President Donald Trump on Sunday suggested that nurses and doctors in New York, the area in the U.S. hardest-hit thus far by the coronavirus outbreak, are stealing and selling facemasks and other protective gear meant to keep them safe as they handle an unprecedented influx of patients sick with the disease spreading across the country.
"Where are the masks going, are they going out the backdoor?" Trump said, implying that healthcare workers were smuggling personal proteective equipment (PPE) out of hospitals for resale on the black market.
"There's something going on. I don't think it's hoarding. I think it's maybe worse than hoarding," the president added, telling the assembled reporters to look into it.
CNN journalist Daniel Dale said the remarks were both "vague and evidenceless."
"I don't think it's hoarding. I think it's maybe worse than hoarding." Trump asks New York officials to check whether health care workers are getting shady with masks. pic.twitter.com/IWoTkyzYr6— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) March 29, 2020
Trump made the comments "without providing evidence" of alleged thefts or other criminality during a Sunday afternoon press conference on his administration's handling of the coronavirus where the president announced that social distancing would be recommended through at least April 30—a reversal of an earlier pledge to have the country "back to work" by Easter. The president's suggestion that healthcare workers are stealing PPE came in response to a question on how the White House has handled requests from state and local officials for more protective gear as hospitals run out.
"That's just insensitive and it's unhelpful," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio replied Monday.
"What the President should be doing is praising our health care workers, not suggesting somehow they're doing something wrong with the supplies that have been sent. That's just insensitive and it's unhelpful." - @NYCMayor pic.twitter.com/orrrJkpa2l— Alli Hedges Maser (@AllisonLHedges) March 30, 2020
According to Vox, the shortage of PPE could limit the number of healthcare workers who are available to manage the crisis just as it peaks:
Health care professionals and experts say we now have a shortage of masks, gowns, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors, nurses, and other medical staff. In this environment, health care workers worry they might get sick—perhaps forcing them to take up a hospital bed that would otherwise go to someone else—or die. Privately, some say they may not be able to show up to work at all under these conditions.
The situation not only threatens health care workers' well-being, it could limit US health care capacity even as experts warn we need to scale up to confront the rise in coronavirus cases.
The administration's response to the coronavirus has come under criticism as a failed and lethargic reaction to what is already one of the worst health crises in modern memory.
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As HuffPost reported:
Hospitals and medical professionals have for weeks warned that stockpiles of medical supplies would not last throughout the pandemic. States have been bidding against each other to get equipment; doctors have resorted to reusing masks in some areas; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went so far as to tell health care providers to use homemade gear like bandanas or scarves "if necessary."
"Given the chance to prepare hospitals and health-care workers for the expected influx of covid-19 patients, the Trump administration did not take action to build up supplies of the vital equipment experts knew would be needed," medical historian Deborah Levine wrote Monday for the Washington Post. "Indeed, the administration has so far refused to use the Defense Production Act, or DPA, to ramp up production of even fairly basic but essential medical supplies, despite many urgent calls to do so."
As Common Dreams has reported, the lack of PPE available for healthcare workers has led nurses and doctors to feel they are being "sent to battle with no armor" as they plead with government officials to help with providing the lifesaving equipment.
In an opinion piece for Common Dreams Monday, Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram called on the president to use his authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to ramp up the manufacturing of PPE and other needed medical equipment:
What this public health crisis demands exceeds whatever corporate charity can deliver. What health care workers need right now is not goodwill, but willpower. We need the president to use the Defense Production Act to its fullest capability. So far, Trump has used the DPA to force one company (General Motors) to make one product (ventilators). Based on reports, it also sounds like Trump invoked the DPA as a punishment toward GM and its CEO Mary Barra, with whom he has long-standing sexist animosity.
The reaction to the president's comments shifting blame for the lack of equipment onto those who are desperate for relief was swift and harsh.
"Has anyone pointed out that this man is a serious danger to the health and safety of every health care worker in the nation?" wondered National Nurses United communications director Charles Idelson.
Has anyone pointed out that this man is a serious danger to the health and safety of every health care worker in the nation? Is this his excuse for not ordering mass production of masks that would save lives and help reduce the spread of the virus? #COVID19 https://t.co/Y0fCuLw5m2— Charles Idelson (@cidelson) March 29, 2020
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Monday rejected the president's comments as "insulting" to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
"They are showing up to work, not sure they'll have the personal protective gear, they're risking their lives, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that, and then they're going home and potentially exposing their families to this," said Gupta. "To suggest they're hoarding it, stealing it, taking out the back door, I think that was the rest of that quote, I think that is insulting."