Projected ventilator demand 'outstrips the capacity' of national stockpile, FEMA tells Congress

Agency officials acknowledged struggling with procuring masks, saying it's like "chasing rabbits in an open field," House Oversight Committee Democrats said.
Image: Health workers in personal protective gear at a coronavirus testing site in Jericho, N.Y., on March 24, 2020.
Health workers in personal protective gear at a coronavirus testing site in Jericho, N.Y., on March 24, 2020.Steve Pfost / Newsday via Getty Images file

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By Dareh Gregorian

Federal emergency officials told members of Congress this week that the projected demand for ventilators required for coronavirus-stricken patients "outstrips the capacity" of the Strategic National Stockpile, the House Oversight Committee said Thursday.

In a March 30 meeting, officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency told members of the Democratic-led committee that 9,500 ventilators were left in the Strategic National Stockpile, with 3,200 more expected to be acquired by April 13, the panel's Democrats said in a news release.

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That would fall far short of the amount requested just in New York state, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said first responders expect to need 30,000 to 40,000 ventilators in the next two weeks. Federal officials have already sent more than 4,000 ventilators to the state.

According to a news release from the committee's Democrats, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor "has directed that ventilators be treated as a 'strategic national asset' and released to states only after they answer a 'tough series of questions' designed to identify an 'exigent need- to sustain life 'within 72 hours.'"

President Donald Trump has said help is on the way in the form of 100,000 ventilators that are being manufactured, but FEMA officials said the bulk of those would not be available "until late June at the earliest," the release said. On Thursday, Trump announced that he was using the Defense Production Act to help the companies making ventilators get the supplies they need speed up production.

Trump said the "order will save lives by removing obstacles in the supply chain that threaten the rapid production of ventilators."

Documents released by the committee also show the federal government struggling to keep up with the demand for personal protective equipment from states and territories.

States in FEMA Region III — Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. — had asked for 5.2 million N95 respirator masks, but as of Monday, they had received 445,000, less than 10 percent, according to the documents. They also requested 194 million pairs of gloves and had received 991,000, less than 1 percent. The areas also asked for 15,000 body bags but had yet to receive any by the end of March.

Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a statement, "The president must act immediately to take all steps within his authority to get personal protective equipment and medical supplies to our nation's frontline responders who are risking everything to save their fellow Americans."

In the meeting Monday, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services said they were aware in mid-January that the U.S. did not have enough N95 masks to respond to an infectious disease outbreak, the committee said. Officials from HHS and FEMA were not able to give specific timelines for when more equipment would be obtained or made available to the states. An official told the House on Tuesday that trying to buy masks on the open market was "chasing rabbits in an open field," the committee said.

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Maloney accused Trump of "wasting precious time" by previously downplaying the outbreak.

"Rather than casting doubt on the gravity of this pandemic, the administration should have been working around the clock to prepare and execute plans to obtain desperately needed personal protective equipment and medical supplies," she said.

A representative for FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.