Trump administration officials overseeing the Strategic National Stockpile reasserted the federal government's support role as an "emergency backstop" for medical supply shortages, putting the onus on state and local authorities to submit requests for personal protective equipment.
Authorities addressed criticism during a press conference Thursday of the Trump administration for failing to increase its emergency supply of N95 respirator masks to 300 million units. The administration has fallen short in part because it has diverted masks to the commercial market to meet demand, officials said, noting that they have about 200 million on hand now, up from the 13 million-unit tally as of January.
Officials emphasized that the federal government is the "backstop" for supply shortages to be used on an emergency basis. Requests and distribution should be managed through the state and executed locally, they said, describing it as a "federally supported, state managed and locally executed" model.
While authorities didn't directly answer if they were ready to adjust their role given the predictions of a spike in COVID-19 cases this winter, they said there will be enough domestically produced masks to meet the demand that would come with another wave.
Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at HHS, maintained that the federal government has yet to deny a single request from states.
"We actively reach out to nursing homes, hospitals (and other providers) every week, and they consistently told us they have supplies on the shelf. If they don't, we have mechanisms in place with distributors that can redirect supplies in a single day," he said during the call with reporters. "Anyone can find a disgruntled nurse on the street who says they can't find masks—we can't account for that."
That sentiment clashes with some providers who say they still can't find enough PPE and testing equipment, despite federal efforts to bolster supply levels.
While the majority of states were mostly able to fulfill requests for PPE from organizations and entities within their states, nitrile gloves were in short supply as of October, the Government Accountability Agency found. Total production of medical-grade exam gloves is estimated to fall short by about 260 billion units, according to the group purchasing organization Vizient.
Between a third and half of states were reporting shortages of certain testing materials, according to the GAO. About a third of states were greatly concerned about having vaccine-related supplies.
"We do have constraints in the glove market," said Brigadier General David Sanford, director of the supply chain task force, adding that the glove inventory in the Strategic National Stockpile will increase from 16 million units pre-pandemic to 190 million by the end of the week. "We'll continue to grow this."
Officials lauded the increase in domestic production of N95s, noting the U.S. produces about 150 million units a month compared with about 20 million a month pre-pandemic.
"We expect to grow that to 180 million and higher as we go into January and into the spring," Sanford said.