Hunt for medical supplies creates marketplace of desperation

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND (AP) — Shady middlemen, phantom shipments, prices soaring by the hour, goods flown in on a private plane.

What sounds like an organised-crime thriller is now the new reality for governors desperately trying to find the medical equipment their states need in the throes of a pandemic. With the federal stockpile dwindling fast, and the United States (US) President Donald Trump’s administration limiting access to what’s left, state leaders are going to extraordinary measures on their own to secure face masks, ventilators, gloves and other equipment essential to fighting the outbreak.

They’ve ventured into a global market-place one governor described as the “wild, wild, West,” only to compete against each other and their own federal government. They’ve watched the price of ventilators doubles and masks go for 10 times their original price. They’ve turned to rich friends and businesses for help. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker enlisted NFL owner Robert Kraft to send the Patriots team plane to China to retrieve over a million masks.

In New York, an epicentre of the outbreak in the US, Governor Andrew Cuomo has looked closer to home to secure ventilators, issuing an order that forces even private hospitals to redistribute ventilators to the hospitals most in need.

“Let them sue me,” Cuomo said.

All this has led many governors to call on the federal government to centralise purchases. But President Donald Trump has not appeared inclined to intervene in the private market. And the White House made clear this week that Trump views the federal stockpile as a “backup” for the states.

Masks being made in Baltimore. PHOTO: AP

“It is the greatest frustration,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican who heads the National Governors Association. “We have states out competing on the open markets with totally uneven distribution of these things, and now the federal government competing with us — and other countries competing against us — and then a very limited supply of all of these things and no real coordination of where it’s going.”

Hogan said there has been progress from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributing supplies from the nation’s dwindling stockpile, but he described it as a “tiny percentage” of what is needed.”

“We’ve been buying up everything that we can possibly get our hands on in the open market all over — not just domestically, but all over the world, from places like Korea and China and other places,” he said.

It’s not just governments competing with each other for the precious and ever-pricier supplies. States also sometimes compete with their own hospital systems, which are trying to get direct shipments so they can quickly resupply their medical workers.

Hospital employees like physician and Chief Innovation Officer for a hospital system in Maryland Dr Daniel Durand now have a role they never imagined – trying to find personal protection equipment (PPE) in a market gone haywire. As just one example, Durand said coveted N95 face masks that used to cost less than a dollar each can’t be found for less than USD3.70. And that’s a bargain: Plenty of buyers are willing to pay much more — up to USD10 apiece.

He said some middlemen threaten to take their products to another hospital when he started asking basic questions. “And then what I’m hearing is that people are paying millions for shipments and nothing’s showing up,” said Chairman of Radiology for LifeBridge Health’s five hospitals Durand. “So, there are just totally people scamming hospitals.”

Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne vets suppliers for that state’s medical gear and said they have to deal with people with questionable qualifications, and with little time to determine whether they are qualified or trustworthy.

“Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody in China,” he said. Earlier this week, Trump acknowledged that the federal stockpile is nearly depleted, signalling that states will remain largely on their own just as the death toll begins to spike. Many governors have been complaining for weeks that they have not received the shipments they requested from the nation’s supply.