Hundreds of millions of cloth face masks shipped to U.S. agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private companies by the Trump administration appear to have been allocated in a haphazard fashion, raising questions about inequitable distribution in the effort to beat back the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the $675 million program, businesses and other entities were provided with supplies of the free, reusable masks that in some cases far exceeded their needs, according to a STAT review of an administration document identifying more than 60,000 recipients. A charter school with roughly 140 students in Florida, for instance, received 37,500 masks. In other cases, corporations with vast resources, including a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company, also received tens of thousands of the masks.
In all, 650 million masks were ordered from U.S. underwear and apparel manufacturers as part of the program; that number of masks would have been enough to give almost every American two apiece.
“You know, we ordered — I don’t know if you know — 500 million face masks,” President Trump told reporters on April 22. “We have hundreds of millions right now.”
Without an existing logistics network to allocate the masks, the administration had to scramble to distribute them during an unprecedented crisis, when commercial products were not yet plentiful. Still, the program reflects the broader disarray that has marked much of the administration’s response to the pandemic.
The decisions of how to allocate and distribute the masks fell to various federal and state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which funded the program. The criteria used to make the decisions are unclear.
The program ceased accepting new requests about six weeks after it was unveiled in the spring, due to overwhelming demand. That demand has subsequently been met by various manufacturers.
“It was always going to look like madness, especially in the early days,” said Juliette Kayyem, who was assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration and is now faculty director of the homeland security project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“But given the price of this manufacturing and distribution plan … if you can’t find a method to the madness a few months later, it may mean it’s all madness,” she said. “Where did those masks actually go?”
Both HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was involved in the allocation and distribution of the masks, declined requests for interviews on Wednesday.
In an email, an HHS spokesperson said requests for masks were “vetted and prioritized as they came in,” with requests “from community, civic, and government organizations serving the populations at greatest risk and those with essential workers, such as critical infrastructure sectors pushed to the front of the line.”
The spokesman said state agencies and HHS divisions “that serve vulnerable populations” were also involved in the prioritization.
Indeed, food banks and organizations that serve the homeless or low-income communities received millions of masks. Long-term care facilities and dialysis clinics were also major recipients, including one large provider that did not ask for them and had alternate plans for supplying masks.
“While we were not expecting these cloth masks, we appreciate HHS’s continued efforts to help protect our patients and the caregivers who support them,” DaVita Kidney Care, whose dialysis centers around the country got nearly 600,000 masks, said in a statement to STAT. “We use surgical masks inside our centers, for both patients and health care professionals, to help keep everyone safe.”
Trade associations representing broadcasters across the country were also major recipients of the masks. Nearly 656,000 masks were distributed to broadcaster associations in 40 states and Puerto Rico; communications was one of the essential sectors highlighted in the HHS alert advising that the masks were available. “YES we got the masks as ordered. Actually more than we ordered but that will work out well as the state is now under a mandatory mask order,” Karole White, executive director of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, wrote in an email.
The document reviewed by STAT was provided by HHS and includes the names of recipients, the sector of each, and the number of masks that were provided in each case. It is also rife with data anomalies — many recipients are listed by the incorrect state, for instance — making a detailed analysis difficult. In some cases so little information is given that it’s impossible to know who the recipient actually was.
Some of the entities that received masks are misidentified by sector. A beekeeping company called Bonnie’s Bees, for instance, was listed as being in the “emergency services” category. A person who answered the phone at the company hung up when a STAT reporter called to ask about the 500 masks it obtained.
Many organizations received merely 500 masks. But some — oil giant Chevron, for example — is listed as having received 40 allocations of 500 masks apiece, as well as several larger orders. It’s unclear based on the document whether those masks went to corporate offices or individual gas stations. Chevron is listed as receiving 77,500 masks in total, most of them going to Florida.
The drug company Bristol Myers Squibb is listed as getting 96,000 masks. A company spokesperson told STAT that as part of an agreement with FEMA, the Chemistry Council of New Jersey offered the masks, “stipulating use for staff located in New Jersey. The masks were delivered to essential research workers at our Lawrenceville, New Brunswick and Summit sites.”
Bais Yaakov Academy for Girls, in Kew Gardens, in New York City, has roughly 800 students and 150 staff. “They told us we could apply for up to 50,000, so we applied for 50,000. And we got them,” an administrative assistant in the school, who identified herself only as Mrs. Cohen, said Wednesday.
Cohen did not know if the school had to justify why it should get so many masks, given the size of its student body; she said someone else submitted the application. “Believe it or not, masks disappear quickly. They are small items.”
The allocation for the Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts in Fort Worth, Texas, was substantially larger — 150,000 masks. William Girón, the center’s executive director, said that was more than he had asked for.
Girón requested masks after receiving an email from the city of Fort Worth with a link to a federal website about the program. The center has already distributed some of its share to other organizations, giving 64,500 to “a combination of schools, the local nonprofits, and churches,” including several thousand that went to the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
He said the center will be giving away more masks at the end of the month during a back-to-school supplies event.
Federal, state, and local government departments and agencies were among the recipients, as were many tribal councils across the country. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is listed as having received 175,000.) Government departments and private companies involved in essential services — waste management, emergency services, transportation, and food production — were also recipients, as were churches, charitable organizations, and schools.
While a number of small grocery stores appear to have figured out the masks were available, large poultry production operations, which have experienced large Covid-19 outbreaks, did not seem to avail themselves of the program in a significant way.
Some universities were among the mask recipients. In late June, Florida State University received two shipments, each of which had 50,000 masks. The university had ordered the masks through an HHS.gov email address, which it learned about through the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“Initially, faculty and staff were issued two cloth coverings each and students five each,” Dennis Schnittker, a Florida State University spokesperson, said in an email to STAT. “They are in the process of being distributed now based upon when the community returns back to campus.”
Airports were major recipients of the masks. Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta received more than 4 million white cloth masks in June. A spokesperson told STAT that the airport had not asked for the masks; instead, the Federal Aviation Administration told the airport that it would be receiving about 4.7 million face coverings. (The spokesperson said the FAA did not mention which program provided the masks.)
“Masks are distributed daily in the domestic and international terminals to customers and employees. Boxes of masks are in secure storage and are delivered to the airport as needed,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the FAA determined how many masks to give the airport “based on the number of passengers.” Atlanta’s airport saw more than 110 million passengers in 2019; about 63,000 employees work there.
At least one organization listed as having been given masks is still waiting to receive them. The public works department in Carson City, Nev., applied for masks on the advice of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade group. The HHS document suggests the department has received 12,000 masks, but director Darren Schulz said he was still waiting.
“We have received no masks, and we have received no correspondence other than they have received our requests,” he said.
Schulz said the masks would be supplied to city employees, the local school district, nonprofits, and businesses if and when they show up.
“Maybe the fact that we’re on a spreadsheet means we’re getting them soon and that would be wonderful news,” he said.
Where is STAT? This is my first time reading a STAT article.
Much of STAT has become a playpen for recent journalism school graduates who have not been able to secure jobs at the New York Times.
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