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Trump Invokes Defense Production Act To Ramp Up Production Of Hospital Masks, Protective Gear; NY Governor: Fed Government Needs To Do More To Help Fight Virus Pandemic Which Is A "War". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2020 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Or at least could drastically help make up for medical supply shortages.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the U.S. braces for an onslaught of coronavirus cases, CNN has obtained a 100-page federal report that shows the government is planning for a pandemic that could last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.


(voice-over): This is President Trump announced he's invoking the Defense Production Act to increase supplies of medical equipment.

TRUMP: We'll be invoking the Defense Production Act, just in case we need it.

(voice-over): For weeks, hospitals have warned they're running dangerously low on ventilators, asked why he waited so long to invoke the Act that allows private companies to ramp up production if he knew the life-saving machines were in short supply. Trump said this.

(on camera): But you knew for weeks we needed more ventilators, so why did it take so long?

TRUMP: Well, we knew. It depends? It depends on how it goes. Worst case? Absolutely. Best case, not, not at all. So we're going to have to see where it goes.

(voice-over): Hospitals also say they need more staff to deal with the crash of cases. The White House announced a new rule today that will allow doctors and other medical professionals to work across state lines. As the administration works out a stimulus bill with Capitol Hill, Trump added, he'll suspend foreclosures and evictions on homeowners until at least the end of next month.

TRUMP: We're working very closely with Dr. Ben Carson, then everybody from HUD. (voice-over): The President also confirmed, he'll impose emergency border controls to turn back asylum seekers and other foreigners attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico illegally during the outbreak.

TRUMP: The answer is yes.

(voice-over): The President says, the coronavirus will require a response not seen since World War II. And says he views himself as a Wartime President.

TRUMP: Yes. I look at it, I view it as a, in a sense a wartime president I mean, that's what we're fighting.

(voice-over): Trump added, he's preparing to deploy two Navy hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy to New York City and the West Coast.

TRUMP: They're the big white ships with a red cross on the sides.

(voice-over): But the Pentagon says, one of them could be weeks away from deploying. And the ships won't be used to treat coronavirus patients, only those suffering other illnesses in order to help hospitals that are treating those with coronavirus.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, we should note the Secretary of Defense was in that briefing today and he said that the Pentagon is going to free up 5 million of those protective masks and 2,000 ventilators as we're experiencing clearly what hospitals say is a shortage of them.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much.

Let's bring in Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. President Trump announced today, we have just covered, he's invoking the Defense Production Act that will ramp up the production of medical supplies, hospital mask protective gear, what numbers and goals are we talking about?

I know that you talked about 5 million masks in the Pentagon stockpiles, 2,000 ventilators, when will those be able to be delivered to hospitals and emergency rooms?

MARK ESPER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, thank you, Jake, first of all for having me on your show

What the DOD has done is made available to HHS and the interagency, a number of things whether it's personnel, capability, equipment for the agency, interagency to deal with this national health emergency. So we've offered up to 5 million respirators, as you mentioned, but also other personal protective equipment such as gowns and masks.

We've also offered up 2,000 ventilators to be used in hospitals, and then other pieces of equipment. We've opened up our labs, 15 labs presently that conduct -- that can conduct testing of samples and return them back to the states and localities. So we're pushing on a number of fronts to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help keep the American people safe.

TAPPER: Any timelines on how quickly these ventilators and masks can get to the frontlines of this war against coronavirus?

ESPER: We made that all available to HHS immediately, certainly with regard to the masks, 1 million immediately. Everything else is available as quickly as we can move it out of our stocks and deliver it.

And there are other things, other areas where we are working, pushing hard with the interagency. So for example, yesterday, I was at Fort Detrick, Maryland where the Army's premier Infectious Diseases Program is located and they are busy working on both vaccines and therapeutics to deal with the COVID-19 disease.

TAPPER: Will service members also be helping out with manufacturing in any way?

