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Cuomo to FEMA: You pick the 26K people who are going to die
00:54 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A week after the government’s principal emergency response agency took the lead on the growing coronavirus pandemic, officials have been trying to catch up, hoping to streamline communication and sort out distribution to get necessary equipment to states pleading for help.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, is deploying its extensive experience in disaster response to coordinate the federal response. In doing so, the agency has come under mounting pressure to create an organized and efficient process, and get states and hospitals the medical supplies they need. Internally, that’s also led to confusion and irritation as FEMA tries to take the leading position.

Multiple sources said that there was frustration among employees within the agency over being brought into the coronavirus response too late, coupled with fear that FEMA would ultimately take the blame for the bungled response.

“Of course, there’s confusion. I mean, Jesus,” a FEMA employee said.

A former FEMA official defended the agency. “[FEMA] can’t manage what they don’t have and you can’t expect them to do something on the fly that they’ve never done before, particularly when you keep changing the rules,” the official said.

The communication breakdown between FEMA and the White House spilled into public view this week when FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor told CNN that the administration planned to use a war-time era law to procure test kits, just minutes after President Donald Trump tweeted that law, known as the Defense Production Act, wouldn’t be used.

Gaynor’s statement irked West Wing officials, who said it had not been cleared through the White House task force. Instead they were sent scrambling to figure out what he was talking about, knowing the President would bristle at being contradicted by a top aide.

On several occasions, White House officials have gone to certain companies with the possibility they may order them to ship certain supplies elsewhere under the DPA, but instead the companies have voluntarily agreed to do so. Private businesses are resistant to the optics that the federal government is ordering them to do something, especially during a pandemic, this official said.

This official involved with the task force said there’s a chance they may have to utilize the DPA to distribute resources in the future, but that time hasn’t come yet.

State officials and lawmakers disagree. Governors across the country have said while they are getting some of the supplies they need, like masks and ventilators, among other items, it is not nearly enough. The United States now has more coronavirus cases reported than any other country in the world.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, among others, has publicly questioned why the administration won’t utilize the DPA. Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey also sent a letter to Trump Thursday saying that his failure to use the DPA contributed to the issues in their state.

Trump said he spoke with Cuomo this week and reiterated that the DPA is “a great point of leverage” with companies. “He thinks we’re using very appropriately the Defense Production Act,” Trump said. “And we are. We’re using it where needed. It’s a great point of leverage; it’s a great negotiating tool.”

FEMA, meanwhile, has helped in shoring up supplies to be distributed nationwide. The agency is uniquely positioned to provide assistance, as the agency generally charged with disaster response, but the scope of the coronavirus pandemic is unlike other disasters, which are usually concentrated in one region or state.

When Trump declared a national emergency and invoked the Stafford Act earlier this month, it triggered FEMA’s involvement in the response. The agency held a supporting role, assisting the Health and Human Services Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, until last Wednesday when it was given the reins on federal operations.

According to multiple sources involved in internal conversations, despite the agency’s comfort level with disaster relief, FEMA was entering the response with no data from HHS—virtually starting from scratch, two weeks too late.

Shortly after FEMA took the lead, the agency still seemed to be gathering data from HHS and developing a plan – to the frustration of some. On a call with businesses over the weekend, one source told CNN that FEMA seemed to be getting organized and moving forward, but there was still no clear streamlined distribution system.

Those concerns continued into this week, as state governors ramped up their calls for medical equipment, desperately urging the federal government to take control of the distribution to calm the competition between states.

FEMA had brought in Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, the vice director of logistics from the office of the Joint Chiefs at the Department of Defense, to handle the supply chain needs when the agency took over. He has won high praise in the West Wing since being brought on to the team. In a briefing with Trump Monday, Polowczyk confirmed the confusion that still remained within the supply chain.

“There are many vendors, many distributors, all on a separate system. Nobody has one sight picture for that supply chain. We’ve brought our industry partners in. We’re weaving that together to make better allocation decisions and understand where it is and where it needs to go,” Polowczyk told reporters.

On Wednesday, a source in regular touch with HHS and FEMA on the distribution of personal protective equipment, told CNN that there were still no answers on how the government planned to play a role in getting what is critically needed to the people who need it.

“To be honest, we’re all a little confused as well,” the source, who asked for anonymity to speak freely on the topic, said. “It’s unclear if the product that is being made available – if it is going into existing supply chain channels, or if it is going to the national stockpile. And we have not been able to get clarity around that yet.”

According to multiple sources working with the agency, there have gradually been improvements in the supply chain.

“We worked very closely with Dr. Peter Navarro at the White House early on in this crisis, and he was helping us to move supply that we identified to areas of the country that most desperately needed it,” said Jay Timmons, the CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“That operation is now being expanded and ramped up by FEMA…In close coordination with Admiral John Polowczyk and his team, we are starting to move these supplies, much more rapidly,” Timmons added.

Trump has argued he doesn’t need to wield the federal powers granted to him by the DPA because signing it alone has spurred companies to willingly produce needed medical supplies. The administration says the same has happened when it comes to distribution.

In the last several weeks, the administration – namely Trump – has repeatedly sowed confusion over whether they are using the emergency act. Trump has said he is, then argued he isn’t, on multiple occasions.

In a governors call with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee urged the administration to nationalize supply and manufacturing, specifically referencing the shortage in swabs, according to two sources familiar with the call. Inslee, a Democrat, encouraged Trump to be a “quarterback” and use his authority, but to no avail, at least for now.