The PPE shortage in America is a crisis — We need to protect our healthcare workers...

By Matthew Yglesias | @mattyglesias |

Despite promises from President Donald Trump that private companies would start pumping out personal protective equipment (PPE), doctors and nurses are still pleading for more gloves, gowns, masks, and, most of all, N95 respirators.

This crisis poses a threat to the safety of health care providers and workers on the front lines who are keeping society functioning by staffing grocery stores, delivering packages, and collecting trash.

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It also sets the stage to prolong what is already expected to be a devastating economic downturn. Any plausible vision of curtailing the kind of heavy restrictions that have successfully slowed the spread of the novel coronavirus is going to require a significant increase in America’s production of PPE.

Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) sporadically as a bargaining lever, and his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has called for wider use of the law but in a nonspecific way. And prices are soaring without doing much to bring new supplies online. The problem is that even though there’s clearly money to be made selling respirators and masks, managers with good reason don’t want to front the cost of retooling factories for an unknown quantity of orders over an unknown time horizon.

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But there is a solution: invoking other titles of the DPA to give companies financial guarantees and some regulatory relief to speed up production. In a paper published by the libertarian-ish Mercatus Institute and jointly authored by Caleb Watney from the center-right R Street Institute and Alex Stapp from the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, they spell out how Trump could do it. The proposal involves spending a lot of money and skewing some sacred cows of both market fundamentalism and the regulatory status quo. They involve accepting some risk of wasted money or improperly functioning equipment.

In a world where the alternatives involve health care workers treating Covid-19 patients while wearing bandanas and America experiencing mass unemployment, it’s time to consider something drastic.

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