ESPER: Not necessarily manufacturing. But one of the things that our medical specialists can do up at Fort Detrick is to help the process with regard to clinical studies, trials, and the actual manufacturing development, the prototype development, if you will. So they're leaning forward on that front also with regard to advanced testing machines to improve the throughput of test samples that come through.

TAPPER: And as Kaitlan mentioned in her piece, the President talked about these two hospital ships that will be deployed to help overwhelmed with medical facilities, one will be deployed in New York, one to the west coast.

Now, we understand that staff on the ships will not be treating coronavirus patients. So is it correct to say that these ships are going to become something like floating emergency rooms for other medical issues so as to alleviate the surge of coronavirus patients on other hospitals?


ESPER: Yes, you have to keep in mind and I've had this discussion with my colleagues in the interagency, I've talked to several governors as well, that DOD capabilities quite naturally are built for trauma. And so when you look at our field hospitals, another capability that we have offered up as well, or these hospital ships, they are geared to toward wartime trauma, think broken bones and head injuries and lacerations and things like that.

So as I've spoken to some of the governors, what I said to them is, what we can do is provide a capability that we can deliver on site, near sight of a civilian hospital, we could take care of your trauma patients, so that you could open up more rooms for patients with the COVID-19 because what they require are special rooms that are sequestered that have other capabilities that we don't necessarily have available to us in our field hospitals and on these ships.

So it's a way of opening up rooms. It's a different approach. But we want to make all that available so that we're doing everything we can to help the American people.

TAPPER: How soon do you think these hospital ships will be deployed to New York and to the West Coast?

ESPER: They're both in a different status at the President's direction, we have alerted them. The Comfort which is on East Coast should be ready in a couple weeks plus. The Mercy which is on the West Coast should be ready in a week and a half, two weeks. So definitely before the end of this month, the Mercy will deploy.

So we're moving everything we can to do that. A challenge is making sure that they're properly staffed. That means in both cases, each ship has over 1,000 medical professionals so we need to get them alerted to on the ships and then start steaming to the respective locations.

TAPPER: Are there any discussions of the Pentagon also opening up preexisting military hospitals across the country or even constructing for want of a better term, mash units where they might be needed in cities, again, to alleviate the surge of patients that the hospitals and emergency rooms will be experiencing.

ESPER: You know, Jake, we have 36 military treatment facilities around the country in the United States. Those are filled with DOD patient service members right now. They have some bed space, but we obviously have to keep some cushion for planning for an emergency.

But what we have offered up are, what I mentioned, those filled hospitals that those filled expeditionary hospitals. Those provide the same functions as a hospital ships, we can fill them fairly quickly. We can provide hospital beds, and we can provide doctors, nurses, equipment, all those things you need. But again, they're geared toward trauma. And what we can do is to create space in local hospitals, by peeling off their trauma patients and putting them through our field hospitals.

TAPPER: So setting up in a hotel near a hospital or setting up in a mobile unit in a parking lot in your hospital to help them alleviate?

ESPER: We could do all that. We could set it up in an open field. And we can process patients through there, whatever makes most sense that's most convenient for the governor's. Again, those conversations I'm having, that my team is having.

Now, I think you mentioned the Army Corps of Engineers, I've dispatch them up to New York today to meet with Governor Cuomo's team. He and I had a good conversation yesterday. What they're looking at is how can they use their contracting functions, their great project oversight to look at spaces that the state is clearing, and then reconfiguring, renovating those rooms to enable to put patients in whether it's running additional airlines or electric electrical lines, all those things we need to do to present open up space, bed space, room space, for COVID-19 patients.

TAPPER: I just want to make sure I understand correctly because there's a difference -- in terms of the discussion on masks because there's obviously a big difference between just like a surgical mask and what's called an N95 respiratory mask, which really protects you or a doctor or whomever, construction workers, from damaging viruses or anything else in the air, these 5 million masks that you're making available to the Department of Health and Human Services, these are N95 masks, right?

