US ‘wasted’ months before preparing for pandemic

Michael Biesecker

WASHINGTON (AP) – As the first alarms sounded in early January that an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China might ignite a global pandemic, the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment.

A review of federal purchasing contracts by The Associated Press shows federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers.

By that time, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile.

That federal cache of supplies was created more than 20 years ago to help bridge gaps in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chains during a national emergency.

Now, three months into the crisis, that stockpile is nearly drained just as the numbers of patients needing critical care is surging. Some state and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks. “We basically wasted two months,” Kathleen Sebelius, health and human services secretary during the Obama administration, told AP.

People wear face masks in New York on April 3. PHOTO: AFP
This March 24, 2020 file photo shows stacks of medical supplies housed at the Jacob Javits Center that will become a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. PHOTO: AP

As early as mid-January, US officials could see that hospitals in China’s Hubei province were overwhelmed with infected patients, with many left dependent on ventilator machines to breathe. Trump and his appointees have urged state and local governments, and hospitals, to buy their own masks and breathing machines, saying requests to the dwindling national stockpile should be a last resort.

“The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile,” Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, said at a White House briefing Thursday. “It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”

Experts in emergency preparedness and response have expressed dismay at such statements, saying the federal government must take the lead in ensuring medical supplies are available and distributed where they are needed most.

“States do not have the purchasing power of the federal government. They do not have the ability to run a deficit like the federal government. They do not have the logistical power of the federal government,” said Sebelius, who served as governor of Kansas before running the nation’s health care system.

Because of the fractured federal response to COVID-19, state governors say they’re now bidding against federal agencies and each other for scarce supplies, driving up prices. “You now literally will have a company call you up and say, ‘Well, California just outbid you,’” Governor Andrew M Cuomo said Tuesday. “It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.”

For nearly a month, Trump rebuffed calls from Cuomo and others to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to order companies to increase production of ventilators and personal protective equipment. He suggested the private sector was acting sufficiently on its own.

More than three months after China revealed the first COVID-19 cases, Trump finally relented last week, saying he will order companies to ramp up production of critical supplies. By then, confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the United States had surged to the highest in the world. Now, the number of people infected in the US has climbed to more than 312,000 and deaths have topped 8,500.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global public health emergency on January 30, Trump assured the American people that the virus was “very well under control” and he predicted “a very good ending”.

His administration was so confident that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on February 7 that the government had airlifted nearly 18 tonnes of donated respirator masks, surgical masks, gowns and other medical supplies to China.