FEMA Says Defense Production Act To Be Used For First Time Today to Create 60,000 Coronavirus Test Kits

The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced Tuesday that the Trump administration has for the first time invoked provisions of the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of coronavirus testing.

"There's some test kits we need to get our hands on," Administrator Peter Gaynor told CNN's John Berman. "The second thing we're going to do is insert some language into these mask contracts we have for the 500 million masks. [The law's] language will be in that today."

Until now, President Donald Trump has been hesitant to invoke the most forceful powers of the 1950 Defense Production Act, describing it in multiple settings as more of a point of leverage than a tool his administration would employ.

Last week, Trump signed an executive order authorizing Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, to use the law's powers to require that government contracts related to the coronavirus response receive absolute priority.

At a press conference Sunday, Trump shrugged off a reporter's question about more aggressively deploying the law to increase production of critical supplies, claiming, "We're a country not based on nationalizing our business."

"Call a person over in Venezuela. Ask them, 'How did nationalization of their businesses work out?' Not too well," the president added. "The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept."

Earlier at the same press conference, Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser, hailed the president's limited use of the law thus far, saying it provided him with "quiet leverage" over private industry.

While the administration has in the past claimed that testing was available to anyone who needed it, this assertion has not been borne out in reality.

In addition to prioritizing government orders, the law authorizes the president to require the performance of certain contracts and to direct manufacturing decisions at private companies.

While Gaynor said Tuesday that the administration was invoking some of these powers for the first time yet during the coronavirus epidemic, he cautioned that it was important to be "thoughtful and meaningful" in using the law in order to produce "the best result."

Gaynor said that the allocation authority under the act—directing manufacturers' decisions—would be invoked to procure around 60,000 coronavirus test kits.

"We're going to use it. We're going to use it when we need it, and we're going to use it today," he added.

Critics have accused the president of moving too slowly to use the law's muscle to ramp up production of critically needed supplies, including N95 respirators and ventilators.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has frequently drawn attention to the state's shortage of medical supplies, announcing Tuesday that his state—home to the current epicenter of the U.S. outbreak—needs an additional 30,00 ventilators.

"It will be the difference between life and death," Cuomo wrote on Twitter, adding that he does not "understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act to manufacture ventilators."

"If not now, when?" he added.

Update: Late Tuesday night, FEMA issued a public statement announcing that, at the last minute, the agency was "able to procure the test kits from the private market without evoking (sic) the" Defense Production Act.

Test Kits
A close-up of a coronavirus test kit is seen at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts, on March 18., JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty