- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2020

The U.S. has donated more than 4,500 ventilators to 27 countries through its global aid agency as part of President Trump’s push to make America the “king of ventilators” after a crush of springtime COVID-19 cases led to fears of catastrophic shortages.

Hard-hit Brazil was the biggest beneficiary with 600 ventilators, and Russia and Uzbekistan each received 200. Tiny island nations even got some of the largesse, with 10 apiece going to Kiribati, Nauru and St. Kitts, according to a list provided to The Washington Times from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Andean countries Ecuador and Peru each received 250, and Asian rivals India and Pakistan each got a shipment of 200.

The administration will likely donate more ventilators in the coming days or weeks, and Mr. Trump pledged in May to sell Mexico at least 1,000.

It’s a major turnabout from the spring, when blue state governors said they could run out the lifesaving machines. Ventilators let patients breathe when their lungs have difficulty because of diseases such as COVID-19 or pneumonia. Those fears of shortages fueled reports that hospital staff would ultimately decide who lives or dies.

“Not a single American who has needed a ventilator has been denied a ventilator — not one,” Mr. Trump told supporters last week in New Hampshire, a key battleground state in the November presidential election. “We’re producing them now for the rest of the world; 188 countries were affected by this.”

The U.S. ended up with so many ventilators that it is giving them away and ending some contracts to save taxpayer money.

The Strategic National Stockpile has 120,000 ventilators available for deployment in case COVID-19 makes a resurgence in the colder months.

Democrats say the administration was slow to exercise war-scale powers to procure the machines and then wasted money by renegotiating a major contract after the pandemic hit.

Mr. Trump views his decision to put Ford, General Motors and other companies into the ventilator-making business as a major success story in the U.S. response to the pandemic. COVID-19 has killed more than 186,000 people across the country.

Alongside the record-setting pace of vaccine development, the machines have become a symbol of Mr. Trump’s insistence that he has done all he can to combat the novel coronavirus.

“Our nation is now the king of ventilators. I say that: the king of ventilators,” Mr. Trump told White House reporters in August.

Beyond hot spots in Asia and Latin America, the U.S. has provided ventilators to the African nations of Egypt, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa, according to USAID.

A senior administration official said the ventilators were doled out based on conversations between Mr. Trump and other heads of state and assessments from experts in various agencies. The official rejected the idea that ventilators were distributed in an arbitrary fashion or as political favors to certain governments. Some Democrats made that charge about the donation to Russia.

The Department of Health and Human Services said the U.S. has more than enough of the machines to meet its own needs.

“To date, the [national stockpile] has not experienced a shortfall of ventilators to support public health and healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients. If states, tribal nations, territories or local public health jurisdictions need ventilators and are unable to secure commercial supplies, they may continue to request federal assistance through the established process,” HHS said in a written statement.

“The stockpiled ventilators procured during the COVID-19 response ensure the United States is prepared for areas experiencing pandemic surge as well as any future public health emergency response that might require these devices for lifesaving care,” HHS said.

Mr. Trump has said the previous administration didn’t resupply ventilators and that the “cupboards were bare.” Fact-checkers say the administration had about 16,660 of the machines when the pandemic hit.

The ventilator issue emerged in late March as the virus crisis surged in New York and other places across the U.S.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other governors pleaded with Mr. Trump to find and ship more ventilators to their hospitals. They said it was too difficult for states to find the machines on the open market.

“We need ventilators. That is the key piece of equipment. We can get the beds. We’ll get the supplies by hook or by crook, but a ventilator’s a specific piece of equipment. These are people with a respiratory illness. We need the ventilators,” Mr. Cuomo said on March 20.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, urged the Trump administration in March to use the Defense Production Act to compel the production of ventilators to meet U.S. demand. He noted that hospitals in Italy were overrun with COVID-19 patients.

By April, Mr. Trump exercised those powers, resulting in 50,000 ventilators from Ford, in partnership with General Electric, and 30,000 from General Motors.

“There were concerns about ventilator shortages, but I do not believe that there actually were any situations in which ventilators were rationed, although some hospitals may have come close in New York City,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Mr. Cuomo’s office credited state solidarity and its own efforts to round up machines.

“Under Gov. Cuomo’s leadership, New York State worked around the clock and searched far and wide to procure enough ventilators so that no New Yorker who needed one was denied one at any point during this unprecedented pandemic,” New York Health Department spokeswoman Jill Montag said.

House Democrats say they did uncover some hiccups in the federal effort.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois Democrat, pointed to the administration’s decision to end a contract with Philips Respironics after it granted extensions to deliver 10,000 ventilators under a contract that dated to the Obama administration but would have been completed by November — before the pandemic hit.

He said the administration ignored an early offer to accelerate the delivery in January and then overpaid when it renegotiated terms of the contract in March as the desperate need for the machines became clear.

“This week, we clawed back more than $400 million from pandemic profiteers, and we’re coming for more,” said Mr. Krishnamoorthi, referring to the early termination of the contract amid his probe.

HHS said it cannot comment on the contract because of an internal agency investigation and the legal review of it.

Also, HHS said it is cutting short two other deals. The companies, Hamilton and Vyaire, will still combine to produce an additional 8,500 this month but, by ending the contracts early, the administration decided not to procure 38,000 ventilators that had been scheduled for delivery to the stockpile by the end of the year.

“By terminating the remainder of deliveries from these contracts, HHS is balancing federal stockpile requirements with commercial market demand for ventilators,” the agency said. “As a result, HHS is saving the U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars by halting delivery of additional ventilators that are no longer required.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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