The Trump administration is in a race to outpace the coronavirus as it seeks to replenish the country’s national supply stockpile, despite conflicting messaging from officials about the potential severity of a second wave of the virus.
Nearly half of states are reporting a rise in new cases and some continue to break records in their daily reported cases. Behind the scenes, officials are trying to execute on a newly envisioned Strategic National Stockpile, informally called “SNS 2.0,” and restock the country’s supply before a possible fall resurgence.
But concerns over federal preparedness persist at the state level where officials are taking matters into their own hands and working on bolstering their own stockpiles, following the supply scramble that unfolded earlier this year.
“We know every day how many people are being admitted to the hospital, how many are in the ICU, how many are on vents. We can calculate what they might need from that and we send the appropriate amount,” a senior Department of Health and Human Services official told CNN. “I know we’re in better shape than when we started in January. We’re getting shipments of stuff everyday.”
HHS, which maintains the stockpile, has outlined efforts to replenish its coffers, but hasn’t disclosed exactly much supply it currently has. The preparations underway acknowledge the looming possibility of another surge in coronavirus cases.
The White House has, in ways, publicly retreated from discussing the coronavirus response as President Donald Trump tries to move on from the pandemic. The White House coronavirus task force has been out of public view and the daily coronavirus news conferences have ended.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said on CNN Sunday that the administration is “filling the stockpile in anticipation of a possible problem in the fall. We are doing everything we can beneath the surface, working as hard as we possibly can.”
But on Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC there won’t be a second wave. “There are some hotspots. We’re on it. We know how to deal with this stuff now. We’ve come a long way since last winter,” Kudlow said. “There is no second wave coming. It’s just, you know, hot spots.”
The administration and state leaders say the rise in cases is due to more testing availability. But epidemiologists argue case numbers should go down with greater testing, because theoretically health officials should be able to trace the cases and slow the spread of the virus.
Administration officials detail changes to the stockpile
The Strategic National Stockpile proved inadequate to handle the country’s medical and protective gear supply needs. While the stockpile was never intended — or funded — to bear enough equipment for a pandemic, it became a point of contention between states and the administration.
Trump repeatedly said it was incumbent on states, not the federal government, to meet local supply needs. Still, some equipment from the stockpile was deployed, eventually nearly depleting one of the country’s main sources of supply.
The administration is now working to build it back up again at greater capacity. A senior Health and Human Services official told CNN the administration is trying to achieve three things: the right depth and breadth of product; a more capable stockpile that factors in insights to the supply chain and private/public partnerships; and a reduction on reliance to foreign production.
Officials calculated that, to meet demand, the stockpile would need to meet a 90-day supply of goods, like personal protective equipment.
“We took the worst 30 days for the whole country in the last 5 months and we multiplied it by three to get 90 days,” the official said, conceding that “no one can fully predict” the scope of a future pandemic. By late October, the stockpile should be at the 90-day level set by the administration.
As part of their ongoing effort to increase supply of PPE and ventilators, HHS has awarded contracts to manufacturers to “incrementally purchase more than 600 million N95 respirators over the next 18 months” and produce more than 180,000 ventilators, according to an HHS spokesperson. The stockpile currently has around 24,000 ventilators available as of June 11.
HHS also received additional funding from Congress to shore up supplies, the spokesperson said, including $16 billion to build up the stockpile with items, including masks, respirators, and pharmaceutics.
The official said the White House is engaged in the effort and involved in weekly implementation briefings.
The concern, however, is if a potential spike expected for the fall happens earlier. “If the fall spike comes in July/August, there is going to be more of our supplies consumed and we’ll have to look at production and defense procurement act stuff,” the official said. “Right now we’re building our stockpile and we feel comfortable.”
But some are skeptical the stockpile could meet immediate needs in the near future.
“I don’t think we’re as well off as some might lead us to believe in preparation for a second wave,” said a source familiar with the administration’s restocking efforts. “I think we’ve put appropriate mechanisms in place. I just don’t know that we’ll have enough time to aggregate that if the demand increases.”
Projections by the administration suggest that the US would be prepared to meet some supply demand this fall, compared to previous months, according to a presentation, titled White House Covid-19 Supply Chain Task Force, and released by Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. A large part of that will be an increase in domestic production.
For example, the administration projects domestic production of N95 masks will grow to 180 million in Winter 2020 — exceeding estimated demand, according to the slides. Other items, like surgical masks and gowns, only show projections up to July.
That hasn’t inspired confidence among lawmakers urging the administration for additional information.”
“It is unacceptable that this far into the Covid-19 pandemic, the administration still has not shared with Congress or the American people clear goals for the testing supplies and life-saving personal protective equipment that communities across the country desperately need in the months to come,” Hassan told CNN.
One of the main concerns about the stockpile was the expiration of goods. During the pandemic response, some states reported receiving supplies that had passed their expiration date, had deteriorated or were not properly maintained.
The private-public partnership is critical to understanding the supply chain, distributing supplies, and keeping products up to date, according to officials and sources in private industry.
Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, supply chain task force lead at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, also laid it out in a briefing with reporters. “This updated version of the next Strategic National Stockpile will have regularly refreshed stock; capitalize on our work to understand the whole supply chain for better link with the private sector,” he said.
A “larger national stockpile combined with more US production will enable a continued federal response,” Polowczyk added.
States prep their own stockpiles
Meanwhile, states are preparing for another potential uptick in demand for personal protective equipment.
“We’re still in the first wave and it’s still climbing,” said North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry, adding: “I know that FEMA and HHS are doing their best to get us what they can. Is that adequate? I mean it’s getting better. But it’s still not where it needs to be.”
Sprayberry has a draft for a state stockpile sitting on his desk. His department is partnering with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to plan for a state stockpile that would stock PPE for 30 days, and have the capability of storing vaccines in cold temperatures. Proposed costs and quantities are still being worked out.
South Carolina health and emergency management officials have presented a proposal with specific quantities and costs to lawmakers.
Steven Batson, South Carolina Emergency Management Division’s chief of staff, discussed a proposal of a $16 million stockpile of PPE for South Carolina, given the current PPE burn rate in the state.
It’s the first time the state has taken steps for such a stockpile. The state would use money from the CARES Act to pay for the stockpile. Batson acknowledged to CNN the need to decrease dependence on the federal government during a crisis like the pandemic.
“Everyone is their own emergency manager. We all should have a level of personal preparedness. We take that same mindset, we’ve got to be able to take care of ourselves, and then we have the ability to take care of others,” Batson said.
Brian Ferguson, the deputy director for crisis communication and public affairs for California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, echoed that, telling CNN the state received personal protective equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile but is not solely relying on it to meet the needs of the state.
“Our approach as a state is to not rely on any single source,” he said. “We’re also going out and giving contracts with the private sector for a significant amount of protective equipment.”
Lisa Rodriguez-Presley, a spokesperson for the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, shared similar efforts in Georgia: “The agency’s goal is to have a state stockpile of PPE available to respond to future pandemics.”
In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, dated June 10, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee urged the administration to do more to remedy persistent supply shortages, including using the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacturing of equipment.
“Our current situation will only become more dire as more businesses reopen and more Americans head back to work — putting additional strain on a system that is already unable to meet demand,” Inslee wrote.