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April 7, 2020

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Delayed response led to current US mess

AS the first alarms sounded in early January that an outbreak of a novel coronavirus 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 largely 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 states reported receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks. “We basically wasted two months,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.

HHS did not respond to questions about why federal officials waited to order medical supplies until stocks were running critically low. But President Donald Trump and his appointees have urged state and local governments, and hospitals, to buy their own masks and breathing machines.

“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. “It’s not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use.”

Because of the fractured federal response to COVID-19, governors say they’re now bidding against federal agencies and each other for scarce supplies, driving up prices.

For nearly a month, Trump rebuffed calls to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to order companies to increase production of ventilators and personal protective equipment. He finally relented last week but by then, confirmed cases within the United States had surged to the highest in the world.


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