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Trump and the “P Act,” debate over face coverings: Friday’s coronavirus news

Here’s what you need to know today.

President Trump at the White House on April 2.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has now hit more than 1 million as of April 3. The United States continues to register the most positive cases, with more than 250,000.

In the US, the fight against the coronavirus is now also a fight over how to allocate scarce resources. State and local officials are raising alarms about shortages in protective medical gear and ventilators, and President Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act to order supplies from specific companies, which he had previously been hesitant to use. Meanwhile, a number of states are desperately concerned about hospitals hitting capacity thresholds of coronavirus patients; some of the federal government’s help — including the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort — might not actually be easing the burden.

The US is soon expected to change its guidance on face masks, and some places like New York are already recommending people wear face coverings when they go outside. But since supplies are still short even for front-line medical workers, officials are suggesting citizens find makeshift coverings like bandanas and scarves.

Here’s what you need to know today.

3M, Trump, and the “P” Act

On Thursday, President Trump said he was putting the Defense Production Act to use, which he (for some unknown reason) keeps calling the “P Act.” The DPA instructs private companies to prioritize orders from the federal government, which in fighting coronavirus would include things like masks and ventilators. The benefit of doing this would allow the federal government to be directly involved in the order and procurement of materials, and it can then distribute those products to the states where they’re needed most. The hope is that it will help solve shortages and avoid states trying to outbid one another for vital equipment.

Trump has been reluctant to use the act, but on Thursday his administration said he was invoking it to help companies secure supplies to make more ventilators, and to push 3M to make more protective masks, though details are fuzzy on how this will all be implemented.

In a tweet on Thursday night, Trump suggested the White House “hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. ‘P Act’ all the way!” He added that 3M would have a “big price to pay.”

Trump seems to be framing the “P Act” as some sort of punishment. It’s not that at all — it’s ideally used to direct and prioritize production to meet a national emergency, and companies are still paid for what they produce. (According to the New York Times, the Trump administration has used the “P Act” hundreds of thousands of times before the coronavirus.)

3M, which is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, denied the characterization in a statement, saying it had pushed back against an administration request to stop exporting supplies to Canada and Latin America. In the statement, 3M said there were “significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators.”

“In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done,” the statement continued. “If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. This is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.”

Okay, wear the masks now

The White House is expected to tell at least some Americans that they should be wearing face coverings when they go outside, a reversal of initial guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said healthy people didn’t need to wear face masks in public. But now the federal government may say that face coverings could help slow the transmission of coronavirus, especially if people are unaware they have the infection or show no symptoms.

It’s still not clear exactly what the new guidance will say, but given the overall shortage of personal protective equipment for health care and other essential workers, it’s likely that the recommendation will suggest people wear cloth masks or other face coverings, like bandanas and scarves. The guidance may be targeted to areas with high rates of transmissions, according to the Washington Post.

Yet some places are already pushing for a change in policy, with or without the federal government. On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to wear a face covering when going outside their home, or near other people. “It can be a scarf, it can be something you create at home, it can be a bandana,” the mayor said, adding that medical-grade equipment is still needed — and will be directed — to protect health care workers.

The changes in guidance are likely to raise questions about why the CDC didn’t just say this from the beginning, given concerns about asymptomatic transmission. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, did caution against a false sense of security from wearing a face mask — and said social distancing measures and frequent hand-washing remained the best tools to stop the spread of coronavirus.

So much for the Comfort

Earlier this week, the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort floated into New York Harbor to a lot of fanfare. But it might not be doing all that much to alleviate the pressure on New York hospitals. The 1,000-bed ship isn’t taking coronavirus patients, because, at least according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, it would be hard to disinfect the ship, and the current configuration of the ship would make it difficult to treat coronavirus patients.

Which means, so far, only 20 patients have been sent to the Comfort. In California, where another Navy hospital ship, the Mercy, is docked near Los Angeles, there are only 15 patients, according to the New York Times.

Hospitals remain overwhelmed with the surge of coronavirus patients, but medical emergencies of other sorts don’t cease because of a pandemic. However, hospital visits for other emergencies, like car accidents, are down because more people are staying home. Even those who need non-coronavirus-related treatment still need to go to an emergency room and get tested for the coronavirus before they might head to the Comfort, per the Times, which said the ship has listed 49 other conditions it will not treat aboard. That means the Comfort may end up being more of a symbol than a true relief to New York’s hospitals, unless the guidance changes.

Now, some good news

About half the world is under lockdown orders right now, and it’s weird and often trying for everyone. For young kids — especially those who may not quite grasp what’s at stake — it might seem jarring that Mom and Dad are always around, and that they can’t see friends at school. So, around the world, rainbows are popping up in windows to offer kids a kind of good-luck scavenger hunt as they go on walks.

According to the BBC, the trend began in Italy but spread to other parts of Europe and the United Kingdom, and it’s been popping up in places in the United States, too. Let’s be real, it’s probably not just the kids who need this, either.