By BENJAMIN SIEGEL, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The Trump administration was slow to respond to warnings about the country’s dwindling supply of protective equipment as the start of the coronavirus pandemic, leading to persistent shortages as the virus continues to surge across the country, according to a new report from House Democrats.
The House Oversight Committee released a memo Thursday summarizing its investigation into Project Airbridge, the federal initiative led by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, that used taxpayer dollars to fly supplies to the United States on behalf of industry.
Citing interviews with representatives of the medical supply distributors that participated in the program, the memo depicts an administration that wasted valuable time at the outset of the pandemic to stockpile protective gear industry officials predicted would quickly run out.
Officials told the committee that “folks in the industry saw that things were getting worse, and their requests for guidance was increasing week by week,” according to the memo, adding that “everyone was asking the same questions, but guidance wasn’t coming.”
Democrats said the companies had to rely on public information and customer demand to make purchasing decisions, given the lack of direction from the federal government.
The alleged lack of a coordinated federal response to the nationwide PPE shortages was “one of the biggest missed opportunities,” one official told House investigators.
Without the purchasing power and resources of the federal government, states were left to fend for themselves on the global market, leaving many overly reliant on Chinese brokers, industry representatives said.
Under the Kushner-backed program, the distributors, in exchange for taxpayers footing the bill for the airlifting of protective gear, committed to selling half their cargo to customers in coronavirus “hot spots” designated by the federal government, the memo said.
But the participants were given little guidance on which customers to prioritize in a given area, or how to distribute the other half of their products airlifted to the United States by the federal government, according to the memo. Democrats also raised concerns that the administration did not require them to report their prices.
Instead, the Trump administration allegedly worked to ink a deal with BYD, a Chinese electric car and battery manufacturer, and unsuccessfully tried to convince the distributors to purchase protective gear from the company at higher prices.
The report also raised concerns about ongoing PPE shortages, amid an overwhelming domestic demand for protective equipment that could increase as the U.S. hits a new record for the daily number of coronavirus cases.
Officials also raised concerns about a global shortage of raw materials used to make protective gear, including gowns.
“Despite months of effort, there are still severe shortages of PPE and critical medical equipment, and the Trump Administration has no coherent national strategy to address these deficiencies,” Democrats wrote in the memo.
In a recent briefing with committee staff, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said “the supply chain is still not stable,” while insisting that distributors can “do it on their own.”
Democrats recommended that the new House coronavirus select committee seek briefings and testimony from senior administration officials involved in the PPE supply chain, and investigate the administration’s efforts to broker contracts from protective gear and other supplies.
As the virus continues to spread dramatically across southern and western states, while slowly climbing upward in nearly every region of the country, administration officials have also acknowledged a potential strain on the nation’s testing system and supplies, which could complicate efforts to aggressively track and contain coronavirus outbreaks.
“It is absolutely correct that some labs across the country are reaching or near capacity,” Adm. Brett Giroir, a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of testing, said Wednesday.
FEMA and HHS did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the Democrats’ report.
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