WASHINGTON — The Trump administration may use a 70-year-old law to speed up the manufacturing of medical supplies before a coronavirus outbreak, Alex Azar, the health secretary, said Friday, a seeming acknowledgment that the virus poses a threat beyond the reassurances of President Donald Trump.
The Defense Production Act, passed by Congress in 1950 during the Korean War, allows the president to expand production of the materials for national security purposes. Azar said that the federal government could move to expedite certain contracts, including for supplies like face masks, gowns and gloves. Azar has said that 300 million of a type of mask known as N95 are needed for the emergency medical stockpile for health care workers.
“I don’t have any procurements I need it for now, but if I need it, we’ll use it,” Azar told reporters at a White House briefing on the administration’s request to Congress for emergency funds to respond to the virus.
Azar’s cautionary tone echoed warnings from officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week. But they contrasted with efforts this week by Trump and other administration officials to minimize the likelihood of a serious outbreak.
“I feel very confident, and our people are doing a fantastic job,” Trump said Friday afternoon as he left for a campaign rally in South Carolina. “We haven’t seen an increase, and people are getting better. Almost everybody that we see is getting better.”
Azar said that “the situation may worsen, and we may need to mitigate its spread in the United States.” If cases of the coronavirus began spreading widely, he said, those showing mild symptoms should stay home rather than seek help at hospitals, to avoid the risk of overcrowding health facilities.
“The advice is going to be: Stay home, manage your symptoms, and we’ll provide guidance of at what point would you seek high level medical attention,” Azar said.
Azar’s remarks appeared to reflect a recognition that the outbreak may reach a newer and more dangerous phase. In addition to his comments about the government stockpiling protective equipment and about how people should seek medical care in the case of a wider outbreak, he also raised the possibility of school closures.
“It might make sense to close a school or certain schools or take other measures like that,” Azar said. “Every option needs to be on the table as we assess the situation, but it depends on the circumstances.”
The health secretary appeared on Friday in his role as the head of a task force overseeing the government response to the virus. On Wednesday, Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence to manage that response, leading to confusion about who was in charge of preparations for a potential outbreak.
If the Trump administration does invoke the Defense Production Act, it would not be the first time in recent years. The administration activated powers under the act to restore power grids and supply food and water in states and territories hard hit by the 2017 hurricane season. Past presidents have used it to ward off blackouts by sending emergency electrical power and natural gas.
A senior law enforcement official who has been briefed by Homeland Security officials, along with law enforcement officials around the country, said using the law would raise a difficult question for the future: How will the government define which emergencies warrant the speeding up of manufacturing?
At the White House briefing on Friday, Azar also addressed concerns about the limits of testing those who are showing symptoms. Only 12 laboratories outside the CDC headquarters in Atlanta are currently capable of testing for the virus, and faulty test kits sent by the CDC have stalled efforts in states trying to monitor patients. Hawaii this week began working to acquire kits from Japan.
Fewer than 500 people in the United States have been tested for the virus so far, according to the CDC On Wednesday, Trump insisted that his administration was “testing everybody that we need to test” and “finding very little problem.”
Azar said on Friday that 1,000 more test kits were being sent to California. Two new cases of the virus have surfaced there this week, and officials have so far uncovered no clear contact between them and other infected people they are tracking, raising the possibility that the disease is circulating locally, passing from person to person. Late Friday, health officials in Oregon confirmed their own case of unknown origin.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers raised the alarm, flooding federal agencies with letters asking for additional information on how local governments should prepare, on the impact on the southern border and about allegations raised in a whistleblower complaint this week that federal staff had been dispatched to coronavirus quarantine sites without adequate preparation or supplies.
“Like everyone else, I want to know what the facts are,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in an interview.
The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services said on Friday that it would begin a “comprehensive review” of the federal government’s coronavirus response, accelerating a process that had already been underway. Azar said he had been unaware of the concerns raised in the whistleblower complaint before this week.
Investigators were eyeing the health agency’s repatriation of American citizens, its treatment of quarantine sites and its hospital preparedness program, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office said.
“Because of the heightened concern, we had already been planning to look into this and do a review,” Tesia Williams, the spokeswoman, said. “We began to get additional information on top of that.”
But a Friday morning briefing with House members appeared to do little to assuage some of the concerns and frustration about how prepared the federal government was to respond to the outbreak in the United States.
“The question I asked was, ‘What assurances do we have that proper protocols were followed during the federal quarantine?’” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. The answer, he said, “was not as responsive as I would have liked.”
Four House Democrats from California — Takano, John Garamendi, Scott Peters and Jimmy Gomez — pressed for an additional briefing with health officials about the possible spread of the virus. Takano, Garamendi and Peters represent districts where there are cases of unknown origin or exposed people who have been quarantined, and Gomez’s office was the first to learn of the whistleblower complaint.
But the briefing was abruptly postponed and has yet to be rescheduled, according to a person familiar with the plans but unauthorized to discuss publicly.
Garamendi told reporters that health officials pushed back against allegations in the whistleblower complaint that federal staff were not adequately trained or prepared at March Air Reserve Base in California, one of two air bases named in the complaint.
Top lawmakers and staff are expected to continue negotiating through the weekend on an emergency aid package related to the virus, with the package likely to be at least $6 billion, according to a person with knowledge of the ongoing discussions.
Three Republican senators who have taken hard lines on border policy invoked the virus to call for stricter border controls.
“As southern-border senators, we are concerned about the possible spread of the coronavirus across our borders,” Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas wrote to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We are similarly concerned about recent reports that the virus is spreading in Europe.”
“Border shortcomings by the European Union have resulted in the spread of the virus across a number of nations,” they continued, “and it is essential that the United States not repeat these mistakes.”