Here’s a very damning but also unsurprising report from the AP. The gist is that the federal government didn’t start placing orders for n95 masks and other PPE until mid-March, just as the country was heading into the COVID-19 maelstrom. To orient ourselves in time this was well after the initial outbreak in Washington state and roughly the period when New York City began to move toward lockdown.
On March 4th, HHS announced its intention to purchase 500 million masks. But according to an AP review of federal purchasing records, the first order wasn’t placed until March 12th for $4.8 million of n95 masks. To put that date in perspective, the last day public schools were open in New York City was March 13th. 36 Americans died from COVID-19 on the same day. A far larger order for $173 million was placed on March 21st. On that date 272 Americans died. Both of these orders were placed through an ordinary commercial process rather than a directive under the Defense Production Act.
This late start provides some context for the aggressive bidding and confiscations of PPE shipments we’ve been discussing in the Editors’ Blog, as well as efforts to argue that the federal emergency stockpile is not meant for the states. It’s hard to quite line up the dates. But it appears that at least some of these states and localities placed their orders for supplies before the federal government started. So the federal government was trying to play catch-up and, it seems, in at least some cases catching up by canceling these states’ orders or even confiscating the orders.