Massachusetts hospitals are preparing for a surge of coronavirus patients in the next few days, and so far the Baker administration has received only 100 of the 1,000 ventilators it requested from the federal government. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with former Department of Homeland Security official and WGBH News contributor Juliette Kayyem to discuss the federal government's response to the pandemic. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: So just to be clear, this could have been handled differently, yes? There have been a lot of questions. People ask is there a law saying states are on their own, the federal government is a backup, like the president says, or how should we be bidding against the feds?
Juliette Kayyem: No, this is all wrong. Let's just be clear here. There is a plan. The plan has been trained, exercised and executed before. In Homeland, we call it unity of effort rather than chain of command, which tends to be more the way you think about military efforts. It is getting the different governance structures — a mayor, a governor and a president — to work together to do what they each do best. So Boston is executing the plan, that's our front line. Massachusetts coordinates what's needed throughout the state, so that's what the governor does and what he's doing. Then the federal government supports where there's gaps, and here, obviously, there are gaps. The notion of two different response mechanisms, one coming from the White House and one coming from the states, is not only constitutionally odd from the perspective of Homeland Security, it's just not how it's done. The president has made up this idea that the states are responsible alone and should be in competition with each other, which is the most outrageous part.
Mathieu: So we're in a world here, then, where the federal government is buying gear from places including China and then going through a third party to essentially bid them out to states. Who's making money here on this?
Kayyem: A variety of people are making money. So obviously, basically the seller. It's a seller's market right now, whether that's a private company [or] a foreign company. And this is what's — of the many things — inexplicable in terms of President Trump's response. His failure to invoke the Defense Production Act, the statute that provides purchasing power for the federal government to support a Homeland Security effort, is so harmful. And the reason isn't simply because we need to manufacture things, which is clearly out there, but what we're seeing is that there is a lot of things — masks [and] gloves — that are already in the market. The problem is because it's a seller's market are essentially just raising prices so that the highest bidder, in this case the Fed, can come in and swoop in. The Defense Production Act caps the ability of companies to do that at fair market value. That makes a lot of sense. So everything is sort of backwards, and so when you hear that things aren't working, it's not that there wasn't a plan or a playbook, it's that it's been ignored during these processes. That's why governors — Republican and Democrat — are so surprised because they've been trained for the plan. They know how it's supposed to work, and then all of a sudden you have this sort of Jared Kushner or Donald Trump more commercially-driven approach to manufacturing and production.
Mathieu: So do you think we get the other thousand ventilators we're due?
Kayyem: I think what's happening, and this is what I've been writing about in the Atlantic, is we don't have many options. So what you're starting to see is what I call a failsafe system kick in. This happens a lot in disaster management. When something falls apart, you figure out ways to fill the gap. It's not ideal, but it's not nothing. So what you're starting to see across the states is California leading a consortium of other states to try to get masks and ventilators. New York contracted with Oregon to get what they needed because Oregon is now on the other side of the curve. Governor Baker here in Massachusetts deals directly with China, essentially bypassing the federal government, and then commissions a private plane to get the stuff here. It's not ideal. You might think this is American ingenuity. This takes so much time, effort and money at a time when government entities should be focused on saving lives because the rest of the stuff is, as I say, the easy stuff. Supply chains and logistics are easy. The White House has stepped in to make it much harder.
Mathieu: We only have a minute left, but indeed, the headline on your newest column for The Atlantic reads "Canceling Everything Was the Easy Part." You say governors like Charlie Baker still have some ugly choices to make.
Kayyem: It is true. We thought sort of canceling was the on-off switch and then everything would be clear from then. It is not. And some of the things that will be facing governors, as you noted in the lead up, is liability protection for hospitals that are going to have to make very difficult triage, ethical, moral, and difficult decisions because of the lack of our ability probably to care for them all. So I think it is a smart move of Governor Baker to do this. It is not ideal, as I said. Others that are coming down the pike, of course, are going to be about schools and universities for the fall. I hate to say it, but we better have a plan there. And then, of course, 18 [to] 22 months from now when a vaccine is available there will be a distribution process, and we're going to have to make tough choices as a state about who goes first.