Report warns of White House and states competing for supplies as president focuses on counter-narcotics operations at briefing
David Smith in Washington – The Guardian
Donald Trump has admitted the US government’s emergency stockpile of protective equipment is nearly exhausted because of the extraordinary demands of the coronavirus pandemic.
The shortage was first reported by the Washington Post, which said the supply of respirator masks, gloves and other medical supplies was running low.
Trump, who has been criticised for a lack of central planning, confirmed on Wednesday: “It is, because we’re sending it directly to hospitals. We don’t want it to come to the stockpile because then we have to take it, after it arrives, and bring it to various states and hospitals.”
The president had urged states to “make a deal” and buy personal protective equipment (PPE) directly from manufacturers, he added. “We’ve asked states where they have large manufacturers of different types of equipment to use those local factories, those local plants and have it made directly, ship it right into the hospitals.”
Trump continued: “We’re shipping things right in. We have, as you know, almost 10,000 ventilators which we need for flexibility. It’s sounds like a lot but it’s not.”
The national guard had been authorised to move equipment into hospitals when necessary, he added.
Citing officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the Post reported that the depletion of the national stockpile left the White House and states competing for PPE in a “freewheeling global marketplace rife with profiteering and price-gouging”.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) had shipped or delivered 11.6m N95 respirators, 26m surgical masks, 5.2m face shields, 4.3m surgical gowns, 22m gloves, and 8,100 ventilators, the White House said on 28 March.
But Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has complained that Fema contributes to a bidding war between states for ventilators, likening the situation to eBay. Other state governors and city mayors have complained of a chronic lack of test kits, masks and ventilators.
Wednesday’s White House coronavirus taskforce briefing made an unusual start as Trump was first joined by the attorney general, William Barr; the secretary of defense, Mark Esper; and top military officials, who did not seem concerned with physical distancing.
And with America still digesting predictions that up to 240,000 people could die from the pandemic, the president instead focused on “drug cartels” – a familiar applause line at his campaign rallies.
The president announced the sending of navy ships toward Venezuela as the US intensifies counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific following a drug indictment against Nicolás Maduro, who still controls the country.
Trump said: “As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain. We must not let that happen.”
Esper added: “The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness.”
The link to the coronavirus seemed tenuous at best. Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: “We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels as a result of Covid-19 were going to try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs into our country.
“As we know, 70,000 Americans die on an average annual basis to drugs. That’s unacceptable. We’re at war with Covid-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels, as well. This is the United States military. You will not penetrate this country. You will not get past Jump Street. You are not going to come in here and kill additional Americans.”
The president was asked about reports that China had undercounted its coronavirus cases. He said: “Their numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side, and I’m being nice when I say that … As to whether or not their numbers are accurate, I’m not an accountant from China.”
Some viewers dismissed the Venezuela announcement as another Trump stunt. Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary, tweeted: “Turning this off now. This is just completely ridiculous and dishonest. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Trump and his Administration.”
Eventually the defence officials left the podium and were replaced by Trump’s health experts Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci. The president against defended his preparations for the pandemic and denied he was at fault for a slow start in testing, claiming he “inherited a very broken system”. He praised healthcare workers as “warriors”.
Trump predicted a fast recovery for the economy once the virus had passed and expressed hope that Congress’s next emergency relief bill will including spending on infrastructure.
And the president, who had sought on Tuesday to prepare the nation for unfathomable loss of life, nevertheless could not resist some levity. He said of Fauci: “He was a great basketball player,” and mused: “I have hundreds of millions of people. Number one on Facebook … Did you know? I just found out.” When a Fox News reporter asked him a tough question, the president snapped: “What are you, working for CNN?”