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The White House Asked Manufacturers for Help, Then Gave Them No Clear Instructions

Vice President Mike Pence wants the private sector to donate critical medical supplies to help during the coronavirus pandemic. But the White House’s chaotic requests have not included consistent information on how exactly businesses can do that.

Protective N95 face masks. (Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images)

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As hospitals across the country face drastic shortages of masks, respirators and other vital equipment, the White House has sent out a plea for donations that’s left many recipients confused and full of questions.

In at least one instance this week, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, blindsided private industry by requesting that construction companies donate face masks to hospitals. The White House then failed to provide guidance when directly asked.

Pence asked builders on Tuesday to donate the N95 masks used at many construction sites to local hospitals and refrain from ordering more. Within minutes, Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the trade group Associated General Contractors of America, contacted the White House for more details, said Brian Turmail, a group spokesman.

After receiving no reply from the White House, Sandherr sent an email to AGC’s local chapters on Tuesday telling them that Pence’s statement had taken the group by surprise.

“As we received no advance notice of this announcement and we have received no additional guidance from the Administration, it is our view that this should be considered as a voluntary gesture and not a mandate,” Sandherr wrote. Turmail said several AGC members have donated equipment to their local hospitals.

On Thursday, Sandherr finally heard back from the Department of Health and Human Services, speaking on behalf of the White House, and his group’s members were asked not to donate equipment to hospitals, as Pence had instructed. Instead, he was told the group should collect an inventory of available equipment from members, including masks, booties and protective suits, and share it with the administration.

“It isn’t clear to us, yet, how they intend to use this information, but obviously we are happy to collect the info and share it,” Turmail said.

Recently, the National Association of Manufacturers, a prominent business group, sent its members a White House request asking for “volunteers who can donate and provide and/or produce within two weeks large-scale quantities of critical supplies to help the nation respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The notice — which consisted of a short questionnaire prepared through Survey Monkey — did not explain how the White House would distribute donated equipment to states demanding urgent help, including distributions from the national stockpile of emergency supplies and medications.

The problem with that strategy, said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is that it is far too small and piecemeal to meet a demand for protective equipment that is likely to persist for months.

“Good ideas can come from everywhere, but this seems like the wrong scale of effort by orders of magnitude,” Inglesby said. He noted that producing enough masks, gloves and other supplies will require complicated analyses of shortages and manufacturing capabilities as well as negotiating new contracts and large financial commitments to incentivize businesses to retool production lines.

“That to me suggests we should have a large professional logistics organization running things in a centralized manner that can help states around the country,” Inglesby said.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development who worked on the Ebola virus response, said the government’s efforts to reach out to trade associations are “not a bad idea” and would reach many potential private sector partners. But he said given how the virus is spreading, voluntary donations “will be a month out of sync with transmission.”

The donation request was circulated widely and made its way to some small businesses struggling to stay afloat as the health crisis escalates.

“I was troubled,” said Tsan Abrahamson, a California attorney who is a member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, which certifies women-owned businesses. WBENC sent out a plea to members on Wednesday saying the White House had asked for donations of supplies. The WBENC email directed members to fill out the NAM questionnaire.

Abrahamson said women-owned companies are “traditionally marginalized businesses who are being asked to donate not to those in specific need, like hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stock warehouses.” Instead, the survey asks respondents for their contact information so they can be reached directly by the White House for follow-up.

The request was part of a “whole of America” approach pushed by Pence to combat the coronavirus, emphasizing robust, voluntary partnerships with the private sector.

The White House and WBENC did not respond to questions, and a NAM spokesman declined to respond to questions.

Health care workers are growing desperate for gear to protect them from airborne particles and liquids that can spread the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has downgraded its guidance for how health workers should protect themselves, saying they “might use homemade masks” like a bandanna or scarf if no masks are available.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA has coordinated with the private sector to identify supply shortfalls in past emergencies, but she was not sure if that coordination included online surveys of the type sent out by NAM.

On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which gives the president broad authority to require companies to prioritize government contracts and incentivize companies to expand production of critical goods. The executive order granted Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar additional powers to allocate medical supplies.

But the president has contradicted himself several times on whether he has actually triggered the DPA. In a Thursday press conference, he said “we hope we’re not going to need that” and put the onus on individual states.

“The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said.

Just hours later, governors on a teleconference with Trump, Pence, Azar and other senior officials complained that their efforts to get crucial supplies on the private market were floundering.

Pence said during that teleconference that although Trump had “activated” the DPA, “he has not initiated any other action underneath it” and suggested that voluntary decisions by American businesses would be sufficient to meet the critical needs.

“I think the president’s perception and the team’s perception is now” that “American industry is stepping forward very aggressively,” Pence said.

Then on Friday, in response to a question about whether Trump was using the DPA to “tell businesses they need to make ventilators, masks, respirators,” Trump nodded and said, “We are using it.”

“We are using the act, the act is very good for things like this,” Trump said. “We’re invoking it to use the powers of the federal government to help the states get things that they need, like the masks, like the ventilators.”

Minutes later, Trump appeared to backtrack, saying that “when we need something, we will use the act.”

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Portrait of Yeganeh Torbati

Yeganeh Torbati

Yeganeh Torbati is a former ProPublica reporter. She covered the U.S. federal government.

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