Gov. Jay Inslee (left) at a news conference in Olympia on Wednesday. (TVW)

Gov. Jay Inslee (left) at a news conference in Olympia on Wednesday. (TVW)

Inslee to state businesses: Pivot to make medical equipment

The governor said Wednesday that the state must become self-reliant in the fight against COVID-19.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday said Washington-based companies, including Outdoor Research Inc. in Seattle, are pivoting to produce desperately needed protective equipment for health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

At a news conference, he pleaded for more help from the state’s manufacturers.

Citing the lack of available equipment from the federal government, the governor said the state will need to “put pedal to the metal right here on a voluntary basis in the state of Washington” to fill the need for masks, test vials, face shields, gowns and other equipment.

“We have ongoing orders out for supplies from the federal stockpile, but the federal government has not been able to supply them to us fast enough to meet the need,” Inslee said. “We need to seize our own destiny.”

The state’s coronavirus website explains how citizens and businesses can help to fill the supply line, Inslee said. The Association of Washington Business is also working to recruit companies that can change their focus to supply products and components, the governor said.

In the absence of help from the federal stockpile, states must compete against one another to acquire critical resources on the open market because of the lack of supply.

“We know this month could be decisive in this effort,” Inslee said, referring to an expectation that Washington and other states in April will see an apex of demand for intensive health care due to the outbreak. “This is perhaps the decisive moment.”

The peak in cases may arrive around April 19 in Washington, said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer, on Tuesday. That is based on modeling done by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

That same study forecasts the peak demand for resources such as hospital beds and ventilators will crest around April 15.

Washington’s cumulative case count has risen to 5,984 since the outbreak began in January, with 247 dead, according to the state Department of Health. The agency has resolved a database problem that developed over the weekend and prevented the release of numbers for three days.

In Snohomish County, Wednesday’s tally of cases was 1,304 confirmed infections and 68 “probable” cases, with 40 dead, according to the Snohomish Health District.

Earlier Wednesday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said the situation faced by states is disappointing.

“It would be a whole lot easier if the president himself told business to step up,” she said in an interview prior to the governor’s appeal. “We are pretty much being told we are on our own. None of us ever imagined a national public health crisis where you’re told you’re on your own.”

A $2 trillion federal aid package passed last week contains billions of dollars for growing supplies in the federal Strategic National Stockpile. But it might not be enough should the virus return this fall.

“Already, we’re hearing the reserve is almost out,” Murray said.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the federal government’s emergency stockpile of respirator masks, gloves and other medical supplies is running low and is nearly exhausted.

“We governors don’t know what’s in the stockpile. We don’t know how much is left,” Inslee said when asked about the story. They just know, he said, “We cannot count on being rescued.”

Inslee said there’s been “well over” 1 million pieces of personal protective equipment in the state. Early on, most went to destinations in the central Puget Sound where the outbreak began. Now, he said, distributions are being made to counties throughout the state.

The supply, he said, comes from three routes. There’s a line from hospitals and clinics, another from the state, and the last from the federal government.

Quantifying the immediate need isn’t really possible, he said.

“We have huge needs” for those working in hospitals and long-term care facilities as well as police, firefighters and grocery workers, he said. “There are so many needs. It’s almost an infinite number.”

Enter the private sector and companies like Outdoor Research, whose owner and chief executive officer Dan Nordstrom took part in the news conference.

He said the firm has been making PPE gloves for the military for years. When the need for masks became apparent, employees “spontaneously” shifted gears to make them. They could be producing up to 200,000 a day by the end of April, he said.

“We’ve spent a lot of money and made substantial commitments without knowing details of who we’re selling to, or what the quantities will be, but we all agree it’s the right thing to do, regardless,” he said.

Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, said manufacturers “have heard your call, governor” and are “willing and eager” to join the effort.

Several wineries and distilleries already shifted gears to produce hand sanitizer, he noted. Dozens of businesses are looking at ways to make parts or all of the protective equipment sought by the state.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County residents can chip in too.

The Snohomish County Emergency Coordination Center is collecting new, unopened personal protective equipment including N95 masks, gowns, medical gloves, safety glasses, face shields, Tyvek suits, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Donation centers have been set up in Willis Tucker Park in Snohomish and Haller Park’s Stillaguamish Conference Room in Arlington through Friday. Hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon on Friday.

Ventilators are in short supply, too.

So far, the state has received 500 ventilators from the federal stockpile. A request for 500 more has yet to be filled.

Meanwhile, Inslee said the state has placed orders for about 400 ventilators from private contractors.

He noted this is one area where Trump used his power to compel manufacturers to make some. A Bothell firm, Ventec, is teaming with General Motors in one of the large ramp-ups.

The governor expressed confidence that, “if we all do what we can,” there’s a good chance the state will have the ventilators it needs.

Herald reporter Andrea Brown contributed.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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