According to reports from the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News — not exactly right-wing media outlets — the federal stockpile of N95 respirator masks was depleted under the Obama administration but never replenished, despite two separate recommendations to do so.
Critics of the current administration have blamed President Donald Trump for the shortage of respirator masks that has left the country looking for ways to mass-produce them in time to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
But a Sunday report from PJ Media found that stockpile shortage can be traced back much further back than to January or even nearly four years ago to Trump’s inauguration. The problem began in 2009 under the Obama administration.
What are the details?
In 2005, the George W. Bush administration published the “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza,” which outlined a strategy for the federal government to assist state and local efforts in the event of a pandemic. A key part of the strategy was for the federal government to distribute medical supplies, such as N95 masks, from the Strategic National Stockpile.
Then, in 2009, the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak swept through the United States, infecting 60 million Americans, hospitalizing 274,304, and killing 12,469, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the outbreak, the Obama administration pulled roughly three-fourths of the masks from the stockpile to manage the spread, but never replenished the supply.
Here’s a crucial excerpt buried near the bottom of a recent Bloomberg News story:
The national stockpile used to be somewhat more robust. In 2006, Congress provided supplemental funds to add 104 million N95 masks and 52 million surgical masks in an effort to prepare for a flu pandemic. But after the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, which triggered a nationwide shortage of masks and caused a 2- to 3-year backlog orders for the N95 variety, the stockpile distributed about three-quarters of its inventory and didn’t build back the supply.
Another article published by the Los Angeles Times last week made the same point but went even further by detailing how the Obama administration failed to restock the supply even after two separate organizations urged them to take action:
After the swine flu epidemic in 2009, a safety-equipment industry association and a federally sponsored task force both recommended that depleted supplies of N95 respirator masks, which filter out airborne particles, be replenished by the stockpile, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Charles Johnson, president of the International Safety Equipment Association, the Obama administration pulled roughly 100 million masks during the swine flu epidemic, but the advice to replenish the supply was never heeded.
“Our association is unaware of any major effort to restore the stockpile to cover that drawdown,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Why does it matter?
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar reported in February that the stockpile now consisted of only 12 million N95 masks, which is only a tiny fraction of the 300 million he approximated the nation’s health care system would need.
Both the Times and Bloomberg reported that many medical centers across the country are already running out of masks and have resorted to constructing protective medical gear out of office supplies household items.
“We are very close to being out of face shields,” Becca Bartles, executive director of infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Health, which consists of 51 area hospitals, told Bloomberg. “Masks, we’re probably a couple of days away” from running out, she added.
To grow the supply, President Trump is calling on businesses with the capabilities to manufacture masks or donate protective masks they already have in their supply to local hospitals.
Some are urging Trump to use the Defense Production Act of 1950 — which gives the president authority to demand that business manufacture war-time materials — to order businesses to produce masks. Thus far, Trump has maintained that he will do so only as a last resort.