President Donald Trump faced new and troubling questions Thursday about his response to the coronavirus pandemic, as it became clear that there is a nationwide shortage of ventilators, masks and other crucial medical equipment.
During a White House news conference, Trump was asked about the shortages and responded by falsely suggesting that the problem was unforeseen. He also shrugged off responsibility for the crisis and encouraged states to find their own resources.
“Where you have a problem with ventilators — we’re working very hard trying to find (ventilators),” the President said. “Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought that we’d need tens of thousands of ventilators. This is something very unique to this, to what happened.”
Facts First: Trump is wrong. Medical experts and public health officials have said for years that the US would face a shortage of ventilators if there were ever a pandemic like Covid-19. Even during Trump’s presidency, there were warnings that hospitals would run out of lifesaving equipment and resources would be strained because the US wasn’t prepared for a pandemic.
Since the beginning of the crisis earlier this year, Trump and his team have responded with dozens of dishonest and misleading claims. And the President’s comments about the ventilator shortages fit into his pattern of trying to avoid responsibility by falsely claiming that nobody ever predicted a pandemic like this, which he has said many times, even after it’s been widely debunked.
Potential for ‘widespread shortages’
Regarding the shortages of medical equipment, the warnings signs were there. Multiple US government studies conducted during the Obama administration, with support from the National Institutes of Health, found that the US wouldn’t have enough ventilators during a pandemic.
A January 2011 study, which was supported by the NIH, said that “without a doubt, the current ventilator supply in the United States is nowhere near sufficient to meet the projected needs of a pandemic” like the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people around the world.
A US study from June 2011 explored questions of rationing ventilators, which is what Italian hospitals are grappling with as the coronavirus claims thousands of lives there. The study concluded, like the other ones, that a severe flu pandemic would lead to ventilator shortages.
“Hospitals will likely experience serious and widespread shortages of patient pulmonary ventilators and of staff qualified to operate them,” the report’s abstract said. “Deciding who will receive access to mechanical ventilation will often determine who lives and who dies.”
Another study, released in April 2015 by the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated that the US would likely need as many as 60,000 additional ventilators to deal with a severe flu pandemic scenario. Those additional machines could save 35,000 to 306,000 American lives, depending on the percentage of people who get sick, the report said.
These studies also noted that the problem is bigger than a lack of machines. In a pandemic, hospitals would struggle to find trained professionals to operate the ventilators. They might not have enough space for the bulky machines in crowded intensive care units. And there might be interruptions in the supply chain of the oxygen-rich gas that ventilators use to keep people alive.
Warnings in the Trump era
The warnings continued after Trump became President and installed his own appointees in key positions that deal with pandemics, like the Department of Health and Human Services.
During Trump’s first year in office, officials from the CDC participated in a simulation featuring a viral pandemic that forced a surge of patients to rely on ventilators, according to The Washington Post. The October 2017 simulation, led by the World Bank, included ministers from a dozen countries and the World Health Organization.
The US intelligence community warned in 2018 and again in 2019 that the US was vulnerable to a large-scale flu or coronavirus pandemic, which would “strain governmental and international resources,” though it did not mention shortages of specific medical equipment. These reports were released by then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a Trump appointee.
Even some prominent Americans outside of the government have raised the alarm. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose philanthropic foundation has spent billions of dollars to stop the spread of infectious diseases, warned in an April 2018 lecture that “the health infrastructure we have for normal times breaks down very rapidly during major infectious disease outbreaks.”
On Wednesday, Trump invoked the decades-old Defense Production Act to spur production of medical supplies but said he would use the emergency powers only “in a worst-case scenario in the future.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the President to use the law immediately, but Trump has said he wants “to see where it goes” and that thousands of new ventilators are on the way.
“We have tremendous numbers of ventilators,” Trump said Wednesday at the White House, “but there’s never been an instance like this where no matter what you have, it’s not enough.”