ESPER: Yes, those are N95 masks that we're pulling from our strategic stockpile. A million are available right now. HHS, we are working closely with them to make sure we can get them to the right points and get them distributed.

TAPPER: Now, you know, there's this New York Times report that Oregon and New York City requested and received some of these N95 masks from the government, but they only got a fraction of what they requested. And the masks they got had all expired. Do you know when the Pentagon's, the military's N95 masks expire? Are you making sure that they're usable?

ESPER: Well, we have to go through the same processes to make sure our stocks are current that we have, we've had those challenges where we have to cycle stock in and out. But we're going through all that and we will make sure that we provide, of course, ready available masks to HHS. And then HHS is the point right now through which these are distributed around the country based on need.

TAPPER: How will they be distributed, the mask? I mean, I know you said you make the HHS Department of Health and Human Services aware that they're ready. I mean, does somebody drive them from the Pentagon? Does somebody tell the tell HHS, they're in these facilities, how does exactly does it work? I mean 5 million masks or even 1 million masks, that's a lot of material.


ESPER: Look, we have the means to move them our self, of course, whether it's by ground or by air. HHS has other means as well. But our key thing is get them to where they need them on time. That's our commitment.

TAPPER: How long might it take to get them to the frontlines?

ESPER: For DOD, it's a matter of days for us to get into HHS or to get him to the point of distribution.

TAPPER: New York, Governor Cuomo, as you mentioned, you talked about the Army Corps of Engineers meeting with the government of New York, the engineers told CNN that no formal request had been made in terms of the Army Corps building these temporary hospitals. Has that now change?

ESPER: I have not seen a formal request. But frankly, that doesn't matter to me. We're leaning into this. We're going to stay ahead of the curve. We're not going to let paperwork get in the way. I called the governor yesterday, we had a good conversation.

I told him yesterday afternoon that I have the Corps of Engineers up in Albany today and they are there in the state, they're meeting with his team, and they're discussing a variety of ways and proposals by which we can help them out. If we can help them out, we certainly will.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about the 49 U.S. service members who have now been treated for coronavirus. And in addition, there's a number of contractors and other Pentagon employees. How are they doing? How are they being treated? Are any of them critical?

ESPER: They're doing well. We are giving them all the proper care and attention that they require. I called two of them yesterday and chatted with them one here in Virginia, the other one out on the west coast. They were in good spirits, the chain of command was checking in on them, and they were faring well.

The good thing about DOD, at least with our uniform population, is they're generally young and robust and healthy. And they're enduring this fairly well. But we watch everybody carefully. And as you know that we have not just service members, but we got family members, we got beneficiaries. And so we were taking care of our entire population, that's one of my first priorities.

TAPPER: And, as you know better than I, active duty military typically work and live in very close quarters whether in a barracks or even on a base. How are you making sure these cases don't quickly spread and what kind of investigations are going on in terms of how they contracted the virus?

ESPER: Yes, we're doing all that. We're very judiciously, we're exercising as many precautions as we can, you know. Here in DOD which is not a deployed unit, we're doing everything from social distancing to wiping down doorknobs and desktops.

I actually do video teleconferences with my deputy and the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff from separate offices just to keep that distance. But the units are doing the same to the best they can, in some cases, for example, on shipboard, you really can't achieve that.

So we treat ships in some cases as units. And before they go into another port, we make sure there's 14 days at sea so that we don't we don't have a spread with the onboard a ship and then transmitted ashore if we -- if they go portside. So that's happening in all the services, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. We're taking every precaution we can but mission comes first. And we're focused on those two things.

TAPPER: Last question, and I do appreciate your time. And I do appreciate your coming and answering all my questions. This all sounds great. I don't know that it will be enough. But it all sounds like a very important step. Shouldn't the President have invoked the Defense Production Act like in February?

