Trump officials ignored company's offer to make 7 million N95 masks per month in early days of pandemic: 'Criminal negligence'

Trump officials ignored company's offer to make 7 million N95 masks per month in early days of pandemic: 'Criminal negligence'

Progressives on Saturday denounced an "infuriating" report which detailed the Department of Health and Human Services' refusal to take an American company up on its offer to supply millions of N95 respirators to the government early on in the coronavirus pandemic.


The Washington Post reported that federal scientist Rick Bright, who filed a whistleblower complaint last week over his demotion following his criticism of the Trump administration's response to the pandemic, detailed communications with Prestige Ameritech in January in which HHS ignored the medical supply company's offer to produce masks.

The head of the Ft. Worth-based company, Michael Bowen, wrote to HHS on January 23, two days after the U.S. confirmed its first case of Covid-19.

Bowen offered to use four dormant production lines to produce as many as seven million N95 masks per month, but was told by Laura Wolf, director of the Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection at HHS, "I don't believe we as a government are anywhere near answering those questions for you yet."

"We are the last major domestic mask company," replied Bowen, who at the time was fulfilling orders for masks from all over the world. "My phones are ringing now, so I don't 'need' government business. I'm just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad."

In Bright's whistleblower complaint, he described how he tried to direct Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec's attention to Bowen's offer in late January. Bowen wrote to Bright in late January following his communications with Wolf that "U.S. mask supply is at imminent risk," adding a blunt warning, "Rick, I think we’re in deep shit."

Bright demanded to know from Kadlec why Bowen's offer had fallen "on deaf ears."

"We have been watching and receiving warnings on this for over a week," the scientist wrote.

The agency's refusal to take Bowen up on his offer early on helped lead to a crisis weeks later, as healthcare workers across the country reported severe shortages of N95 masks as well as other personal protective equipment needed to stop the spread of Covid-19 in healthcare settings. As the Trump administration denied several times that it was responsible for making sure states had the supplies they needed, states were forced in bidding wars with one another over equipment orders that they placed directly with manufacturers.

The details Bright offered in his whistleblower complaint painted a picture of "criminal negligence," wrote New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples.

Others on social media expressed shock at the Post's report.

"I don't even have words to describe how poorly ⁦Donald Trump has handled this crisis," wrote Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) in response to the story.

In addition to pressing HHS officials on Bowen's offer, Bright was critical of President Donald Trump's promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19. The scientist had also clashed with Kadlec earlier in Trump's term, when Kadlec urged Bright to transfer $40 million from BARDA to the Strategic National Stockpile in 2018 to purchase a drug made by manufacturer Alvogen, the client of a lobbyist who had connections to the Trump administration.

On Friday, a federal probe found that there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that the Trump administration unlawfully retaliated against Bright by demoting him.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.