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The novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has killed more than 100,000 Americans, and laid bare fissures in our society. Yet, the Trump administration is scaling back its efforts to address the pandemic even though estimates project a spike in cases as states, including Maine, reopen.
For the last three months, the federal government has largely left states, localities and hospital systems to compete against each other on the private market for critical medical supplies. It’s resulted in confusion, skyrocketing prices and health professionals not getting what they need to protect themselves and save lives.
Thanks to strong leadership from Gov. Janet Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, our state’s health care system has stayed above water. But three months into the pandemic, medical equipment and testing supply chain issues remain a problem in Maine, and across the country.
On a panel last month, Dr. Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, said, “It has been said that we as a nation are at war. Why would we force each battalion to compete for crucial supplies?” He described how it’s routine to place eight duplicate orders for one set of equipment because he doesn’t know which of them will actually come through.
According to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, in early May, two-thirds of health care workers cited an insufficient supply of respirators, which are masks that filter out most airborne particles. And according to a new analysis published in The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, those respirators offer far more protection than a normal surgical mask.
As summer finally arrives in Maine, and resort towns “ reopen,” hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of tourists may flock to the state from COVID-19 hotspots despite the state’s precautions. That could initiate a spike in cases here, taxing our health system and putting health workers at higher risk — especially if they don’t have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as high quality protective masks.
In short, the war against COVID-19 is far from over, and we’re not prepared for what could come next.
Only the federal government has the kind of purchasing power, authority, and logistics capability to ensure a steady, transparent flow of medical supplies, including masks and other PPE, as well as testing materials.
With the Trump administration ramping down its response to COVID-19 — its testing chief is stepping down in June with no replacement — it’s time for Congress to step up.
Logistics experts agree that central coordination of the medical supply chain is key. The Medical Supply Transparency and Delivery Act introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate this spring would create a central, transparent system for procuring and distributing medical supplies during the COVID-19 crisis. It would help stabilize a chaotic market where the federal government competes with states, local governments, and hospitals for critical supplies.
The House recently added aspects from this bill into the Heroes Act, its proposal for another coronavirus stimulus package. The Senate should do the same.
To make progress, we need bipartisan support. That’s why we’re urging Sen. Susan Collins to push Senate leadership to include the Medical Supply Transparency and Delivery Act in the next stimulus package.
Maine’s already a leader in producing test swabs and other medical equipment. Now, our elected officials should ensure that we have an efficient and transparent system to distribute PPE to health care workers so that they can protect themselves, and all of us.
Matt Wellington is the Public Health Campaigns director for U.S. PIRG in Portland. Bill Wood is a physician in Bangor.