Apr 8, 2020 - Health

Scoop: Trump administration plan to provide millions of free face masks fizzled

Photo: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Top Trump administration officials had been developing a plan to give cloth masks to huge numbers of Americans, but the idea lost traction amid heavy internal skepticism.

The big picture: The scale of this undertaking would have been extraordinary, mobilizing an enormous public-private partnership to deliver protective cloth masks to millions of people — in one iteration of the idea, maybe even to every American.

Details: Administration officials had considered a partnership in which Hanes and Fruit of the Loom manufactured millions of cloth face masks and the U.S. Postal Service would have helped deliver them.

  • Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, was the key driver of the idea and had vocal support from deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger.
  • The idea came up a few weekends ago during a coronavirus task force meeting in the Situation Room while Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was briefing the team on Hanes' decision to start making cotton masks. 

Kadlec seized upon and later expanded the concept, arguing for a partnership among Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and the Postal Service. He wanted to publicly announce the proposal in conjunction with the then-upcoming federal guidance encouraging people to wear masks.

  • "If CDC is going to recommend face coverings, the government should at least provide them for its citizens," a former senior HHS official familiar with the discussion said.

Where it stands: Hanes has already announced that it's retooling its factories to make masks for health care workers to help alleviate shortages. But Kadlec's idea for a bigger partnership has been tabled.

  • "It's passed from different entities at the White House and has been a dying a slow death," said one source familiar with the situation.

Several senior officials opposed the idea, questioning its practicality.

  • "It's not clear they have thought through the costs, the logistics of how this would work, or whether this is a wise idea in the first place," one senior official said.

What they're saying: "Making these masks and getting them out is not complicated. If government leaders think this is too hard, how can we trust them to safely reopen our economy?" the former senior HHS official said.

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