American hospitals are sitting on the precipice of a catastrophe. A deluge of coronavirus patients is about to overwhelm their supply of beds, protective equipment, and ventilator machines. President Trump has been asked about the crisis for several days on end, and his answers have focused almost entirely on deflecting blame away from himself without proffering any solution.
The pattern held again at his Thursday press conference. Trump argued the pandemic was a completely unforeseeable event. “No one in their wildest dreams thought we’d need tens of thousands of ventilators,” he proclaimed.
Many people thought this. Trump’s own government studied the issue and warned this past fall that it was unprepared for a pandemic. The vulnerabilities cited in the report included an acute shortage of ventilators. In recent weeks, news reports have highlighted the ventilator shortfall in increasingly urgent terms. More than three weeks ago, Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar testified that hospitals lacked enough ventilators and other equipment to handle the coronavirus.
Hospitals and congressional Democrats have been pleading with Trump to use the Defense Production Act to commandeer industrial resources to crank out more equipment. Asked about this again, Trump shifted the responsibility onto state and local governments:
“Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work … the federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. We’re not a shipping clerk. As with testing — the governors are supposed to be doing it … but this is really for the local governments, governors, and people within the state, depending on the way they divided it up.
“Governors are supposed to get it. States are supposed to get it. For years, they bought ’em — and now, all of a sudden, they’re coming to the federal government.”
It is absolutely astonishing that Trump believes state and local governments should have primary responsibility for handling a national pandemic. Those governments lack the bargaining power and national scale to take control of industrial processes that lie outside their borders.
How is a governor of Ohio or New Mexico supposed to get a manufacturer in, say, California to start producing medical equipment? And how are these governors supposed to allocate the equipment that is produced? Even if they somehow could pull this off, state and local governments are plunging into a budgetary crisis that will get worse because they are required to balance their budgets. The federal government can borrow money in a downturn. State governments cannot.
Most amazingly, Trump continued to treat the shortage of ventilators as a future possible contingency. “If we find we will need something, we’ll do it,” he promised. This is staggering. Producing sophisticated equipment takes a long time — weeks or months, under the best circumstances. Trump needed to start ramping up production in January or February, when the pandemic started and experts were warning about shortages. Starting a crash program now is horrifically tardy. He’s not even rushing to ramp up production yet.