At a White House coronavirus task force briefing on Sunday, President Donald Trump speculated that some hospitals are hoarding ventilators and other medical equipment, including facemasks, during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.
Trump didn't mention any facilities by name, and offered no evidence that hospitals were hoarding the equipment. He only said that some hospitals, which had previously placed orders for 10 to 20,000 masks, are now asking for upwards of 300,000 masks and insinuated that medical facilities may be hiding something.
"How do you go from 10 to 20 to 300,000?" Trump wondered aloud during the briefing. "Ten to 20,000 masks to 300,000, even though this is different. Something's going on, and you need to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going, are they going out the back door? And we have that in a lot of different places. I just don't see from a practical standpoint how it's possible to go from that to that."
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"I think it's maybe worse than hoarding," he added later.
WHY IT MATTERS
The comments came as the United States continues to solidify its status as the country with the highest number of confirmed cases in the world -- according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker. There are more than 145,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., about 48,000 more than in Italy, where the virus has ground life to a standstill.
New York has been among the areas hardest hit. Earlier this month CNBC reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was concerned that face masks and other equipment were being stolen from the state's hospitals. Cuomo made those comments on March 6, when the number of confirmed cases in New York stood at 33. There are now almost 34,000 confirmed cases in New York City alone.
In February, before the exponential growth of COVID-19 in the U.S., an expert from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated more than 1 million Americans may need ventilator treatment during the outbreak, which could strain the country's resources even if those cases don't overlap.
On Friday, several organizations released a joint statement saying they were "vitally concerned with the shortages of masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment, ventilators, swab kits, and testing capacity that are critically needed by frontline caregivers and patients."
The statement was signed by the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, The Joint Commission, American Dental Association, American College of Physicians and American College of Surgeons.
"PPE is needed immediately to protect the caregivers who are risking their own health to care for patients in the most need," the statement read. "Shortages of ventilators and intensive care facilities threaten the lives of the sickest patients."
THE LARGER TREND
In March 2018, a Cardinal Health survey of surgical staff and hospital supply chain heads found that 64% of respondents did in fact admit to hoarding supplies, citing the waste or overuse of supplies as significant problems in their organization. But the survey -- which did not go into detail about the types of supplies being hoarded -- was conducted a full two years before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., which has threatened to overwhelm the healthcare system with dramatic shortages of beds, equipment and even staff.
The vast majority of U.S. hospitals and health systems -- 86%, as of early March -- are concerned about their supply of face masks and other PPE as the global spread of the coronavirus strains the supply chain. According to purchasing data in a Premier survey, hospitals and health systems across the country typically buy 22 million N95 face masks a year.
But during the months of January and February, demand for N95s surged, up 400% and 585%, respectively, largely fueled by a heavy flu season and forward buying in anticipation of the COVID-19 outbreak. The levels of demand suggest a minimum consumption rate of 56 million masks in 2020, nearly a three-fold increase in demand when compared to a typical year.
Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, enacted in 1950 as a response to the Korean War, which could require private industry to accept and prioritize contracts for materials deemed necessary for national defense. Under the Act's powers, Trump could theoretically compel non-healthcare businesses to produce more medical supplies, including ventilators and masks.
So far, though, Trump has only invoked its powers, not used them. In a recent interview with "Fox and Friends" he described the Defense Production Act as "great leverage" while criticizing General Motors for its ventilator production timeline.
Sunday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, told Meet the Press that the Defense Production Act should be used to meet the demand for ventilators as well as masks and gowns for first responders. He criticized the President for waiting.
Though he hasn't yet invoked the Act, Trump did issue an executive order last week intended to prevent price gouging and the hoarding of medical supplies. It gives Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar the authority to designate what constitutes a critical supply. Attorney General William Barr said those who are hoarding or price gouging could face criminal action.
ON THE RECORD
During Sunday's briefing, the president pressed Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to look into the mask situation.
"People should check that because there's something going on," he said. "I don't think it's hoarding, I think it's maybe worse than hoarding, but check it out. Check it out. I don't know. I don't know. I think that's for other people to figure out."