President Joe Biden will direct federal agencies to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up the supply of masks, testing kits, and vaccine materials. The action is part of a blitz of executive orders Biden has issued during his first few days in office.
“We’ve already identified suppliers and are working with them to move the plan forward,” Biden said in a briefing today.
The administration hopes the DPA can accelerate vaccine production. The plan highlights the need for more vials that hold the vaccine doses, syringes to deliver it, and dry ice critical to their transport.
“We’ll do whatever we need to do to ensure that we have an adequate supply of vaccine,” said Tim Manning, Biden’s COVID-19 supply coordinator.
The administration will also direct the act to target masks and personal protective equipment (PPE). Shortages of these products aren’t quite as dire as they were early on in the pandemic, but health care workers are still in need of more N95 masks, which protect the wearer in high-risk situations like when treating COVID-19 patients.
Increasing production of masks could also improve protection for the general public. Most Americans are still wearing cloth masks. Those types of masks can help blunt the spread of the virus, but they aren’t as effective as surgical or N95s. Other countries are making medical-grade masks mandatory. As the more contagious coronavirus strain starts to spread in the US, experts worry cloth masks won’t offer enough protection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website still says members of the general public should not buy surgical masks or N95s to conserve supply for health care workers. “Hopefully this gets utilized to bring better personal protection to the general public,” tweeted Abraar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School working on the COVID-19 response, in response to news about the DPA.
Nurses and doctors have been calling for the White House to invoke the DPA to improve the supply of masks since early on in the pandemic. The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Nurses Association wrote to former President Donald Trump in March asking for him to use the act. The nurses asked again in September after surveys found continued shortages.
Trump invoked the DPA a handful of times while in office, but experts and industry leaders say he didn’t use it to a degree sufficient enough to make a dent in the supply needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Trump administration’s use of the DPA has been sporadic, vindictive and too late,” Scott Paul, president of the industry group the Alliance for American Manufacturing, told The New York Times this fall. “They have not wielded the tool very effectively.”