Sen. Chris Murphy outside the State Capitol in a pre-election press conference in 2020 mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Sen. Chris Murphy outside the State Capitol in a pre-election press conference. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut offered a profane assessment Wednesday of the Trump administration’s diffident response to a gathering third wave of COVID-19 cases that once again is testing the capacity of the health care system and medical supply chain.

“We are doing our best to shame this administration into getting off their ass and doing something,” Murphy said in an interview after rolling out a revised COVID-19 relief bill. “So, this legislation is also a way to remind the American people that Trump is playing golf and filing frivolous voting lawsuits instead of doing anything to save lives.”

Murphy joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York in a telephone press conference outlining revised Democratic legislation aimed at getting U.S. manufacturers to produce N95 masks and other equipment falling into short supply as COVID cases spike and fill hospitals to capacity in some states.

The new crisis comes at a moment of triumph for the Trump administration in the fight against COVID: Two vaccines have cleared important trials, giving the president an opportunity to claim victory for his Operation Warp Speed vaccine program. But they are widely seen as a means to curb the pandemic this summer, not this winter.

“We are enduring a nightmare right now across the American health care system,” Murphy said. “Our emergency rooms and inpatient wings of hospitals are at a breaking point. Today, there are 75,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19.”

The rate of positive tests in Connecticut now routinely exceeds 5%, a five-fold increase from the summer, though far short of the double-digit figures currently seen in other states. Hospitalizations here reached 816 on Wednesday, triple the 270 of just three weeks ago.

With about 8,800 hospital beds, that represents nearly 9% of capacity — close to the 10% threshold that some health experts say is a red flag. At the peak last spring, about 2,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID in Connecticut

Murphy said swift action is needed now to ensure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment for medical workers and testing supplies for laboratories — all necessities to keep the health care system functioning. 

The Democrats’ bill would provide seed money for more U.S. manufacturers to produce needed supplies. It includes measures proposed in a more comprehensive bill over the summer that Senate Republicans have declined to bring to a vote.

“I want to give my colleagues as many different options to solve as many of the festering crises as possible,” Murphy told CT Mirror. “One of the crises is the continued lack of PPE. We can get that done in a comprehensive bill. But we can also fix that by passing stand-alone legislation.”

The Democrats propose spending $10 billion for a strategic national stockpile.

Connecticut now has a 90-day supply of PPE and other medical supplies in a stockpile slowly assembled as the state scrambled to re-establish a supply chain from overseas and local sources, said Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer.

The state has not yet seen the shortages reported elsewhere in the nation.

“But given the dramatic increases in hospitalizations around the country, we are watching carefully,” Geballe said.

Connecticut has done on a smaller scale what Murphy and Schumer say the U.S. needs to do on a mass scale: Provide seed capital to U.S. manufacturers, many of them with excess capacity, to produce medical supplies.

The state has provided $1.3 million in what Colin Cooper, the state’s chief manufacturing officer, calls “catalyst capital” for companies to turn to non-traditional product lines. 

The modest program has a number of success stories: a sporting goods maker, Gilman, that now produces 10,000 sterile isolation gowns a week; and a plastics company, Modern Plastics in Shelton, that now supplies the state with its face shields.

“It was pretty effective,” Cooper said. “The businesses were pretty nimble.”

But Cooper said the Connecticut experience also offers a cautionary tale: Once the supply chain stabilized, hospitals and other purchases returned to their traditional overseas vendors, who could produce mass quantities at lower prices.

“I think the issue right now is are we willing to make a commitment to establishing this capacity on a long-term basis,” Cooper said. “For that, there is going to have to be some longer-term commitment.”

For now, the demand exists again.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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