Editorial: States are on their own to fend off this pandemic. That may be a good thing

California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Associated Press)

For months, the White House has been sending an implicit but unmistakable message to state governors: When it comes to handling the coronavirus pandemic, you’re pretty much on your own. “We’re not a shipping clerk,” President Trump grumbled to reporters last month as an explanation of why he has ignored pleas from states for help obtaining ventilators, N95 masks and crucial medical equipment.

The administration’s failure to take a leadership role on procuring medical supplies has created a bidding free-for-all that has set states against one another, other nations and even the federal government, driving up prices for medical supplies that healthcare workers need to effectively and safely care for COVID-19 patients. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo described it as “like being on EBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.” As a result, doctors and nurses have faced a dangerous shortage of face masks and other basic protective gear, and state leaders have resorted to begging for ventilators to save their sickest patients.

This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said “enough.” He announced that the state was striking out on its own, leveraging its vast budget and its relationships with manufacturers to obtain the protective gear it needs — and possibly enough to supply other states. California will spend as much as $1.4 billion in coming weeks to buy medical supplies, including 200 million medical-grade face masks a month.


“We decided to step back from all of that and say, look, as a nation-state with the capacity to write a check for hundreds of millions, no billions, of dollars, we’re in a position to do something bold and big that could be a catalyst to increase supply and ultimately increase the capacity,” Newsom said Wednesday during his daily pandemic briefing.

In other words, who needs the help of federal government when you have the world’s fifth largest economy?

It’s outrageous that the state finds itself in this position; it’s beyond obvious that the federal government is in the best position to procure the mass quantities of gear needed to respond to what is a global healthcare crisis. But this isn’t the first time California has gone its own way when the federal government failed to provide forward-thinking leadership or adopted policies contrary to the Golden State’s interests, such as those on fuel-emission standards, immigration and healthcare. In 2016, then-Gov. Jerry Brown famously quipped that if the Trump administration stops gathering climate change data from its satellites, “California will launch its own damn satellite.” He wasn’t kidding.

Now that California is stepping into the leadership vacuum to help itself and other states access medical supplies and protective equipment, it should do the same when it comes to COVID-19 testing.

Trump’s coronavirus task force is reportedly mulling a national strategy for conducting widespread diagnostic testing and using a different type of screening to identify people who are immune from COVID-19, two steps that are absolutely essential for the country to be able to get back to work. But after months of the administration’s dithering, backtracking and mixed messaging on its pandemic response, we don’t have faith that it will be able to manage the next phase competently. This might be the time for states to band together to develop and deploy their own testing protocol and strategies.

In a way, perhaps it’s a good thing that the White House hasn’t centralized the deployment of medical resources during the pandemic because, honestly, some of the decisions it has made so far have been terrible. Also, given Trump’s track record, we fear the president would use the pandemic to reward states with Trump-friendly leaders and punish the rest. Given that California is so often at loggerheads with this administration, it can’t afford to take that chance.