American hospitals have for weeks faced “severe” and “widespread” shortages of masks, ventilators, and other medical supplies.
Leading medical experts, intelligence experts, and even some Trump administration officials spent January and February sounding the alarms over the coronavirus, but instead of preparing for what has since become a devastating pandemic, the federal government encouraged U.S. manufacturers to sell millions of face masks and other personal protective equipment to China, according to a new Washington Post analysis.
Analyzing economic data and internal government documents, the Post found that the U.S. Commerce Department pressured manufacturers to ship nearly $18 million worth of PPE to China in January and February—a more than 1000% increase over the same months in 2019. Exports of ventilators and protective garments also increased by triple digits, according to the Post.
While the Trump administration encouraged private industry to focus on exporting millions of masks and other medical supplies to China, the coronavirus spread rapidly across the United States, unfolding into what has become the world’s worst hot spot. The United States currently has more than 760,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 40,000 Americans have died of the virus.
The Commerce Department’s decision is emblematic of the Trump administration’s overall attempts to prepare for the virus: they more or less didn’t. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the Strategic National Stockpile. The federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment was created more than 20 years ago to help bridge gaps in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chains during a national emergency.
Instead of building out the stockpile’s reserves, 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. As a result of this inaction, American hospitals have for weeks faced “severe” and “widespread” shortages of masks, ventilators, and other medical supplies.
About 90% of American mayors say their cities lack sufficient face masks and other protective equipment for medical workers and emergency first responders, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Eighty-five percent say they do not have enough ventilators for their hospitals.
The shortage has had a devastating effect on frontline medical workers. Doctors and nurses have been forced to use swim goggles, bandanas, and trash bags to protect themselves and some nurses have even quit their jobs over the lack of protections.
Their fear is warranted. According to initial data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9,282 U.S. health care workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of April 2 and 723 had been hospitalized through April 9. Twenty-seven American healthcare workers have died of the virus.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, did not mince words about the PPE shortage.
“Instead of taking steps to prepare, they ignored the advice of one expert after another,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), told the Post. “People right now, as we speak, are dying because there have been inadequate supplies of PPE.”
A Commerce Department official told Newsweek on Sunday that senior leadership was investigating the exports and that the program was shut down on March 4. Trump administration officials, meanwhile, told the Post that many of the shipments to China were motivated by humanitarian aid. That explanation did not sit well with Doggett, however, who later blasted the Trump administration on Twitter.
“If you’re wondering why the U.S. is #1 in coronavirus deaths and not in masks, patient protective equipment, and ventilators, look no further than Trump’s denial, delay, and deception,” Doggett wrote on Saturday.
Doggett also criticized the Trump administration for prioritizing economic concerns over pandemic preparedness, telling Newsweek: “At a critical time here, when word was coming in that we’ve got a pandemic, instead of preparing, Trump was only concerned about the economic aspects.”
In fact, the Commerce Department actually appeared to believe the global outbreak would help the American economy. During a Jan. 30 interview with Fox Business, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the outbreak in China could “accelerate the return of jobs to North America” because companies would move factories away from impacted areas.
That has not happened. Instead, more than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.