The nation's top emergency official told lawmakers Wednesday that the U.S. could face shortages of personal protective equipment in areas with climbing Covid-19 cases, calling the reliance on overseas suppliers a "national security issue."
While the U.S. has more face masks, gloves and other PPE now compared with two months ago, a surge in demand in states with growing hospitalizations could cause "micro-shortages," Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor told the House Committee on Homeland Security.
"We're in a much better place than we were coming out of March and April. However, we are not out of the woods completely with PPE," Gaynor said.
Local officials have criticized federal efforts to procure essential protective equipment for health-care workers on the front lines of the pandemic, saying they've been placed into a competition among states, private entities and the U.S. government for critical supplies.
Gaynor told the committee that FEMA is still competing for the equipment, saying that other countries, governors, mayors and tribal leaders are searching for the same supplies. The U.S. doesn't manufacture most of the supplies but instead relies on countries in Asia, including China and Vietnam, to produce the equipment, Gaynor said.
"It's a national security issue," he testified. "PPE and life saving equipment is just as important as building an aircraft carrier. We need to have that capacity here in the United States. We cannot rely on peer competitors to manage our destiny."
The U.S. has made some strides in producing the equipment, but it could take months before the country can manufacture enough PPE to match its demand, specifically for states with growing needs as the outbreak spreads across the Sun Belt, he said.
Later during the hearing, Gaynor said FEMA's current challenge is ensuring hospitals, especially in states like Texas, Arizona, Florida and California, have adequate staffing to care for an increase in Covid-19 patients.
"Getting volunteers from other parts of the country to go down there and help would be helpful to us to increase that bandwidth," he said.
Gaynor applauded President Donald Trump for invoking the Defense Production Act that compelled companies in the U.S. to begin manufacturing items in short supply. Democratic lawmakers had urged Trump to invoke the act, but the president said he would only do so "in a worst case scenario."
Gaynor suggested hospitals and health-care workers report PPE shortages to their local emergency management director or public health director so FEMA can fulfill their requests.
"It is not a light switch, it's more of a rheostat, and we have some distance to travel," he said.
Gaynor also said he "has confidence that we will have enough PPE for today and ... if there's a second wave in the fall."