President Donald Trump should invoke his authority under the Defense Production Act to expedite the delivery of masks, gloves and gowns to frontline workers who are at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus, union leaders said Tuesday.
“While the rest of America hovers down, these everyday heroes leave the safety of their homes and head to the frontlines,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest trade union of public employees in the United States. “In too many cases, they are doing it without the protective equipment they need.”
Saunders and the other leaders, speaking on a press call, said the Defense Production Act was designed for this kind of national emergency, but Trump is hesitant to use it.
The Defense Production Act was passed in 1950 due to production needs during the Korean War. The law gives presidents the power to direct corporations to prioritize services and critical material deemed necessary to aid the national defense.
“Unfortunately, it seems he is waiting for the blessing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful corporate special interest group, which is leaning on him not to invoke his full authority under the DPA,” Saunders said.
He said that public service workers are putting their communities first, while Trump is putting the business lobby first.
Due to shortage of masks, many frontline workers around the U.S. are using bandanas and other makeshift masks, Saunders said. He noted that one sanitation worker in Atlanta informed him that they have no masks or gloves left and are given only three disinfectant wipes per day.
Many hospitals have started reusing N95 masks, said Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of AFSCME Council 75. However, reusing N95 respirators is taking a short-cut around the issue of the shortage of protective gear and ignoring standards around mask usage that have long been in place, she said.
Henry A. Garrido, executive director of AFSCME District Council 37 in New York state, the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S., said that while the president has said that ventilators have been sent to New York, he has not seen any. “We desperately, desperately need ventilators in public hospitals,” said Garrido.
Health care providers in New York fortunate enough to get tested for the coronavirus are still expected to work while they wait for the results, said Garrido.
Results by agencies can take from around 48 hours to six days, according to Garrido. He added that health care providers are only expected to self-isolate after they display symptoms like coughing and fever. About 300 first responders are being tested daily in New York, and a quarter of those test results come out positive, said Garrido.
Denise Duncan, president of the United Nurses Associations of California, said frontline workers should not be struggling to get tested for COVID-19 because “we don’t have an endless supply of people.”