President Donald Trump is in a rush to be done with the coronavirus. Earlier this week, he said that he hopes to have the country “just raring to go” by Easter. And in a letter he sent to the nation’s governors yesterday, Trump announced that the administration is preparing to release new guidelines for state and local policymakers that may include the relaxing of social distancing. But a review of recent government contracts related to the coronavirus shows the response of federal agencies to the global pandemic is on a much slower timeline.
The president, who has previously predicted that new coronavirus infections will “miraculously” abate as the weather becomes warmer, explained that his aggressive schedule for reopening the country is in keeping with the nation’s character. “Our people are full of vim and vigor and energy,” he explained on a Fox News special.
Health care workers at Elmhurst Hospital and other hospitals throughout New York City, which has just purchased 45 refrigerated trucks to expand its morgue capacity, would no doubt dispute that characterization. Patients are already dying while waiting for beds in overwhelmed hospitals. Because of a shortage of protective gear, health care workers there fear, for good reason, that they will soon be infected with the coronavirus too. Many already have been.
Relaxing stay-at-home orders while the number of infections is still racing upwards could be disastrous, according to public health experts. A report the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington issued yesterday predicts that even with “continued and uninterrupted vigilance by the general public,” the demand for ventilators and beds in hospital intensive care units will begin to far exceed capacity for Covid-19 patients by the second week of April. That’s just around Easter, which falls on the 12th. The report’s authors anticipate that the current wave of deaths from the coronavirus will likely continue into July — again, that’s with the current protections in place. Without them, experts predict, the number of excess coronavirus infections could climb into the millions.
Infectious disease specialists aren’t the only ones on a different timeline than Trump. While the president already seems to be preparing for the end of the crisis, the federal agencies are still gearing up to deal with the beginning of it. Many of the contracts they’ve recently issued for supplies related to the pandemic won’t be awarded until after Easter. And critical supplies are often scheduled to arrive far after that — in some cases, too late to meet the urgent needs.
Consider a $517,352 contract the Veterans Integrated Services Network entered into last week with Fidelis Sustainability Distribution, a Nevada-based emergency supply company. Fidelis will be providing “emergency ventilators,” which are due back on June 10 — almost two months after Easter. Even if they meet the target early, it will be too late for many hospitals that desperately need the breathing machines now.
A federal contract between Veterans Affairs headquarters and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company also reflects a far slower pace than the president’s. That contract, which has a potential value of $11.98 million, is for modeling and consulting related to Covid-19 and is due for completion on June 19. Similarly, two VA contracts related to the virus — one for $3.4 million worth of respiratory protections systems and another for $62,800 worth of operating room gowns — aren’t due to be completed until September 30. Meanwhile, a $172.9 million Department of Health and Human Services contract with 3M for N95 masks related to Covid-19 has October 18, 2021, as its current completion date.
In some cases, such as the emergency shuttle services and rentals of extra beds that the VA just arranged through September, the long timeline will be helpful. Even after infections and deaths peak, likely in the coming weeks, the virus will be with us for months if not years. It will take a minimum of a year to approve a vaccine. And though many possible treatments are now being tested, their development, too, will take time. Much of that work is also being supported by the federal government, which is still in the process of awarding those contracts that have completion dates spread out over the coming months.
The president would have us up and running far before that, of course. Yesterday Trump hinted that his new plan will rely on testing to show the levels of risk in different parts of the country. “Our expanded testing capabilities will quickly enable us to publish criteria, developed in close coordination with the nation’s public health officials and scientists, to help classify counties with respect to continued risks posed by the virus,” he wrote in his letter to the governors.
But after the administration badly bungled coronavirus testing, it’s unclear when the tests will be available to put in this expedited plan. Thankfully, the government has recently entered into several contracts to procure tests for the coronavirus. This week, the FDA approved the emergency use of a rapid coronavirus test that the company Cepheid developed with federal funding. $148,600 of testing equipment the VA ordered from the company is due April 22 — 10 days after Easter. And HHS recently awarded funding to three other companies to develop new coronavirus tests: Qiagen, Mesa Biotech, and DiaSorin Molecular. But the completion dates of those contracts are at the end of April, mid-May, and mid-July.