As shortage worsens, federal officials ask agencies to donate spare medical supplies
By TODD C. FRANKEL AND LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: April 7, 2020
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WASHINGTON — Even as the nation's strategic stockpile runs low on critical hospital supplies, federal agencies are discovering stashes of N95 respirator masks and protective body suits in darkened government labs, federal health clinics and storage spaces across the country, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post.
The critical gear had been purchased by the U.S. government for its routine work of investigating chemical spills, inspecting power plants, conducting wellness exams or working in hazardous environments — any of the regular jobs performed by federal employees, at least until the novel coronavirus pandemic hit.
Now, with much of that work on hold, a major push is underway to redistribute these medical supplies — what is known as personal protective equipment (PPE) — to hospital staffs and emergency responders.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it had found 225,000 pieces of medical supplies that it planned to share. The Energy and Agriculture departments also have uncovered supplies. The National Archives turned up masks and full-body protective suits. Even the Internal Revenue Service recently discovered it had 50,000 respirator masks — leftovers from past influenza and anthrax scares.
No one knows exactly how much spare protective gear is sitting in federal agencies — whether it is to be counted in the hundreds of thousands or the millions. But as the need for the supplies grows more desperate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House budget office are pushing to find it.
But the effort has been delayed by problems, too. Some federal agencies have struggled to donate items they've located, stymied by red tape and an apparent lack of adequate coordination within the government's emergency response, according to interviews with agency officials and documents reviewed by The Post.
The head of one agency wrote two weeks ago to staff that "General Counsels across the government are citing problems" getting FEMA to take their equipment, according to a copy of an email that was shared with The Post with the understanding that the agency would not identified.
"Everyone is having the same problem," said a senior official at the agency, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly. "It's ridiculous."
FEMA is in charge of the government's coronavirus supply lines. The White House's budget office has recently taken a role in identifying agencies that have supplies to donate.
FEMA in a statement to The Post denied it was having problems coordinating medical equipment donations from government agencies.
FEMA spokeswoman Janet Montesi said the agency "has coordinated multiple agencies efforts to find points of need across the nation" and "is actively working with [the U.S. General Services Administration] to request all federal department/agencies re-examine their stocks and determine if they have any PPE available that they can donate to this ongoing crisis." The GSA oversees all federal real estate and buildings.
At the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a tiny federal agency with fewer than 600 employees, officials identified a small stockpile of 150 respirator masks, plus loads of gloves, safety glasses and full-body protective suits. The items normally would be used in the CPSC's lab in Rockville, Maryland.
That's where it was still sitting Friday — more than a week after the agency first tried to alert FEMA.
"Our PPE is packed up and ready for distribution to those who need it most," Robert Adler, the agency's acting chairman, said in a statement, "as soon as we are told where to send it."
Another agency commissioner, Peter Feldman, even tweeted a photo of the agency's PPE supply more than a week ago, noting the CPSC "is exploring with @FEMA on how to get these supplies to frontline healthcare workers and should do so quickly!"
On Friday afternoon, after The Post's inquiries about the delay, a FEMA official called the CPSC to say FEMA has a plan for taking the agency's medical gear, according to a CPSC official.
At NASA, which has more than 17,000 workers, a decision about what to do with a "very limited supply of PPE has not yet been made," said spokeswoman Karen Northon, leaving unaddressed questions about whether FEMA has contacted the agency.
Other agencies seem to have crafted their own solutions without waiting for FEMA.
At the National Archives and Records Administration, gear normally used by preservation and conservation specialists was in the process of being donated in recent days to emergency workers in Washington, St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco.
The plan started a couple of weeks ago with workers at the agency's motion picture preservation lab in College Park, Maryland. Their idea reached Calvin Shoulders, the agency's property management officer, who said in an interview he phoned a contact at the General Services Administration, who cleared the way for the items to be handed off.
"I'm just so glad they're going somewhere useful," said Heidi Holmstrom, who works at the motion picture preservation lab.
At the end of March, after two weeks of warnings about the nationwide PPE shortage, the White House budget office sent out an email to ask agencies about what they had on hand.
The email, seen by The Post, asks the agencies to fill out a spreadsheet listing dozens of medical supplies that are desperately needed, including respirators, gowns, ventilators and tubing for oxygen.
The information was to be shared with FEMA's National Response Coordination Center, according to the email.
A White House budget office spokeswoman and a Health and Human Services Department spokesperson declined to comment.
The inquiry from the budget office, which oversees federal agency operations and holds a daily call with senior officials on their pandemic response, so far has turned up massive numbers of masks across the government, a senior administration official said, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk.
"All of these departments and agencies have stuff they're not currently using," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the administration's pandemic response. "We're asking them, if you know what you may not be using, if you have material, can you do an accounting of what you have that [Health and Human Services] needs?"
As alarm grew in recent weeks about hospital staff dealing with insufficient safety supplies, officials across the government began to discuss what equipment they have, how much they probably needed and how to donate what they could. But officials want to make sure they were moving ahead legally, and this has led to paralysis in some offices, federal employees said.
"People are kind of like, 'We want to do the right thing,'" said one occupational health manager whose team trains employees at several agencies to use protective equipment on the job. "But agencies are struggling a bit. Can I morally give away expired gear if it doesn't work? Should we contact our lawyers to make sure it's legal to donate?"
Agencies have no formal policies in place to guide them to decide when their on-hand protective equipment should be repurposed for an emergency, so officials are struggling to make quick decisions on what they can let go of and keep, knowing they will have to ask Congress for more money to replace what they donate, said Chris Meekins, former deputy assistant secretary overseeing public health emergencies at Health and Human Services.
"There's no doubt that a ton of masks can be repurposed," Meekins said, "but it's a difficult balancing act. The challenge is to respond to this emergency and, on the flip side, prepare for what unexpected threat may come next."
Thousands of respirator masks also sit in closets in health clinics designated for federal employees and located in federal buildings across the country. The 298 ambulatory care clinics are run by the Federal Occupational Health agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Most are staffed by a nurse, with weekly hours when a physician is present.
The staff received an email in early March from occupational health officials telling them that "in light of" the coronavirus, new orders of masks would still be delivered to them, according to an email reviewed by The Post.
Each clinic could have as many as 400 masks on hand, employees said.
But more than half of the clinics have closed in recent weeks as agencies sent their employees home to work remotely, according to current and former occupational health staff.
The clinic at the Government Accountability Office headquarters in downtown Washington remains open to serve a skeletal crew of "critical on site employees" of the GAO, the Army Corps of Engineers and five Justice Department offices.
GAO spokesman Charles Young said the agency doesn't know how many face masks the occupational health office may have in the clinic.
"But if there are any that are not being utilized, we would certainly welcome the Health Service sharing them, to the greatest extent possible, to meet the federal government's most pressing needs wherever those may be," Young said in an email.