Michigan is missing 225K surgical masks and nobody appears to know why
Michigan received two shipments of supplies from the U.S. national stockpile to aid the state's response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, though state officials say they got 225,000 fewer surgical masks than the federal government claimed to have sent.
It was unclear Wednesday what happened to the missing surgical masks, but a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said the issue had been acknowledged by the federal government's repository for emergency medical supplies.
"We don't know what happened to them, but we're obviously going to call over there and ask what their problem was because we were told they were shipped to Michigan," U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Dryden Republican, said Wednesday.
"Just now, at this moment, literally, is the first we heard this, and this is from a shipment that supposedly happened was received on the 5th of March."
Michigan's health department said so far it has received approximately 225,000 surgical masks; 190,000 N95 respirators; about 250,000 non-sterile gloves; 70,000 surgical gowns and 86,000 face shields over the two shipments from the federal Strategic National Stockpile.
The equipment is intended for high-risk health care workers, nurses and doctors. The first shipment has already been distributed to 45 local health departments and eight health care coalitions on a population-formula basis, state DHHS spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said.
Michigan should have received over 450,000 total surgical masks, but Sutfin confirmed that 226,498 masks were missing in the first shipment from the stockpile earlier this month.
"We inventoried the shipment shortly after it arrived and contacted them," Sutfin said. "We are still awaiting notification of shipment and estimated arrival."
The second stockpile shipment arrived this week — including 225,000 masks — and officials have made initial shipments to regional health care coalitions based on the counties with the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases, Sutfin said. Metro Detroit's three counties account for 85% of the cases.
"The shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile are nowhere near enough," Sutfin said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is among several governors pushing the federal government to help procure protective and breathing equipment for health care workers.
She said this week that supplies from the stockpile have been inadequate to meet Michigan's needs, as the state's total COVID-19 cases grew Wednesday to nearly 2,300 cases and 43 total deaths.
She requested 200,000 swabs from the stockpile nearly a week ago.
"I know that that is a critical need all across the country, and they're having a hard time fulfilling it," Whitmer said Wednesday night on MSNBC. "If we can't do the tests, we can't isolate the right people."
Whitmer said the national stockpile allotment provided to one Michigan hospital — including 747 N95 masks, 204 gowns and 64 face shields — barely covered one shift.
"It's a source of frustration that I've been clear about," Whitmer said in remarks Monday.
The Democratic governor has sought the help of Michigan's congressional delegation, but at least one Republican member — Mitchell — said Whitmer's office hasn't been forthcoming about exactly what the state needs to treat COVID-19 patients, despite multiple requests.
"My job is not to just vaguely grocery shop," said Mitchell, who was a businessman before he joined Congress. "Tell me what we're dealing with. This does not meet the standard for management. We do not have the data."
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, said the delegation is working closely together, "but we’re one of the states where numbers are doubling each day and getting the personal protective equipment for our doctors and nurses has to be our No. 1 priority.
"The president needs to use the Defense Production Act to ensure every hospital in Michigan and the country has the equipment it needs," she added, referring to the statute that empowers President Donald Trump to marshal the private sector to produce critical supplies.
Whitmer's office said Wednesday it was drafting a request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare a major disaster for Michigan to qualify for federal disaster funds — after the state labor department already incorrectly claimed she had done so.
"We have been disappointed to see that while the Trump administration declared major disasters for a handful of states, the declarations were not accompanied by substantial federal resources," said Tiffany Brown, Whitmer’s spokeswoman.
Trump suggested last week that governors should do more to get their own critically needed supplies, saying the federal government is not a "shipping clerk." And the Republican president warned Tuesday his relationship with the governors is "a two-way street."
"They have to treat us well, also," Trump said in a town hall on Fox News. "They can't say, 'Oh gee, we should get this, we should get that.'"
Whitmer said this week Michigan on its own amassed 4 million gloves, 4 million N95 masks and thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer, but "it is nowhere near enough."
Michigan health department's Sutfin said two stockpile shipments that Michigan has received were sent "proactively to the state without us having to make a formal request."
The state is in the process of gathering information to request more supplies from the repository, she said.
Mitchell, the Republican congressman, said he received federal data on Michigan's stockpile allocation that claimed the missing 226,498 masks were included in the first shipment.
He said he received the information directly from the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the stockpile, and would be looking into the discrepancy.
Whitmer asked Michigan's congressional delegation to sign a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, seeking a response to Michigan‘s unfilled requests for more personal protective materials and testing supplies, Mitchell said.
The letter, signed by every member of the delegation, went out Wednesday night, telling Pence “your assistance and engagement are urgently needed.”
But Mitchell was frustrated he hadn't received data he sought from Whitmer's office about what and how much Michigan requested from the stockpile to date and where it was distributed.
"There are hospitals that have the ability to do higher volume testing, but they don't have the reagent," said the congressman, referring to the component that indicates whether the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is present in a test sample.
"My point is that if the governor wants support from the delegation to get this done — which we can do — then tell us specifically what you're asking for," Mitchell added.
Whitmer spokeswoman's Brown declined to comment Wednesday.
Federal health officials are distributing 25% of the stockpile to states according to population size, another 25% to states with the greatest need.
The remaining half of the stockpile will be held in “strategic reserve” in case of critical needs around the country, according to a report this week in ProPublica.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged to The Detroit News that the pro-rata allocations "are likely less than what states are currently requesting."
"However, jurisdictions are receiving 100% of their allocations. Areas of high transmission may receive additional allocations by request," she said.
"HHS has been transparent that more supplies are needed — hence the request to Congress for additional funding to procure more and scale up production," the spokeswoman added.
"Local hospitals must do their part to make sure product goes where it’s needed now rather than being stored where it is not currently needed."
Lessons about stockpile
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, said part of the problem is the national stockpile hasn't been heavily invested in over several administrations or Congresses and is under-supplied.
"It's not like it's this treasure trove of equipment that is going to be able to take care and cover all the needs of the nationwide pandemic like this," Slotkin said.
While Michigan got "nowhere near its needs," she noted that some states got much less than they were expecting from the stockpile.
"Minnesota apparently arrived with trucks ready to take their stuff, and they got handed 650 pairs of gloves," she said.
"Michigan, we've gotten our allocation and we got it relatively early compared to everyone else. Now, we should not be expecting in the near term more from that national stockpile."
Slotkin learned the limitations of the stockpile in 2014 when she was acting assistant defense secretary during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
"We clearly very early knew they were not equipped to quickly deploy, to move resources around the country or world. They were not as strong as one would have hoped," she said.
Rather than relying on the stockpile, Slotkin introduced a bill this week urging the Trump administration to implement the Defense Production Act to speed the production and distribution of medical supplies to front-line health care workers amid COVID-19 crisis.
Trump has the authority under the Defense Production Act to spur and coordinate private businesses to produce critical supplies for treating the coronavirus pandemic.
"I am typically extremely reluctant to try and tell the executive branch how they have to manage these problems," Slotkin said.
"But it is just so glaringly obvious from just the hundreds and hundreds — at this point probably thousands of calls and texts and emails that we've got that people aren't getting the equipment that they need to keep themselves safe and, therefore, to keep other people alive."
Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.