The Obama administration depleted a national stockpile of face masks during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak and never refilled it, resulting in a shortage for the ongoing coronavirus crisis, according to reports.
As of Tuesday, 46,450 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the spreading coronavirus, have been confirmed in the United States, resulting in 593 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.
Hospitals and other medical facilities across the country need face masks to protect their staff amid the outbreak. But they are reporting dwindling stocks of N95 respirators and even less-protective surgical masks.
In 2015, government scientists warned that a severe flu outbreak infecting 20 to 30 percent of the population would require at least 1.7 billion N95 masks. But Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress last month the federal government had just 12 million such masks along with 30 million surgical ones. He said there were another 5 million N95 masks that may have passed their expiration date.
The national stockpile of face masks used to be larger. 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, Bloomberg News reported last week.
However, during the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, which caused a nationwide shortage of masks, about three-quarters of the federal stockpile was distributed and the inventory was not replaced, according to Bloomberg.
Afterward, a federally backed task force advised the Obama administration to replenish the stockpile. But that never happened.
“Our association is unaware of any major effort to restore the stockpile to cover that drawdown,” Charles Johnson, the president of the International Safety Equipment Association, told the Washington Examiner.
Trump makes due with limited supply of face masks left by Obama
FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told ABC News on Sunday the agency had started shipping face masks from the national stockpile to states in urgent need. He said FEMA was “prepared to go to zero in the stockpile to meet demand.”
At the same time, Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that he and President Donald Trump planned to discuss “the supply chain of hospitals” and he asked construction companies to “donate their inventory of N95 masks to your local hospital and forgo additional orders of those industrial masks.”
Bloomberg reported the Trump administration had asked construction companies to “donate their inventory of N95 masks to [their] local hospital and forgo additional orders of those industrial masks.” The Defense Department said it would provide 5 million N95 masks and 2,000 ventilators to help bridge the gap.