Health officials warn US government does not have enough stockpiled medical equipment to deal with coronavirus

Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services told medical professionals on a conference call Monday that there was not enough personal protective equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile to fulfill anticipated gaps in state and local supplies, according to a source who was on the call. The call was confirmed to CNN by a Department of Health and Human Services official.

The officials, from HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness Reponses, said on the call that the government didn’t yet have a solution for the looming shortfall, but was working on one.

The call comes on the same day that President Donald Trump announced new White House guidelines for the crisis that advise the public to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. In a somber news conference, Trump also asked the nation to avoid going to restaurants, bars and food courts and to limit travel as much as possible — a stark change in messaging after the President had spent much of the last few weeks downplaying the crisis.

“We have been transparent that more supplies are needed — hence the request to Congress for additional funding so we could procure more and scale up production,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement to CNN. “The role at the Federal level is to appropriately implement regulatory relief, provide alternative sources and support manufacturing, and adjust allocation to appropriately target areas in need.”

The HHS statement added that hospitals need to ensure they are moving the product to where there is demand “rather than being stored where it is not currently needed.”

The role of the national stockpile is to fill the gap temporarily until states and localities working with the private sector can respond to the state and local needs.

Public health officials have been warning of a dire situation looming with the number of coronavirus cases increasing dramatically.

The administration had been in constant talks with health and industry leaders across the country, many of whom continue to seek information on how the federal government is planning to alleviate the impending shortage of personal protective equipment, respirators in particular. In discussions with medical professionals, the administration has not provided clear answers on how the federal government is going to handle getting hospitals the resources they need as the outbreak expands, according to a medical professional involved in these talks.

Officials acknowledged they need more supplies, though they have resisted providing details on how much was in the stockpile.

“In terms of supplies, obviously, this is an unprecedented challenge, unprecedented. And so, we will work to increase the supplies of personal protective equipment, of ventilators, of field medical unit hospitals that we can deploy,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Sunday. “We have tremendous supplies, but we want to acquire more.”

Azar said the funding from the emergency supplemental funding bill that the House voted on and Senate is considering will help scale up production both in the US and abroad. He declined to give the current level of the stockpiles, citing “national security,” but insisted there are “many ventilators, thousands and thousands of ventilators in our system.”

The US government keeps a stockpile of emergency supplies in the event of a public health threat — which includes vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

HHS was put in charge of procuring medical supplies and protective equipment through the Strategic National Stockpile to respond to the coronavirus. Last week, Trump issued a memo giving HHS full authority, through whatever means necessary, to make sure that there were enough respirators in the United States. Yet what exactly this would look like remains to be seen.

According to the source on the call, the most pressing questions are how the national stockpile will be distributed and how will the federal government fill the gap between what is needed and what is actually available in the stockpile.

Because of the growing shortages, some medical professionals have floated the idea of Trump invoking the Defense Production Act — an idea that several House Democrats support. The act, passed by Congress in 1950, allows the president to expedite production of critical materials, through various means, needed for national defense.

On Friday, a group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the administration citing the reports of shortages and asked the President to “use the Presidential authorities granted by the Defense Production Act to mitigate” the shortages.

According to a source familiar with this letter, some lawmakers believe Trump could force private companies to accept government contracts to aid in the quick production of much-needed medical supplies.

Democrats have yet to hear back from the administration, but the White House has not ruled out the possibility of invoking the Defense Production Act, according to a White House source. Earlier this month, Azar said they would turn to the War Powers Act if needed and, behind closed doors, the Defense Production Act has come up as a potential option. According to one government official, at this point officials believe that private-public partnerships are a more effective way to get the resources they need quickly.

Trump has made it clear he believes teaming up with private companies is the best way to combat coronavirus on multiple levels. The administration is partnering with Google for a national website as well as Walmart and other large retailers to utilize space and resources to enable quick mass testing.

In a call with US governors on Monday, Trump told state leaders to develop ties with private-sector vendors, who can often move faster with less restrictions than the federal government.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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