The first alarms sounded in early January that the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China would ignite a global pandemic.
But the U.S. squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Purchasing contracts reviewed by The Associated Press show that federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers.
Hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile. That federal cache of supplies was created more than 20 years ago to help bridge gaps in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chains during a national emergency.
Now, three months into the crisis, that stockpile is nearly drained just as the number of patients needing critical care is surging. Some state and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks.
As early as mid-January, U.S. officials could see that hospitals in China’s Hubei province were overwhelmed with infected patients, with many left dependent on ventilator machines to breathe. Italy soon followed, with hospitals scrambling for doctors, beds and equipment.
HHS did not respond to questions about why federal officials waited to order medical supplies until stocks were running critically low. But President Donald Trump has asserted that the federal government should take a back seat to states when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.
President Trump and his appointees have urged state and local governments, and hospitals, to buy their own masks and breathing machines, saying requests to the dwindling national stockpile should be a last resort.