“Before we could send the funds by wire transfer, two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived, showed their badges, and started questioning me,” wrote one hospital administrator, recounting his pursuit for much needed PPE.
The lead came from “an acquaintance of a friend of a team member.” After the tip was vetted and the information proved accurate, a secret meeting was set at a “small airport near an industrial warehouse in the mid-Atlantic region,” in order to try and avoid detection by the federal government.
Andrew M. Artenstein, M.D., was in attendance and it was up to him to make the final call on the deal. Ultimately, Artenstein approved the transaction. His health system desperately needed the medical supplies he was being shown and he knew he couldn’t count on the federal government to help.
Artenstein, the chief physician executive at Baystate Health in Springfield, Mass., spent more than five times the normal amount on the shipment of supplies, which included N95 respirators and three-ply face masks, and even disguised the two semi-trailer trucks charged with transporting the load as food-service vehicles, to avoid raising any red flags. The trucks were to be loaded up and take “two distinct routes back to Massachusetts to minimize the chances that their contents would be detained or redirected.”
What unfolded next—documented by Artenstein in the New England Journal of Medicine—reads like an account out of the pages of a John le Carre spy thriller:
“Hours before our planned departure, we were told to expect only a quarter of our original order. We went anyway, since we desperately needed any supplies we could get. Upon arrival, we were jubilant to see pallets of KN95 respirators and face masks being unloaded. We opened several boxes, examined their contents, and hoped that this random sample would be representative of the entire shipment. Before we could send the funds by wire transfer, two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived, showed their badges, and started questioning me. No, this shipment was not headed for resale or the black market. The agents checked my credentials, and I tried to convince them that the shipment of PPE was bound for hospitals. After receiving my assurances and hearing about our health system’s urgent needs, the agents let the boxes of equipment be released and loaded into the trucks. But I was soon shocked to learn that the Department of Homeland Security was still considering redirecting our PPE. Only some quick calls leading to intervention by our congressional representative prevented its seizure. I remained nervous and worried on the long drive back, feelings that did not abate until midnight, when I received the call that the PPE shipment was secured at our warehouse.”
Artenstein’s account reveals the lengths American hospital systems and states have had to go to in order to try and prevent the Trump administration from commandeering life-saving medical supplies. When they aren’t outbid by the federal government, they find themselves in the position of having their shipments of medical supplies seized with no explanation.
The victims of the federal government’s actions include Massachusetts, which lost 3 million masks to the feds, Florida, which had thermometers taken, and Washington state, which had a shipment of testing supplies seized.
Where are these supplies going? No one knows. A representative for FEMA told the Los Angeles Times that the Department of Health and Human Services had developed a system to redirect supplies to wherever they’re needed most, but declined to provide any additional information.
Like Artenstein, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has similarly gone to extreme measures to avoid federal interference. The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Pritzker was arranging secret chartered flights of supplies to avoid a seizure by the Trump administration.
“The supply chain has been likened to the Wild West, and once you have purchased supplies, ensuring they get to the state is another Herculean feat,” Pritkzer’s spokesperson told the Sun-Times. “These flights are carrying millions of masks and gloves our workers need. They’re scheduled to land in Illinois in the coming weeks and the state is working to ensure these much-needed supplies are protected and ready for distribution around the state.”
The absurdity of the situation is not lost on Artenstein.
“This experience might have made for an entertaining tale at a cocktail party, had the success of our mission not been so critical. Did I foresee, as a health-system leader working in a rich, highly developed country with state-of-the-art science and technology and incredible talent, that my organization would ever be faced with such a set of circumstances? Of course not,” Artenstein wrote.
Despite the risk of federal seizure of supplies, states and hospitals face little choice but to proceed with ordering their own supplies. The federal stockpile of medical supplies is all but empty after the Trump administration failed to adequately prepare for the coronavirus pandemic.
Faced with intense lobbying from business groups, Trump has also been slow to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce medical supplies. It’s only in recent weeks that he’s used the law to force companies to produce ventilators and face masks. On Sunday, he relented further, directing a Maine medical supplies company to ramp up production of swabs needed for coronavirus testing. The White House will provide the company with federal funding to aid in its production efforts.
Still, supply shortages remain and Trump continues to say that states are responsible for their supplies, meaning it’s likely that other hospital administrators will wind up with similar stories to Artenstein.
“This is the unfortunate reality we face in the time of Covid-19,” Artenstein wrote.