Another important realization was that FEMA could do just-in-time delivery. It could get states and hospitals ventilators within 24 or 48 hours. This created a lot of flexibility. The administration could wait to see how things really played out rather than making decisions based on models that forecast what the demand might be two weeks in the future. “When you started looking at it like that,” the official says, “the numbers went down dramatically.”

And this is the key thing: The strategy was based on not sending states what they requested on their say-so. That was the opposite of the normal FEMA operating procedure. Usually, state and counties ask for things in a natural disaster, and FEMA sends them along as a matter of course. With an epidemic threatening the entire country, that way of doing things would have exhausted the federal resources immediately.

This also meant that much of the press coverage get it exactly backward. The media portrayed as an inherent failure the fact that the administration gave states a portion of their requests. (“Trump sent Arizona a fraction of the ventilators it sought,” a Vox headline said. “Republicans still framed it as a big win.”) In reality, not giving governors what they wanted was integral to the success of the overall operation.