Warren sends letter to Trump: Deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to build makeshift hospitals; Update: Hospital ship sent to NY; Update: Trump invokes Defense Production Act

This is largely a political stunt, of course. Andrew Cuomo has already asked for help from the ACE. Mark Esper was on Fox last night promising that New York, which faces the most urgent crisis right now, is first in line. Coincidentally, Warren also wants funding for the Corps’ activities to come from the money Trump commandeered to build the border wall, a thumb in the eye to the president but also a shrewd way to see if he’s willing to sacrifice some of his own priorities to support the national effort against coronavirus. (Presumably he’ll say that we need the wall more than ever now to keep infected Mexicans out.)

It’s not even clear that the Corps, specifically, is needed more so than military manpower generally. Vox notes that the sort of work Warren has in mind, like retrofitting existing military facilities to serve as hospitals, can probably be carried out by the National Guard under ACE oversight.

So why is Warren doing this today when the gears are already beginning to turn on ACE involvement? Answer: She’s capitalizing on this depressing NYT story published last night, which found that the Corps — along with many other federal agencies — still hasn’t received any official marching orders from Trump yet.

Yet despite promises of a “whole of government” effort, key agencies — like the Army Corps of Engineers, other parts of the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs — had not been asked to play much of a role.

Even after Mr. Trump committed to supporting the states on Tuesday, the Army Corps of Engineers said it still had not received direction from the administration…

Hospital ships are at port. The Department of Veterans Affairs, legally designated as the backup health care system in national emergencies, awaits requests for help. The veterans department has a surplus of beds in many of its 172 hospital centers and a robust number of special rooms for patients with breathing disorders.

The sprawling system of emergency doctors and nurses ready to be deployed by the Department of Health and Human Services — known as the National Disaster Medical System — is also still waiting for orders, other than to staff locations where passengers offloaded from cruise ships are being quarantined.

And the Defense Department, home to 1.3 million active-duty troops and a civilian and military infrastructure that has made planning for national emergencies almost an art form, has yet to be deployed to its fullest capabilities.

It’s unfair to expect perfect efficiency from the feds at a moment when they’re having to scramble to mitigate a once-in-a-lifetime epidemic and bail out the entire economy. The U.S. didn’t hit back at Japan the day after Pearl Harbor; men had to be mobilized, plans had to be laid, money had to be raised. It was more than six months until Midway. Things don’t happen overnight in a national crisis.

But to say that we can’t fault the administration for not deploying the ACE in early January, when most of the western world still considered coronavirus a hypothetical threat, isn’t to say that we can’t fault them for still not having deployed the ACE now, with NYC about to be overrun. Governors were asking for federal help weeks ago, notes the NYT. Oregon requested 400,000 N95 masks on March 3 and finally received a shipment of 36,000 a few days ago. New York requested two million and got 76,000 — all expired. The possibility of a ventilator shortage in a worst-case scenario was perfectly foreseeable many weeks ago. Why not contract with manufacturers at the time to get the ball rolling on that, knowing that even if the threat abated and the ventilators weren’t necessary, it’d be worth having them in the national stockpile?

As I write this, Team Trump apparently still hasn’t placed those orders or invoked the Defense Production Act to cut red tape and allow manufacturers to ramp up production quickly without the usual regulatory hurdles. Per HuffPost, the feds could also charter planes to help transport material needed for manufacture now that supply chains have slowed down. But maybe it’s too late. Companies that build custom-made parts for ventilators are already overtaxed by global demand, which will slow down how quickly they can supply U.S. manufacturers even if planes are available. It would be nice at least to have thousands of new machines online this fall in anticipation of the “second wave” of the disease. Better late than never! But it’s too late already to help people hit by the first wave:

As the United States braces for an onslaught of coronavirus cases, hospitals and governments are confronting a grim reality: There are not nearly enough lifesaving ventilator machines to go around, and there is no way to solve the problem before the disease reaches full throttle.

Desperate hospitals say they can’t find anywhere to buy the medical devices, which help patients breathe and can be the difference between life and death for those facing the most dire respiratory effects of the coronavirus.

American and European manufacturers say they can’t speed up production enough to meet soaring demand, at least not anytime soon.

The epidemic’s going to go on for 18 months, with multiple waves, according to the feds’ latest projections. We should … probably put those orders in now, no? This crisis doesn’t need to be a total managerial failure, just a grand-scale one.

Ventilators aren’t even the most desperate shortage. Patients dying en masse because care needs to be rationed is a nightmare; doctors and nurses getting infected en masse because they lack masks and other protective gear is a Biblical nightmare since that means the amount of care available will actively shrink. I haven’t seen anything lately news-wise about a burst in production that suggests that shortage will be solved in time.

Here’s Esper last night on Fox assuring views of the military’s readiness to help out. New York City is reportedly already looking at the Javits convention center and potentially Madison Square Garden to house coronavirus patients once local hospitals run out of capacity.

Update: We have some movement.

The Vox piece linked up top stresses that hospital ships are obviously primed for battlefield injuries, not for pandemics and quarantines. The plan in New York, in all likelihood, will be to have actual hospitals focusing more heavily on coronavirus while sending patients who need treatment for other reasons to the ship.

Update: More movement at 12:10 p.m. ET:

FEMA’s coordinating center has also now been activated. That NYT story seems to have shaken things up.