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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

More corporations are requiring workers to get vaccinated

Graphic: Axios Visuals

Life for the unvaccinated could get more difficult as bosses increasingly move to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory.

The big picture: The federal Government in May said that it is legal for companies to require employees to get vaccinated for coronavirus.

White House: Over 500,000 new shots recorded Friday, highest since July 1

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The United States recorded more than half a million new COVID-19 vaccine shots on Friday, the highest number since July 1, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Why it matters: The Delta variant is continuing to spread across the United States and it now comprises over 80% of the coronavirus cases in the country, Jean-Pierre said. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that "vaccination is the most important strategy to prevent severe illness and death."

Biden to announce sanctions, other efforts to address crisis in Cuba amid protests

Photo: Sarah Silbiger/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden will announce sanctions against one entity and two Cuban individuals this afternoon and provide details on his administration's efforts to improve internet connectivity in Cuba, a senior administration official said Friday.

Why it matters: After initially hoping to place the issue on the back burner, the White House has recently ramped up its focus on Cuba amid protests on the island and in the United States, congressional backlash and political pressure from the South Florida Cuban community.

  • The president is also expected to make announcements on remittances and plans for U.S. embassy augmentation, the official said.
  • The official noted that the administration is in talks with private sector providers about the possibility of providing wireless LTE communications to the Cuban people.
  • "Given the protest of July 11, it is important for U.S. diplomats to engage directly with the Cuban people and if we can do that in a way that ensures the safety of U.S. personnel, that is something that we will undertake," he said, noting that the president would announce more details later this afternoon.

The details: The president will meet today with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), among other political and community leaders and artists.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an outspoken voice on Cuban issues, is not expected to attend the meeting.
  • The meeting follows a series of engagements by Cedric Richmond and the Office of Public Engagement with the Cuban-American community, the official said.

What they're saying: "We're gonna do everything we can to keep Cuba on the front burner, so we can keep the conversation on the rights of the Cuban people and their rights to manifest peacefully," the official said on the call with reporters.

Be smart: Cuba is a tricky political issue for Democrats, who are split on the matter. The president was defeated by Donald Trump in South Florida during the 2020 election, and Democrats fear similar results, particularly in the upcoming midterms, if they mishandle the situation.

Go deeper: The newly announced sanctions today will follow already imposed sanctions against Cuban officials and entities allegedly responsible for human rights abuses during the government's crackdown on island-wide protests earlier this month.

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