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FEMA chief: Meeting domestic PPE demand ‘months away’

Global competition for masks still a problem

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on COVID-19 in June.
FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on COVID-19 in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The United States is still months away from meeting demand for COVID-19 personal protective equipment, according to the top federal official in charge of emergency response during a House hearing on Wednesday.

Peter Gaynor, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged before the House Homeland Security Committee that meeting the demand would continue to be a challenge.

“We have a ways to go in making sure we have enough PPE. This is not as simple as turning on a light switch and magically making more,” said Gaynor. “We still have many months to go until we start making enough in the U.S. to supply the demand and, as cases grow in the Sun Belt, demand goes up.”

The U.S. traditionally relies on foreign manufacturers to supply personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as masks. While domestic production has gone up in recent months, it still remains an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are in competition, still, for PPE around the globe. The place we are in today is much better than where we were 60 days ago, although we’re not going to buy our way out of this,” Gaynor told Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Gaynor echoed this thought in response to questions from ranking member Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., saying “we are not out of the woods completely on PPE” and noting most PPE is made offshore.

Gaynor later said the administration has deployed the Defense Production Act 14 times during the pandemic.

Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Dina Titus, D-Nev., emphasized the need to extend mobilization of the National Guard, which currently expires Aug. 31, to help with the COVID-19 response.

Gaynor said while it has previously been extended, a decision has not yet been made.

“That extension is up for consideration. I spoke about it with the president, vice president, and coronavirus task force. There’s not a week that goes by where I don’t have a conversation with a governor about extending it,” said Gaynor in response to Jackson Lee. “In time, we will learn what the decision is on that.”

Concerns about testing

Multiple Democrats also criticized U.S. testing efforts.

“You are saying right now, as the FEMA administrator, the U.S. has enough tests?” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., during his questioning.

Gaynor said, “Testing capacity is really the challenge of maximizing that capacity.”

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., asked Gaynor to elaborate on this.

“I’m not going to say that testing is not stressed in the Sun Belt because it is, but we provide resources to states to make sure they have enough to do that,” said Gaynor.

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., followed up by asking what the current capacity for testing is.

Gaynor said he would defer to Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, who was not present. No one from HHS agreed to testify at the hearing, according to the committee.

“When you come before us and you say that the capacity is enough but then when I ask you what the capacity allows for us to test, and you say, ‘I don’t know,’ it’s difficult to continue the conversation,” said Rose, and repeated his question about U.S. testing capacity.

Gaynor referred Rose to Giroir again.

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