"Never Built To Fight A 50-State Pandemic": DHS Medical Emergency Stockpile Nearly Depleted

In yet more dire outbreak-induced medical supplies shortage news, the federal government's own emergency stockpile of respirator masks, gloves, and ventilators is already nearly depleted. Two Homeland Security Department officials told the Washington Post that crucial supplies kept in the Health and Human Services Department’s Strategic National Stockpile are woefully low and will run out amid the pandemic.

“The stockpile was designed to respond to a handful of cities. It was never built or designed to fight a 50-state pandemic,” one official said. “This is not only a U.S. government problem. The supply chain for PPE worldwide has broken down, and there is a lot of price gouging happening.”

Image source: NPR via Strategic National Stockpile/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The national supply chain has already broken down, indicated by what now seems like daily stories of hospital staff in hard-hit major cities having to reuse protective gear, and in other instances actually attempt to make their own out of things like trash bags and household items.

Though in reporting on the federal emergency stockpile crisis The Washington Post and others are emphasizing rampant price gouging as driving it, creating "a Wild-West-style online marketplace for bulk medical supplies dominated by intermediaries and hoarders who are selling N95 respirator masks and other gear at huge markups" — as the Post put it, it remains that the national shortages are rooted in over-reliance on Chinese manufacturing, which itself in the opening months of this year was ravaged by the coronavirus outbreak, causing the shuttering of factories and disruption of ports.

The resultant huge drop in medical supply imports into the the US (a drop in up to over half normal numbers in the case of crucial supplies like the N95 mask), led to the emergence of instances such as what the AP earlier alarmingly detailed"Doctors, nurses and first responders in the U.S. are resorting to spraying their masks with bleach at the end of each day and hanging them up at home to dry to use for another day, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians." 

All of this has also led to a deeper questioning of the White House narrative in terms of its ability to tap necessary emergency supplies

President Trump said during Tuesday’s White House briefing that the administration has nearly 10,000 ventilators on reserve and that authorities are ready to deploy the lifesaving equipment rapidly to coronavirus hotspots in coming weeks. He also said that large amounts of PPE were being shipped directly from manufacturers to hospitals. But the DHS officials said the stockpile has not been able to handle the load.

Hospitals and states face a real risk of running out of supplies, one of the officials said. “If you can’t protect the people taking care of us, it gets ugly.”

Meanwhile, FEMA officials have indicated the federal government has over $16 billion to purchase needed supplies as a fall-back in the anticipation that the Strategic National Stockpile will be exhausted.

File image: iStock

FEMA spokesperson Janet Montesi told WaPo: “FEMA planning assumptions for COVID-19 pandemic response acknowledged that the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) alone could not fulfill all requirements at the State and tribal level.” 

She added: “The federal government will exhaust all means to identify and attain medical and other supplies needed to combat the virus.”