On Friday, the day that Trump declared a national emergency while taking “no responsibility at all” for his administration’s coronavirus failures, the Department of Health and Human Services warned lawmakers that the pandemic “will last 18 months or longer” and that it could include “multiple waves of illness.” A copy of the unclassified 100-page report obtained by the New York Times also stated that “critical infrastructure and communications channels” between state and local governments “will be stressed and potentially less reliable.”
To prepare, the plan encourages Trump to consider “key federal decisions,” including the invocation of the Defense Production Act of 1950 to increase production of medical supplies like ventilators and protective gear for hospital workers. Enacted during the Korean War, the act requires businesses to accept contracts to produce goods demanded in national security emergencies. Senators Ed Markey and Bob Menendez, as well as 57 House Democrats, have already called on the president to invoke the act’s powers or to ramp up production of necessary products by other means. The outline also suggests that Trump consider tapping the Strategic National Stockpile — a medical supply inventory created in 1999 for a COVID-19–like scenario — to distribute supplies and equipment.
However, in a press conference on Tuesday, Trump was reluctant to call upon the Defense Production Act. “We’ll make that decision pretty quickly if we need it,” he said. “We hope we don’t need it. It’s a big step.” Despite calls from governors to boost the federal response to the crisis, Trump has largely failed to do so at this point in the crisis. As the New York Times reports, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Veterans Affairs (which serves as the backup health-care system during national crises), and the National Disaster Medical System are all “waiting for orders.” The response is further muddled by Trump’s decision to keep HHS as the coordinating department in charge of the response — rather than to delegate that responsibility to the Federal Emergency Management System, as is the normal protocol. “They have relationships and know where to look for things,” President Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, told the New York Times. “Without that, it’s not clear to me who would be doing the coordination and facilitation function.”
The Trump administration’s solemn 18-month estimate is consistent with the recent findings of epidemiologists at Imperial College London, who determined that social distancing practices would need to be in effect “until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more),” so that hospitals would not be inundated with cases in the interim.
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