Tester to Administration: ‘Where are the masks?’

Montana providers are sewing, 3D printing their own N95 masks; Senator pleads to activate VA’s Fourth Mission to help communities caring for patients affected by the deadly COVID-19 disease

Imploring the Trump Administration to release hundreds of thousands of masks, ventilators, and other urgently needed medical supplies for Montana’s hospitals-U.S. Senator Jon Tester pleaded to activate the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) statutory responsibility to serve as the backup health care provider for the nation in times of emergency, and provide support to the doctors and nurses on the front lines to combat COVID-19.

Inexplicably, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have not coordinated to release their supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or called upon VA’s Fourth Mission to expand health care access to aid individuals responding to the crisis. As of March 24th, FEMA had not distributed supplies to Montana, leaving the state with a dangerous shortage. Montana providers are resorting to sewing or making their own N95 masks from 3D printers, posing huge risks to the safety of the health workforce.

“Montana’s doctors and nurses cannot wait on government bureaucracy for another moment to protect themselves from the virus while they treat sick patients,” Tester implored the heads of HHS and FEMA. “Supplies are dwindling and folks are sewing their own masks, or going without and getting sick themselves. You have the equipment-release it now. What possible excuse is there for this unconscionable delay that puts Montana’s health care workers’ lives at risk? Where are the masks?”

On March 18th, President Trump invoked authorities under the Defense Production Act, which allows the President to order the production and distribution of medical supplies. Once invoked, these implementing powers are delegated to HHS to ensure that states have PPE, ventilators, and other resources. The Administration, however, has failed to finalize policies to allow HHS and FEMA to act on these authorities. FEMA reports ordering only 710,000 N95 masks and 3,000 tyvek suits, despite the needs of the country and states like Montana being much higher-seriously jeopardizing the safety of America’s frontline workers in responding to this crisis.

Tester urged the Administration to utilize the Defense Production Act more aggressively, writing: “Doctors and nurses should not be made to treat patients without appropriate PPE when VA has supplies it can begin distributing from its own reserves and caches now. Both VA and the Department of Defense have robust supply chains that could be utilized to fill gaps in medical supplies and contribute to a cross-government response. It is unconscionable that HHS has not utilized every tool it has to address the real suffering of individuals in this nation and called upon VA to activate its Fourth Mission.”

Tester introduced legislation several days ago requiring the President to fully utilize the authorities granted to him under the Defense Production Act. The bill would immediately require the purchase of 300 million N95 masks; require the National Response Coordination Center to conduct a national assessment on needs; and waive the Congressional notification and spending cap to purchase necessary resources based on this assessment.

Read the full letter HERE.

Visit tester.senate.gov for a list of resources for Montanans during the COVID-19 outbreak