Congressional critics savage US FEMA chief for pandemic response

Democrats slam Trump administration for failures in PPE supply, testing as virus hits hospitals in South and Southwest

    United States Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor testifies before the House Committee on Homeland Security meeting on the national response to the coronavirus pandemic in Washington, July 22, 2020 [Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters]
    United States Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor testifies before the House Committee on Homeland Security meeting on the national response to the coronavirus pandemic in Washington, July 22, 2020 [Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters]

    The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the latest Trump administration official to run into a barrage of criticism from Democrats in Congress who are furious over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

    FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, who is leading the agency responsible for providing masks and protective gear to hospitals nationwide, appeared before a committee of the House of Representatives on Wednesday as the US death toll from COVID-19 climbed above 142,000.

    "The Trump administration's response to the coronavirus has been an abject failure and the American people have suffered the consequences," said Congressman Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.  

    "We are no more prepared now to address the pandemic today than we were in its outset," Thompson told Gaynor. 

    "We still have a shortage of medical supplies and equipment like masks, gowns, clothes and gloves. Wait times for COVID-19 test results are climbing. And most alarmingly, they have an urgent demand for ICU beds in states where the virus is spinning out of control," Thompson said.

    Coronavirus outbreaks are surging now in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California. Thirteen states are now reporting problems with testing, and members of Congress continue to hear from hospitals about inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), Thompson said.

    US accused of 'hijacking' coronavirus supplies (3:18)

    Administrator Gaynor said the US suffered shortages of PPE because most medical masks, gowns and gloves are manufactured in other countries. As a result, the US government was forced to compete for the supplies with other countries as well as with state and local authorities in the US.

    "This is a global pandemic," Gaynor said. "We are in competition still for PPE around the globe."

    Most PPE is made in China, Malaysia and Vietnam, Gaynor said. "The United States, we make very, very little. We make virtually no rubber gloves in the US, for example."

    "We are going to have to improve the industrial base to make these critical items in the US," he said.

    Gaynor said, however, FEMA is in a much better position now to manage the US stockpile of PPE than it was 60 days ago, and he sought to assure members of Congress that hospitals dealing with shortages can request help from local FEMA officials

    "We know the commercial, medical-grade PPE distribution is very healthy today," Gaynor said, adding if hospitals "can't get it via their normal supply chain … we can help."

    FEMA chief Gaynor talks with Rep Jackson Lee
    Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents hard-hit Houston in Congress, presses FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor for more federal help for the coronavirus pandemic [Anna Moneymaker/Pool via Reuters]

    Gaynor was pressed on the wider response to the virus by President Donald Trump and other US agencies by Democratic politicians representing areas of the US like Texas that are now being hit hard by the virus.

    "Americans are dying. They are dying. I don't know how many times I need to say this. They are dying and our hearts are broken," said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, which is now a US "epicentre" of the coronavirus.

    "We are in such a catastrophic crisis," Jackson Lee said, describing needs for more oxygen, more testing, and overwhelmed morgues and crematoriums in Texas.

    Jackson Lee said that just in Houston, the fourth most populous city in the US, there are 83,000 cases of COVID-19 at present and in the last 24 hours, 784 people have died.

    Trump has been under criticism by Democrats in Congress for his refusal to develop a national, coordinated strategy for defeating the coronavirus. Instead, the president and his advisers have left decision-making to governors of the 50 states and deferred to the private sector for production of needed equipment.

    Case numbers, which had declined and then flattened nationally, have begun to rise sharply as Trump and Republican governors pushed to reopen the US economy quickly.

    Gaynor described FEMA's efforts to speed the delivery of PPE from Asia by deploying 249 flights to bring critical supplies to the US faster, a programme called "Project Air Bridge".

    The programme has delivered tonnes of material to states in need, but the US is "not out of the woods completely" because most manufacture of PPE remains offshore, Gaynor said.

    The US Congress has authorised more than $3.3 trillion in spending in four separate bills to address the crisis, and lawmakers are debating another round of rescue spending likely to be between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera