America has the best health-care system in the world, but as we brace for COVID-19’s ongoing effects, we’re faced with the stark reality that we almost certainly will need even more bold and decisive national action to save lives. We have approximately 45,000 beds in intensive care units across America and about 160,000 ventilators — essential goods for saving lives, but not nearly enough if the scale of the pandemic grows to mirror or exceed our international peers.
I think often of the brave surgeons, doctors, nurses, technicians, and medical administrative staff who are truly on the front lines of the fight for life against the ravages of the Wuhan coronavirus. Our health-care providers, much like our brave warriors in the U.S. Marine Corps, will be the “first in and last out” in our mission to save as many grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers as possible.
While vulnerable populations undoubtedly face the greatest risk, otherwise-healthy young people who catch the virus also require essential medical resources such as ventilators to a concerning degree. James Cai, a 32-year-old physician assistant with no underlying health conditions, was the first patient to be diagnosed with COVID-19 in New Jersey. Cai nearly died and required a ventilator to breathe and recover.
Ventilators in situations like Cai’s can be required sometimes for days or even weeks. Young people are not immune to the effects of this virus, and we know from the experience of other nations that rationing and the unavailability of essential resources may hit us like a tsunami.
The Italian experience has been disheartening and frightening, and I feel deeply for my friends on the ground there. New cases continue to be announced, and the death toll is increasing. In Italy, emergency rationing means patients are being denied care. In fact, the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care recently published guidelines explicitly calling for denying essential treatments on the basis of age.
If you think that can’t happen here, return to the simple numbers. A 2005 federal government report anticipated that in the event of a pandemic similar to the Spanish flu a century ago, the United States would need as many as 740,000 ventilators to treat all patients. Our beds in intensive care units, as well as many of the ventilators we do have, are already often in use.
Even if we escape the worst of COVID-19, America may well require tens or even hundreds of thousands more ventilators than we have at present. We need bold and decisive action beyond economic reassurances in this time of national uncertainty and shutdown. President Trump recently instructed governors to obtain their own ventilators, which is heartening. But the president must do all he can to ensure these life-saving devices are available.
We must avoid the sort of utilitarian health-care rationing and the resulting needless suffering and death that the Italians are now imposing in certain areas. We can avoid the specter of rationing today, but we need Trump and congressional leaders to unite and mobilize the power of American industry.
I applaud Trump for his courageous choice to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) to mitigate shortages of vital medical equipment such as ventilators. This important step allows us to mitigate medical supply chain disruptions.
To have a real impact, Trump must in addition use his executive power to mandate the rapid production of ventilators by major corporations, which should redirect their production capacities to respond directly to the current crisis. Some corporations are already doing this, but there is no greater pro-life imperative in this moment than an effective national response to COVID-19.
Trump’s bold action is welcomed bipartisanship after 57 members of Congress, all progressive Democrats, urged him to invoke DPA powers. The next steps are perhaps even more important, however, for mitigating potential shortages. I urge the president to set specific and measurable goals for the production of critical medical supplies.
Separately from Trump’s invocation of DPA powers, the Pentagon announced it would be making 2,000 ventilators available for civilian use. This is great news, but it underscores the degree of potential crisis; we might require not thousands but hundreds of thousands of ventilators across the country. Trump can ensure this need is met using his DPA powers, and I hope his White House team acts urgently.
As Americans have bailed out essential industries in historical and modern times of crisis, we need them to come alongside our already beleaguered health-care professionals and equip them with the weapons they need in the fight that is already here. We need to take our destiny into our own hands.
America’s emergency rooms tend to be overcrowded and under-resourced, even in normal times. We’re not ready for the Wuhan virus, but united, we win. Our leaders and corporations must respond in this monumental moment.