Internal document reveals shortfall in coronavirus supplies — including body bags — in U.S. stockpile

·6 min read

WASHINGTON — More than three months after President Trump stood in front of stacked boxes of medical supplies and promised that “America will be fully prepared for any of the future outbreaks,” the federal government still has shortfalls of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, according to an internal administration document obtained by Yahoo News.

The document, which includes specific numbers of supplies, shows that despite some progress in recent months, the federal government is still unable to provide enough N95 respirator masks, gloves and hospital gowns, among other categories of PPE. Perhaps the most disheartening item on the list is human remains pouches, or body bags.

More than 132,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A patient in a COVID-19 intensive care unit
A patient in a COVID-19 intensive care unit in Houston. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

The July 8 brief prepared for senior leadership by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency details the quantity of supplies requested and received by state, local and tribal authorities. The brief also gives a current inventory of supplies in the National Strategic Stockpile, a federal repository of critical medical supplies.

The National Strategic Stockpile has been a source of controversy since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was widely criticized when he asserted at the beginning of April that “it’s supposed to be our stockpile. It’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use.”

Shortly after those remarks were made, the Department of Health and Human Services edited its website to more closely reflect Kushner’s remarks.

The Trump administration has blamed the Obama administration for leaving the stockpile with low inventory. Trump at one point claimed his administration was left with no ventilators; in fact, there were 16,600.

“The cupboard was bare,” Trump told ABC News in an interview in May. “The other administration, the last administration, left us nothing.”

Donald Trump
Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Even if that was overstated, the U.S. did go into the pandemic with low inventories, and the Trump administration has made progress in a number of areas. But the document obtained by Yahoo News shows the federal government is still not able to meet all the requests from state and local authorities.

For example, while the supply of ventilators has improved over the past few months, it still falls far short of demand across the country, according to the document. There are now about 39,000 ventilators remaining in the stockpile, more than twice as many as at the beginning of the pandemic, but the administration has sent only about 11,500 ventilators to states, a third of the requested number.

N95 respirator masks, one of the highest-profile PPE items, also remain in short supply, though it appears the government has fulfilled most of the demand, providing about 115 million respirators out of the 133 million requested, or about 87 percent.

The remaining stockpile of N95 masks is around 36 million, or less than 12 percent of the 300 million the Trump administration promised to have in the stockpile by the fall.

Among some of the biggest shortfalls are in goggles, which are used to protect medical personnel and first responders from contact with respiratory droplets that transmit the coronavirus. The states have requested almost 5 million pairs of goggles, but fewer than 900,000 have been supplied, or about 18 percent. Only about 330,000 pairs of goggles now remain left in the stockpile.

Body bags also appear to be in short supply. The government has supplied only about 69,000 of the requested 176,000 human remains pouches.

The document does not say how many body bags, if any, remain in the stockpile. Bloomberg first reported in April that the Pentagon was seeking to obtain 100,000 body bags requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the pandemic.

The Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency “has delivered to FEMA approximately 80,352 pouches of the 100,000 ordered,” a Defense Department spokesperson told Yahoo News. “We expect delivery of the remaining pouches to be complete by early August.”

Senior Leadership Brief -  July 8, 2020 (CDC)

“The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) does not have visibility on incoming requests or on how decisions are made to approve these requests for federal assistance,” a spokesperson for HHS wrote. “However, as directed by HHS and FEMA, the SNS has fulfilled 100% of its deployments of personal protective equipment, ventilators and other supplies needed by state, territories, tribal nations and the four largest metropolitan areas in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The role of the SNS is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies, and it can serve as a short-term, stop-gap buffer when immediate supplies are not available or sufficient.”

FEMA in a statement to Yahoo News said that almost a 71,000 body bags have been distributed to state, local and trial authorities, and there has been no actual shortfall since some of the initial requests were reduced or canceled. “FEMA has fulfilled 100 percent of all [State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Governments] requirements,” a spokesperson wrote.

An official with the White House coronavirus task force defended the federal effort, saying it has provided states a substantial supply of essential equipment. “The response is locally executed, state managed and federally supported, so one measure of success is that states have gone from having a 5-day supply of PPE to having 30-to-60-day supplies of PPE,” the official wrote in a message.

There are some bright spots in the numbers. The federal government has met 100 percent or more of the requests for face shields, coveralls and Abbott test kits and devices.

One of the likely reasons the stockpile numbers are low for some items is that the pandemic has grown faster than most experts predicted. Public health officials had initially expressed hope that the lockdown measures in the spring, combined with the warmer summer months, would give the country a reprieve before a second wave.

That has not happened, however, and infection numbers have soared in recent weeks, setting new records. The United States has now recorded more than 3 million cases of infection, the highest in the world.

Thumbnail cover photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images


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