ESPER: Well, I don't know the timing of all these different things, Jake. We've been putting our plans into place. The President has a great team that's helping him from across the interagency. A lot of very smart people who have been through this before. And he's making some pretty sharp decisions, bold decisions, to make sure that we stay ahead of this or take every precaution we need to protect the American people.

TAPPER: All right. Well, we all of course, wish you the best with this mission to you and your servicemen and women. Thank you so much, sir.

ESPER: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up ahead to CNN investigation, even as officials promise there are more tests out there. Some labs say they don't have the materials to run the tests once they get the swabs. One health experts saying, they're even scraping together supplies from flu tests. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back. We are back with our health lead and our coverage of the coronavirus pandemic worldwide and what President Trump is calling a war against an invisible enemy.

And as CNN's Erica Hill reports, that characterization is something that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo fully agreed with today.


GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): The president and I agree, this is a war. And we're in the same trench.

ERICA HILL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As New York announces at least 2,300 confirmed cases, the most in the nation and a jump of a thousand in just one day, Governor Cuomo taking new measures to combat the spread.

CUOMO: I'm asking all businesses to work from home. But today, we are announcing a mandatory statewide requirement that no business can have more than 50 percent of their workforce report to work outside of their home.

HILL: The executive order exempts essential services including first responders, health care workers, pharmacies, and food delivery. About 20 percent of the New York cases require hospitalization, making the need for additional beds increasingly urgent. President Trump responding today.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're sending, upon request, the two hospital ships, they're being prepared right now.

HILL: The navy ships will be sent to New York and the West Coast. Multiple states also putting out an urgent call for nurses as the virus is now confirmed in all 50 states, West Virginia being the last. SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): We've got hospitals closing in rural areas

because of a lack of economic vitality to keep them open. We shouldn't close any hospitals right now. We don't know what's going to be needed.

HILL: Meantime, life continues to change. The border with Canada closed to all nonessential travel.


Across northern California, nearly 8 million Americans now told to shelter in place. And in Kansas, children will be home for the remainder of the school year.

GOV. LAURA KELLY (D-KS): Unprecedented circumstances threaten the safety of our students and the professionals who work with them every day, and we must respond accordingly.

HILL: More confirmed cases across the sports world. The Ottawa Senators the first in the NHL to announce a player has tested positive. The entire team has to isolate.

And after four Brooklyn Nets players including star Kevin Durant tested positive, an NBA source telling CNN it's, quote, crazy more teams haven't tested players.

Meantime, pressure growing to cancel or postpone the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

In Florida, defiant beachgoers causing alarm around the country while officials stress this is only the beginning.

GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER (D-MI): I hear people say certain age groups are immune, I know this. In Michigan we have a 5-year-old that has tested positive for coronavirus. This is a situation that impacts everyone in every age group and I implore people to take this seriously.


HILL: And in terms of taking it seriously, as I know you've heard from multiple officials, Jake, there is a real stress at the state level to get a handle on the medical need.

And we heard from HHS today that they're actually going to be putting out a regulation, Jake, that would allow physicians and medical professionals to work across state lines to meet the upcoming need.

TAPPER: All right. They'll probably need to do more than that. They probably need to bring back retired physicians, and nurses, and nurse practitioners, and even deputized interns and more.

Erica Hill, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Let's bring in Michael Osterholm. He's the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. We should point that Mr. Osterholm has been warning the United States for decades that we're ill-prepared for a situation like this.

Mr. Osterholm, you started warning the United States about potential biological warfare in the '90s, then in the early 2000s, you started talking about how the U.S. is not prepared for a pandemic.

Are we better off now than we were when you started warning us?

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH & POLICY, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Actually we're not. That's the sad commentary. One of the key elements in responding to a pandemic like this is having a robust and capable health care system, along with a robust private sector that can make the kind of drugs and so forth we need. And in each instance, the health care system today has no excess capacity whatsoever, not even the ability to stockpile masks and so forth that we need, and the private sector all just in time delivery. So, again, we're not going to see a bolus of what we need coming down the pike.

