Lead or get out of the way.
That was the message from state and local officials on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States over the weekend, with many officials saying they were increasingly dismayed at the federal government’s response to the crisis to date.
Much of the frustration centered on the growing realisation that hospitals and medical facilities are likely to be overwhelmed in the coming days as the number of cases increase and that the equipment and supplies they need to cope have not been forthcoming.
New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state is now the US epicentre of the outbreak, on Sunday called on President Donald Trump to use the powers vested to him under the Defence Production Act to force manufacturers to make essential supplies such as ventilators, face masks and testing equipment. Leading medical organisations such as the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association joined the chorus.
“We need the product now,” Cuomo said at a news conference on Sunday. “We have cries from hospitals around the state. I’ve spoken to governors around the country, and they’re in the same situation.”
Cuomo said the decision is one that could mean the “difference between life and death”.
“We are desperate,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told ABC Sunday morning. “We’ve had a big ask into the strategic stockpile in the White House. They’ve given us a fraction of our ask.”
Trump said on March 18 that he had signed an executive order invoking the act, but has so far resisted implementing it and favoured a more market-oriented approach that relies on voluntary efforts by business leaders.
“We’re a country not based on nationalising our business,” Trump said at a briefing Sunday. “The concept of nationalising our business is not a good concept.”
The feud between Trump and state officials erupted openly on Sunday when the president took to his Twitter megaphone and said the Democratic governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, was part of a clique of governors and cable news networks, which he disparaged as “fake news”, lined up against him for political reasons.
You wasted precious months when you could've taken action to protect Americans & Illinoisans.
You should be leading a national response instead of throwing tantrums from the back seat.
Where were the tests when we needed them?
Where's the PPE?
Get off Twitter & do your job. https://t.co/WESJITCAwg
— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) March 22, 2020
Earlier, Pritzker had appeared on CNN to say he was “finding it hard to control my anger with Donald Trump’s response to this crisis.
“Donald Trump promised to deliver for all the states weeks ago, and so far has done very little,” Pritzker said. “This is the time for serious people, not the carnival barkers that are tweeting from the cheap seats. All I can say is get to work or get out of the way.”
Democrats were not the only officials criticising the federal response to date.
“We are getting some progress. Now, it’s not nearly enough. It’s not fast enough. We’re way behind the curve,” Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. The administration, he added, “has to take the lead” in securing medical items.
At his briefing later in the day on Sunday, Trump took a more conciliatory tone, praising his relationship with New York’s Cuomo and promising that he and other governors will be “very happy” with the federal response going forward.
“The governors, locally, are going to be in command,” Trump said, as he pledged support from the US National Guard and federal agencies. “We will be following them, and we hope they can do the job. And I think they will.”
.@JBPritzker, Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News @CNN & Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings. We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2020
On Monday, a group of US senators also signalled frustration over Trump’s hesitation to forcefully ramp up production of medical equipment and introduced a bill that would compel the president to do so.
“The current system, in which states and hospitals are competing against each other for scarce equipment, is both unnecessary and barbaric,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in a statement. “Enough is enough. It’s time to centralize the critical medical supply chain and distribution during this public health crisis.”