FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor was grilled by Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday over his agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, but he struggled to even get answers out during a particularly tense exchange with California Rep. Lou Correa.
Correa began with questions about whether masks are effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 (Gaynor said they are), but then he pressed the FEMA head over U.S. reliance on other countries when it comes to personal protective equipment, or PPE. Illustrating his point, the Democrat compared the current situation to catastrophes like Sept. 11 and a possible viral bomb from an enemy country, as well as recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika,
“As I look at post-COVID-19, this is like post-9/11. We’re never going to go back to being the way we were before,” Correa said. “We may have COVID-20 ahead of us. And I’m just hoping COVID-19 again teaches us that lesson that we forgot that we should have learned from Ebola and Zika. We’re asleep at the wheel. This is not blaming anybody, but I’m trying to figure out you’re in that hierarchy at the top levels of planning for the next pandemic. Bad guys around the world have finally figured out a new way to hit us. And heaven forbid, heaven help us if somebody drops a dirty, biological – a dirty, viral bomb on our country. We’re not ready, and that’s what you’re telling me right now, Mr. Gaynor. You don’t know when we’ll have that supply up and running?”
“I’m not telling you that, Congressman,” Gaynor pushed back. “I’m not telling you we’re not ready. Your question was about PPE.”
Correa clarified that his concern was due to a lack of self-reliance when it comes to PPE.
“If China again decides to lock down and not export PPE, where are we going to be? Please,” he responded.
“First of all,” Gaynor replied, “I said in response to a member that FEMA has never been more than ready, and I have said repeatedly this is just not about throwing a bunch of money at PPE and having it all tomorrow, where we want it, when we want it on the U.S. It takes time,” Gaynor went on to say, before Correa cut him off, suggesting he finish responding with a written statement.
“I just want to say this,” Correa said. “I do believe that COVID-19 has brought us to a new environment in our society. We have to plan for these kinds of attacks, either by Mother Nature or bad guys in the future, and you’re in FEMA, and I hope and I pray to God that you’re moving ahead to plan to protect this great country’s population.”
Gaynor took issue with Correa’s characterization of the current crisis.
“COVID-19 is not an attack, it’s a disease. It’s a new disease that we have never seen on the globe,” he said. “And it’s much different than Zika and Ebola, so again, we’re comparing apples and oranges to this. So again, I want to tell you that there’s tens of thousands of dedicated Americans out there working on this problem today.”
“Thank you, I look forward to hearing your statement in writing,” Correa said, trying to cut Gaynor short.
“And they’ve been working on the problem for months,” the FEMA administrator went on. “And we will overcome it. I can’t give you a date, but I can guarantee we’ll have enough PPE made in America for the next crisis.”
Despite Gaynor saying that he could not make an exact prediction for when the U.S. will be fully prepared, Correa asked him anyway.
“When do you guarantee to have PPE ready?” Correa asked.
“I just said I couldn’t give you a date,” Gaynor replied, “But we will — we will be successful, I have no doubt about the power of the American public and American industry and American resolve. No doubt whatsoever.”
Regarding the current state of America’s PPE supply, Gaynor said earlier in the hearing that the U.S. is in a better situation than in March and April, but that the country is “not out of the woods completely.”
He acknowledged that it is in America’s best interest to not be reliant on the Chinese Communist Party for PPE, but that “we have a ways to go” before the U.S. can rely on its own industrial base for PPE.