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Over 225,000 missing surgical masks arrive in Michigan

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

A shipment of over 225,000 surgical masks arrived Thursday in Michigan to aid the state's response to the coronavirus epidemic after they were missing from a delivery from the U.S. national stockpile earlier this month, officials said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office notified members of Congress Thursday that the missing masks shipped Wednesday night from Atlanta and arrived Thursday afternoon at the state's State Emergency Operations Center. 

Federal health officials have not explained what caused the problem.

A face mask is shown at SugarHouse Industries Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Midvale, Utah.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had confirmed Wednesday that 226,498 surgical masks were missing earlier this month in the first of two shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile, the government repository of emergency medical supplies.

State officials alerted the stockpile staff about the issue after taking inventory and were awaiting shipment, department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said Wednesday. 

Whitmer is among several governors pressing the federal government to help procure protective and respiratory equipment for health care workers amid increasing demand from states hit hardest by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Whitmer has said supplies from the federal stockpile have been inadequate to meet Michigan's needs, as the state's total COVID-19 cases topped 2,800 Thursday and the state reported 60 total deaths. 

The state has also 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 two shipments from the federal stockpile.

The equipment is intended for high-risk health care workers, nurses and doctors, and has been distributed to local health departments and health care coalitions in the counties hardest hit by COVID-19 cases. Metro Detroit's three counties account for roughly 85% of the cases.

Whitmer 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." 

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the stockpile, did not address Thursday the supply shortages in Michigan, including the missing masks. 

By email, she said every jurisdiction would receive 100% of its allocation from the national stockpile and that more supplies are on the way in the next 24 to 48 hours for states that received partial deliveries. 

Trump said last week that governors should do more to get their own critically needed supplies, noting the federal government is not a "shipping clerk." The president warned this week that 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 Michigan on its own has amassed 4 million gloves, 4 million N95 masks and thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer, but "it is nowhere near enough."

"Of the contracts that we've been able to secure, we're lucky, we're ahead of where many states are," Whitmer said Thursday.

But she acknowledged the state could be "bidding against" other states such as Illinois and said some contracts the state had secured have since been diverted to the federal government. 

"We as Americans shouldn't be bidding against one another," Whitmer said. "We should be able to harness the federal power to ensure that everyone's got what they need." 

Michigan's congressional delegation sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, head of the federal coronavirus task force, late Wednesday seeking a response to the state's unfilled requests for more personal protective materials and testing supplies.

The letter, signed by every member of the delegation, told Pence “your assistance and engagement are urgently needed.” 

"It’s extremely chaotic, and the lack of cohesive leadership or strategy is really hitting us now," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in a Thursday call with reporters. 

Whitmer's administration had identified "literally millions" of personal protective gear on the open market for front-line health care workers, but then Michigan's orders were superseded by a larger order from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Stabenow said. 

The situation was "particularly outrageous" after Trump had asked states to go out and obtain gear for themselves, said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

"To have FEMA swoop in and take the masks to put in our national stockpile — that put Michigan in a tough spot," Peters said. "It’s going to be an ongoing battle."

Peters convened a call with FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor and Whitmer late Wednesday to talk through the equipment shortage, according to his office. Peters is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee that oversees FEMA. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township

The equipment "coming from federal government has not kept pace with the increasing demand. They need to step that up," Peters said. 

He said he's urging FEMA to alter the population-based formula it uses to allocate supplies from the national stockpile, so states where the need is greatest receive greater priority. 

"It needs to go to areas that have hot spots — those hospitals that are being overwhelmed," Peters said.

"I'm working with FEMA to make changes to that program so that states like Michigan that are seeing a spike in cases can go and get the PPE they need." 

mburke@detroitnews.com 

Detroit News Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.