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Congressional critics savage US FEMA chief for pandemic response | Coronavirus pandemic News

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The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the latest Trump administration official to run into a barrage of criticism from Democrats in Congress who are furious over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, who is leading the agency responsible for providing masks and protective gear to hospitals nationwide, appeared before a committee of the House of Representatives on Wednesday as the US death toll from COVID-19 climbed above 142,000.

“The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has been an abject failure and the American people have suffered the consequences,” said Congressman Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.  

“We are no more prepared now to address the pandemic today than we were in its outset,” Thompson told Gaynor. 

“We still have a shortage of medical supplies and equipment like masks, gowns, clothes and gloves. Wait times for COVID-19 test results are climbing. And most alarmingly, they have an urgent demand for ICU beds in states where the virus is spinning out of control,” Thompson said.

Coronavirus outbreaks are surging now in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California. Thirteen states are now reporting problems with testing, and members of Congress continue to hear from hospitals about inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), Thompson said.




US accused of ‘hijacking’ coronavirus supplies (3:18)

Administrator Gaynor said the US suffered shortages of PPE because most medical masks, gowns and gloves are manufactured in other countries. As a result, the US government was forced to compete for the supplies with other countries as well as with state and local authorities in the US.

“This is a global pandemic,” Gaynor said. “We are in competition still for PPE around the globe.”

Most PPE is made in China, Malaysia and Vietnam, Gaynor said. “The United States, we make very, very little. We make virtually no rubber gloves in the US, for example.”

“We are going to have to improve the industrial base to make these critical items in the US,” he said.

Gaynor said, however, FEMA is in a much better position now to manage the US stockpile of PPE than it was 60 days ago, and he sought to assure members of Congress that hospitals dealing with shortages can request help from local FEMA officials

“We know the commercial, medical-grade PPE distribution is very healthy today,” Gaynor said, adding if hospitals “can’t get it via their normal supply chain … we can help.”

FEMA chief Gaynor talks with Rep Jackson Lee

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents hard-hit Houston in Congress, presses FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor for more federal help for the coronavirus pandemic [Anna Moneymaker/Pool via Reuters]

Gaynor was pressed on the wider response to the virus by President Donald Trump and other US agencies by Democratic politicians representing areas of the US like Texas that are now being hit hard by the virus.

“Americans are dying. They are dying. I don’t know how many times I need to say this. They are dying and our hearts are broken,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, which is now a US “epicentre” of the coronavirus.

“We are in such a catastrophic crisis,” Jackson Lee said, describing needs for more oxygen, more testing, and overwhelmed morgues and crematoriums in Texas.

Jackson Lee said that just in Houston, the fourth most populous city in the US, there are 83,000 cases of COVID-19 at present and in the last 24 hours, 784 people have died.

Trump has been under criticism by Democrats in Congress for his refusal to develop a national, coordinated strategy for defeating the coronavirus. Instead, the president and his advisers have left decision-making to governors of the 50 states and deferred to the private sector for production of needed equipment.

Case numbers, which had declined and then flattened nationally, have begun to rise sharply as Trump and Republican governors pushed to reopen the US economy quickly.

Gaynor described FEMA’s efforts to speed the delivery of PPE from Asia by deploying 249 flights to bring critical supplies to the US faster, a programme called “Project Air Bridge”.

The programme has delivered tonnes of material to states in need, but the US is “not out of the woods completely” because most manufacture of PPE remains offshore, Gaynor said.

The US Congress has authorised more than $3.3 trillion in spending in four separate bills to address the crisis, and lawmakers are debating another round of rescue spending likely to be between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.



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US says it has jabbed 82 million people, topping the world | Coronavirus pandemic News

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But coronavirus rates have plateaued over the past week, raising concern over yet another surge in cases and deaths.

The United States has administered 82 million coronavirus vaccine shots, White House officials announced on Friday, more than any other country in the world.

During a coronavirus task force news conference, health officials said 55 percent of Americans aged 65 and older have now received at least one shot, up from 8 percent just six weeks ago.

“Altogether we’ve administered more than 82 million shots, more than any country in the world,” said Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for the COVID-19 response team.

But the US has also suffered more deaths than any other country in the world – more than 518,000 Americans have lost their lives to the disease.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of 100 million vaccines administered during his first 100 days in office [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

US President Joe Biden who took office in January has promised to make tackling the pandemic a top priority for his administration and has set a target to vaccinate 100 million Americans by early May – to coincide with his 100 days in office. He has said the country is well under way to meeting that goal.

Officials say 450 vaccination sites have been set up around the country which has sped up the effort and they have plans to open up more sites as vaccine supplies increase over the next weeks.

In an effort to further boost the campaign, last week the US gave emergency approval to use a third vaccine produced by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. Biden has also announced that the US will manufacture the J&J vaccine, a shot that requires only one dose, further speeding up the effort.

But even with the vaccination campaign well under way, officials said deaths and infection rates have plateaued in recent days, indicating that the nation could be at risk of yet another surge.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said amid the rapid spread of new variants across the country, Americans need to ‘double down’ on protection measures of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and frequent hand washing [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, said over the past week, there have been daily 60,000-70,000 new coronavirus cases, and 1,900 Americans have been dying every day.

“The current numbers remain concerning,” Walensky said, “cases and deaths are still too high, and have now plateaued for more than week.”

Amid the rapid spread of new variants, which have been detected in 48 US states, she urged Americans need to “double down” on protection measures of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and frequent hand washing.

“I know that the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to every day activities is appealing,” she said, “but we’re not there yet.”

Several states have in recent days announced the easing of coronavirus restrictions on businesses and have lifted statewide mandates to wear masks. Health officials have responded with concern and urged Americans to continue to wear masks and follow precautions set under federal guidelines.

Biden blasted the decisions by state governors on Thursday, calling it “a big mistake” and “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor said the current numbers are an indication of a likely fourth surge in cases.

“When you have that much viral activity in a plateau it almost invariably means that you are at risk for another spike,” he said.

During the briefing on Friday, officials also announced that the CDC is working on publishing guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, indicating which activities they may or may not be able to resume.



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