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As Coronavirus Cases Surged Here, FEMA Gave Mass. Least PPE Per Case Of Any State01:43
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N95 masks and nitrile gloves. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
N95 masks and nitrile gloves. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When Massachusetts urgently needed masks and other supplies for frontline workers facing a surge of infections, the federal agency handling protective gear sent large shipments to states with smaller populations and far fewer coronavirus cases.

In May, Massachusetts received the lowest amount of personal protective equipment from the federal government in the U.S. relative to its count of positive cases, according to an analysis of data gathered by The Associated Press and shared with WBUR and other news outlets. The AP's data examined how the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed PPE across the U.S.

The dearth of supplies from FEMA came even as Massachusetts ranked in the top four hardest hit by the virus. The agency's decision left the state and others to fend for themselves in the hunt for PPE as the crisis bloomed.

Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley said the numbers are "deeply troubling," but unfortunately, not surprising.

"This data underscores this administration's incompetence and their just flat out failure to supply Massachusetts and other states with the equipment they need to protect their residents and essential workers from this virus," she said.

By May 14, Massachusetts was at its peak with nearly 85,000 cases of the virus compared to Alaska which had only 383 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Yet Alaska received 1,580 pieces of gear per case, while Massachusetts was handed 36. New York — with by far the most cases in the nation — was second-lowest at 45.

FEMA in a statement to WBUR said the amount of PPE each state received was based initially on a per-capita calculation tied to 2010 U.S. census data. Later deliveries were “distributed evenly,” according to a FEMA spokeswoman.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, the spokeswoman said, FEMA used data to track critical needs every four days.

Rural or less populated states like Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont received the highest total number of protective items — masks, gloves, shields — per positive case, AP data show. Beyond Massachusetts, other states like New York and California saw low amounts of PPE per case, despite having a huge spike in outbreaks. The analysis shows no clear bias toward states that lean Republican or voted for President Trump.

As early as March, some health authorities claimed FEMA actually got in the way of states and hospitals obtaining supplies, diverting them at airports and ports. FEMA has denied this.

Pressley, other representatives and senators from the commonwealth were concerned about the state's allotment.

“Massachusetts received only 10 percent of the PPE — including respirators, face shields, gloves, and gowns — it first requested from the Strategic National Stockpile,” Massachusetts senators and representatives said in a March 31 letter to FEMA, complaining about the agency’s lack of transparency. “A second shipment increased this figure to 17 percent.”

Pressley, who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said she has received no response from FEMA or the White House Coronavirus Taskforce.

"I think that they just have contempt for the role of checks and balance and oversight that Congress plays," Pressley said. "They're consistent evading, obstructing and stonewalling when it comes to this pandemic."

One critical piece of equipment for frontline workers in Massachusetts, including doctors, nurses and paramedics, was the N95 respirator mask. That’s the safest type of mask for medical workers, fitted tightly to the face and filtering out 95% of airborne particles.

According to the AP data through mid-June, Montana received 263 N95 masks for each of its positive cases. Massachusetts got only 16; Connecticut, six; and California, just two.

Health officials and hospital administrators in Massachusetts scrambled to buy N95s from their regular suppliers and other sources. Prices surged and rogues jumped into the market. Numerous high-flying deals for the state fell apart, amid a global shortage of masks made predominantly in China.

The state of Massachusetts paid millions of dollars up-front to get masks from a third-party dealer out of New Jersey called IDDC Global Brands. But it never received them.

As the state works to get taxpayer money back, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said it is investigating IDDC Global Brands and another company involved in that deal.

The severe shortages early on led to health care staffers reusing masks, which is not recommended; at one particularly grim point, Trump advised wearing a scarf if nothing else was available. An Ohio contracting giant launched a mask-sanitizing procedure that remains controversial among nurses and some scientists but has been rolled out across the country, including for Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

FEMA said in addition to supplies it gave Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, it also shipped more than 50 million pieces of PPE (more than two-thirds were gloves) directly to the state's nursing homes, as of July 17.

After Massachusetts had problems with acquiring PPE, it turned to local manufacturers to make them, said Sarah Finlaw, a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker.

"We will continue to aggressively pursue all supply chains, and to create new ones with companies here in Massachusetts, to ensure that the Commonwealth’s emergency stockpile needs are met,” she said. "The administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to procure and distribute over 24 million pieces of personal protective equipment."

A statement on the commonwealth’s website said the state is “acutely aware of rapidly expanding needs” for personal protective equipment. However, it said, PPE resources are limited “and we must conserve” — and help from the state will be limited.

Meanwhile as the virus spreads unrelentingly across the United States in the south and the west this summer, health officials in Massachusetts brace for a fall resurgence. And frontline workers, childcare providers and small business owners continue to contend with shortages, especially of masks.

WBUR investigative reporter Beth Healy contributed to this report.

This segment aired on July 23, 2020.

WBUR Investigations On PPE:

Christine Willmsen Twitter Senior Investigative Editor-Reporter
Christine Willmsen is WBUR's senior investigative editor-reporter.

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