How The Federal Government Has Supported Public Health Efforts In States So Far NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, on the federal health response to COVID-19.
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How The Federal Government Has Supported Public Health Efforts In States So Far

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How The Federal Government Has Supported Public Health Efforts In States So Far

How The Federal Government Has Supported Public Health Efforts In States So Far

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ventilators, masks, personal protective equipment - they are all needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, but governors in the hardest hit areas say they are not getting what they need from the federal government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PHIL MURPHY: We've gotten some out of the federal stockpile in terms of ventilators and personal protective equipment, but not nearly as much as we need.

KELLY: New Jersey governor, Democrat Phil Murphy, told NPR this morning he is grateful for what his state has gotten, but it's not enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MURPHY: We need the feds to step up and continue to step up.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, says the federal government can't even begin to meet the need for critical supplies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: The federal government does not have enough material to sit there and say, whatever you need, I can get you. Don't worry, California. Don't worry, Michigan. Don't worry, New York. Don't worry, Florida. They can't.

CHANG: But President Trump has said time and time again the federal government is delivering what states need.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that everybody would have to be thrilled with the way most states are doing - thrilled. The flatline - the flatline states - states that have almost no bump, I mean, I would think.

KELLY: We're going to take the next few minutes to talk through what the federal government is doing to support states in fighting the pandemic. Michael Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He was an adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Thank you very much.

KELLY: So your job in the Bush administration was public health preparedness at the federal level. What is your top-line reaction to what you have seen so far?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, actually, I've been quite involved with preparedness for - even before that and continuing since that time. And really as an entire world, we haven't taken preparedness all that seriously. This - before we go any further, we have to say that the Strategic National Stockpile that we do have has not been invested in the ways it should have been for years. So I think we have to be clear on that.

But having said that, what's happening right now is basically - it's very hard to know who's in charge. There's no national plan for how to approach this pandemic today, tomorrow, next week, six months from now. All 50 states have been really left up to their own devices to figure out what to do and how to do it. And that's a real challenge because it's creating this kind of - almost throwing everyone to the wolves kind of environment to go get the equipment they need or hopefully can get.

KELLY: You're pointing to the fact that this is a completely unprecedented situation, a point the president has made. He says nobody could have predicted the level of need. What is your reaction?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I actually - you know, we're just a small country operation out here in the middle of Minnesota, and we've been predicting this for years. In my book "Deadliest Enemies" (ph) in 2017, I laid out a scenario exactly like this and what it was going to take to respond to it.

KELLY: You're saying there should have been a plan.

OSTERHOLM: So I can't say that's true.

KELLY: And there certainly should be one now.

OSTERHOLM: And there should be one now. And the plan now has to acknowledge we don't have these supplies. You know, this is no longer about money. This is all about you just can't build it fast enough. And so I think that what we were trying to do right now is (unintelligible), and what do we do when you don't have nearly enough of what you need?

You know, as a former assistant or former secretary of defense once said, when you go to war, you don't get to go with what you want. You have to go with what you have. And we're trying to now relate that. And instead, we keep hearing these daily news briefings where everything seems to be OK. The states are happy. It's all there, and it's just not true. We're very, very short on ventilators, and we have to come to grips with the fact we are going to have people die in this country because we will not have enough ventilators. But then how do we start allocating them now? Who does get them? Why do they get them?

KELLY: Right. In the minute or so we have left, let's talk about possible solutions. I interviewed Chuck Schumer - Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer - this week. He wants the president to appoint a czar or a general who's good at quartermastering (ph) to take charge and get supplies where they need to go. Would that help?

OSTERHOLM: That would help, but let's just make no mistake about it. They are not miracle workers. There is no beam me up, Scotty machine that's going to somehow come and make the kind of respirators or the ventilators or the tests we need. And that's where we're so short. We're just not going to have them. And we have to understand that so that we can actually have honest and fair discussions about how are we going to allocate them.

I mean, case in point is New York is a tragedy right now - as is Detroit, as is New Orleans. But you know what? Two months from now we're still going to be in a major way in dealing with this virus. And many of the resources will be used up already in New York. What is in the stockpile is gone. So if you're a second-level...

KELLY: Right.

OSTERHOLM: ...State or a city, you're going to even be in bigger trouble than they are now.

KELLY: You're in bigger trouble, indeed. Michael Osterholm - he's director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy of the University of Minnesota.

Thank you.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you.

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