U.S. medical supply chains failed, and COVID deaths followed




, U.S. medical supply chains failed, and COVID deaths followed

Nurse Sandra Oldfield’s affected person did not have the same old signs of COVID-19 — but. However then he examined optimistic for the virus, and it was clear that Oldfield — a veteran, 53-year-old caregiver — had been uncovered.

She was despatched house by Kaiser Permanente officers with directions to maintain cautious notes on her situation. And he or she did.

“Temperature 97.1,” she wrote on March 26, her first log entry. Regular.

She and her colleagues stated that they had felt unsafe at work and had raised considerations with their managers. They wanted N95 masks, highly effective safety in opposition to contracting COVID-19. Kaiser Permanente had none for Sandra Oldfield. As an alternative, she was issued a much less efficient surgical masks, leaving her weak to the lethal virus.

Many others have been equally weak, and never simply at this 169-bed hospital in Fresno. From the very second the pandemic reached America’s shores, the nation was unprepared. Hospitals, nursing houses and different well being care services did not have the masks and tools wanted to guard their staff. Some bought sick and unfold the virus. Some died.

The Related Press and “FRONTLINE” launched a seven-month investigation — submitting Freedom of Data Act requests, testing medical masks, interviewing dozens of specialists from hard-hit hospitals to the White Home — to grasp what was behind these important shortages.

Medical provide chains that span oceans and continents are the delicate lifelines between uncooked supplies and producers abroad, and healthcare staff on COVID-19 entrance strains within the U.S. As hyperlink after hyperlink broke, the system fell aside.

This catastrophic collapse was one of many nation’s most consequential failures to manage the virus. And it wasn’t sudden: For many years, politicians and company officers ignored warnings concerning the dangers related to America’s overdependence on international manufacturing, and a scarcity of satisfactory preparation at house, the AP and “FRONTLINE” discovered.

Because the pandemic rolled into the U.S., Asian factories shut down, halting exports of medical provides to the U.S. In the meantime, authorities stockpiles have been depleted from a flu outbreak a decade earlier, and there was no option to quickly restock. The federal authorities dangerously suggested individuals to not put on masks, trying to protect the provision for well being care staff. Counterfeits flooded the market.

Now, with greater than 210,000 People lifeless and the president himself contaminated with the virus, the U.S. grieves the results. And nurses are nonetheless being advised to reuse masks designed to be thrown away after every affected person.

At house together with her aged canine Freckles at her aspect, Sandra Oldfield acknowledged the signs as she recorded them in her log over 11 days:


“Weak point”


She misplaced her urge for food. Her handwriting grew shaky. Somebody known as an ambulance. Others got here for her pets.


Though it would take years for researchers to grasp why the pandemic was disproportionately worse within the U.S., early research that examine completely different international locations’ responses are discovering that shortages of masks, gloves, robes, shields, testing kits and different medical provides certainly price lives.

The dearth of early testing was a serious stumble. First, the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention’s assessments have been defective. Then there weren’t sufficient. The Meals and Drug Administration raced to approve extra assessments, however with out entry to low cost, disposable swabs — made virtually fully in Italy and now in very quick provide — they have been ineffective. U.S. public well being departments’ worst fears have been shortly realized.

Chrissie Juliano, govt director of the Massive Cities Well being Coalition, a discussion board of the biggest public well being departments, stated the shortage of accessible details about the precise burden of the virus “set our nation’s response again by an order of magnitude we’ll by no means know.”

In the meantime, research in nursing houses — in China, Washington state and throughout the U.S. — discovered that COVID-19 instances have been considerably larger in locations with shortages of private protecting tools, or PPE. Harvard Medical College professor Dr. Andrew T. Chan and colleagues discovered well being care staff who did not have satisfactory PPE had a 30% better probability of an infection than colleagues with sufficient provides. Black, Hispanic and Asian staffers had the very best threat of catching COVID-19, they discovered.

