Health Care

FEMA head: ‘We have a ways to go’ on having enough PPE

Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images
Peter T. Gaynor, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) testifies during a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Capitol Hill July 22, 2020 in Washington DC.

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told Congress on Wednesday the country has “a ways to go” on getting enough protective equipment for health workers fighting coronavirus, though he said the situation has been improving. 

“I want to be clear: We have a ways to go on making sure we have enough PPE,” Administrator Pete Gaynor said at a congressional hearing, referring to personal protective equipment. “This is not as simple as just throwing a light switch and we just magically make more.” 

Hospitals and doctors have been reporting shortages of masks, gowns and other protective equipment for months as the pandemic rages. 

Gaynor testified that many states are reporting they now have stockpiles of equipment that could last 60 or 90 days or more. 

But Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Gaynor that lawmakers are still hearing about shortages of the equipment from hospitals in their districts.  

As cases rise, Gaynor acknowledged there would be more stress on the system.

“Now there may be shortages, micro-shortages across the country based on COVID-19 cases, increased hospitalizations,” he said, adding hospitals should work with state emergency response officials and FEMA to acquire more PPE if they cannot from their normal supplier. 

Particularly in the early days of the pandemic, President Trump resisted using the full powers of the federal government to increase production of PPE, for example by fully using the Defense Production Act.  

“We’re not shipping clerks,” Trump said in March, adding each governor is responsible for their states’ equipment needs.  

The administration has since taken some steps, like announcing a deal in April with the manufacturer 3M for increased mask production.  

But the American Medical Association (AMA) called on the Trump administration at the end of June to more fully use the Defense Production Act to increase production of equipment, saying some doctors offices are having trouble reopening because they do not have the proper protective equipment. 

“As the AMA continues to communicate with physicians during the pandemic, they tell us the biggest challenge to reopening their practices is the ongoing shortages of PPE, especially N95 masks and gowns,” the letter to Vice President Pence said.  

Gaynor said Wednesday the underlying issue is that the United States does not make most PPE and is reliant on other countries. 

“We still have many months to go before we start making enough in the US to supply the demand and as cases grow in the Sun Belt, the demand goes up,” he said.  

He added that “the place we are in today is much better than we were 60 days ago.” 

“We’re not going to buy our way out of this with just money,” he noted. “We’re going to have to improve the industrial base to make these critical items in the US so we’re not at the whim of our global competitors.”

Tags Bennie Thompson Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Mike Pence Personal protective equipment Pete Gaynor PPE

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