Mar 29, 2020 - Health

Inside the start of the great virus airlift

Illustration of a shipping container with a surgical mask as a parachute

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A plane from Shanghai arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York Sunday morning carrying an extraordinary load: 12 million gloves, 130,000 N95 masks, 1.7 million surgical masks, 50,000 gowns, 130,000 hand sanitizer units, and 36,000 thermometers.

Why it matters: The flight is the start of what might end up being the largest government-led airlift of emergency medical supplies into the United States.

  • That's according to Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who runs the coronavirus supply chain task force at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He spoke to Axios on Saturday night.
  • The airlift is the most dramatic part of the Trump administration's frantic attempts to catch up with a nationwide medical equipment crisis.

What's next: Polowczyk told Axios that he's already booked 22 similar flights over the next two weeks.

  • Starting with this weekend's airlift, he said, "We have essentially a flight a day, mostly from Asia" to expedite the transport of medical equipment that distributors already plan to sell into the U.S.
  • "This first one is kind of a proof of concept," he said. Distributors "can generate product. We can get an airplane there, and as we build muscle memory with these distributors, these numbers will grow."

Driving the news: This weekend's first load of medical supplies will go into the New York tri-state area, Polowczyk said, and subsequent flights will distribute supplies to other parts of the country.

  • The federal government bought 60% of the total load and all of the N95 masks carried on the plane from Shanghai, according to Devin O'Malley, an official on the White House's coronavirus task force.
  • Of 60% the government bought, roughly half the supplies are going to New York, a third to New Jersey and one-fifth to Connecticut, he said. O'Malley said it's up to the governors to distribute the supplies they receive. The remaining 40% from the flight is going to the private market in the tri-state area, where the distributor had already lined up buyers, he added.
  • Under normal circumstances, the distributor would have put these supplies on a ship, which would have taken 37 days, Polowczyk said.
  • FEMA is expediting this process — chartering flights from around the world to move the equipment to the U.S. in a day.
  • Asked whether an airlift of the scale he has in mind has been done before in the U.S., Polowczyk said, "Frankly, I don't know if on the scale that I think we're going to have to do it to get enough here soon enough. ... I'm hoping this is only a two-, three-week effort, but it may be a month's worth ... but I don't know of another effort like this."
  • Major U.S. health care distributors are involved in the effort, per Reuters, which first reported on the plane's touchdown as part of the effort.

Local officials are crying out for ventilators and personal protective equipment. A survey of mayors in more than 200 U.S. cities found that more than 90% of the cities "do not have an adequate supply of face masks for their first responders (including police, fire, and EMTs) and medical personnel."

  • These supply shortages have been made far worse, experts say, by the administration's slow and dysfunctional early efforts to prepare for the virus' explosion through the U.S.

The U.S. government is paying for the flight. The distributor is paying for the product, which it will sell to buyers in the U.S. And the State Department is coordinating with countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia to speed up diplomatic clearances.

The big picture: Polowczyk said many members of Congress "want me to nationalize this supply chain by using the Defense Production Act. They want me to do all the buying, all the distributing, and all the allocation." But he's been resisting that.

  • "This medical supply chain, there's like six, seven big distributors who have like 600–700 nodes that push out product," he said. "I'm not going to re-create that. I'm looking to break down barriers ... to help them feed product where it needs to go."
  • He said the federal government will buy some medical supplies, but will try to feed them into existing supply chains.
  • Polowczyk said he doesn't want to use the Defense Production Act, but he leaves the door open to using those powers to move supplies around the country if his current plan doesn't work.

The other side: "Producers and distributors of medical supplies across the country are raising red flags about what they say is a lack of guidance from the federal government about where to send their products, as hospitals compete for desperately needed masks and ventilators to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus," per WSJ.

Behind the scenes: Lives are on the line. Polowczyk is charged with getting lifesaving equipment into the hands of people who desperately need it, before it's too late. 

  • Polowczyk has deep experience in military supply and logistics. But nothing could prepare him for the storm he has been thrown into.
  • "I was the vice director for logistics on the joint staff. I had nothing to do with Health and Human Services," Polowczyk said.

Polowczyk said that when he took over the role, "there was no organization" working the supply chain out of FEMA. HHS was in the lead. A senior administration added: "When the president activated FEMA, Adm. Polowczyk was immediately installed as the head of the supply chain, working closely with Jared Kushner at the White House."

Go deeper: Fixing America's broken coronavirus supply chain

Editor's note: Because of inaccurate information initially provided to Axios, this article has been corrected to reflect that the U.S. government paid for some of the shipment and that the supplies will go to the tri-state area and the private sector.

It has also been updated to clarify the events when Polowczyk took on his role.

Go deeper