How did the U.S. end up with nurses wearing garbage bags?

Eventually, thirty-one groups joined the new coalition, and the Web site provided links to organizations with names that tell the sad story of the crisis, from Operation We Can Sew It! to Get Them PPE. The sense of urgency was palpable. “Armageddon was coming in three weeks,” Ries remembers being told. There was a rush to help before early April, when deaths were predicted to peak in New York City and hospitals would potentially be overwhelmed in other hot spots around the country. But there was also a sense of disbelief: Where was the U.S. government? One of the volunteers kept saying, “There’s no way we should be doing this alone,” remembered Jennifer Pahlka, who founded the tech group Code for America, served as deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House, and is now helping with a coronavirus-relief group, U.S. Digital Response, which advised the PPE Coalition. “In our community, we have sweatshirts and T-shirts and stickers that say, ‘No one is coming. It’s up to us.’ It’s really hard when they actually realize that’s true. It’s terrifying.” For ten days running, Ries was told that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would step in and take charge of distributing critical supplies, directing them to where they were most needed, but, as far as he could tell, it never happened. Kushner and his team had embedded at FEMA, along with a Navy rear admiral, John Polowczyk, to oversee the supply-chain crisis, but Ries managed only to speak with an aide to the admiral.

Eventually, at a White House briefing last week that will surely go down as one of the Administration’s most callous performances, Kushner said publicly what he had in effect told Ries’s Silicon Valley contacts a couple weeks earlier, in a private phone call with business leaders and government officials: the states were responsible, and the U.S. national stockpile was ours, not theirs. The President agreed. Governors should have prepared their states while there was still time. “We’re a backup. We’re not an ordering clerk,” Trump said at the same news conference.

For two weeks, Ries and his fellow-volunteers had believed that it was only a matter of time until the federal government came to the rescue. They planned to serve as a bridge for the desperate states and cities that started calling their hotline as soon as it was up and running, but, eventually, the federal government would take care of it, because isn’t that what the federal government is supposed to do? “We see ourselves like a backstop,” Joe Wilson, a prominent venture capitalist working with Ries on the PPE Coalition, told me. “We are like the Plan C or the Plan D. Like, if x, y, z don’t happen, then, sure, this network will be valuable. This is what we told people. Now it’s clear we are on Plan C or Plan D.”

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