A College of California, Berkeley research estimated that a minimum of 35% of well being care and different important staff in California who examined optimistic for COVID-19 have been contaminated at work, amid shortages.

“And these are unacceptable deaths, every of which may have been prevented if we had had satisfactory provide chains in place upfront of the pandemic,” stated UC Berkeley Professor William Dow.

Dow and his colleagues say there can be huge financial savings, in lives and tax dollars, if the federal government invested extra in shopping for and storing stockpiles of provides.

“It is a case the place no particular person well being care group is massive sufficient to maneuver the market and induce suppliers to spend money on these sorts of provide chains,” stated Dow. “So the federal government wants to have the ability to go in and assure a specific amount of purchases in order that will probably be within the self-interest of every one in all these producers to be prepared to place within the investments into that provide chain.”


In 2005, newly appointed secretary of the Division of Well being and Human Providers Mike Leavitt started ringing pandemic alarm bells after a disturbing briefing from the CDC a few probably deadly virus.

“Their concern was that it will start to mutate in a manner that will enable it to go from animal to individual after which individual to individual. And as soon as it achieved that capability, it was a pandemic virus,” stated Leavitt.

He went to the White Home and advised President George W. Bush, who rolled out at $7.1 billion pandemic preparedness plan. Leavitt, a Republican, spent the subsequent three years touring to all 50 states, warning well being officers to prepare by stockpiling six to eight weeks of masks, gloves and different provides.

If America’s provide chains have been crippled or compromised, he cautioned, it will exacerbate the devastation of a pandemic.

In conferences, panels, even graduation addresses, Leavitt suggested public officers to provide you with again up plans. However they did not.

“Over time, when the snake just isn’t at your ankle, you are frightened about different issues which are harmful. And this isn’t only a operate of our era. This has been the case in nearly each pandemic in human historical past,” stated Leavitt.

The AP and “FRONTLINE” spoke with members of the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who have been chargeable for pandemic preparedness. All stated that they had frightened and warned about insufficient provide chains. However options have been costly, and neither Congress nor the White Home made this a precedence.

“We discovered throughout Ebola that pace issues. Outbreaks develop exponentially. You pay an amazing penalty for inaction,” stated Christopher Kirchhoff, an Obama advisor who wrote the Nationwide Safety Council’s “classes discovered research” for the White Home after the 2014-16 outbreak.

Amongst his 26 particular findings: The U.S. authorities wanted to purchase and inventory protecting tools throughout an emergency, within the occasion that conventional provide chains failed.

Through the Obama-Trump transition interval, a bunch of newly appointed Trump aides gathered for an train in catastrophe preparedness hosted by prime members of the Obama administration, together with Nicole Lurie, a medical physician who’d served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response. They mentioned the provision chain, and the significance of securing essential PPE in case of a pandemic.

“There was not numerous traction on the a part of the general public taking part,” Lurie stated. “One did not have the sense coming in that this was going to be excessive on the precedence listing.”

In 2019, the Trump administration carried out an train dubbed “Crimson Contagion,” a pandemic flu simulation train involving 12 federal companies, 74 native well being departments and 87 hospitals throughout 12 states.

Their key takeaways foreshadowed precisely what would occur lower than a yr later: In a pandemic, the U.S. wouldn’t have sufficient “on-hand inventory of antiviral medicines, needles, syringes, N95 respirators, ventilators, and different ancillary medical provides.” International locations that make these provides have been going to maintain them for their very own residents. And there wasn’t sufficient home manufacturing to fill that hole.

Because the U.S. outbreak began, Lurie stated she repeatedly reached out to Trump administration officers to boost considerations and provide assist, however was rebuffed.

“So many hundreds of individuals have died needlessly, and it did not have to be this fashion,” she stated. “However I feel if I replicate on what is going on on right here, that is an administration that had insurance policies, procedures, instruments, plans, checklists, advance warning, all of these issues, and it seems to have used virtually none of it.”

