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For National Doctors' Day, Forget the Donuts. Can We Get Some Damn Masks?

The inadequate supply of personal protective equipment has already killed patients and providers. This is not only dangerous, it is shameful.

Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for coronavirus (COVID-19) in set-up tents to triage possible COVID-19 patients outside before they enter the main Emergency department area at St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx on March 24, 2020 in New York City. New York City has about a third of the nation’s confirmed coronavirus cases, making it the center of the outbreak in the United States. (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

Doctors test hospital staff with flu-like symptoms for coronavirus (COVID-19) in set-up tents to triage possible COVID-19 patients outside before they enter the main Emergency department area at St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx on March 24, 2020 in New York City. New York City has about a third of the nation’s confirmed coronavirus cases, making it the center of the outbreak in the United States. (Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images)

When doctors don’t show up for work during the coronavirus outbreak, it won’t be because we’re striking (most of us are not unionized — yet). It will be because we’re dead.

The coronavirus outbreak has laid bare our health care system’s cruelties and corruptions. We spend the most per capita on health care compared to other wealthy nations, and yet our country’s response to the coronavirus has been pathetic.

An insurance company CEO or a Big Pharma executive is still guaranteed to get paid millions of dollars a month. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses have no guarantees about having enough two dollar masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) when we care for patients. Today is National Doctors’ Day, and the only gift my colleagues and I want is the basic gear we need to survive.

"The coronavirus outbreak has laid bare our health care system’s cruelties and corruptions."

The inadequate supply of PPE has already killed patients and providers. This is not only dangerous, it is shameful. The richest country on the face of the earth and in the history of humankind must respond better than it has so far.

Some may read this and feel I am exaggerating. After all, aren’t there all these feel-good stories about corporations “stepping up” in our moment of need? Some distilleries are charitably reconfiguring their equipment to make hand sanitizer. High-end fashion designers are developing ways to make masks and other PPE. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the creativity of these corporate volunteers is well-intended and appreciated, but it is still insufficient.

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.

Increasing the production of ventilators is helpful, but it is not enough for Trump to use the DPA as part of his temper tantrums and tweet tirades at automakers. Health care workers need the DPA to be used as a timely part of a comprehensive set of public health strategies to fight the coronavirus. Time is of the essence. The corporate charity described earlier will provide some personal protective equipment in a month at best, and to deliver at scale will take longer. Patients and health care providers fighting the coronavirus do not have that kind of time.

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The Defense Production Act is not about nationalizing private industries or punishing them when they displease Trump and his cronies. Rather, the DPA allows the federal government to find and purchase (not take over) materials from private companies.The government then delivers these materials to other companies that have the capabilities to make masks and other PPE, but lack materials.

Similarly, the federal government could identify industries with potential for producing medical equipment and immediately upgrade their facilities with necessary resources (for instance, toy companies could make masks and face shields when given schematics, machinery, and personnel). The federal government would pay all of the private businesses and workers involved in these endeavors for their ingenuity, labor, and efficiency.

"The longer the Trump regime delays using the DPA to its fullest capabilities, the more people will suffer and die from coronavirus."

Again, time is of the essence. By law, when the federal government makes an order with a company for equipment under the DPA, that order is top priority. Once filled, the federal government would distribute the equipment to regions of the country with the greatest need.

Right now, states are competing with each other for PPE, ventilators, and other vital equipment. Without the DPA, a state with less need but a higher bid to a manufacturer can get its order filled long before another state with greater need. This misdirection of resources worsens our public health crisis, leaving patients and health care workers without protections and technology needed to fight Covid-19.

Fair and equitable distribution of necessary equipment under the DPA must proceed regardless of Trump’s personal political squabbles with governors. Members of Congress must pay close attention, especially given this president’s track record of pettiness.

The DPA’s goal is not to end private enterprise or to punish Trump’s rivals. The goal is to coordinate America’s businesses toward fighting coronavirus without disruption by greed and competition. The longer the Trump regime delays using the DPA to its fullest capabilities, the more people will suffer and die from coronavirus. This National Doctors’ Day, politicians and corporations can honor our work by putting patients before profits, and using the Defense Production Act thoroughly and wisely.

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram is the host of “Dr. America,” an innovative podcast about public policy and health justice on We Act Radio. He also writes about connections between health policy, inequity, and social determinants of health. Dr. Sriram completed his medical degree and his pediatrics residency at UCLA, where he served as Chief Resident at the Department of Pediatrics. In June 2009, he earned his Master’s in Public Health after completing the Commonwealth Fund Mongan Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. He currently practices general pediatrics in southeast Washington, D.C.

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