Government watchdog finds supply shortages are harming US coronavirus response

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Shortages of supplies and equipment are harming the U.S.’s COVID-19 response almost six months into the pandemic, a government watchdog said in a report issued Monday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that states are still facing shortages of protective equipment and testing supplies because of high global demand and the limited production of those items within the U.S, despite “numerous, significant efforts” taken by the federal government. 

“Testing supply shortages have contributed to delays in turnaround times for testing results,” the report reads. 

“Delays in processing test results have multiple serious consequences, including delays in isolating those who test positive and tracing their contacts in a timely manner, which can in turn exacerbate outbreaks by allowing the virus to spread undetected.” 

The Trump administration has largely deferred the COVID-19 response to the states, but it tries to mitigate supply chain shortages and sends shipments of masks, tests and other gear to help with the response. 

But state officials also told the GAO they are having trouble getting answers from the federal government on supply requests, which makes it more difficult to plan for the future.

The GAO recommended the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) outline steps the federal government will take to mitigate supply chain shortages and communicate those plans to stakeholders, including state governments, which have often been left in the dark.

HHS and FEMA should also help states track the status of supply requests from the federal government so they can plan for their needs for the remainder of the pandemic, the GAO said. 

HHS objected to the recommendations, telling GAO its report is “incorrect.” 

“Unfortunately, your report and recommendations prioritize anonymous anecdotes about minor and temporary coordination issues over a fair assessment of the federal government’s historic achievements in increasing supply availability and executing the logistics required to fill identified supply chain gaps,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Legislation Sarah Arbes wrote in a response to GAO.

GAO argued that its findings are “based on evidence.” 

“These actions could contribute to ensuring a more effective response by helping to mitigate challenges with the stability of the medical supply chain and the ability of nonfederal partners to track, plan, and budget for ongoing medical supply needs,” the report says.

While several agencies had helped HHS manage supply chain issues, all responsibilities transitioned to HHS between July and September, according to the report. 

But the GAO expressed concern that “this amount of responsibility at the scale the response necessitates” may require more support throughout the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, it’s still not clearly defined how HHS will take over those roles and responsibilities, which may leave the federal response structure “unable to respond to new supply chain challenges that could emerge,” the report reads.

The GAO also recommended that HHS and the Department of Defense share the national plan for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. HHS officials previously said the agency would send a report to Congress in September, but has not given more specifics. In response to the recommendation, HHS told the GAO it “neither agreed nor disagreed” with it, but “noted factors that complicate the publication of a plan.” 

Congressional Democrats have hit President Trump throughout the pandemic for not having a plan to fight COVID-19, instead largely leaving the response to the states. 

“Today’s report from the independent Government Accountability Office confirms that eight months after this deadly virus reached our shores, President Trump is still refusing to implement a coherent national plan to contain the outbreak,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said in a statement. 

“I agree with GAO that we need ‘timely and concerted actions’ to contain this virus, and I urge the Administration to heed GAO’s nonpartisan recommendations and finally show some leadership to protect Americans’ lives.” 

The GAO report also recommended that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collect better data about COVID-19 cases and deaths by race and ethnicity, noting that the data that is publicly available is incomplete. HHS agreed with the recommendation. 

The GAO also noted that HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes does not include the early months of the pandemic. HHS began requiring nursing homes report COVID-19 data to the CDC in May, but it did not ask for information on deaths or cases that occurred before that. 

“By not requiring nursing homes to submit data from the first 4 months of 2020, HHS is limiting the usefulness of the data in helping to understand the effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes,” the report reads. 

The GAO recommended that HHS develop a strategy to capture “more complete data” back to Jan. 1, but HHS “expressed concern about the burden of collecting it.” 

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