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Trump administration unclear over emergency production measure to combat coronavirus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration sowed confusion on Tuesday over use of a 1950s-era emergency act to procure coronavirus test kits amid severe shortages of tests, masks, ventilators and other equipment for medical workers fighting the highly contagious disease.

Peter Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told CNN the administration had decided to use the Defense Production Act to procure 60,000 coronavirus test kits, in what would mark the first use of the act to confront the coronavirus crisis.

But Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House coronavirus task force, said in comments on Fox News that it has not been necessary to put the emergency measure to use.

“Every time we’ve asked American industry to step forward, they’ve said ‘yes.’ No one has said ‘no,’” Pence said during a Fox News town hall.

In a statement late on Tuesday, FEMA said it did not need to use the authority. “At the last minute we were able to procure the test kits from the private market without evoking the DPA,” FEMA press secretary Lizzie Litzow said.

Trump invoked the act last week but said he would hold off on using it until it was necessary, prompting criticism from Democrats including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The law, which dates to the Korean War, grants the president broad authority to “expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base to support military, energy, space and homeland security programs,” according to the FEMA website.

“We’re actually going to use the DPA for the first time today. There are some test kits we need to get our hands on,” Gaynor said on CNN. “We’re going to use it when we need it and we’re going to use it today.”

In a Twitter post earlier on Tuesday, Trump said: “The Defense Production Act is in full force, but haven’t had to use it because no one has said NO! Millions of masks coming as back up to States.”

Cuomo, whose state now stands at ground zero in the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, has been urging the Trump administration to use the act to tell manufacturers they must produce desperately needed supplies for healthcare workers.

At a news briefing on Tuesday, he alluded to Trump’s characterization of himself as a “wartime president.”

“President said it’s a war. It is a war. Well then act like it’s a war,” Cuomo said. “Only the federal government has that power and not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me ... I do not for the life of me understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act,” he said.

Trump justified his planned use of the DPA only in limited instances of disruption along the supply chain in a Sunday briefing, in which he compared its use to socialist economic policies.

“Call a person over in Venezuela; ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out,” he said. “The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept.”

Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Stephanie Kelly in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Tom Brown and Gerry Doyle