No, all 50 governors shouldn’t try to buy ventilators on their own

The federal government must show leadership, and coordinate hospital supplies such as masks and ventilators.


The federal government must show leadership, and coordinate hospital supplies such as masks and ventilators


As hospitals ready themselves to take on a large influx of COVID-19 patients, they face shortfalls of critical equipment. They’re rationing protective equipment like masks, and they expect to have a shortage of ventilators, which has been a factor in the rising death toll in Italy. 

As many as 100,000 older ventilators in storage could be put into use to help save American lives, but assessing that supply and marshaling the resources to fix and deploy these machines will take a coordinated effort. 

The federal government has resources that the states don’t have to streamline and ramp up ventilator supply, but has been reluctant to take the reins. One reason? Medical equipment industry groups have been lobbying the administration against using the Defense Production Act (DPA) to place orders

On a conference call with governors, when the state executives expressed concerns about accessing ventilators, President Donald Trump responded, “Try getting it yourselves.” During a recent press conference, he added that, “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work … the federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items, and then shipping. We’re not a shipping clerk.” 

Should all 50 governors start calling manufacturers of ventilators and compete against each other, placing orders? No, that’s a terrible idea. That’s the kind of de-organized scrambling for resources that leaves the store aisles empty of toilet paper. 

As Gov. Charlie Baker (MA) pointed out, when he pressed back against the president’s advice, “on three big orders we lost [our bid] to the feds.” We shouldn’t be competing; it’s time to start coordinating. 

Now that the Trump administration has triggered more of its emergency powers, including mobilizing FEMA and the DPA, it has the potential to immediately create a central office to deal with hospital supplies — from coordinating the repair and refurbishing of old ventilators, to placing orders for industry to start new production on masks and other needed equipment. 

A coordinated response could double the number of usable ventilators in the next month, but we need to start now. The Trump administration needs to fully commit to taking leadership of hospital readiness. It should: 

  1. Put our best emergency logistics people in charge: Immediately establish a task force dedicated to overseeing the national supply and distribution of medical supplies for the duration of the novel coronavirus crisis, using the power of the DPA to issue orders, and training health care workers to use ventilators.This task force should work closely with the Defense Logistics Agency to coordinate distribution. 

  2. Build public trust by maintaining transparency and providing regular updates on its work, releasing plans for resource allocation, and communicating clearly with state governments. 

  3. Take charge of production: Embrace the DPA and use it to assess our supplies and immediately issue orders to expand production of essential equipment like ventilators.  

The DPA gives the administration broad powers to take charge, assess supply and begin production quickly. Despite this authority, the White House has said it will not use the DPA to ramp up production of new ventilators and other desperately needed medical supplies. 

“The government should be placing purchasing orders for this equipment and they should know what they are asking for,” Katrina Mulligan, former director for preparedness and response in the National Security Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, now at American Progress, told Politico. “And right now it appears that neither of those things are happening.” 

In neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country, we’re seeing Americans work together for everyone’s benefit in this time of need. We need that to happen at a macro level too, especially when it comes to an issue of the magnitude of having working, lifesaving medical equipment. Instead of having governors compete against each other for ventilators, we need the federal government to step up and take control of the situation. 


Nathan Proctor

Senior Director, Campaign for the Right to Repair, PIRG

Nathan leads U.S. PIRG’s Right to Repair campaign, working to pass legislation that will prevent companies from blocking consumers’ ability to fix their own electronics. Nathan lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.