Axios Sneak Peek

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March 29, 2020

Welcome to Sneak Peek, our weekly lookahead from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, plus our best scoops.

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Tonight's newsletter is 2,051 words, an 8-minute read.

1 big thing: Trump says peak deaths in 2 weeks, extends shutdown

Trump at briefing in the Rose Garden
Trump speaks at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House, March 29. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Trump is extending his administration's "15 days to slow the spread" shutdown guidelines for an additional month in the face of mounting coronavirus infections and deaths and pressure from public health officials and governors.

The president set April 30 as the new deadline for the social distancing guidelines in a Sunday evening briefing from the White House.

Driving the news: With the original 15-day period that was announced March 16 about to end, officials around the country had been bracing for a premature call to return to normalcy from a president who's been venting lately that the prescription for containing the virus could be worse than the impacts of the virus itself.

  • "We had an aspiration" of Easter, Trump said, but when he heard the numbers of potential deaths, he realized he couldn't push a reopening of the economy as soon as he previously had foreshadowed.
  • Trump explained his turnaround by saying his government's modeling shows the peak death rate will likely come in two weeks. He said that 2.2 million people could die if the government did nothing and the public didn't do the social distancing. "Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won," he said.
  • The federal guidelines include directives for older people to stay home and for all Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people and to avoid bars, restaurants, shopping trips and nursing homes.

Behind the scenes: Trump has been under mounting pressure to extend the guidelines after numerous public officials pushed back against his statement last week that the economy could be back and running by Easter.

Maryland's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told me in a blunt interview on Thursday that he was prepared to ignore President Trump if he reverted back to his "very harmful" message of reopening large sections of the economy by Easter.

  • "It would be very harmful, because we would obviously not listen to that. We would listen to the scientists and the doctors and make the decision we thought was necessary to save the lives and protect the health of our citizens."
  • "But the messaging would hurt because lots of people would listen to that and say, 'But they said it was OK. Why is the governor telling us we have to continue social distancing, why can't we go back to work? Why can't we open our business? Why can't the kids go back to school now?'
  • "I just wish that we would have a consistent message from the federal government," Hogan said.

Why it matters: Hogan, whose second and final term ends in 2022, is a Republican governor of a blue state. He also chairs the National Governors Association, leading the bipartisan coordination of governors' responses.

  • "Many of the governors on both sides of the aisle have a lot of concerns about that messaging," Hogan told me.
  • "Each governor's different, and different states are in different places in this crisis. Some states have not yet been affected ... and some are dealing with unbelievable crises ... but there aren't very many people that believe everything's going to be back to normal in a couple of weeks."

Hogan said he understood where Trump was coming from even if he finds the messaging unhelpful.

  • "I think the president, to his credit, I think he's trying to be hopeful," he said. "He's concerned about the economy, and he wants to say we would like to get things back on track by Easter.
  • "He's been doing some good things and saying some good things and taking some good steps, but I think we have to try to stop the conflicting messages coming out of the administration."

The other side: "President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety of the American people, which is why as the nation continues to follow our guidelines to slow the spread, we are evaluating critical data to determine next steps," said deputy press secretary Judd Deere, responding to Hogan's comments.

  • "This President has taken an unprecedented approach to communicating and working with our nation’s governors to guarantee they have the resources they need and the ability to make the best on-the-ground decisions."
  • A White House official added: "White House staff talked to Governor Hogan Saturday about how mitigation decisions will be driven by data and ultimately be state and local decisions and that same message was delivered to his staff earlier in the week."

Between the lines: On Sunday's "Meet the Press," White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said, "No state, no metro area will be spared, and the sooner we react and the sooner the states and the metro areas react and ensure that they put in full mitigation ... then we'll be able to move forward together and protect the most Americans.

  • "We are asking every single governor and every single mayor to prepare like New York is preparing now," Birx added.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

2. Inside the start of the great virus airlift

Illustration of a shipping container with a surgical mask as a parachute.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A plane from Shanghai arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York Sunday morning carrying an extraordinary load: 12 million gloves, 130,000 N95 masks, 1.7 million surgical masks, 50,000 gowns, 130,000 hand sanitizer units, and 36,000 thermometers.

Why it matters: The flight is the start of what might end up being the largest government-led airlift of emergency medical supplies into the United States.

  • That's according to Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who runs the coronavirus supply chain task force at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Polowczyk spoke with Joann Muller and me Saturday night.
  • The airlift is the most dramatic part of the Trump administration's frantic attempts to catch up with a nationwide medical equipment crisis.

What's next: Polowczyk told Axios that he's already booked 22 similar flights over the next two weeks.

  • Starting with this weekend's airlift, he said, "We have essentially a flight a day, mostly from Asia" to expedite the transport of medical equipment that distributors already plan to sell into the U.S.
  • "This first one is kind of a proof of concept," he said. Distributors "can generate product. We can get an airplane there, and as we build muscle memory with these distributors, these numbers will grow."

Driving the news: This weekend's first load of medical supplies will go into the New York tri-state area, Polowczyk said, and subsequent flights will distribute supplies to other parts of the country.

