the national interest

Trump Is Haggling Over Ventilator Prices While Coronavirus Patients Die

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Hospitals in New York, Detroit, and Atlanta are at or above their capacity, with growing numbers of coronavirus patients pouring in. Hospital staff and governors are begging for more protective equipment and ventilators. The Trump administration, after doing nothing for weeks to prepare, is still refusing to treat the matter with the proper urgency.

The New York Times reports the Trump administration was set to order a crash production of ventilators from General Motors and Ventec Life Systems. Then the administration paused the deal. “Some government officials,” reports the Times, “expressed concern about the possibility of ordering too many ventilators, leaving them with an expensive surplus.”

Too many ventilators. It sounds insane that the Trump administration would be concerned that it would be left with a supply of excess machine when, at the moment, governors are pleading with them to send as many machines, as quickly as possible before bodies begin piling up in American cities.

Yet, as incomprehensible as this sentiment may be, Trump himself is now saying the same thing in public. In a Thursday night interview with Sean Hannity, Trump dismissed the pleas for more ventilators by governors like Andrew Cuomo. “A lot of equipment is being asked for that I don’t think they will need,” Trump said. “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they are going to be. I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go to major hospitals, sometimes they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”

Trump is unable to understand why hospitals would need a lot of ventilators when they have been used to getting by with two. The reason is that the coronavirus leaves many victims unable to breathe, and they will die without a ventilator machine. The hospitals need way more ventilators because of the coronavirus. The fact that they ordinarily have just a couple ventilators is the problem. Ordinarily, a couple ventilators is enough. It’s not enough when the country is suffering a pandemic in which ventilators play a life-or-death role. In Europe, overflowing hospitals have already been forced to ration their ventilators and decide which patients will receive the life-saving equipment. U.S. hospitals are already preparing doctors to make decisions on which patients to treat and which to let die.

The Times story includes this “defense” from the Trump administration: “Government officials said the deal may still happen but that they are looking at a dozen or more other proposals.” They are pausing to haggle over the price, rather than just agreeing to this deal and then hiring other companies to produce ventilators. They are willing to delay a process that is already occurring too late to save money. They just spent $2 trillion on an economic-relief bill, and the prospect of spending a fraction of one percent of that amount to prevent a ghastly death toll has them in “I’m not gonna pay a lot for this muffler” mode.

Maybe Trump is right. Maybe the coronavirus will not prove as deadly as public-health officials and hospitals warn, and maybe the desperate pleas by New York and other states for more ventilators will prove unnecessary. But it seems quite likely that the Trump administration is haggling over relatively trivial sums, denying a crisis, and sending Americans whose lives might have been spared to horrible deaths.