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Lack of White House supply chain czar hamstrings coronavirus response, Dems say

The White House needs a supply chain czar to oversee procuring and distributing medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment and ventilators, during emergencies like the current crisis involving the new coronavirus, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., told reporters.

The lack of a single person at the White House in charge of supply chain issues in the current emergency has impeded the nation's response and has resulted in confusion for states and local jurisdictions as they compete with the federal government for critical supplies, Pallone said during a March 30 media call hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

SNL Image
Rep. Frank Pallone
Source: AP Photo

Even though Congress has provided billions of dollars in new funding for the response to COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — the medical product supply chain has been stressed, said Pallone, the chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

States, local jurisdictions and healthcare systems have been unable to find the equipment and materials they need, including protective gear, like gloves, masks and gowns, and some of their orders have been intercepted, Pallone said.

They also are caught in a confusing maze while trying to act quickly in the midst of a crisis situation, Pallone said.

"We need some kind of clear national leader with the expertise on healthcare supplies and the supply chain," he said. "You've got to have a leader in charge — one person in charge — so states know this is the person you go to, this is the office you go to, not only to get the stuff but also to distribute it to those areas that have the greatest need."

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not appointed anyone for that role, Pallone said.

President Donald Trump in mid-2018 dismantled the White House office created by the Obama administration to prepare and respond to a national emergency, such as a pandemic.

For the current crisis, Trump initially created a task force and put Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at the helm. Shortly thereafter, Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the U.S. COVID-19 response. Pence later named Deborah Birx the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

On March 27, Trump said he was tasking White House Trade and Manufacturing Policy Director Peter Navarro with coordinating activities related to the Defense Production Act — a 1950 wartime law used to direct private companies to manufacture equipment in times of emergency.

Trump signed an order March 18 invoking the act, but later said he only issued it as leverage to get companies to volunteer.

For weeks, a number of governors and hospitals complained about a severe shortage of ventilators and protective gear — pleas Trump and Birx called overblown.

But on March 27, Trump signed a memorandum ordering automobile manufacturer General Motors to make ventilators.

On March 30, Trump revealed his administration had been holding on to 10,000 ventilators in the U.S. federal stockpile.

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Ventilators delivered to New York from the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile.
Source: AP Photo

"We didn't want to give them because we don't know where the emergency [was]," Trump told reporters. "We're probably going to send some of them now."

Coordination needed

Beyond increasing the supply of ventilators and protective equipment, the federal government needs to coordinate the distribution of those supplies to ensure the hardest-hit areas are receiving it, a group of doctors and public health experts wrote in a March 25 commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The federal government also needs to create a database to track the availability of equipment in real time and match the supply with demand, Ashish Jha, director of Harvard Global Health Institute, and his co-authors wrote.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy established such a database for his state on March 28 and ordered healthcare facilities to report information on a daily basis about their capacity and supplies.

But Pallone said a federal database was needed to track the nation's inventory.

Trump told reporters March 30 that Pence had asked hospitals to start reporting information to him about the status of their ventilators and other equipment. But the White House did not reveal any plans to create a federal tracking system.

Education and Labor Committee chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., told reporters that his panel had called on Pence in a March 19 letter to appoint a senior administration official to coordinate supply and distribution of protective gear and other equipment.

But Pallone said the job must be permanent and not just for the current crisis.

If Trump fails to appoint a permanent supply chain czar, Pallone said he would introduce legislation to establish the role as part of the next COVID-19 rescue package.

Pelosi noted lawmakers are in the early stages of drafting the legislation — the fourth COVID-19 economic rescue package — but it was unlikely to be ready until mid-April.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.