Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose state has been among the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, is urging the federal government to mount a wartime-style push to manufacture the equipment needed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“This is one place the federal government could be very useful,” the Democratic governor told TIME in a phone interview Wednesday, urging the Trump Administration to mobilize to “enhance the manufacturing supply chain like happened in World War II. I think the federal government should do that immediately to expand the manufacturing capacity.”
Washington, the first state to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19, has more than 1,100 confirmed cases and more than 65 deaths caused by the virus as of Wednesday, according to the Washington State Department of Health. Inslee has declared a state of emergency, ordered schools shut statewide for six weeks and imposed a two-week closure of restaurants, bars and other recreational gathering spots, among the dramatic measures the state has taken to try to slow the spread of the virus. The governor, aware of how precarious the situation is from first-hand experience managing the outbreak, is worried about shortages in supplies, from ventilators to Personal Protective Equipment.
“It would be very helpful if the federal government could use its enormous levers, both statutory and economic, to try to increase the supply chain and bring new manufacturers to make some of these products that maybe have never made them before, but we really need them to make them now,” Inslee says.
Already there are reports of businesses looking to shift production to materials in demand due to the virus. Minnesota’s StarTribune, for example, reported that a Duluth, Minn., distillery is making hand sanitizer and giving it out for free. The Detroit News reported that some of Detroit’s automakers are looking into whether they could produce medical equipment like ventilators.
Inslee says Washington is considering “creative ways” to manufacture equipment, like prison industries manufacturing masks. “That’s not a done deal yet, but it’s something we’re exploring,” he adds. But though the state is looking at every potential avenue, Inslee insisted a federal response is necessary, given its ability in scale and scope to mobilize national industries.
Expanding mobilization could quickly become relevant to the rest of the country: Medical experts throughout the U.S. worry that if the rate of new cases is not slowed and stays on track with Italy’s exponential growth, the entire American health care infrastructure will be overrun.
“We are going to have enormous challenges in our medical system, and we are being as aggressive as possible creating new surge capacity in our hospitals,” Inslee says. “The biggest challenge is personnel, to have enough medical personnel on hand. So we’re bringing in retirees and people who are ready to go, potentially, from other states. And we are asking for military assistance.”
Inslee had praise for some of the federal officials leading the response to the pandemic, including Vice President Mike Pence, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But he described frustration with the Trump Administration’s initial response.
“Obviously it was more than frustrating that for what seemed like an enormous length of time, we weren’t getting information shared right from the White House,” Inslee says. “It could have been very, very helpful. But we are not dwelling on the past, we have to be really focused on what we can do today, and so I’m focused on going forward and not dwelling on that unfortunate lost time and opportunities for the White House.”
At one point, the relationship between the President and Inslee was so strained that they were trading public barbs. Inslee, who ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination with climate change as his top issue, criticized the Trump Administration’s handling of information. “I told [Pence] our work would be more successful if the Trump Administration stuck to the science and told the truth,” Inslee tweeted.
In response, Trump, who downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak for months, called Inslee a “snake.”
Asked if he thought the state and federal responses were unified now, Inslee responded: “Well we have good working relationships with millions of people in the federal government. It’s just one federal employee that’s created real frustrations.”