Medical

FEMA head can’t give rough number of masks going to hospitals

Used facemasks and bandanas: How the CDC is warning hospitals to prepare for coronavirus shortages. (CNN Photo)

(CNN) — The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency could not say in an interview Sunday how many medical masks the federal government has acquired to send to hospitals in dire need of them as supplies dwindle amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“How many masks does federal government have right now and when can they get to local hospitals?” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor on “State of the Union.”

“When it comes to supplies, we have been shipping from the national stockpile for weeks,” he replied. “We’ve been shipping, we shipped today, we’re going to ship tomorrow.”

Asked again about a number, Gaynor, who said that “it is a dynamic and fluid operation,” told Tapper that he couldn’t give a “rough number” and that his “mission is operational coordination.” Other federal officials so far have not provided details on the specific supplies or amounts sent.

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When Tapper suggested that the government’s inability to provide a number on the masks being supplied to hospitals could send a negative message to the public, Gaynor downplayed the importance of a specific figure.

“I’m not sure it’s about an exact number,” he said.

Top healthcare officials have said that the US does not have enough stockpiled medical equipment like masks, gowns and gloves to fulfill the anticipated need of the nation’s health care system as the number of cases surge across the US.

Dentists and other businesses are donating equipment and supplies to hospitals that are reporting shortages while treating coronavirus patients, and the federal government is sending supplies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national stockpile and working with private companies to ramp up production.

The Defense Department announced last week that it would free up five million masks in its own stockpile for hospitals to use.

Meanwhile, people are reaching out to doctors and hospitals on their own, offering what they can. The N95 respirator masks and other personal protective equipment are among the most requested items for doctors and nurses on the front lines of the fight against the virus. Medical officials, though, have also expressed a need for swabs, testing materials and ventilators.

Gaynor, who runs the agency that the White House has put in charge of coordinating all of this, also advised jurisdictions and facilities needing urgent supplies “if you find it on the market, go ahead and buy it.”

“The demand on these critical items is not only nationally, it’s globally. So, we’ve been shipping. We shipped today, we’re going to ship tomorrow. We’re linking supplies, not only from the national stockpile, but from vendors and commercial donations,” he said. “And it’s just not about the federal government buying it. It’s also about those hospitals and other facilities, governors that, if you find it on the market, go ahead and buy it. FEMA will reimburse you for it.”

In an interview later on the same program, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it’s helpful having FEMA as the “central repository for everything that we need,” but said that while the state has received some requested supplies from the agency, it’s “a fraction” of what has been requested so far.

Pritzker, a Democrat, also complained that states are competing against each other for key supplies and said there needs to be more federal coordination on these goods.

“We’re competing against each other. We’re competing against other countries. You know, it’s a wild west, I would say, out there,” he said. “And indeed, we’re overpaying, I would say, for (personal protective equipment), because of that competition.”

As of Sunday morning, there are at least 26,039 known cases of the novel coronavirus in the US and more than 300 deaths from the disease caused by the virus, according to a tally by CNN.

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