April 22, 2020

Udall, other Senators want investigations over Trump administration’s COVID-19 response

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Gage Skidmore

President Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland Flickr cc

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall joined nine other U.S. Senators in a letter asking for investigations into the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response regarding distribution of medical equipment, and whether it has been impacted by political considerations.

The Democratic Senators, led by Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, wrote the letter to Joseph V. Cuffari, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Christi Grimm, the Principal Deputy Inspector General at the Office of the Inspector General.

The letter said that states around the country, including New Mexico, face shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and says that a cohesive, national strategy is needed to allocate the equipment where it is needed.

The federal government had a stockpile of PPE and other medical equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The Trump administration moved oversight of the stockpile from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Health and Human Services Department, under the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, in 2018. FEMA is in charge of distribution during a national emergency.

The letter says that, while the stockpile is largely depleted, the federal government continues to procure equipment and supplies and so knowing how they are distributed remains important.

“The distribution of SNS supplies during the coronavirus crisis has been slow and

inconsistent, raising questions as to how decisions are made to distribute items from the

Stockpile,” the letter states. “To date, Massachusetts, which was one of the first states hit by COVID-19, has received only a fraction of its request for PPE and other medical supplies from the SNS, while Florida received the full quantity of supplies within three days of its first request

and also received the full quantity of a second order.”

The letter said that shifting distribution protocols has led to confusion and suspicion among states of the rationale for the changes.

The letter cites Trump saying that governors should be “appreciative” of help and when Trump tweeted that he was sending ventilators to Colorado after a request from U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most in-danger Republicans in this year’s elections.

Another issue is the private public partnership of “Project Airbridge.” This project allows private medical suppliers to have freight airlifted by FEMA instead of traveling by ocean freight. Upon arrival in the United states, HHS and FEMA are supposed to direct half to “hotspots” while the remainder can go into the supply chain as normal.

This is yet another aspect of the federal response that needs transparency, according to the senators, especially with the involvement of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser.

The letter says, “According to news reports, President Trump is able to exercise influence over the supply chain through his close relationship with Mr. Kushner. The Washington Post has reported that ‘Decisions are made by FEMA, but recommendations sometimes come from Trump, Vice President Pence, Kusnher and others based on their interactions with states.’”