WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has likened himself to being a “wartime President" as the nation fights an "invisible enemy" in COVID-19, but while his predecessors in times of crisis focused on implementing a centralized federal response, Trump has largely called on state and local governments to institute their own response plans.
The president has resisted bipartisan calls to use his broad powers under the Defense Production Act to mandate companies produce much-needed ventilators and medical protective gear, saying such a move is unnecessary as some major companies offer to ramp up production. But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other health care groups contend the lack of federal intervention is driving up prices as states and other countries compete to purchase items that are running scarce.
Cuomo and other governors have ramped up their appeals for Trump to fully utilize the Defense Production Act to not only step up production of essential equipment but to coordinate the distribution of those items based on which areas need them the most.
“It can’t just be, ‘Hey, who wants to help? Let me know,’” Cuomo said at a Tuesday press briefing. “We need to know the numbers of what we need to produce and who is going to produce that and when.”
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said the lack of a federal response, is leading to a “Wild West” as states scramble to acquire equipment including live-saving ventilators.
“We're competing against each other. We're competing against other countries … it's a … Wild West, I would say, out there. And, indeed, we're overpaying, I would say, for [personal protective equipment] because of that competition.” Pritzker told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
Cuomo told reporters recently that the price of a face mask went from 80 cents a unit to nearly $7, and warned that despite commitments from General Motors, Ford and other manufacturers to aid in the production of ventilators, those efforts could arrive too late for New York as it deals with the accelerated spread of the virus.
“It does us no good if they start to create a ventilator in three weeks, or four weeks, or five weeks. We’re looking at an apex of 14 days,” Cuomo said Tuesday.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, called on the Trump administration to fully utilize the Defense Production Act, warning that “without more ventilators (and workers to operate them), hospitals will soon be unable to provide these life-saving machines to a number of their critically ill patients, and doctors will have to make life-or-death decisions about who needs the machines most.”
The American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association, in a joint letter to Trump on Saturday, called on him to use the act as health care workers “urgently” need more supplies.
The letter states: “Even with an infusion of supplies from the strategic stockpile and other federal resources, there will not be enough medical supplies, including ventilators, to respond to the projected COVID-‐19 outbreak.”
Trump has stood firmly by his decision to not mandate production, arguing that such a move would be akin to socialism even though the Defense Production Act does not strip companies of private corporation status.
“Call a person over in Venezuela. Ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept,” Trump told reporters last Sunday.
Trump’s push to have governors take the lead in acquiring supplies is a departure from the strategy most presidents have taken since The Great Depression to take on “more and more responsibility on the federal level,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
“The federal government assumed a larger role such that by now we expect the federal government to have a response to everything, especially disaster relief,” Engel said. “What Trump is doing by pushing the authority back to the states; he’s actually doing something that presidents have not done since Herbert Hoover, who made it a real point of saying disaster relief is a state issue.”
Meena Bose, executive dean of Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs, said that while “it’s certainly fair to say that there needs to be a coordinated national-state response, the focus at this time can’t be on finger pointing, blaming or credit-taking.”
“Ultimately what we really do need is a message of informed confidence and a plan of action from our national leadership and that should come from the president,” Bose said. “The President has to rise to the occasion … this is a national crisis and everyone needs to rise to the occasion.”