WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Thursday a plan to reconfigure the government’s chronically undersupplied stockpile of emergency gear to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, accelerating manufacturing and broadening the array of supplies it houses.
The president said his administration is launching what he termed a “groundbreaking initiative” to “replenish and modernize” the government’s stores of masks, ventilators and other essential pandemic-fighting medical equipment to create a 90-day reserve.
In keeping with his “America First” slogan, Trump and his aides said the manufacturing would be carried out by U.S. companies, diminishing the reliance on foreign factories that have been the stockpile’s major sources.
Speaking in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at an Owens & Minor distribution center for medical supplies, the president said “the cupboards were bare” in the federal Strategic National Stockpile when the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States.
“I am determined that America will be fully prepared for any of the future outbreaks, of which we hope there’s going to be none,” Trump said, standing in front of stacked cardboard boxes, each with a drawing of a medical gown. “Our effort begins by dramatically increasing our reserves.”
Neither the president nor senior administration officials who briefed reporters before his remarks addressed the effort’s cost. They did not say whether building up the supplies would affect the administration’s method for allotting the materials, which has been relatively opaque. And they did not say whether the plan would alter Trump’s stance that the stockpile should be a resource of last resort and that states and hospitals should buy whatever protective gear they can on their own.
The adequacy of the federal Strategic National Stockpile and the way supplies have been distributed emerged as a sore point in the Trump administration’s response to the escalation of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The disease has killed more than 85,000 people in the United States.
Long before the coronavirus arrived, the stockpile had been underfunded. In early April, Department of Homeland Security officials acknowledged that stores of emergency gear they’d had in the stockpile were nearly depleted.
Since the pandemic reached the United States, the stockpile’s scant supplies have been distributed unevenly, prompting complaints from governors. Trump has bristled at those frustrations. At one point, he said he had told Vice President Mike Pence not to call governors who were dissatisfied. Another day, Trump said, “You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”
The stockpile was managed since it was created in the late 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but responsibility shifted in 2018 to the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services. In recent years, the emphasis of officials who oversaw it was on preparations for a terrorist threat, not for a pandemic respiratory virus.
Once Trump declared the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency in March, responsibility for the stockpile shifted again, to the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
During his half-hour speech, Trump blamed the Obama administration for the stockpile’s condition, saying his predecessors had “depleted and never fully refilled” it. While that was the case, a pandemic simulation organized by HHS last summer – 2 1/2 years into the current administration – found the government unprepared, in part because of “scarce medical countermeasures such as personal protective equipment.”
This year, the White House rebuffed efforts by HHS to secure more money for masks and other emergency supplies.
One senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the announcement before the president’s remarks, said the net effect was that, as the virus reached the United States, the stockpile held one to three weeks’ supplies of essential protective equipment, including N95 masks and gowns.
Another administration official said calculations have now been made of how much of each type of equipment is needed to maintain a supply of one, two or three months.
“We will be working to put that on the shelves in a manner so the stockpile is not a singular purchase,” the official said. Instead, U.S. manufacturers will keep “production lines warm,” the official said, so that they would not have to start from scratch if surges are needed in the event cases of covid-19 spike later.
Another official said that when the pandemic arrived in the United States, the stockpile carried only 28% of the emergency supplies that fighting it requires. It did not carry medicine or testing supplies, the official said, adding that the goal now is to stock “a much broader and deeper set of supplies.”
When the coronavirus arrived, the stockpile contained 13 million N95 masks, and the goal now is to have 300 million by the fall and eventually 1 billion. The administration also will seek to increase the supply of gowns from 2 million to 7 million, and to store “millions of milliliters of crucial drugs,” an official said.
“Hope we’re not going to need it, but it’s there,” said Trump, who reiterated his eagerness for the country to reopen. “Never again will another president inherit empty shelves or expired products.”