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Sen. Tester says more needed on medical supply shortage


Last updated 4/10/2020 at 11:43am

In a press conference call Thursday U.S. Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., said more is needed to remedy Montana’s medical supply shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are still desperately short on needed medical supplies particularly personal protective equipment,” Tester said.

He said Montana needs 460,000 N95 respirator masks for its health care workers. Federal Emergency Management Agency committed to providing 79,000 of those masks from the national strategic stockpile, but Tester said the state has only received 11,000.

“This is dangerously insufficient,” he said.

Tester said FEMA was under the impression that the masks had been delivered and was shocked to learn that they hadn’t arrived.

He said this points to a larger problem in how the distribution of this equipment is being handled.

“They really need to step up on this protective equipment,” Tester said.

He said so far FEMA has been mainly bringing masks in from the Pacific Rim via airplane and turning them over to private companies for distribution. Tester said he is concerned about the lack of oversight these companies are operating with, saying he can’t even be sure if the masks aren’t being shipped to other countries.

“I can’t even get a straight answer on that,” he said.

Tester also said he thinks U.S. Small Business Administration needs to be as transparent as possible about how funds are being distributed between states, and what their methodology is for determining which ones get how much. He said transparency will help ensure fairness not just for Montana but for all states.

Tester said that in a call earlier in the day he pushed the federal government including White House Coronavirus Task Force Chairman Mike Pence to provide the masks that were promised. The federal government has since recommitted to providing those masks in the next few days.

“Until every last mask that the federal government promised to our state is in the hands of folks that need it… there will be no time for any victory laps,” he said.

Tester said the federal government has an obligation to use its vast resources to help the people of Montana through this crisis. He said recent legislation including the CARES Act works to do this despite his issues with it.

“The truth is this bill is far from perfect, and I will admit, I had reservations before voting on it,” Tester said, “The fact is it does too much for the big corporations, not enough for hard-working Montanans, and it adds every dollar in it to our national debt. But I voted for it because Montana’s families and small businesses and health care workers and working folk and many others cannot wait another moment for the critical relief it provides.”

He said he wants to get these funds into the hands of people who need them as quickly as possible but stressed the need for strict oversight.

Tester said he’s been working with Sen. Mitt Romney to get assurances from the federal government that the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery would be allowed to use his powers independent of interference.

“Unfortunately, the concerns that inspired our letter were well-founded, because this week the administration took the drastic step of removing the chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the inspector general, that independent person,” he said, “… To me the firing of that IG, that inspector general, is an attack on the checks and balances that ensure our government is accountable to the people.

“Anything less than complete transparency about how these 2.2 trillion dollars of taxpayer money goes is unacceptable,” he added.

Tester also said he’s been putting pressure on the Department of Health and Human Services to move ahead with a proposed 30-billion-dollar tranche intended for the health care sector that was supposed to be released by early this week, but has not materialized.

Tester said he was also urging senate leadership to expand benefits for Montana businesses that cannot operate at full capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, including taverns and restaurants.

Tester also said wide-spread testing was vital, not just for the protection of Montanans’ health but for getting the economy running again.

He said he hasn’t had a chance to discuss the status of ventilators in the state because most people are concerned with personal protective equipment but, if the virus gets out of control in the state, there will likely be a shortage.

“It appears like we’re doing okay at this moment in time, but this stuff spreads very rapidly,” Tester said.

Tester said while every area of the country is being affected by the pandemic there are issues in Indian Country that could potentially cause problems.

“Indian Country’s biggest challenge right now is the same challenge they’ve had for the last four decades and that is we don’t have enough people in Indian health services,” he said.

Tester said he would like to see mobile testing clinics for rural areas that don’t have easy access to health care facilities, but such an idea would require testing to be expanded.

Tester said the response to COVID-19 is ongoing and that developments on the federal and state level will continue.

“This is a work in progress, no doubt about that,” he said.


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