WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials on Thursday blamed a shortfall of N95 masks early in the coronavirus pandemic on mismanagement after the 2009 swine flu pandemic under former President Barack Obama.
The officials, speaking on a White House-organized conference call, said the Trump administration is working to grow the national strategic stockpile of healthcare supplies, which they said was “never replenished” after the H1N1 outbreak.
The call served as counter-programming to Thursday’s testimony to Congress from Rick Bright, a vaccine expert who led a biodefense agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, who said his superiors ignored warnings about the need to prepare ahead of COVID-19.
Bright, ex-director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was feted as a “whistleblower” by Democrats on Capitol Hill but denounced on Twitter by President Trump as a “disgruntled” employee.
A senior administration official told reporters that a shortfall of N95 masks, which filter 95 percent of particles from the air, was due to failure to replenish supplies after H1N1, echoing Trump’s frequent contention that he inherited bare shelves.
“Before H1N1 in 2009, we had over 100 million N95 masks in the stockpile,” an official said. “During that event they handed out 90 million of those masks to the states. They were never replenished. So when we started addressing COVID in January we had 13 million N95 masks in the stockpile. That’s precisely the number we had right after H1N1 in 2009-2010, so it was severely depleted after H1N1 and never replenished.”
The official said the administration is working to grow the stockpile to one billion masks.
“We have an aspiration to eventually have a billion of those. We’re not going to have all of those in the next 90 days for the fall. But we do anticipate having 300 million,” he said.
Bright, testifying Thursday before the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, charged that the US Department of Health and Human Services acted too slowly to the crisis, including by not buying more N95 masks.
Bright led BARDA, which is part of HHS, from late 2016 until April. He worked at the agency since 2010 and acknowledged to lawmakers that for years there were too few protective masks for a pandemic.
“We understood America would face a shortage of N95 respirators for pandemic response in 2007. And we have exercised and known and evaluated that number almost every year since 2007. It was [evaluated] even as late as early as 2019 — August, in [virus simulation] Crimson Contagion — that we would need 3.5 billion N95 respirators in our stockpile to protect our healthcare workers from a pandemic,” he said.
Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in early April to force the company 3M to accelerate production of the masks.
Bright said when he warned federal health officials about a possible shortage of masks early in the coronavirus outbreak, “they indicated if we notice there is a shortage that we will simply change the CDC guidelines to better inform people who should not be wearing those masks so that would save those mass for healthcare workers.” Early in the pandemic, officials including Surgeon General Jerome Adams claimed masks were ineffective in preventing the public from catching the virus. Later, authorities recommended voluntary face coverings.
Bright told lawmakers that masks purchased overseas that currently are used in US hospitals may not give much protection.
“We were forced to procure the supplies from other countries without the right quality standards,” Bright said. “So even our doctors and nurses in the hospitals today are wearing N95 marked masks from other countries that are not providing the sufficient protection that a US standard N95 mask would provide them. Some of those mass for only 30 percent effective. Therefore nurses are rushing in the hospitals thinking they’re protected, and they’re not.”
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