The White House’s coronavirus task force could not provide a solid answer about when health care workers across the country can expect to receive more protective masks, of which there is a nationwide shortage.
During a press conference on Saturday, President Donald Trump appeared defensive over his response to the viral outbreak, baselessly blaming the previous administration for supply shortages and accusing health care workers of throwing away masks, encouraging them to reuse and “sanitize” masks instead.
Other officials also deflected repeated questions by reporters on when supplies would reach the health care workers who need them, noting that doctors and nurses across the U.S. are complaining of dangerously low reserves of personal protective equipment and are being forced to reuse what they have now.
Vice President Mike Pence said that the administration had ordered “hundreds of millions” of N95 masks, which filter 95% of airborne particles. He also said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would help distribute them to states that need them, though he did not offer further details of when or where that would happen.
When a reporter pushed Pence again on the matter, he deferred to FEMA administrator Pete Gaynor.
Gaynor said that the masks are “out there now,” but didn’t explain further even when Trump asked when the masks would be getting there. He also asked the public to help “take a little burden” off the government.
“This is a shared responsibility,” Gaynor said. “We’re asking locals and states to do your share locally, to try and take a little burden off of us and we’ll prioritize those scarce resources.”
Some states are receiving more equipment through a reserve of medical supplies saved for national emergencies known as the Strategic National Stockpile, according to Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health.
Giroir said that the Department of Health and Human Services was sending out that stockpile “on a daily basis as they are needed and requested through the FEMA system.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, followed that up by noting there was still a national shortage of masks and supplies.
“It is happening. You’re not making things up,” he told reporters. “I know that because I’m experiencing it myself.”
Trump then took the podium to complain about health care workers, whom he accused of irresponsibly throwing masks away.
“Why aren’t we sanitizing masks?” Trump asked. “You look at the masks, I’ve looked at all the different masks. Some don’t lend themselves to doing that but many do. ... We have very good liquids for doing this, sanitizing the masks, and that’s something they’re starting to do more and more of.”
In response to Trump’s claim made at the press conference, Dr. Megan Ranney, a practicing emergency physician and Brown University professor, told HuffPost that she does not believe health care professionals are throwing masks away.
“To be clear, we are not throwing them away. We’re reusing them until they physically can’t be used anymore because they’re torn or dirty or wet,” she said Saturday.
Doctors and nurses in Hawaii and Los Angeles have also told HuffPost that they have been directed to reuse masks to preserve supplies.
Ranney said that she was unaware of any reliable methods of sanitizing masks, though she does know of experimental methods that are still in testing phases. It is still unclear whether those methods could compromise the durability of the mask and effectively disinfect them.
“I would be thrilled to have reliable methods for sanitizing masks. I, as a frontline healthcare provider, am not currently familiar of any such methods,” she said. “There may be something I don’t know about. I would be thrilled if his claim were true, but it’s nothing I am familiar with.”
Trump also blamed the previous administration for the current shortage of tests and supplies.
When a reporter pushed Giroir on whether masks being held in the strategic national stockpile were being deployed to health care workers and how many were left, Trump interjected.
“We’re trying to understand if the things we have been told ... are happening and getting into the hands of health care providers,” the reporter explained to Giroir.
“You understand, you understand. You’re an intelligent woman,” Trump replied, before blaming the shortage of tests on the Obama administration. (In the final days of Obama’s presidency, his aides specifically briefed the Trump transition team on how to approach a hypothetical global pandemic, Politico reported on Monday.)
“We inherited an obsolete broken system,” the president said. “When you hear the number of tests that we will be providing, and are now, it’s incredible. And I’ve heard a lot of governors saying the same thing.”
Then Trump called Pence to the microphone and left the stage.
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