may face in the future.”
HHS told FactCheck.org that contracts have been issued for a total of 180,000 ventilators for the SNS.
“Until President Trump’s directive to restructure and replenish the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), the SNS was not designed or congressionally funded to respond to a nationwide pandemic,” HHS press secretary Katie McKeogh said in a statement. “In September 2019, the Administration took steps to purchase 10,000 new ventilators to add to the stockpile for delivery beginning in mid-2020 and is now in negotiations with the company to expedite delivery. This purchase was intended to meet the overall stockpiling goal for ventilators. As you are aware in early March, many states initially requested far more ventilators than the SNS had in stock and even more than they actually needed. At this time, the SNS has fulfilled all requests for ventilators and has not experienced a shortage of ventilators to support public health and healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients.”
A Pence spokesman did not provide an explanation for the vice president’s use of the 10,000 figure.
The Pinocchio Test
Despite the fears expressed in late March and early April, it turns out the U.S. government actually had enough ventilators in the SNS, left behind by the Obama administration, to handle the initial crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the SNS will be even more fully stocked, ultimately with 10 times more ventilators than it held before. (Imagine the maintenance bill in the future.)
The White House argues that Trump’s rhetoric should be viewed in that context — the existing stockpile was not big enough to handle the load that people feared would be necessary. One could argue that the Obama administration (and Trump administration) should have moved more quickly to build up the supply of ventilators — which had not been expanded since 2009. Since March, the administration appears to have certainly moved to add ventilators.
Trump thus might have a good story to tell on building up the ventilator stockpile. But that still does not excuse the president’s sweeping language of “no ventilators,” “none” or “very few” — which were “obsolete.” There were nearly 17,000 ventilators available for use that had been left behind by the Obama administration. Trump instinctively wants to blame Obama, but no matter how you do the numbers, 16,660 is far more than zero.
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