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N95 Masks in Short Supply, Because 2009 Warnings Unheeded: Activate Defense Production Act!

March 12, 2020 (EIRNS)—A shortage of N95 respirator masks has raised alarm bells among healthcare workers and others dealing with coronavirus patients. According to McClatchy news service, even President Donald Trump admitted yesterday that “unfortunately, at present, public health experts anticipate shortages in the supply of personal respiratory devices available for use by healthcare workers in mitigating further transmission.” He ordered Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar “to take all appropriate and necessary steps” to increase emergency availability.

Facing a shortage of N95 masks, Washington State, for example, has turned to the Strategic National Stockpile, where drugs and medical supplies are stored, to request 233,000 respirators. An official with the National Stockpile told McClatchy that the cache currently holds roughly 13 million N95 respirators and 30 million surgical masks, along with other personal protective equipment for deployment into areas in need.

However, McClatchy elaborated, Stockpile officials are urging states to first tap their own supplies, including some respirators that have exceeded their shelf lives.

Nota bene: The Washington Post reported today, that in mid-2009, in response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the Strategic National Stockpile deployed more than 85 million N95 respirators. At that point, the International Safety Equipment Association, the trade group representing manufacturers of personal protective equipment, called for “urgent action” to restock the N95 masks, warning that in the event of another pandemic, there would be “significant shortages.”

Nothing was done, however. Due to budgetary constraints, officials in charge of the Stockpile decided the priority should be on lifesaving drugs and equipment for both diseases and natural disasters.

Absent activation of the Defense Production Act, austerity and bean counting appear to have prevailed. For example, McClatchy reports, administrators of the Strategic Stockpile say they will carefully evaluate future requests from states, “to ensure that health care workers—and not others—are the true recipients of the supplies.” According to Stockpile officials, HHS has recently committed to the purchase of 500 million additional N95 masks so as to encourage manufacturers to ramp up production, but now with the guarantee that they will not be left with excess supplies. The Trump Administration is reportedly pushing Democrats and Republicans to approve emergency legislation that will protect mask manufacturers from lawsuits should their products fail to protect from infection from COVID-19.

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