'Falling on deaf ears': States continue to struggle securing protective equipment and medical supplies as FEMA confusion worsens

2020-04-19 | Norwalk Reflector

April 19-- Apr. 19--As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to cripple the nation, states are competing for medical equipment, the national stockpile is depleted and securing medical supplies is becoming more difficult, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Reform outlined recently.

At the end of March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said states are bidding against one another for the same medical supplies, noting that he felt it was like bidding for items on eBay. During his press briefing earlier this week, Cuomo said it was as though he bought 17,000 supplies and received only 3,000 at best.

He then added that he believes the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be purchasing all the testing items and medical supplies for the country and then distributing those based on need. He said the competition between states and cities for equipment doesn't make sense and has cost taxpayers "tremendous amounts of money."

One of the most pressing matters at the forefront of the issue is the redirection of states' materials with little explanation as to where they went. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner explained in a recent interview that two health systems in his state have had medical equipment seized or not delivered.

"In both cases, our hospital systems reached out to inform us that they were notified by their suppliers that the federal government had delayed or redirected their expected shipments," he said. "We need more clarity and transparency so we can understand exactly why these orders are being delayed and/or canceled.

"Frankly, this is happening in Virginia, but it is also a national issue with hospitals nationwide expressing similar experiences and reporting that they've been told the federal government is behind these delays and cancelations," he added. "If it's not FEMA -- and these various hospital systems are all wrong -- we have to find out what's going on with these critical medical shipments and where the supply chain is breaking down."

When asked about the breakdown, a FEMA representative said the agency is not responsible for the issues states are having as they try to obtain equipment.

"FEMA has not redirected or seized any PPE," a FEMA spokesperson said referring to what's known as Personal Protective Equipment. "Reports of FEMA seizing or re-routing supplies are false. If a hospital believes this has happened to them, it should be reported to the governor. If a governor believes that this has happened to their supplies, it should be reported to the FEMA Region. If a company decides to cancel on a state contract in favor of a federal one, FEMA will work with the company and the state to resolve the matter in a way that best serves their people."

Jose E. Camacho, executive director and general counsel for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, said it's been a "madhouse" trying to get supplies to all of their clinics. According to Camacho, his group was waiting on an order of 20,000 N95 masks before they were told that FEMA purchased them before they arrived in Texas.

Despite having clinics in over half the counties in Texas, Camacho said his group has yet to receive anything from the national stockpile or FEMA. He then explained that he received an email from a supplier offering masks and within two minutes, the masks had already been claimed by another state.

Prices have been extreme as well, he noted, with N95 masks being offered at $7 apiece.

Earlier this month, the Committee on Oversight and Reform released documents from FEMA Region III -- which includes Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia -- that stated there were "critical shortages" of medical supplies in that region.

The jurisdictions in the region had requested 5.2 million N95 masks but received only 445,000. Of the requested 194 million pairs of gloves they sought, the region received 991,000, which amounted to less than one percent of their initial ask. The region also requested 15,000 body bags, but as of March 30, had received none.

"I think there are federal and state employees and individuals in the private sector who are working around the clock to try and help, but they are met with the key problem of poor leadership at the top and a decentralized and disorganized process," said New York Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform. "Until President Trump and the administration develop and implement a coordinated, centralized federal response, we are stuck with good people in states bidding against each other for the supplies they need."

The committee also recently released a document showing that less than 1 percent of the 3.5 billion N95 respirator masks the Trump administration estimated would be necessary have been distributed nationwide.

"The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has deployed more than 90 percent of the personal protective equipment held in the Strategic National Stockpile at the start of the current public health emergency response," said Stephanie Bialek, Stockpile Communication Services Section Chief of the Health and Human Services department. "This includes N95 respirators, surgical/face masks, face shields, gloves, coveralls, gowns and other critical medical supplies and equipment. Quantities distributed were based on both population and areas of high transmission, and all jurisdictions received 100% of their allocations."

While these supplies are desperately needed across the country, some shipments have been disappointing to those who did receive them. And because states and counties are bidding for the materials, prices have risen.

Lee Manios, owner of Franklin Health Care Inc. and Unique Boutique in Ohio, said he has struggled to secure items for his durable medical supplies store. He said before the COVID-19 outbreak, a box of 10 paper masks cost $5, but now a single mask can cost as much as $2.

Diana Irey Vaughan, a county commissioner in Washington County, Pennsylvania, said an order for hand sanitizer and wipes went missing in her area. She also added that they realize now that the cost for the supplies is going to be much greater than they initially anticipated.

Jeff Yates, the county's director of public safety, said they had a stockpile of equipment before and purchased additional supplies before a national declaration of emergency was instituted.

Yates said the county has since received donations from local residents and the fire and police departments currently have enough equipment to function at this time.

"We're doing fairly well," he said. "They're reusing PPE, which is not ideal, but given the fact that there aren't many options, they're doing the best they can."

He said the county received two pallets of supplies from the national stockpile and they hope another pallet will come. He then noted that the county did not receive everything it requested in those deliveries.

Camacho compared the seriousness of the situation with that of Hurricane Katrina, saying that you never expect something so awful to impact everyone in the way COVID-19 has affected so many lives. The biggest difference, he said, is that there is less you can do for people on a consistent basis, and while their clinics have received donations, those donations still aren't enough.

"I don't think it's improving anytime soon, particularly with different talk of elective surgeries being restarted," he said. "Let the system catch up. If we do something like that, it's going to put more demand on PPE while those supplies are still limited."

Maloney, meanwhile, expressed frustration at the federal government's role in the miscommunication regarding the country's medical supply allotment.

Warner, for his part, went on to add that Virginia has a critical shortage of medical supplies and his hope is that the president and his administration will ultimately step up to help synchronize efforts to ensure each state has what it needs.

"The federal government is in a much better position to coordinate this process, but unfortunately, the Trump Administration has continued to tell governors they are on their own," Warner said. "As a former governor, I know that most of our states just aren't equipped to do this alone. And frankly, we shouldn't be fighting each other to purchase limited supplies when the federal government can obviously step in and lead."

Warner also explained that states aren't equipped to secure medical supplies as well as the federal government can and while governors across the country have called for the administration to provide more help, he believes those hopes have been ignored.

"Those pleas," he said, "have largely fallen on deaf ears."