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Senators Question Administration About COVID-19 Supply Chain

June 12, 2020

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Christa Wagner, Senior Legislative Analyst
Tannaz Rasouli, Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee questioned Trump administration officials on the federal government’s procurement operations and strategies to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE), testing supplies, and other critical resources in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a June 9 hearing, Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.) pointed out the importance of conducting oversight of the federal government’s response to COVID-19, particularly regarding the distribution of resources, to address shortcomings and establish the government to be better prepared for future pandemics.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) asked Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, MD, how the federal government distributes machines, materials, and reagents required for SARS-CoV-2 testing.

Giroir testified that for swabs, transport media, and other supplies where the market is fragmented with multiple small producers, the federal government is purchasing and then distributing materials to states. Giroir said he anticipates that the government will continue these operations at least through the end of the calendar year.

“For other markets that are more mature, what we're doing is matching the supplies that are in the market to the [capabilities of the] states,” Giroir added, cautioning that not every new technology, such as newer testing machines, will be available immediately to any entity that requests it. 

Responding to concerns from governors about a lack of coordination regarding supply distribution, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) requested that federal agencies work together to develop a strategic framework delineating the expected roles for the federal government versus state governments in order to be better prepared when facing future pandemics.

Giroir said the current working framework “was built while we were flying the airplane, but I think now is a good time to look back and make sure that's precisely right in what we need.” What is needed, he explained, is an overall framework strategy of how federal agencies and state governments work together moving forward, particularly in diagnostics.

Chairman Johnson discussed the rationale and importance of having less than 10% of SARS-CoV-2 tests showing positive results. Giroir explained that the 10% positivity rate is a widely accepted metric that is also used by the World Health Organization, which indicates that sufficient tests are available for a given population, providing a state or locality information about outbreak size and allowing for better-informed decision making about reopening. Giroir added that the United States currently has a nationwide positivity rate of 5.8%, with only one state and Washington, D.C., above the 10% threshold.

Vice Director for Logistics with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Rear Adm. John Polowcyzk was asked about the capacity for domestic production of PPE. Polowcyzk testified that the Defense Production Act (DPA) has been used to increase production of N95 masks “from 30-40 million masks a month to 180 million masks a month.” Polowcyzk also testified that the DPA will likely be utilized to increase domestic output of nitrile gloves.

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