Part of the challenge of responding to the outbreak of an infectious disease is that you’re always a little behind. The new cases confirmed today tell you more about what happened last week than they do about what’s going on right now — as Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday, it’s like watching a newscast from several days ago.

It’s important to do everything under human control to keep pace. But nearly three months after the novel coronavirus was first confirmed in China, and seven weeks since the first U.S. case, the federal government’s response is stumbling and falling further back.

The U.S. remains woefully behind on testing, giving us little idea of the true scope of the outbreak, and likely hastening its spread. There is also a shortage of the personal protective equipment — masks, gowns and face shields — used by health care workers and first responders.

And there are not nearly enough of the ventilators needed for the sickest patients available nationwide to handle a surge in demand. The lack of ventilators has been one of the main factors in driving up death rates from COVID-19 in Italy.

Amid the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment —the result of the loss of supply chains through China and personal hoarding in the U.S. — health care workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response are being forced to improvise. Masks are being treated with sanitizer, bleach or in the microwave and then reused. Workers are fashioning them out of office supplies, or using bandannas and scarfs.

Health care workers are absolutely essential in treating the pandemic, and the shortage of protective equipment is putting them in danger on a wide scale. In Maine and elsewhere, it has also limited the speed and scope of testing for the virus.

A week after it was first urged by Democrats, President Trump on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act, giving him broad powers to order companies to produce critical equipment. It is likely the only way to get things done on the scale necessary; however, he has declined to use those powers.

Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Alex Azar, U.S. secretary of health and human services, saying that Maine needs personal protective equipment and ventilators now. The state received a “limited disbursement” from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, Mills said, but it is not enough.

“We have exhausted the options within our control and are relying on Federal government to meet this urgent need,” Mills wrote.

But on Monday President Trump told governors, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves.” Asked again about it Thursday, despite ongoing and numerous pleas like the one from Mills, he said, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work.”

Dr. Shah, of the Maine CDC, said Thursday that his agency is pursuing all avenues for obtaining equipment. They are trying hard to catch up.

The message from the Trump administration, however, has been clear: You’re on your own.


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