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White House eyeing use of special powers to produce more coronavirus protective gear

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Image: A pharmacy worker sells N95 face masks in advance of the potential c
A pharmacy worker sells N95 face masks in advance of the potential coronavirus outbreak in the Manhattan borough of New York on Feb. 27, 2020.   -   Copyright  Carlo Allegri Reuters
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The Trump administration is weighing using special executive authority to spur the production of gear like protective masks that could be used to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar confirmed Friday.

The White House has been discussing the use of the Defense Production Act to direct expanded production of personal protective equipment, and will not hesitate to use it if necessary, Azar told reporters in a briefing on the coronavirus at the White House.

Much of the protective equipment is currently made overseas, including in China, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated.

The administration's discussions were first reported by Reuters.

Azar did not specify which supplies might need to be ramped up, but he testified earlier this week that while "we do have in the strategic national stockpile ventilators and masks," there are not nearly enough for a nationwide outbreak. He estimated that the U.S. needs about 300 million face masks to slow the spread of the virus, and said officials only have about a 10th of that amount.

The masks Azar was referring to are N95 respirators, tight-fitting masks used by health care professionals that can filter out viruses. Some doctors, but so far not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have recommended that people who are sick wear surgical masks to cut down on the risk of infecting other people.

Azar asked Congress on Tuesday for money to buy more of the masks, but it's unclear how many the agency would be able to purchase at this point, with demand for them soaring in Europe and Asia and limited production in the U.S.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Defense Production Act, which was passed at the beginning of the Korean War, "confers upon the president a broad set of authorities to influence domestic industry in the interest of national defense."

Those authorities "can be used across the federal government to shape the domestic industrial base so that, when called upon, it is capable of providing essential materials and goods needed for the national defense," the congressional think tank said.