  • The federal government bought 60% of the total load and all of the N95 masks carried on the plane from Shanghai, according to Devin O'Malley, an official on the White House's coronavirus task force.
  • Of the 60% the government bought, roughly half the supplies are going to New York, a third to New Jersey and one-fifth to Connecticut, he said. O'Malley said it's up to the governors to distribute the supplies they receive. The remaining 40% from the flight is going to the private market in the tri-state area, where the distributor had already lined up buyers, he added.
  • Under normal circumstances, the distributor would have sent these supplies by ship, which would take 37 days, Polowczyk said.
  • FEMA is expediting this process — chartering flights from around the world to move the equipment to the U.S. in a day.
  • Asked whether an airlift of the scale he has in mind has been done before in the U.S., Polowczyk said, "Frankly, I don't know if on the scale that I think we're going to have to do it to get enough here soon enough. ... I'm hoping this is only a two-, three-week effort, but it may be a month's worth ... but I don't know of another effort like this."
  • Major U.S. health care distributors are involved the effort, per Reuters, which first reported on the plane's touchdown as part of the effort.

Local officials are crying out for ventilators and personal protective equipment. A survey of mayors in more than 200 U.S. cities found that more than 90% of the cities "do not have an adequate supply of face masks for their first responders (including police, fire, and EMTs) and medical personnel."

  • These supply shortages have been made far worse, experts say, by the administration's slow and dysfunctional early efforts to prepare for the explosion of the virus through the U.S.

The distributor is paying for the product, which it will sell to buyers in the U.S. And the State Department is coordinating with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia to speed up diplomatic clearances.

Go deeper: Read our full inside story on the airlift and the heated debate over whether the federal government should take over the buying and distribution of medical supplies.

3. Fixing America's broken coronavirus supply chain

Illustration of a question mark coming out of a shipping box.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Barely a week into his role at the FEMA, Polowczyk is still trying to establish what's in the pipeline and where it is.

  • "Today, I, as leader of FEMA's supply chain task force, am blind to where all the product is," Polowczyk tells Joann and me.

Why it matters: Polowczyk hears the calls from Congress, governors and medical equipment suppliers who want the federal government to nationalize the supply chain using the Defense Production Act — but he argues that's not the right move this far into the crisis.

  • "They want me to do all the buying, all the distributing, and all the allocation," he says.
  • But the nation's medical supply chain consists of six or seven major distributors with 600–700 distribution nodes around the country.
  • "I'm not going to re-create that," he said. "I'm looking to break down barriers ... to help them feed product where it needs to go."

What's happening: Instead, Polowczyk says, FEMA is collecting inventory data from all those companies and weaving disparate information systems together "to illuminate their supply chains down to their distribution networks and potentially down to the hospital level."

  • The priority now is New York and California, he said, but demand is increasing in places like Louisiana, Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Florida.

The big picture: With more than 150 countries affected by the global pandemic, worldwide demand for medical equipment is exploding, but supplies are limited and often hindered by virus-related shipping problems.

  • "The thought that we're going to buy our way out of this right now is not possible," Polowczyk says.

What he's saying: Polowczyk told Axios the crisis has to be managed on four fronts.

1. Preservation: Hospitals need to stretch existing supplies as much as possible.

2. Acceleration: FEMA needs to assist by clearing bottlenecks and speeding deliveries.

3. Expansion: New manufacturers need to step up to produce medical supplies.

4. Reallocation: FEMA needs a better understanding of what's available, where it is and where it needs to go.

  • "You can't run a supply chain without business IT and business intelligence," Polowczyk says, which is why he's trying to merge all the data from distributors.

Go deeper: Read our full story on the scramble to fix the coronavirus supply chain.

4. Fauci's grim numbers

Fauci on State of the Union, CNN

Anthony Fauci, who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Jake Tapper on Sunday that based on the data he's seeing now, it's possible 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die of the coronavirus.

  • "But I don't want to be held to that," Fauci said on CNN's "State of the Union."
  • "I mean, we're going to have millions of cases. But I just don't think that we really need to make a projection, when it's such a moving target, that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people."

Also on "State of the Union," Nancy Pelosi went on the attack, directly blaming President Trump for the coronavirus' rising death toll.

  • "His denial at the beginning was deadly. His delaying of getting equipment to where — it continues — his delay in getting equipment to where it's needed is deadly."
  • "When did this president know about this, and what did he know?" Pelosi said. "What did he know and when did he know it? That's for an after-action review."
  • "But as the president fiddles, people are dying. And we have to — we just have to take every precaution."

5. Sneak Peek diary

Photo of the exterior of the White House with cherry blossoms blooming
Photo: TriggerPhoto/Getty Images

The House is on recess for the foreseeable future.

The Senate is on recess through April 20.

  • Preliminary talks continue behind the scenes between the White House and Capitol Hill about a Phase 4 stimulus bill to combat the coronavirus.

The White House did not share President Trump’s schedule, but administration officials say the daily briefings with the White House coronavirus task force will continue this week.

  • Tomorrow is acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's last day at the White House, Axios' Alayna Treene reports. Rep. Mark Meadows, who is expected to resign from Congress tomorrow, formally starts as Trump's new chief on Tuesday.