Whitmer wants Trump to 'step up' coronavirus response, calling feds unprepared

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on President Donald Trump on Monday to "step up" his coronavirus response, prohibit non-essential travel and declare a national disaster to free up federal funding.

"As we know, the federal government hasn't been prepared. We on the state level, I think, are getting aggressive," Whitmer, a Democrat, said on MSNBC. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the press conference.

She made the remarks ahead of a video conference call that the Republican president held Monday with the nation's governors, in which Trump said they should try to get respirators or medical masks on their own if they have alternative supply chains.

"I mean, it's amazing to hear the head of the federal government say don't go through the federal government because it works too slowly. We have to cut red tape, we have to harness all of our assets and make this happen. This is a dire situation," Whitmer said later in the day on CNN. 

She said her administration is talking to Michigan companies to partner with the state and its need for ventilators, respirators and personal protective equipment for health care personnel, "but it is important that the federal government gets their act together and does so, post haste."  

Whitmer started the week by issuing a sweeping order to shutter all dine-in eateries, performance venues, indoor sports facilities, movie theaters, recreation centers, libraries and gyms through at least March 30 to slow the disease's spread.

Michigan has confirmed 54 coronavirus cases since the disease was first detected in the state last Tuesday. State officials have also closed K-12 schools for at least three weeks and state universities have switched to online classes. 

"This administration didn't take it seriously enough on the front end. They talked about hoaxes, and they've use hyperbole and half truths, and now everyone is skeptical about what the truth really is," Whitmer said on CNN. 

"We need to expand our healthcare facilities that are going to get overrun because people are legitimately concerned about their health, and they haven't had real leadership coming until we governors have stepped in." 

Trump declared on Friday a national emergency under the Stafford Act that the White House said would free up $40 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to fight the worsening spread of the coronavirus. 

His emergency plan also empowers the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to modify regulations to expand telehealth services, waive capacity limits for hospitals and loosen licensing requirements for doctors to provide care over state lines.

At the White House over the weekend, Trump praised the "tremendous amount of coordination with states, with cities" in responding to the crisis. 

“We're going to have a lot of people who are out of work, are going to struggle to make ends meet, and we need some assistance," Whitmer said.  

"We need to make sure that we've got the ability to make all the tests, to run the tests and to get results in real time. All of these come in the form of assistance and leadership at the federal level," she added. 

"I would love to see a coherent policy when it comes to ordering people not to do unnecessary travel. I think that there are a lot of pieces that the feds need to step up on.”

Michigan is able to test 115 people per day for COVID-19, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, has said. 

Whitmer also urged the Trump administration to address the overcrowding at airports such as Chicago's O'Hare International, where travelers have clogged terminals in a rush to return from Europe following Trump's travel restrictions. 

“People were lined up like a cattle call trying to get through customs. They need to fix that. That is squarely on the federal government," she said. 

A group of House Democrats led by U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township wrote to Trump asking him to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 "without delay" to boost the production of supplies that will be needed to meet demand during the pandemic. The supplies would include personal protective equipment, face masks and N95 respirators.

The freshman lawmaker recounted reports of a shortage of ventilators in Italy as a cautionary tale.

"During World War II, our country adapted to the demands of the time to produce mass quantities of bombers, tanks and many smaller items needed to save democracy and freedom in the world," wrote Levin, joined by 56 colleagues.

"We know what the demands of this time are, and we must act now to meet these demands.”

Trump said last week the administration is coordinating with pharmacies and retailers to make drive-thru testing for COVID-19 available "at critical locations" after federal infectious disease expert Dr. Tony Fauci told a House hearing that the government’s testing system was “failing.”

Another 1.4 million tests would available this week and that masks are being made "by the millions," Trump said.  

But Trump deflected blame for the administration's stumbles in a testing system that's fallen short on supply and testing capacity.

"I don’t take responsibility at all, because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time," Trump said. 

"And what we've done is redesigned it very quickly with the help of the people behind me.  And we're now in very, very strong shape."