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Trump Wrong About Ventilators

President Donald Trump falsely claimed that his administration was not initially able to meet the increasing demand for ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients because “we weren’t left ventilators by a previous administration.”

We can’t say for sure how many ventilators there were in the Strategic National Stockpile when Trump took office, but there were likely thousands.

Update, June 25: In a June 20 statement to FactCheck.org, an HHS spokesperson said the SNS had 16,660 ventilators “immediately available for use” when the federal government began distributing them to states in March. The spokesperson also told us none of the 16,660 ventilators ready for use in March was “acquired” by the Trump administration, which began announcing federal contracts for new ventilators in April. For more, read our June 22 post “Trump Inherited More Ventilators Than Have Been Distributed.”

A 2017 article published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated there were roughly 9,000 ventilators in the federal stockpile as of at least 2010, and ventilators in the U.S. stockpile had never been distributed in the 20 years prior to the global coronavirus outbreak in 2020, according to Richard Branson, a respiratory care specialist and professor at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who advises the federal government on ventilator supplies.

Reporters also described seeing some of the government’s stash of ventilators in 2016, when they toured at least one of the secret U.S. warehouses where the breathing machines and other equipment are stored in the event of a health crisis, such as a pandemic.

Trump repeatedly has made the general claim that the federal stockpile of emergency medicine and supplies was “empty” or “bare” when he took office. That’s false, as we have written before.

But he specifically said there weren’t any ventilators when answering reporters’ questions during a recent White House event about his administration’s efforts to protect seniors from contracting the novel coronavirus. Seniors are vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, particularly those in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. 

Trump, April 30: We had a ventilator problem that was caused by the fact that we weren’t left ventilators by a previous administration. The cupboards were bare, as I say often.  And not only are the cupboards full now, we have ventilators; we’re the king in the world of ventilators. We have thousands and thousands of them now being delivered.

But it’s not true that the Trump administration did not inherit any ventilators. Reporters said they saw ventilators during a tour of one of the U.S. facilities housing the stockpile’s massive inventory.

“As we walk, I hear a loud hum. It’s a giant freezer packed with products that have to be kept cold,” wrote NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce in June 2016 — only months before Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.

“Just outside it, there are rows upon rows of ventilators that could keep sick or injured people breathing. [Shirley] Mabry explains that they’re kept in a constant state of readiness. ‘If you look down to the side you’ll see there’s electrical outlets so they can be charged once a month,’ she says. Not only that—the ventilators get sent out for yearly maintenance.”

VICE News also reported seeing the machines when its film crew visited one of the facilities for an episode of “VICE News Tonight” that aired in December 2016.  

“[A]lthough we couldn’t reveal where it was or what exactly it had inside. It looked like a prepper’s Ikea, with row after row of containers filled with mystery medications and equipment — including that one item everyone’s been talking about lately, ventilators,” Vice News said.

We can’t say exactly how many ventilators were in the stockpile when Trump was inaugurated; the federal government doesn’t usually publicize the specific numbers.

But, as of 2010, there were around 9,000, according to a 2017 article published in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal. And in an April 7 article, the technology news website Recode quoted Branson, an adviser to the federal government, as saying, “This is the first time in 20 years ventilators from the stockpile have been used.”

In fact, a 2012 report from the Department of Health and Human Services said: “During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, ventilator shortages were not reported to HHS, and ventilators were not deployed from the SNS.” That’s the same pandemic that caused the SNS to distribute “12.5 million regimens of antiviral drugs, 19.6 million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), 85.1 million N95 respirators, and 2,129 doses of IV peramivir,” according to Greg Burel, the stockpile’s former director.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said there were 12,700 ventilators in the stockpile, as of March 15. At the time, the CDC says there were about 9,500 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Currently, there are nearly 1.1 million cases in the U.S. and more than 64,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Trump can argue that there initially weren’t enough ventilators to accommodate every state’s request, although the stockpile was never designed to be able to do that, Burel has said.

But it’s simply not the case that the federal government did not have any ventilators on hand when Trump took the reins from President Barack Obama more than three years ago.

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