WASHINGTON, D.C. – The US’ Strategic National Stockpile is nearly out of the N95 respirators, surgical masks, face, shields, gowns, and other medical supplies desperately needed to protect front-line medical workers treating coronavirus patients. The Department of Health and Human Services told the AP that the federal stockpile was in the process of deploying all remaining protective equipment in its inventory.
The HHS statement confirms federal documents released on Wednesday by the House Oversight and Reform Committee showing that about 90% of the personal protective equipment in the stockpile has been distributed to state and local governments. HHS Spokeswoman Katie McKeogh said the remaining 10% will be kept in reserve to support federal response efforts.
House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., announced in a statement that the US administration is leaving states to scour the open market for scarce supplies, often competing with each other and federal agencies in a chaotic bidding war that drives up prices.
“The president failed to bring in FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) early on, failed to name a national commander for this crisis, and failed to fully utilize the authorities Congress gave him under the Defense Production Act to procure and manage the distribution of critical supplies,” Maloney noted, adding, “He must take action now to address these deficiencies.”
For the last month, health care workers across the nation have taken to social media to illustrate the shortages by taking selfies wearing home-sewn masks on their faces and trash bags over their scrubs. The administration has faulted the states for not better preparing for the pandemic and has said they should only be relying on the federal stockpile as a last resort.
The AP reported on Sunday that the US squandered nearly two months after the early January warnings that COVID-19 might ignite a global pandemic, waiting until mid-March to place bulk orders of N95 masks and other medical supplies needed to build up the stockpile. By then, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for help.
The United States spent the first two months of the coronavirus outbreak downplaying the threat from the COVID-19. Warnings of a pandemic were derided as a hoax, predicting as late as February 26 that the number of cases in the United States would soon drop to zero.
The stockpile was created in 1999 to prevent supply-chain disruptions for the predicted Y2K computer problems. It expanded after 9/11 to prepare for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks. Congress provided money in 2006 to prepare for a potential influenza pandemic, though much of that stock was used during the H1N1 flu outbreak three years later.
At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the federal stockpile had about 13 million N95 respirators, masks that filter out about 95% of all liquid or airborne particles and are critical to prevent health care workers from becoming infected. That’s just a small fraction of what hospitals need to protect their workers, who normally would wear a new mask for each patient, but who now are often issued only one to last for days.
Federal contracting records show HHS made an initial bulk order of N95 masks on March 12, followed by larger orders on March 21. But those contracts won’t yield big deliveries to the national stockpile until the end of April after the White House has projected the pandemic will reach its peak.