The Trump administration has blamed China, and its entry into the World Commerce Group in 2001, for the nation’s dominance over America’s medical provides. However the lure of low cost labor and decrease manufacturing prices began drawing U.S. corporations abroad within the 1970s.

By 2020, virtually all medical safety provides within the U.S. have been made in different international locations.


“Expensive Mr. President, The aim of this letter is to make your workplace conscious of a little-known nationwide safety menace.”

The yr was 2010. The president was Barack Obama. The letter author was Mike Bowen, a Fort Price, Texas, medical masks maker on the verge of chapter after quickly ramping up his manufacturing facility to produce sufficient masks for the H1N1 flu only a yr earlier than.

“The individuals that we would employed, these tons of of those that step in to save lots of america, to save lots of America. They have been rewarded by getting in an unemployment line. I misplaced every little thing that I owned. Actually hocked the farm,” stated Bowen’s enterprise companion, Dan Reese. His retirement account had simply $72, he stated.

The story of their firm, Status Ameritech, explains why the U.S. has failed to take care of a strong home medical provide manufacturing base.

Bowen and Reese had labored for the masks maker Technol, which till the 1990s made 87% of the surgical masks within the U.S. In 1997, Kimberly Clark purchased Technol, and moved manufacturing to Mexico. Across the similar time, America’s different masks makers, together with 3M and Johnson & Johnson, shuttered their U.S. factories, transferring largely to China. Reese and Bowen purchased the now-vacant Texas manufacturing facility. However inside 10 years, 90% of U.S. medical masks have been being made abroad.

Yearly, Status Ameritech requested the Protection Division to purchase their masks, citing the Berry Modification that dictates the army purchase U.S.-made attire. In response, the Protection Division advised them their masks aren’t attire.

“12 months after yr after yr after yr after yr, as much as and together with the final bid. It was unbelievable,” stated Reese.

In 2014, a confidential presentation obtained by the AP and “FRONTLINE” from HHS warned that the U.S. provide of medical masks was “practically exhausted” and that 5.three billion can be wanted in a pandemic.

In February 2017, greater than two years earlier than the pandemic, Status Ameritech tried once more: “Expensive President Trump: 90% of america protecting masks provide is at the moment FOREIGN MADE!”

Once more, Status Ameritech was ignored. And because the pandemic rolled in, shipments of testing swabs, surgical robes, protecting masks and hand sanitizer plummeted simply as demand was hovering. International locations that did make PPE required producers to promote all or a part of their manufacturing internally, and U.S. governors discovered themselves in a bidding warfare for what was left.

In March, the Status Ameritech founders have been livid to see the CDC advise well being care suppliers to make use of home made masks, like bandanas or scarves, for care of sufferers with COVID-19 as a final resort.

“I felt that the federal government was deliberately deceptive the individuals as a result of that they had not ready as they need to have, and the merchandise aren’t accessible,” stated Reese.

Flooded with calls, Status Ameritech shut down its web gross sales web page — orders had jumped from two to 3 a month to hundreds a day. They employed new workers and acquired uncooked supplies, dashing up manufacturing.

Over eight months this yr, home manufacturing across the U.S. of medical provides has accelerated. Hospitals and labs, even public libraries, have used 3D printers to make swabs. Needle and syringe factories are working additional time. Attire corporations at the moment are making robes. Alcohol distillers produce hand sanitizer.

However Chinese language and Asian manufacturing has ramped up much more shortly, persevering with to flood U.S. markets with cheaper options. There have been greater than 2,000 shipments of N95s from Asia over the previous month, up from 20 shipments throughout the identical interval a yr in the past, in response to Panjiva Inc., a service that independently tracks international commerce.

Consultants agree that one answer is an enormous funding in U.S. manufacturing that not solely permits current corporations to develop, however ensures a long-term marketplace for medical provides which are dearer than these made by Asian rivals. There is no such thing as a signal that that is going to occur.

