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Is There Enough Equipment For A New Coronavirus Surge?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Will the Strategic National Stockpile be sufficient to get us through this long pandemic winter ahead? The stockpile is our country's emergency reserve. It is not one single location but a series of big warehouses in secret locations scattered across the country - warehouses that are constantly receiving and pushing out critical supplies. Well, our next guest oversees those supply lines. Gen. David Sanford is director of the Supply Chain Advisory Group, which was stood up to work across government agencies and advises the White House coronavirus task force.

Gen. Sanford, welcome.

DAVID SANFORD: Hi, Mary Louise. Thank you. Thank you for having me today. It's quite the honor.

KELLY: Would you just start with a visual for us? What does one of these warehouses look like? And I'm picturing, like, a giant Walmart, but...

SANFORD: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Stuffed with face shields and respirator masks and surgical gowns. Is that an accurate picture?

SANFORD: That's fair. I mean, there's other items. There are pharmaceuticals. There are ventilators. There are field hospitals, so it's more than just the big categories of personal protective equipment.

KELLY: Well, let me drill into some of the numbers. Our reporting has the stockpile - as of now, late November - at something like 142 million N95 respirator masks, 16 million face shields, 7 million goggles. It sounds like a lot. Do you have enough?

SANFORD: Yes, ma'am. Well, so back in late-summer timeframe - or actually back in May timeframe, we identified requirements for each of those categories that we needed to grow to support a potential fall surge.

KELLY: And if I may just inject, I'm asking in part because your predecessor, the former national supply chain commander, Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, said you were hoping to have something like 300 million N95 masks by winter. And we're nearly at winter, and you have about half that number.

SANFORD: Yes, ma'am. But we still have a little time, so we're on the path to be at just shy of 300 million masks by the end of December. Now, part of that, though, is because we as a country made a conscious decision for September and October to actually divert 7 million of our N95 masks to support hospitals, acute care facilities, long-term care facilities. And the reason being is because we knew that those N95 masks were better able to help those functions than possibly go to the SNS. But we are on target...

KELLY: You're saying the masks aren't in the warehouse because you pushed them out to hospitals and other facilities that needed them urgently.

SANFORD: About 14 million - yes, ma'am. And if you were to factor that 14 million in, we're going to make our 300 million target in December as we always thought. But we are in a much better place than where we were. In many of our cases, we've grown our capabilities by 10 to 15 times what they were back at the height of COVID - back in the March, April timeframe - or pre-COVID, both on ventilators, gloves, gowns, surgical procedural masks and N95s.

KELLY: Help me make sense of this. I'm looking at a survey - this is National Nurses United - survey of 15,000 nurses...

SANFORD: Yes, ma'am.

KELLY: ...Just completed in October and November, where they reported 80% of them having to reuse N95 masks more than once. About a fifth of them said their employers were rationing N95 masks. I mean, why are there not enough? And I suppose, why are there any in the warehouse if there is urgent need out there in the field?

SANFORD: Yes, ma'am, so it's important to remember that our strategic framework for emergency response is local execution, state management, federal support. So if the state can no longer support those requirements for its hospitals, its long-term care facilities, its emergency management services, then it needs to submit what we call the resource request form. And that comes up to the federal government. And once we receive that, we will provide the material - or if we need to go procure it, we'll procure it - either through FEMA stocks or through the SNS stocks. And we have not turned back a resource request from the states.

KELLY: So you're saying this is a - what? - a paperwork issue; that you haven't gotten a formal request, so you're not pushing the masks out?

SANFORD: No, ma'am. I wouldn't call it a paperwork issue. It's - you know, the states have better visibility over what the requirements are within their states than the federal government, as they should. And that's part of the strategic framework. So if there's a request that they can't support, then all they have to do is ask the federal government, and we will honor that request. We've had 313 since 1 September, and we haven't said no to any.

KELLY: That is Gen. David Sanford. He advises the White House coronavirus task force from his perch as director of the Supply Chain Advisory Group.

Gen. Sanford, thank you for your time.

SANFORD: Thank you, ma'am. And thank you for this opportunity. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.