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Local officials are in the dark on federal efforts to distribute medical supplies

Local officials are in the dark on federal efforts to distribute medical supplies

As cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) rage across the country and peak in some areas, one thing remains clear — the federal government’s efforts to get critical medical equipment to health professionals have come up short. 

In this unprecedented public health crisis, we need clear leadership and coordination, but what we have is a system marred by confusion and competition. And it’s taking its toll.

Health professionals say they lack masks, gowns, and gloves to protect themselves, and ventilators to properly care for COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe. Hospital administrators, mayors, and governors across the country have been forced to compete against each other and the federal government for critical medical equipment. According to a ProPublica investigation, the bidding wars resulted in New York state paying between four and 15 times the usual rate for medical supplies. 

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Fairfax County is incredibly fortunate to have its current resources. On top of that, the community has generously been donating masks and gloves to health care systems and to other frontline teams. Last week, the county chairman’s office coordinated with the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia, who donated more than 4,000 masks to firefighters in Fairfax County. 

Despite the community’s greatly appreciated help, the county will need more resources from the federal government to meet immediate and long-term needs. For weeks the county has been unable to get orders fully filled. And this week, for the first time, an order was accepted by the supplier and then canceled altogether. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) are a nationwide issue. If it affects those who are able to make large orders like Fairfax County, then it is surely affecting smaller jurisdictions. 

The federal government has activated the Defense Production Act (DPA) in a handful of circumstances to compel specific companies to produce medical equipment. The Trump administration also recently created the Supply Chain Stabilization Task Force through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help with supply distribution. The head of the task force, however, described its mission as facilitating private sector operations, meaning states and local governments are still bidding against each other and the federal government for supplies from private distributors, resulting in skyrocketing prices and some hospitals not getting what they need. 

Although those recent actions are steps forward, the federal response is still too disorganized. More than 100 mayors and county executives recently sent a letter to the Trump administration, urging the president to appoint a medical equipment czar and the associated task force with full authority to ramp up production of medical supplies through the DPA, and centrally track and distribute those supplies directly to state and local governments. 

Beyond centrally coordinating the supply chain, the federal government needs to clearly communicate with states and local governments. We’re now several weeks into the coronavirus crisis, and state and local leaders are still left largely in the dark when it comes to federal efforts to maintain and distribute supplies. The lack of clear communication compounds an already stressful situation where lives are on the line. 

To prepare for the worst-case scenario in Virginia, the state is working towards building several field hospitals. Depending on need, the Dulles Expo Center in Fairfax County could be the site of one of those hospitals. The governor’s office has said that the state is working diligently to distribute personal protective equipment across the Commonwealth, but due to the lack of federal coordination, the market is chaotic. If COVID-19 cases in Virginia, and especially here in one of the most densely populated counties in the state, rise to the point where a field hospital is necessary, federal aid in procuring medical supplies will be critical. 

Jeffrey C. McKay is the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, serving a community of 1.2 million residents. He was previously elected as Lee District Supervisor for 12 years and has championed issues in equity, the environment, affordable housing, and transportation. Matthew Wellington directs U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. For more than five years he has worked to implement policy solutions to critical health threats, including antibiotic resistance, youth tobacco use, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.