One month ago, as COVID-19 spread across the county and critical personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves, surgical gowns and face shields continued to be in short supply, I had hoped the government would do its job and act to meet this demand. But when news outlets reported that medical workers were being left vulnerable to infection without PPE, it was clear we couldn’t wait for the Trump administration any longer.
A small group of volunteers came together to found Masks for America and teamed up with leading health care activist Ady Barkan’s Be A Hero Fund, Social Security Works and National Nurses United to get our front-line heroes the equipment they needed to stay safe as they saved lives.
As the federal government failed to provide essential equipment, our small group of volunteers has successfully delivered nearly 200,000 FDA-certified, CDC-approved KN95 masks to front-line workers in hard hit areas — New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico — in just a matter of weeks. But it wasn’t easy, because when the federal government finally decided to act, it wasn’t the way we’d expected. Instead of helping us, they seized some of our PPE shipments without telling us where they were taking them.
Unprecedented federal interference
On April 11, during the peak of COVID-19 cases and deaths in New York City, the Federal Emergency Management Agency intervened and demanded orders of medical equipment allocated to our relief efforts be redirected to the federal government. FEMA then seized 50,000 N95 respirators we had ordered without giving us an explanation or telling us where those respirators were going.
In my 15 years of working in the manufacturing industry with international and domestic supply chains, I have never — never — had the federal government interfere like this.
Workers unload a donation of medical supplies at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County, Maryland, on April 28, 2020.
It wasn’t long before I realized it wasn’t only happening in New York and New Jersey. FEMA confiscated San Francisco’s PPE order as it went through Customs, even as the Trump administration told states and cities to procure their own equipment rather than rely on the federal government. Since those reports of FEMA quietly seizing materials, at least six states have lodged similar complaints against the federal government interfering with their supply chains.
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It is not illegal for the government to seize and distribute medical shipments through the Defense Production Act, yet our government has failed to be transparent with the public about how and why it is redistributing the resources of cities, states and private organizations like ours.
The struggle to secure PPE and medical supplies isn’t just a failure of leadership in our government but also an unsustainable supply chain issue that has been bubbling just under the surface for years.
Bring manufacturing back to America
Over the past two decades, I’ve fought as our nation off-shored millions of American manufacturing jobs overseas. Most PPE and other medical equipment is now made in China, which has lead to increased difficulty for the government to produce and distribute crucial resources during a disaster. This, in addition to FEMA’s track record of inefficiency and failure to provide adequate disaster relief, has led to the government’s shortage and is likely why they’re taking equipment from a small volunteer-driven coalition that was able to leverage its resources and know-how to do the job they couldn’t do.
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International production lines are taking weeks to deliver the resources we need to keep people alive. If we were manufacturing PPE and medical supplies in the United States, it would take mere days to deliver protection to frontline essential workers where it’s needed. Reshoring the production of PPE and other essential public health resources permanently could also bring millions of good manufacturing jobs home, at a time when more than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment.
As we pass 1.4 million confirmed U.S. cases of COVID-19 and 87,000 deaths, with thousands more projected daily, it’s clearer than ever that we as a nation will need to hold our government accountable for the series of systemic failures that led us to the point of FEMA seizing PPE from nurses, state governments and non-profit relief efforts without explanation or transparency.
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While there is much to learn from this ongoing pandemic, one thing is clear — for our nation’s public health and national security, Congress must take immediate action to reshore PPE and medical supply production lines back into the United States. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be vulnerable, doomed to repeat the deadly missteps of this pandemic.
Bob Bland is founder of Masks for America, leader of the Women’s March and a manufacturing and supply chain expert as a founder of Manufacture New York. Follow her on Twitter: @bobblanddesign
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus outrage: Trump FEMA seized masks I sent to health workers