Progressives on Saturday denounced an "infuriating" report which detailed the Department of Health and Human Services' refusal to take an American company up on its offer to supply millions of N95 respirators to the government early on in the coronavirus pandemic.
The Washington Post reported that federal scientist Rick Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint last week over his demotion following his criticism of the Trump administration's response to the pandemic, detailed communications with Prestige Ameritech in January in which HHS ignored the medical supply company's offer to produce masks.
The head of the Ft. Worth-based company, Michael Bowen, wrote to HHS on January 23, two days after the U.S. confirmed its first case of Covid-19.
Bowen offered to use four dormant production lines to produce as many as seven million N95 masks per month, but was told by Laura Wolf, director of the Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection at HHS, "I don't believe we as a government are anywhere near answering those questions for you yet."
"We are the last major domestic mask company," replied Bowen, who at the time was fulfilling orders for masks from all over the world. "My phones are ringing now, so I don't 'need' government business. I'm just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad."
In Bright's whistleblower complaint, he described how he tried to direct Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec's attention to Bowen's offer in late January. Bowen wrote to Bright following his communications with Wolf that "U.S. mask supply is at imminent risk," and adding a blunt warning: "Rick, I think we’re in deep shit."
Bright demanded to know from Kadlec why Bowen's offer had fallen "on deaf ears."
"We have been watching and receiving warnings on this for over a week," the scientist wrote.
The agency's refusal to take Bowen up on his offer early on helped lead to a crisis weeks later, as healthcare workers across the country reported severe shortages of N95 masks as well as other personal protective equipment needed to stop the spread of Covid-19 in healthcare settings. As the Trump administration denied several times that it was responsible for making sure states had the supplies they needed, states were forced in bidding wars with one another over equipment orders that they placed directly with manufacturers.
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The details Bright offered in his whistleblower complaint painted a picture of "criminal negligence," wrote New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples.
Criminal negligence: The U.S. government turned down a Texas company’s offer to provide millions of N95 protective masks https://t.co/vfwK4bWRcE
— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) May 9, 2020
Others on social media expressed shock at the Post's report.
When incompetence becomes cruelty. We have to fire them all.
Prestige Ameritech offered to make millions of N95 masks in Texas. The government turned him down.. - The Washington Post https://t.co/9cfpUKOWLn
— Andy Richter (@AndyRichter) May 9, 2020
This is horrifying: in the early days of the pandemic, the US government turned down the chance to manufacture millions of N95 masks in America. https://t.co/2FUFm6a0pE
— Michael Birnbaum (@michaelbirnbaum) May 9, 2020
"I don't even have words to describe how poorly Donald Trump has handled this crisis," wrote Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) in response to the story.
In addition to pressing HHS officials on Bowen's offer, Bright was critical of President Donald Trump's promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. The scientist had also clashed with Kadlec earlier in Trump's term, when Kadlec urged Bright to transfer $40 million from Bright's department at HHS to the Strategic National Stockpile in 2018 to purchase a drug made by manufacturer Alvogen, the client of a lobbyist who had connections to the Trump administration.
On Friday, a federal probe found that there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that the Trump administration unlawfully retaliated against Bright by demoting him.