“The problem actually is that China has 50% of the world’s manufacturing capability, significantly for masks. So are we going to maneuver a complete provide chain over?” stated Cameron Johnson, a Shanghai-based commerce guide. “It is simply not going to occur. Manufacturing, as we all know it, is rarely going to return.”

In Fort Price, Status Ameritech is concentrated on the second, bracing for extra masks demand as individuals return to high school, work and indoor occasions. However the future appears grim.

“The underside line is China can promote masks into the U.S. market in my territory for cheaper than my uncooked materials prices,” stated Reese. “Individuals can rise up and wave the flag, and all of us do, however the fact is, there needs to be a basic change to make all that occur.”


Whilst she grew sicker, Sandra Oldfield frightened about masks shortages. This spring, as paramedics raced to her house, her ideas have been with the EMTs. Would they’ve the face masks they want, or would they be uncovered to an infection, as she was?

“Allow them to know that I am optimistic to allow them to be as protected as they will,” she advised her sister.

UC San Francisco Medical Director Dr. Josh Adler was equally involved. The extra his workers wanted private protecting gear, the tougher it was to search out. They sorted by way of counterfeits, off-brands and outdoors donations. Medical college students have been working PPE drives.

“In some unspecified time in the future I had the thought, how is it that we will not get extra? Like, why? Why?” he stated. “In life, if you run out, you simply get extra.”

Months earlier, a Jan. 27, 2020, e-mail obtained by way of a Freedom of Data Act request makes it clear that some within the federal authorities have been properly conscious medical-grade masks have been going to be wanted.

“We’re prone to see person-to-person unfold of the virus within the U.S. within the close to future; CDC will start to softly articulate this message into their public posture,” stated a Division of Homeland Safety memo.

On the similar time, internationally in China, factories that make most of America’s medical provides have been shuttered because the nation locked right down to attempt to management its personal outbreak. Once they did begin up once more, these lifesaving provides have been saved for the Chinese language market, leaving U.S. hospitals understocked and determined as instances of COVID-19 shot up.

It will be many weeks earlier than China’s exports resumed. In the meantime, the U.S. wanted billions of N95 masks that merely weren’t accessible.

Regardless of early warnings from contained in the White Home, the federal authorities didn’t considerably mobilize home producers till April, three months after the virus started spreading exponentially throughout the U.S.

The affect of the virus varies enormously from nation to nation. However it’s now clear that these with well-managed, various and versatile provide chains have been capable of shield in opposition to the lethal unfold in methods the U.S. failed.

Amid the chaos, AP and “FRONTLINE” discovered counterfeit masks flooded the market, monitoring some again to a manufacturing facility in China. Dr. Philip Clapp on the College of North Carolina examined a handful of various masks collected by the AP, together with ones imported by a non-profit reduction group, others donated to frontline staff by main tech companies, and masks AP had handed out to its personal workers.

“All of it was counterfeit, as outlined by OSHA’s definition of counterfeit or fraudulently labeled,” stated Clapp. Each masks. Some have been lower than 50% efficient, about the identical as a cotton T-shirt.

AP despatched new masks to workers who had acquired counterfeits.

The warnings of looming and probably lethal provide shortages from the White Home started confidentially in February when White Home commerce adviser Peter Navarro wrote to the COVID-19 process drive, urging the administration to halt exports and ramp up manufacturing of N95 masks.

The U.S. “faces the true prospect of a extreme masks scarcity!” he wrote on Feb. 9.

Along with halting exports and prohibiting the sale of N95 manufacturing facility tools to China, Navarro pleaded that the U.S. authorities should present “instant buy ensures for all U.S. provides at most manufacturing capability.”

President Donald Trump initially rebuffed calls from states, medical staff, Congressional Democrats and home producers to invoke the Protection Manufacturing Act, which permits the federal authorities to spice up manufacturing. He stated it wasn’t essential, however then abruptly reversed course within the spring, giving a number of U.S. factories help they wanted to develop manufacturing of N95s and the uncooked supplies used to make them. However even now, these producers have not acquired long-term buy ensures.

