Apr 4, 2020 - Health

The desperate hunt for coronavirus personal protective equipment

Pile of masks in front of a health care worker
Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Counterfeiters and scammers have emerged as the global supply of protective personal equipment continues to dwindle and the search ramps up to find material for healthcare workers treating coronavirus, AP reports.

The big picture: The desperate hunt for protective medical supplies and equipment to fight the pandemic is pitting nation against nation and forcing governors to compete against each other and the federal government — all while the coronavirus death toll continues to rise. America's relations with its trade partners are being tested as it blocks and outbids other nations seeking masks, per The Washington Post.

The state of play: The Trump administration's efforts to secure protective masks through the global supply chain is creating tension with trade allies Canada and Germany.

  • The White House is using the Defense Production Act to order Minnesota mask manufacturer 3M to prioritize U.S. orders over those from Canada and Latin America.
  • The U.S. also diverted 200,000 masks coming in from China that were meant for Germany, and it outbid France and Brazil for critical medical supplies, per the Post.
  • 3M Chief Executive Michael Roman said the company is following the federal government's orders but warns diverting production from other countries could have serious trade and humanitarian implications.

Meanwhile, governors are having to fight among each other and the federal government as the price of ventilators doubles and masks go for 10 times the original price, per AP.

  • As the federal stockpile of equipment continues to decrease, the Trump administration is limiting access to what's left.
  • Governors are trying to compete against nations around the world for much-needed equipment.
  • States are also forced to compete with their own hospital systems, which are trying to get direct shipments to quickly resupply medical workers.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is working to get private hospitals to redistribute ventilators to those most in need, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft used his football team's plane to bring over a million masks from China to assist Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

Yes, but: The growing need and demand for protective equipment is giving way to the rise of suspect middlemen, "creating an atmosphere of confusion and distrust just as hospitals are desperate to arm their front-line personnel," The Los Angeles Times writes.

  • A fraud investigation is underway into an order for 39 million N95 masks for hospitals and government agencies in California that failed to arrive, per the L.A. Times. The deal was arranged by a union that represents California healthcare workers.
  • It's not clear at this time why the masks haven't arrived, but there is also no indication that the union is the target of the federal investigation.

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