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Tonko To White House: Address Shortages Immediately

New York Congressman Paul Tonko
Lucas Willard
Rep. Paul Tonko (file photo)

Capital Region Congressman Paul Tonko is criticizing the Trump administration for mixed messages on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Democrat from New York’s 20th District spoke to constituents on a telephone town hall Wednesday night. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard was on the line.

Though the president has been giving daily updates with the White House coronavirus task force, Representative Paul Tonko is keeping pressure on the administration.

“We need to have a focused group of individuals, science-driven that can direct all of this. We need a person in charge. Because the outcome has been less than acceptable.”

More than 30 states have issued stay-at-home policies to reduce exposure and slow the spread of COVID-19. But there is no national model.  

Tonko says the White House needs to take the advice of its coronavirus task force members and require all states to go into lockdown.

“We need to rely on forces like Dr. Fauci to advise and encourage the administration to do the very best to contain this. And you do that, I think, through a lockdown. And I think while its hurtful to the economy, we’re fighting two wars here. One against coronavirus, and one against a declining economy. A downturn in the economy. The way to solve the second fight is to first conquer the coronavirus.”

The upstate New York Democrat wants President Trump to utilize the full extent of the Defense Production Act. On Friday, the president used his authority to direct General Motors to manufacture ventilators.

But Tonko says more can be done. His district includes the Schenectady General Electric plant, where union leaders in recent days have called for stepped-up ventilator manufacturing.

As supply chains for personal protective equipment like masks and gowns dry up, Tonko says there’s an opportunity there too.

The recently-signed $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus includes $17 billion for PPE.

“I think that were some missteps here and delays that were particularly hurtful. And Congress has now provided needed funding to acquire more resources for our PPE – our personal protective equipment – our ventilators, and our testing kits. And I’ve also urged the president to use his powers under the Defense Production Act. Invoke that act to direct domestic manufacturers to step in and address the shortages immediately,” said Tonko.

The White House has activated Project Airbridge to hasten the arrival of badly needed supplies.

Earlier Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that pharmaceutical company Regeneron was creating half-a-million COVID-19 test kits at no charge for the state. But the supply shortage is now. Dr. Angelo Calbone, President and CEO of Saratoga Hospital, one of the officials answering questions during the call, said it’s frustrating that hospitals in the U.S. cannot test at levels seen in other countries that have dealt with the virus.

“There really needs to be concerted effort at the federal level to create the quantity of product to do this. At this time, our stock of available testing material is sufficient to address the needs of our staff, hospitalized patients. And any serious concerns in the community that get referred to us, we try to do our very best to do that, but we simply do not have enough testing material to do the broad, open community testing that we would really like to do,” said Calbone.

Also on the call, Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen said the area was able to provide widespread testing for about 10 days. With limited testing available now, she said the best advice is to limit social interactions. Stay home.

“We know a lot of young people may have asymptomatic infections so getting into a situation where you are isolated from those types of interactions, although it’s difficult, is really necessary right now,” said Whalen.

Officials also addressed concerns about unemployment benefits and financial assistance for small business, as included in the CARES Act.

An audio recording of Rep. Paul Tonko's telephone town hall on 4/1/20

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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