And in response to well being care staff, the Authorities Accountability Workplace and even the FDA, N95 masks proceed to be in brief provide. The White Home denies this.

Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, provide chain process drive lead on the Federal Emergency Administration Company, stated they have been diverting N95s initially ordered for the Strategic Nationwide Stockpile to hospitals, which ought to have lots by now.

“Why any particular person hospital would select to have a nurse or physician reuse a masks at present … I can not reconcile that for you,” he stated.

Navarro additionally insisted that medical provide chains have now stabilized, however confused the risks of relying so closely on Chinese language items.

“We can not overlook the lesson, the important thing lesson, which is we have to deliver our pharma house and our tools house,” Navarro advised AP and “FRONTLINE.”

Reshoring has change into a rallying cry for each Republicans and Democrats within the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

On the Republican Nationwide Conference in August, Trump stood earlier than the White Home and declared, “Over the subsequent 4 years, we’ll make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world. We’ll … deliver house our medical provide chains, and we’ll finish our reliance on China as soon as and for all.”

Equally, Democratic nominee Joe Biden rolled out a plan to speculate $700 billion to bolster U.S. manufacturing and buy domestically made items.

Heading into winter, the federal government now wants tons of of thousands and thousands of needles and syringes to vaccinate the nation, objects Navarro warned earlier this yr have been in brief provide.

“We might discover ourselves in a scenario the place we now have sufficient vaccine however no option to ship all of it,” he stated in a February memo to the White Home coronavirus process drive.

Now the Trump administration says needles and syringes are on order, however particulars of the contracts are shrouded in secrecy. AP and “FRONTLINE” discovered that the biggest has gone to an organization making a tool that has not but been cleared by the FDA, in response to its personal web site. One other agency solely included in Could, and has by no means earlier than had a authorities contract nor imported needles and syringes. A 3rd contractor in August reported disruptions in its abroad provide chain.

Final week, the division of Well being and Human Providers refused to say if — or what number of — needles and syringes have been delivered, claiming that info is “enterprise delicate.” A number of contractors stated the federal government has forbidden them from disclosing any info, even when they wish to.


Every week the CDC receives forecasts of nationwide COVID-19 deaths for the approaching month from about 40 completely different knowledgeable modeling teams. The company makes use of these to create a nationwide ensemble forecast. So far, the predictions of whole deaths maintain going up, every dot on the graph a life, a household, a group.

How Sandra Oldfield, the Fresno nurse, got here to be a dot on that graph might be debated. Kaiser Permanente says it has adopted state and federal pointers and is “prudently managing PPE provides.”

For weeks, as Oldfield fought for her life within the intensive care unit, her household sat exterior within the hospital car parking zone, praying and rising ever extra despondent and terrified. When her canine Freckles died, they did not inform her.

“They are going to put me on a ventilator,” Oldfield advised her sister, Lori Rodriguez, in a cellphone name.

Rodriguez had recognized this was coming. “We will be proper right here if you open your eyes,” she stated.

Two months after Oldfield fell sick, Rodriguez knew she wanted to let sister her go. A nurse held the cellphone to Oldfield’s ear.

“I advised her that it was OK, that she did not have to carry on anymore, that we have been going to be OK. And we might see her once more,” Rodriguez stated. “And that is when she took her final breath.”

Oldfield’s family and friends say there’s loads of blame to go round: The hospital ought to have protected her. And if the federal government hadn’t failed in its obligation to take care of provide chains for important tools, she may not have wound up preventing for her life, in the identical hospital the place she helped save so many others.

A whole lot wished to return to Oldfield’s graveside ceremony — colleagues, household, associates — however COVID-19 restricted the service to 10. In her casket, her household positioned an urn, the ashes of Freckle