Coronavirus crisis makes unlikely heroes: State procurement officials scrambling for supplies — and hoping not to get scammed

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Danny Mays has a phrase for the way things used to be, before thousands of Americans started dying each day from COVID-19 and everyone else stayed in their homes: blue-sky days.

Mays, 36, is the director of procurement for the state of Maryland. Until a month ago, that job meant he was making deals for the state on everything from construction jobs to software and technology. But now it’s all medical equipment, all the time.

Mays’s job has shifted into overdrive, as he and the 38 people who report to him have scrambled to compete with other states and countries in a mad dash to obtain medical supplies: N95 respirators, surgical masks, gloves and gowns, ventilators and face masks.

In an hourlong interview, Mays described days that start at 7 a.m. with the first of several conference calls, and stretch late into the night as he and others try to nail down deals with suppliers for products that are mostly manufactured in China. The U.S. imports most of its medical supplies from China. The 12-hour time difference means a lot of his most important work starts in the evening. “There is no 9-to-5 anymore.”

Danny Mays. (Facebook)

There are several challenges facing state officials like Mays, who in a war metaphor would be the logistics officer making sure that frontline combat troops — in this case health care workers — have the equipment they need. Urgent demand and lack of centralized purchasing in the U.S. have put intense pressure on his team to close deals quickly without getting cheated by scam artists. Most contracts now call for deposits before shipping, making vetting of suppliers a continual concern.

“In blue-sky days the state doesn’t prepay for anything,” Mays said. “In China right now to secure orders, we’re seeing 50 percent or more deposits required to secure these orders. If you don’t get into that space and compete in that space, then New York is going to get the items or Florida is going to or someone is.”

Costs are skyrocketing. “Pricing on ventilators is through the roof,” Mays said. They’ve gone from $18,000 each to $50,000 a pop. In a normal year, a blue-sky year, Mays said his office will spend about $1 billion on all the contracts he executes. He said it will spend that much, easily, just on the coronavirus crisis.

His office has to field a flood of inquiries from would-be middlemen without experience in medical supplies, seeking to cash in on the bonanza — or just to keep their businesses alive.

“We’re getting hundreds of vendors hitting us up every hour telling us they can sell us what we need, and we know that’s not true given how volatile the supply chain is,” Mays said. “Event management companies … now they’re going to their suppliers that usually make touring equipment and scaffolding and saying, ‘Do you have any suppliers who make N95 masks?’”

“They’re trying to keep themselves in business. Everybody’s trying to enter this space because this is the only space generating revenue right now, this and DoorDash,” Mays said.

At first, Mays tried to manage the incoming inquiries through his own email, but drowned under the 1,000 or so that were coming in daily. Since then, the Maryland Department of Emergency Management has set up a central email that vendors can go through, and it has a triage team that weeds through those emails and forwards promising leads on to Mays and his team. He’s down now to dealing with a mere 50 a day.

Mays’s 7 a.m. call includes a small group, and is run by Ellington Churchill, the secretary of general services. They discuss “what was done yesterday, what didn’t get all the way done,” Mays said. Churchill reports that information to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

At 9 a.m., Mays is on his second call of the day with the senior leadership of the State Procurement Office. And then, at 11 a.m., he hops on a teleconference with the 38 procurement officers who report to him.

“Can’t stress enough how hard my team is working and how proud I am of them. Especially having to do all this remotely when we really were not set up to do so,” he said.

After lunch, he’s on a 1 p.m. call with others on his team to prepare for a 2 p.m. call that is the largest virtual gathering of the day. It encompasses the state’s surge capacity action team, which brings together hospital representatives and others from the health care sector with a range of state government officials like Mays and from other agencies like emergency management.

Hogan began the surge capacity calls about a month ago, Mays said, and they take place seven days a week. The goal is making sure all the state’s hospitals are ready for an influx of patients suffering from COVID-19.

That 2 p.m. call triggers one more flurry of calls between Mays and his colleagues to discuss what to act on based on what needs seem most pressing. And then the afternoon and evening are for dealmaking and deal-breaking. “Sometimes I’m the wet blanket,” Mays said. “I’m the one that has to go, ‘I’m not rolling with this. I don’t feel comfortable with this. This doesn’t check out.’”

“If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is: if large suppliers don’t have something but some guy in his basement does.”

Officials at the Maryland Department of Commerce and the state’s Housing and Development agency are helping Mays’s team decipher which brokers are acting in bad faith — or don’t have the know-how and might be suckers for someone else posing as a manufacturer — and which ones actually have the relationships and experience to obtain medical equipment. Mays and his team are also in touch with contacts in China who further help them vet the business entities they are dealing with.

“We haven’t been scammed,” Mays said. But he said many companies trying to jump into the medical equipment business might be taken for a ride “by overseas suppliers that are not legitimate.”

It’s still too early, he said, to know which suppliers will be its most reliable partners. “We’ve still got larger orders out there that haven’t been delivered yet — some from known suppliers and some from new suppliers that we’ve vetted. The ones that have delivered are the ones we’re going to go back to.”

His biggest mandate is to build a 90-day supply of medical equipment for the 250-bed field hospital at the Baltimore Convention Center, which will begin taking patients who are recovering from COVID-19 in a few weeks.

He said that donations and offers of help from private sector businesses have been crucial in easing immediate needs, which gives him time to focus on building capacity for the medium and long term.

Mays and his wife have a 10-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son. Working from home on such an intense schedule has been a strain on his family, he said.

“I’ve definitely had some regrets about how unplugged and irritable I’ve been. But they understand the importance,” he said.

Mays was supposed to take his daughter to Wrestlemania in Tampa last week. He’s a big professional wrestling fan who also plays bass in a band that plays cover songs from the 1990s.

His daughter, Mays said, is “very worried, very confused. … She sees how stressed out I am.”

After his years of dealing with contracts for asphalt and cleaning services, the current crisis is taking a toll on him, although he and his team remain “laser-focused” on doing the best job for his state.

“We’re talking about lives, which is not something we’re used to dealing with. It’s kind of a heavy thing to take on.”

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