Trump encourages imports for coronavirus relief, while stopping US exports

Ground handlers push pallet of cargo unloaded from cargo plane.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday touted the success of a government airlift that is bringing urgently needed medical supplies from around the world to healthcare workers combating the coronavirus. 

At a White House briefing, Trump said three large cargo planes arrived over the weekend. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesperson said one of the flights landed at Louisville International Airport in Kentucky from Asia.

Few details about the latest shipments were provided, but Trump said that in the week since Project Airbridge began, cargo planes have delivered 300 million gloves, almost 8 million masks and 3 million gowns.

“In the last seven days, FEMA has airlifted critical supplies and protective equipment from every corner of Earth, including from within the U.S.,” Trump said.

FEMA, working with the Department of Health and Human Services, is coordinating the shipments of overseas supplies with the help of healthcare distributors and cargo airlines, such as Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW) and National Airlines. Shipments have been delivered to hub airports such as JFK Airport in New York, Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Rickenbacker International Airport, a dedicated cargo airport near Columbus, Ohio. They are then taken to local warehouse facilities, where they are broken down and transported by truck to FEMA-designated facilities throughout the country through the vendors’ regular supply chain.

Based on previous information from FEMA, logistics companies and airport authorities, the supplies so far have only come from China and Malaysia, and there have been no domestic flights moving supplies from one location in the U.S. to another.

But the FEMA spokesperson said the agency is also coordinating flights from Honduras, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. 

The Sunday flight to Kentucky likely involved express carrier UPS, which is known to be participating in Project Airbridge and has its global air terminal and package sorting center at Louisville International Airport. FEMA and UPS Airlines did not respond to questions about UPS’ possible involvement.

The deliveries are helping address critical shortages, but represent a small piece of a wider logistics effort being managed by private companies and states to secure and deliver critical equipment and supplies, such as ventilators, used to treat patients with the COVID-19 respiratory disease and protect frontline workers from infection. Many critics say the effort would be less chaotic and more effective if the federal government took over the entire logistics process so that states and individual hospitals aren’t competing with each other for limited supplies and those supplies are directed to areas with the most urgent need.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis-based 3M is resisting pressure from the White House to stop exporting medical grade masks to Canada and Latin America. 

In the past few weeks, the company has significantly ramped up production of N95 respirators on its own, but the White House invoked a wartime law on April 2 to require 3M to prioritize orders from FEMA. The Defense Production Act gives the federal government the power to dictate production and delivery schedules for private companies.

3M said Friday it will work with the White House to implement the order and that it also responded to the administration’s request to  increase the amount of respirators the company imports from its overseas operations. 3M said it has secured approval from China to export 10 million N95 respirators manufactured by 3M in China to the U.S.

At the same time the White House wants to accelerate exports from other nations to the U.S., it is trying to keep U.S. companies from exporting supplies to other countries that are also dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump signed an order preventing the export of personal protection equipment, saying it was intended to prevent price gouging and hoarding. 

“The Administration also requested that 3M cease exporting respirators that we currently manufacture in the United States to the Canadian and Latin American markets. There are, however, significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators. In addition, ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done,” 3M said in a statement. “If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease. That is the opposite of what we and the Administration, on behalf of the American people, both seek.

“We will continue to maximize the amount of respirators we can produce on behalf of U.S. healthcare workers, as we have every single day since this crisis began.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said humanitarian aid is a two-way street and that it would be a mistake to block trade of essential goods.

Trade analysts say the protectionism practiced by the U.S. and other countries in the past three years is now manifesting itself in trade barriers related to medical supplies. The European Union has banned the export of medical protective equipment without export authorizati