TAPPER: Well, that's terrifying. And let me ask you, I want to get your reaction to some breaking news, there's a report from Italian health officials saying that on average, people in Italy, people who die from the coronavirus, are dying eight days after they first show symptoms. What does that suggest about the timeline we may face here in the United States?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, the timeline for dying is very different than the timeline for new cases. And China, many of the patients didn't die until the second or third week after their onset.

But every day beyond the day of onset that they need a hospital bed, it just ties that many more up. And this is why we're not only talking about the number of patients coming to the hospital needing care but the fact that many of them will be there three weeks or more in intensive care. So that's a real challenge.

TAPPER: We heard the Trump administration describe new steps they're taking to combat the virus today, including invoking the Defense Production Act to make more medical gear, sending two hospital ships to New York, deploying 5 million new masks. You just heard the secretary of defense talking about some of that.

What else does the Trump administration and local and state governments, what else do we need to be doing?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, we have to have straight talk right now. Let's go through that list. The Defense Production Act is a cosmetic event. Already, all the companies that could make the protective equipment we need have been making for several months 24/7. So, we have no additional benefit there. There's nothing magic that's going to happen with this.

To get a new plant up to manufacture N95 masks takes years, it's not going to happen overnight. As far as the Defense Department, we welcome any help we can get, but we need several hundred million N95 respirators, we're short of right now, just to meet the minimal care that we think is going to be required. Two million is a great number, but that's like trying to fill the sphere (ph) with a garden hose.

So, I think that we just want right now is straight talk. What are we going to really do that's going to make a difference, and if it doesn't make a difference, then how are we going to get through?

And I think that's what health care workers want to hear right now about what they're going to be able to do, how they're going to be protected.

You also mentioned bringing back retired doctors and nurses, that's not a good idea.


And the reason I say that is as much as they can help and they surely want to help, they're the very same people who are at the highest risk, if they do get infected, of having a very bad illness themselves. And if you can't protect them at the hospital because we don't have the gear, I don't want to see them become the next casualty line that we're going to have to deal with.

TAPPER: Well, obviously, we don't want to bring them back if they don't have protective gear, it's an excellent point.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who is leading the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said the information they're getting from younger companies shows that younger people, such as millennials, Generation Z, may be at greater risk than previously thought, she noted there were cases of millennials being sent to the intensive care unit with coronavirus in France and Italy.

This is not just contracting it. This is being sent to the intensive care unit. How might that change the calculus for how the U.S. deals with the virus?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, these cases are obviously very tragic. I mean, we know, for example, the young Chinese physician who first indexed this outbreak in China on the Internet died as a result of his infection. I would just be a little cautious in interpreting these because each death, as tragic as it is, there are many, many individuals in this age group getting infected.

So, unlike in China were 10 to 12 percent of those over 65 who smoked and were male died, this still may be a situation where one out of every thousand or more infected die. But I want to make it very clear -- yes, young adults are vulnerable to this, not only getting infected but also, rarely but nonetheless very importantly, having a very, very atmosphere illness and potentially death.

TAPPER: And Ron Klain, who was the Ebola czar during the Obama administration, he said on CNN today that some hospitals will start reaching their breaking points as soon as this weekend.

Do you agree with that? OSTERHOLM: Absolutely. I think Ron's assessment is right on the mark.

And the thing that I think is also being missed, that's this weekend. As you talked about in the lead-in to this segment, we're talking about potentially 12 or 18 months of this. And so, while we have to plan each day's battle, as has been said, this is a war. We've got a number of days of battle to do. So we have to figure out now how we're going to get these hospitals through, not just today, not this week, not next week, but potentially months of being under siege with these cases.

TAPPER: All right, Michael Osterholm, we always appreciate your expertise, thank you so much. Good to see you again, sir.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you, Jake. Good to talk to you again.

TAPPER: Health officials are scraping together supplies. Why coronavirus tests does not mean labs can process them all. It's a CNN investigation and it's next.

Stay with us.