By Miriam Raftery
Photo via Bing: creative commons NA-SC
April 2, 2020 (Washington D.C.) – The U.S. hit a grim milestone this week. With the death toll now at 5,794 COVID-19 deaths, more Americans have died from the coronavirus than the 2,996 people killed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
But that’s just a fraction of the 100,000 to 200,000 U.S. deaths now predicted by the White House, with the peak expected over the next two weeks, authorities announced in a press conference yesterday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has placed orders for 100,000 body bags
“This is going to be a very painful, painful two weeks,” President Donald Trump stated, adding 100,000 is the minimum number of deaths forecast. As of today, 243,229 cases have been diagnosed in the U.S. and 10,365 have recovered. The U.S. now has a quarter of the more than one million cases worldwide.
But while many nations around the world locked down their supplies of ventilators, respirators, masks and other items needed to keep medical personnel safe and save lives of critically ill patients weeks ago, the U.S. allowed companies to continue profiting off exporting these vital supplies to other countries.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the U.S. government’s emergency stockpile of respirator masks, gloves and other medical supplies is “running low and nearly exhausted due to the coronavirus outbreak,” leaving states largely on their own to compete for purchase of these items in a global market “rife with profiteering and price-gouging.”
The Intercept, a publication specializing in intelligence community news, confirmed in a story published yesterday that “While much of the world moved quickly to lock down crucial medical supplies used to treat coronavirus, the U.S. dithered, maintaining business as normal and allowing large shipments of American-made respirators and ventilators to be sold to foreign buyers.”
From January through early March, countries such as South Korea, German, and Taiwan locked down medical supplies and banned exports of medical equipment, helping keep their infection and death rates lower than many other places.
Forbes, a leading business publication, reports that despite a widespread shortage in hospitals, American companies sold some 280 million masks needed by medical personnel to foreign markets that overbid U.S. states and local governments.
Some 1.5 million of the critically needed N95 masks in the stockpile have expired, meaning elastic bands may be too loose for proper face seals. Despite this, when a member of Congress sought these for a hospital in short supply and was told they would be provided, A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman told the Washington Post that instead, the masks would be provided to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents performing raids on immigrant households as well as to Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA) workers.
The Intercept reports it examined dozens of government records including vessel shipping records documented large export shipments of such equipment to pandemic hot spots in East Asia and Europe, and blames the shortage in medical supplies here on “the result of a combination of factors including poor planning by the U.S. government.”
The Pennsylvania based company Drive DeVilbiss Heatlhare, for example, sent over 55 tons of supplemental oxygen machines to Europe in early March and February, though Pennsylvania’s governor called demand for respiratory medical devices “unprecedented” in March.
A ship left New York for Germany on Feb. 28 laden with 1.5 tons of ventilator masks from Allied Healthcare, needed for portable ventilator units. New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo now says New York could run out of ventilators as early as April 5.
President Donald Trump waited until March 13 to declare a national emergency – and only today did a task force led by Vice President Mike Pence announce it will halt U.S. exports of critical medical equipment, after news reports illuminated the administration’s failure to do so sooner. President Trump has reached out to former sworn enemies of our nation to plead for supplies of medical equipment, including North Korea and Russia, the Intercept reports.
The administration did contract to produce low-cost ventilators with Phillips Respiraonics – but the contract doesn’t require delivery until November 2022 – far too late to save the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives are right now on the line. The delay, ProPublica reports, was because the Trump administrated “allowed the company to first sell the product to a variety of buyers at higher prices.” Phillips has indeed exported at least six shipments of respirators overseas, mainly to Europe, in the past two months.
Now here in America, some hospitals are running out of ventilators and facing the prospect of potentially having to triage patients as is done on battlefields -- choosing who will be saved, and who will be left to die.