At a daily press briefing last week of the United States’ coronavirus task force, Navy Rear Admiral John Polowczyk shared some big numbers to illustrate the scale of the federal government’s crisis response – 27.1 million masks pushed out to state governments, 19.5 million N95 masks for medical personnel, 22.4 million pairs of protective gloves for first responders, 5.2 million face shields, and 7,600 ventilators, rising to 100,000 by June.
The top Pentagon official charged with streamlining the US supply chain spoke as if the outbreak – as well as the healthcare system and its severe equipment shortages – were fully under control.
But many state governors and Democrats were quick to differ. US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, among the most vocal critics of President Donald Trump’s strategy, said Polowczyk’s logistics leadership of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is insufficient, and that Defense Production Act policy coordinator Peter Navarro also falls short.
Schumer and others argued that the armed forces should play an even bigger role in commandeering resources and directing a war-like effort to manufacture enough gear to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.
“America cannot rely on a patchwork of uncoordinated voluntary efforts to combat the awful magnitude of this pandemic,” the senator from New York said in a letter to the president. He called for a fully empowered military “czar” on the coronavirus task force.
Schumer demanded that Trump “rapidly implement a plan for the increased production, procurement and distribution of critically-needed medical devices and equipment” and called Navarro “woefully unqualified”. He also singled out the “shadow” participation on the task force by senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner.
On Sunday, New York’s outspoken senator even sent White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows a list of names of people who would be suitable for overseeing every aspect of production and distribution for medical goods.
While some criticism of the White House response can easily be dismissed as partisan bickering in an election year, logistics experts say there is little doubt that US attempts to set up a coherent programme have so far been chaotic.
Tim Dall, a health economist at IHS Markit, said that the political squabbling is not limited to the US, and that disturbances to the global medical supply chain may be at least partially to blame as well.
“Every country to some degree wants to look out for themselves,” Dall told Al Jazeera. “On top of that in China, [some] production capabilities have shut down due to coronavirus.”
Many countries are cracking down on exports of medical supplies and pharmaceutical products to focus on their domestic battle against COVID-19. Dall described the international scramble for healthcare resources as a “perfect storm”, calling the US experience with medical equipment a “geographic mal-distribution”.
In the absence of a coordinated federal effort, states have been forced to wade into that perfect storm and jockey with each other for the same products from overseas suppliers.
Referring to hospital needs in the state of Utah, where he resides, Dall said that local hospitals are loath to give up supplies “because a week or two later, they don’t want to be in the same position as New York”.
However, Dall believes the US will see significant sharing of personnel and, assuming that the initial epicentres are not too shell-shocked, “we can [subsequently] have people give up supplies and ship to where they’re most needed”.
‘Not about politics’
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo believes that states cannot organise “rolling deployments” on their own when all 50 of them – in addition to FEMA – are all trying to buy identical goods from China.
Cuomo, in his own daily briefings, has said that states are not able to handle the current public health emergencies without federal assistance.
“I can’t say to a hospital, ‘I will send you all the supplies you need, I will send you all the ventilators you need’,” Cuomo said on Sunday.
“We don’t have them. It’s not an exercise. It’s not a drill. It’s just a statement of reality,” Cuomo added. “You’re going to have to shift and deploy resources to different locations based on the need of that location.”
Navy Admiral Polowczyk said last week that his role is to “increase the throughput to the healthcare market”, implying that the military would boost but not try to reinvent the existing supply-chain logic established by the private sector.
Polowczyk emphasised the logistics tool that the Department of Defense uses to find pockets of personal protective equipment (PPE) down to the county level. He also cited the success of the “air bridge” flights that bring massive amounts of medical supplies directly to the US from China in a process that usually takes 37 days.
The federal government, he has said, is doing everything it can.
“My sister is a nurse practitioner in a Westchester hospital and my niece is a nurse in a Long Island hospital,” he said, referring to his family members needing material on the front lines of the pandemic in New York state. “I have skin in this game.”