Speaking on Meet The Press Sunday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden called for widespread invocation of the Defense Production Act to not only meet the need for ventilators but also to scale up production of “masks and gowns … and shields and all the things our first responders and doctors need.”

“Why are waiting?” Biden asked, “We know they’re needed.”

The former vice president is referring to widespread shortages of masks and other personal protective equipment that health care providers are reporting.

This equipment takes several forms and the terminology gets confusing at times. But the key piece of equipment that health care personnel need are N-95 respirators, tight-fitting masks that when applied correctly can prevent people who need to interact closely with sick patients from infection. The respirator shortage has become so acute that medical personnel are relying on surgical masks, looser-fitting garments that offer a lower level of protection.

US officials have been mostly coping with a comprehensive equipment shortage by discouraging ordinary citizens from using surgical masks, in contrast to the widespread practice of community mask usage in Asian countries. But experts are increasingly questioning the wisdom of the “don’t wear a mask” guidance, noting that they can be broadly useful in three ways — preventing asymptomatic patients from inadvertently spreading virus they don’t know they have, reminding yourself not to touch your face, and signaling to others in the community the importance of social distancing.

If respirators and masks were more widely available, perhaps through DPA-induced production hikes, it would be easier for public health officials to worry less about who is getting masks and just make plenty available — for health care providers and those outside of medicine alike.

Meanwhile, grassroots groups like Helpful Engineering have been mobilizing to make face shields (relatively simple plastic guards that cover the whole face) to help meet the urgent need for PPE — a need that seems it could become more dire as the world’s largest glove manufacturer is warning of impending shortages.

The Defense Production Act would allow the federal government to essentially conscript America’s domestic manufacturing capacity into making more of these supplies. It could be particularly potent with regard to the surgical masks, since they are simple to construct (people who know how to sew can make them easily at home) and many facilities that work with any kind of fabric could be making them in principle.

The Trump administration has thus far been reluctant to invoke the act, suggesting that to do so would create a Venezuela-like economic situation. In practice, however, it’s the administration’s inability to get the virus under control that’s creating an unprecedentedly rapid economic collapse, and anything that helps bolster the public health situation will almost certainly improve the economy as well.

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