Covid-19 crisis fighters say the US must nationalize healthcare equipment production

In no hurry, despite a projected shortage of ventilators for coronavirus patients.
In no hurry, despite a projected shortage of ventilators for coronavirus patients.
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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In New York, where over 15,000 people are infected with coronavirus and 114 have died from it, governor Andrew Cuomo has called on Donald Trump to order US factories to produce critical gear needed in the health crisis.

The US traditionally wins wars not so much by out-fighting its enemies as out-manufacturing them. Now, the enemy is a virus, and healthcare workers are crying out for more face masks, goggles, and protective gear; many are warning that shortages of mechanical ventilators that breathe for critically ill patients are on the horizon if not already here.

One tool to do this is called the Defense Production Act (pdf), a law passed at the beginning of the Korean War to help the US build needed war material. Trump signed an order authorizing use of the act’s powers on March 18, but he hasn’t actually used them yet. Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have called on the US president to get the assembly lines rolling.

The law allows the federal government to require private companies to accept and prioritize government contracts over other businesses—”Hey, you, start making masks, at this price, for these people!”—as well as a toolkit of financial support to bolster or even create new supply chains as needed. It’s a controversial law because it allows the government to effectively tell private business what to do, but only in emergency circumstances.

One reason Trump gave on Saturday for his lack of action is that private companies are volunteering to begin producing these goods without requiring government authorization.

And, he told reporters this week, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work. The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk… As with testing, the governors are supposed…to be doing it.”

But governors like Cuomo say that, as with the shortage of tests, states are battling each other in a fight to obtain these supplies and that prices are rising amid the shortage—he says a single mask now costs $7, a beggar-thy-neighbor scenario that can only be relieved with federal coordination and dramatically increasing production. And even if Ford and GM are beginning to take on the challenge, as Trump claims, there is still no clearinghouse to get equipment where it’s most needed.

Time is of the essence: Early shortages in an epidemic are among the most dangerous because they affect the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers Americans depend on when they get sick. If the people on the frontlines are unable to protect themselves from the virus and get sick from reusing disposable protective gear, that will further degrade the ability to respond as cases rise.

The other major issue is ventilators; as the number of Covid-19 cases increases in the US, more people will need to recover with the aid of mechanical breathing. Estimates suggest that the US may be end up being short by tens of thousands of ventilators. A key reason for current social distancing measures is to try and alleviate the burden on the current supply.

Some corporate leaders, like SpaceX’s Elon Musk, have said they will begin ventilator production if there is a shortage, but waiting until then may be too late. Switching a factory, even one used to precision manufacturing, over to medical production is no simple task—safety regulations are stricter, and medical supply chains may be too stressed to provide raw materials.

That’s one more reason, experts say, to get started now—even if the government has to make it happen.