Since the novel coronavirus was first detected in the District of Columbia about a month ago, the city has requested more than 1 million N95 masks from the national stockpile. The number of these masks the city has received: 5,520.
States are receiving just a fraction of the supplies they need from the Strategic National Stockpile, according to internal Federal Emergency Management Agency data for five states and the District of Columbia made public for the first time Thursday.
Less than 10 percent of the N95 masks requested by the states — Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia — have been distributed by the stockpile, according to the Trump administration’s internal data. The states also requested 194 million pairs of gloves, but received less than 1 percent of that amount.
The documents were released as part of an investigation by the House Oversight and Reform Committee. FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services briefed committee members on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The figures give the first look into the shape of the stockpile since HHS stopped releasing numbers on its supply of N95s and other essential equipment in mid-March.
The Trump administration officials acknowledged to the committee that its analysis pointed to a looming shortage in mid-January, weeks before nurses began raising the alarm about locked up supplies and homemade masks and gowns on social media. Asked by the committee when more supplies would come into the stockpile, the agencies did not give a specific timeline.
The numbers come as nurses across the country express fear about treating patients with respiratory illness without the sort of equipment they need to limit their exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Hospitals have rationed supplies in a way that puts health care providers in danger and retaliated against nurses who raised concerns, according to nurses’ unions.
The exposure of nurses and physicians to the new coronavirus could lead to the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals, unions and epidemiologists say.
“We don’t have an unlimited supply of health care professionals,” said Denise Duncan, a nurse and the president of United Nurses Associations of California.
A nurse working at Howard University Hospital died of COVID-19 late last week, according to the District of Columbia Nurses Association.
“Our country is not meeting our obligation” to health care workers, said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on a call with reporters Wednesday. He said nurses and other health care providers are “fighting a war.”
The stockpile had 13 million N95 masks, also referred to as “respirators,” before U.S. cases of COVID-19 began climbing. HHS has estimated 3.5 billion N95s would be needed over the course of a year in a national viral outbreak.
Only about 9,500 ventilators, which hospitals are desperately seeking to help patients breathe, were in the national stockpile, according to information the committee said FEMA provided on March 30.
Governors, mayors, nurses unions and associations representing medical professionals like the American Medical Association have all called for national coordination on the distribution of direly needed supplies according to need. Governors have been competing with other governors for a supply depleted in part by third-party brokers who mark up prices for a profit and the continuation of overseas shipments, according to recent news reports.
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to better coordinate the distribution of supplies based on need,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and the chairman of the National Governors Association, wrote in an op-ed.
“Right now, there is no single authority tracking where every spare ventilator is or where there are shortages. The lack of any centralized coordination is creating a counterproductive competition between states and the federal government to secure limited supplies, driving up prices and exacerbating existing shortages.”
Democratic lawmakers and medical organizations have called for wider deployment of the Defense Production Act, which would allow the federal government to purchase equipment without paying inflated prices and could compel the manufacture of more supply by industries that don’t typically produce safety equipment or medical devices.
The stockpile’s store of personal protective equipment has not been meaningfully replenished for a decade, according to a spokesperson for HHS.
The stockpile has also not released the supply of ventilators that states have requested. FEMA told the committee need is outstripping supply. According to the committee, FEMA’s administrator said ventilators would only be released to states after a rigorous process to determine an urgent need to sustain life “within 72 hours.”
“We desperately, desperately need ventilators in the public hospital system in particular,” said Henry A. Garrido, executive director, AFSCME District Council 37 in New York. “We have a situation now where respiratory therapists and people we represent are not only sharing [ventilators] among two or three patients, but are themselves in need as they get sick.”