WASHINGTON — The Trump administration may use a 70-year-old law to speed up the manufacturing of medical supplies before a coronavirus outbreak, Alex M. Azar II, the health secretary, said on Friday, a seeming acknowledgment that the virus poses a threat beyond the reassurances of President Trump.
The Defense Production Act, passed by Congress in 1950 during the Korean War, allows the president to expand production of the materials for national security purposes. Mr. Azar said that the federal government could move to expedite certain contracts, including for supplies like face masks, gowns and gloves. Mr. Azar has said that 300 million of a type of mask known as N95 are needed for the emergency medical stockpile for health care workers.
“I don’t have any procurements I need it for now, but if I need it, we’ll use it,” Mr. Azar told reporters at a White House briefing on emergency funds that the White House is asking Congress to allocate to respond to the virus.
Mr. Azar said that if the coronavirus began spreading in communities in the United States, those showing mild symptoms of the virus should stay home rather than seek help at hospitals, to avoid the risk of overcrowding health facilities.
The raising of war powers in the face of the spreading virus appeared to change the tone of the White House’s response, even as senior Trump officials continued to play down the prospects of widespread infection. The federal government used the Defense Production Act to restore power grids and supply food and water in response to areas decimated by the 2017 hurricane season.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were intent to raise the alarm. Three Republican senators who have taken hard lines on border policy invoked the virus to call for stricter border controls.
“As southern-border senators, we are concerned about the possible spread of the coronavirus across our borders,” Senators Martha McSally of Arizona and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas wrote to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We are similarly concerned about recent reports that the virus is spreading in Europe.”
“Border shortcomings by the European Union have resulted in the spread of the virus across a number of nations,” they continued, “and it is essential that the United States not repeat these mistakes.”