WASHINGTON, D.C.—Just hours after she was pilloried by the media and infectious diseases experts for adding to the confusion of mixed messaging from the White House regarding sufficient medical supplies and test kits to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, Seema Verma’s patron saint, Vice President Mike Pence, had her back as the point person to help the country’s vulnerable senior citizens, who are affected by the virus.
During President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden press conference on March 13 where he announced a national emergency to counter the exponential spread of the coronavirus, Pence, who heads the President’s Coronavirus Task Force and co-opted Verma, the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as a “key member” of the task force on March 2, said that she would lead the efforts to “look after senior citizens with chronic underlying health conditions.”
Pence, during Trump’s press conference, said Verma would put into effect “the President’s directive to raise the standards at our nursing homes, increase inspections at our nursing homes,” to alleviate the lot of the elder Americans “who are the most vulnerable.”
Verma, who has regularly flanked the President, the Vice President and the top infectious diseases experts like Anthony Fauci--the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health—on the dais at the White House briefings on the administration’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, said, “We are doing what we must to protect our vulnerable elderly.”
A day before, Pence thrust her to speak at the podium during the President’s briefing, Verma, appearing on the Trump-friendly Fox News was castigated by the cable station’s host for obfuscating questions and ducking giving a direct answer about whether there are sufficient supplies to deal with the deadly outbreak.
Host Martha MacCallum, asked Verma several times to respond to reports that there is a shortage of equipment like ventilators, beds in intensive care and testing swabs, and also why a pledge made by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar with regard to coronavirus testing kits that there would be "millions of them out there by the end of the week,” had not panned out,
Verma responded by saying that the tests were available "at every public health laboratory across the nation," and that her team's focus was “on increasing capacity in the private healthcare system because people would be more likely to go to their doctor than a public health lab to get tested.”
When MacCallum repeated her question if there “were millions of tests available” as Azar had promised, pointing out that private doctors had complained that they were unable to get their hands on enough of them, Verma dodged again saying that her team was working with hospitals to see how they can do the testing inside their laboratories and was providing guidance to emergency rooms so they could screen for the virus.
An obviously exasperated MacCallum persisted, asking Verma again on reports that hospitals did not have enough equipment, such as ICU beds, ventilators and testing swabs.
“We’ve heard there’s a shortage of ventilators, even swabs,” the host said, and asked, “What’s being done about that and how concerned are you that when these numbers [of patients] do start to rise … that there’ll be enough ICU units, enough ventilators, to help the people who do get sick in this country?”
Verma responded by saying, “Well, that’s why we have an emergency preparedness system. We’re used to dealing with disasters … If you look at disasters that have emerged around hurricanes, in Puerto Rico, in Florida…”showed that there was a "system in place to make sure that folks that are on the front lines have the equipment and the supplies that they need."
MacCallum then asked: “So are you saying we do have enough?” but Verma ducked again, talking about what her team was doing by stating that “one of the things we’re doing at CMS is to have rapid dialogue with health care providers. We’re meeting with providers on a daily basis. … That’s why we’re putting out so much guidance.”
Totally frustrated, which clearly showed on her face, MacCallum said, “Yeah. I understand that,(but) can I just ask you one more time, will there be enough?" but this time around, Verma completely ignored the Fox host’s question, and continued to repeat her earlier guidance to health-care providers, reiterating, “Before you go into your doctor, you can call them on the phone and have a discussion with them. We don’t want people to travel unnecessarily if they’re not feeling well.”
MacCallum gave it one more shot, saying, “Before I let you go I want to ask you one more time, are they going to be people in this country who don’t get a ventilator when they need one?Can you reassure everyone out there tonight that there’s not a shortage of ventilators or ICU units?”
But this time instead of answering “the fourth iteration of MacCallum’s question,” as the Washington Post reported, Verma launched into praise for President Trump, saying, “And that’s why the president has taken such a bold and decisive action. We’re not waiting for this to get worse.”
MacCallum then gave up, telling Verma, “Okay. That’s not a direct answer to the question,” and suggested that the administration was seemingly operating on the hope that the hospitals will deal with these exigencies in the best way they deem fit. “It sounds like a hope that there won't be enough sick people and we won't run out of ventilators because we have mitigated, and we certainly hope, we certainly hope that is the case."
Verma’s dodging and weaving continued with an interview with CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, when in response to questions about the threat and concern of a healthcare system being unprepared to handle the overwhelming surge, aggravated by a lack of test kits and equipment.
At his press briefing, when Trump was asked about the acute shortage of ventilators, he said the administration would purchase them in the private marketplace to meet the demand. But Verma, just a day earlier had said, “I think that at this point, it is premature to say that we don’t have enough. I don’t think we know that right now.”
Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, appearing later on CNN, said Verma’s responses were “stunning,” and “nonsense” to claim that it is too premature to determine if the U.S. has a shortage of ventilators.
“We don’t have enough hospital beds, we don’t have enough ICU beds, and by the way, even if we had, the 100,000 plus ventilators that we actually need, we don’t have the staff to operate them,” Redlenar warned.