Winners and losers
While White House officials say the disaster response has been apolitical, the actions they have taken and the words Trump and other Republican politicians have used strongly suggest that political relationships are a key factor in the distribution of equipment.
“Will be immediately sending 100 Ventilators to Colorado at the request of Senator Gardner!” Trump said in an April 8 tweet, referring to one of the handful of Republicans in danger of losing a seat in November.
The state isn’t among the top dozen in per capita or overall infections or deaths from COVID-19, and it actually reduced its request for assistance from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile. But at the time of Gardner’s request, state officials believed FEMA had stepped in to stop 500 ventilators from going into the state — with the end result appearing as if FEMA had stopped Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ attempt to buy 500 ventilators from a private company while the president gave 100 back in the name of a Republican senator he is trying to help politically.
The position of the White House is that the data coming from states has been spotty and that requests don’t always match need, according to senior administration officials familiar with the thinking of the president’s team. They say a major effort is underway to allocate resources based on accurate information from lower levels of government and the private sector. But neither the coronavirus task force nor White House officials have made information about the state-by-state dispersal of resources available to the public.
Gardner’s office did not respond to NBC News’ request for an interview on his efforts to secure lifesaving equipment for his constituents.
Colorado’s Republicans aren’t the only ones crediting White House intervention for their state’s supplies. McSally of Arizona, who has a tough matchup against former astronaut Mark Kelly in November, thanked Trump and Pence publicly for delivering on a request for ventilators.
“I spoke with @realDonaldTrump on Wednesday afternoon to request additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile,” McSally tweeted April 10. “Today, POTUS delivers with 100 ventilators headed to AZ. Thank you to President Trump and @VP for hearing our call.”
During a time of scarcity, the routing of supplies in one direction means they aren’t going somewhere else, and FEMA has priority over other customers under certain circumstances. Local officials in various parts of the country have complained that shipments they were expecting were either seized or rerouted by the federal government.
The city of Phoenix struggled for weeks to get a supply of protective equipment after ordering $4.2 million of goods in late March. Mayor Kate Gallego’s communications director, Annie DeGraw, told NBC News on Wednesday night that the city has been taken care of for two or three weeks. But just last week, Phoenix’s fire chief, Kara Kalbrenner, told NBC affiliate KPNX that Phoenix’s order had been “hijacked” by federal authorities. In similar cases, state and municipal officials have been reluctant to discuss the topic because of their fear that doing so will harm their ability to secure help from the White House.
A FEMA spokesperson said the agency was “not seizing or taking personal protective equipment (PPE) from state or local governments, hospitals, or any entities who are lawfully engaged in transactions through which these resources are distributed.”
“We take all accusations of seizure very seriously and support Attorney General Barr’s Hoarding and Price Gouging Task Force,” the spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News. “If a hospital believes this has happened to them, it should be reported to the governor. If a governor believes that this has happened to their supplies, it should be reported to the FEMA Region. If a company decides to cancel on a state contract in favor of federal one, FEMA will work with the company and the state to resolve the matter in a way that best serves their people.”
Whether it’s the Justice Department’s anti-hoarding unit stopping shipments or companies rerouting them at the behest of a White House task force with control over where much of the private distribution is directed through Project Airbridge, officials at the state and local levels remain deeply frustrated that they can’t tell whether the administration is doing more to help or harm their efforts.
Even in the hardest-hit areas, the federal government’s deals with distributors haven’t led to more protective equipment arriving at hospitals, according to an industry consultant. That’s evident from pictures of health professionals working in garbage bags and homemade masks.
“Something’s not adding up,” the consultant said.
In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine on April 17, Andrew Artenstein, the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health in Massachusetts, described the harrowing experience of going through a broker — and repelling the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security — to get masks for hospital workers.
“Hours before our planned departure, we were told to expect only a quarter of our original order. We went anyway, since we desperately needed any supplies we could get,” Artenstein wrote. “Before we could send the funds by wire transfer, two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrived, showed their badges, and started questioning me. No, this shipment was not headed for resale or the black market.”
Artenstein persuaded the agents to let his team take the boxes of masks back with them, but he learned that the Homeland Security Department was “still considering redirecting our PPE.” It took the intervention of Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the powerful chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, to put the question to rest.
“Once he was in touch with the various federal agencies, they were accommodating and released the equipment to Baystate,” Dylan Opalich, a spokeswoman for Neal, said in an email to NBC News.
Meanwhile, in Florida — a state that is crucial to Trump’s plans for winning re-election — DeSantis has had difficulty with such “gray market” transactions, but he hasn’t had a problem getting what he wants from the administration. Last week, he said Florida was due to receive 1 million N95 masks from the federal government after he sought help from the president’s team.
“That’s been a real, real problem,” DeSantis said of finding quality goods at a reasonable price on the open market, “but I’m glad we were able to work this out with the White House.”
Allen reported from Washington, McCausland reported from New York and Farivar reported from Oakland, California.