Lawmakers grow desperate in hunt for supplies to shield health workers

Staring down a dire supply shortage and with the White House taking a largely hands-off approach, many members have taken it upon themselves to coordinate with local, state and federal officials to keep their hospitals and health centers from running out of critical personal protective equipment.

New York City has been the hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, and more than half of the 3,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. have come from New York state.

But it’s not just lawmakers from New York. Dozens of members are facing the same grave situation in their own districts, confronting an almost unimaginable crisis that health officials say is only going to get worse and could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans in the coming weeks.

Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) said he’s been most focused on the shortage of 3M’s N95 masks, which are desperately needed by frontline workers including police officers, like his oldest son.

The Michigan Republican said he’s been surveying hospitals and health centers in his district about their supply of the masks: “The average right now for N95s is a four-day supply.”

Mitchell is also on a bipartisan text chain with the 14-member Michigan delegation, communicating daily about the caseloads and supply situations in their own districts.

That includes Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who’s been sounding the alarm for weeks on shortages of items like masks and gloves for health care workers. Much of her attention now is on bolstering that supply chain in a state that has nearly 8,000 reported cases of the virus.

The number of manufacturers across her district pitching in has gotten so long that her team keeps track in a massive Excel spreadsheet, which can be forwarded to hospital procurement teams. Carhartt: gowns. Ford: ventilators. Local distilleries: hand sanitizer.

“I am doing sometimes the highly strategic and the highly detailed small tasks on a daily basis, and toggling between the two,” Slotkin said. “It’s just kind of a constant back-and-forth.”

The equipment shortage issue is so central to the crisis that it was the topic of a special Democratic Caucus call on Monday afternoon. Member after member relayed the horror stories unfolding in their districts.

Meeks said one community health center in his Queens district had to start furloughing their health care workers after the number of staffers testing positive for coronavirus tripled in recent days due to a lack of proper protective equipment.

One New Jersey hospital has seen the price of equipment like masks skyrocket. Other members talked about seeming to secure protective equipment for health care workers in their districts, only to be told it was routed elsewhere at the last minute.

Republicans and Democrats did agree to include $100 billion in the latest relief package to help shore up supplies for hospitals. A portion of that is is expected to go toward personal protective equipment.

But those dollars are slow to disperse, and hospitals are dealing with such a tsunami of patients that some are taking extreme measures like sanitizing masks by baking them in an oven or pleading for donations from other industries like construction or dentistry.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have been urging production companies in their district to quickly convert into medical manufacturers and pushing state health officials to loosen some of their own regulations to accommodate the influx of patients.

Illinois GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, for example, spearheaded a bipartisan letter to his state’s governor asking to temporarily move certain patients out of isolation rooms to free up space and equipment to treat coronavirus victims.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) has worked with a local plastics company that once made jewelry cases but is now developing molds for masks. On Tuesday, she spoke with the acting head of the Strategic National Stockpile about how to better coordinate federal purchasing as states are also scrambling to restock.

“There’s this old saying, ‘An army marches on its stomach,’” Sherrill — who spent 10 years on active duty in the U.S. Navy — said of the importance of food and other critical supplies to any mission. “As much as you might think of your battle strategy, underlying any effort is your logistical strategy.”

In the early weeks of the crisis, testing was the biggest gap in the U.S. response. But frontline workers say that’s quickly been eclipsed by the lack of adequate protective gear in health care facilities.

The White House has taken some steps — forming a task force specifically on supply chain issues and moving to lessen restrictions on masks coming from overseas — and has provided modest information to lawmakers.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) has been circulating a regularly updated fact sheet to Democrats with the administration’s latest guidance; the most recent fact sheet, sent to members on Monday, detailed the first of 22 air shipments that arrived in New York from China over the weekend.

But Democrats say Trump needs to do more to centralize efforts, calling for a national czar to coordinate the needs of each state with supplies coming in from abroad.

Trump has largely forced states into bidding wars for protective equipment, with each battling another to buy up precious masks and gloves. And while Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to compel the production of some critical supplies, many lawmakers say he hasn’t gone far enough.