FILE – In this May 1, 2009 file photo, a 3M N95 mask is modeled in New York. 3M Co., which makes everything from Post-It Notes to insect repellent, said Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009, strong sales of health care products in flu-wary Asia helped lift earnings beyond analyst expectations in the third quarter.(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)
While hospitals across the country have struggled to find enough N95 masks and other pieces of protective gear to outfit first-line healthcare workers during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, apparently one distributor was sitting on 39 million masks.
Fortunately for that distributor, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) happened to call seeking masks. From Thursday’s press release:
The union launched an exhaustive search for masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) five days ago in response to pleas from frontline healthcare workers that they need more protection and feel unsafe on the job as they treat the growing number of COVID-19 patients. SEIU-UHW has 97,000 members who work in hospitals across California.
Within 48 hours of painstakingly calling leads and potential suppliers, the union discovered a distributor who had the 39 million masks, and has since found another supplier who says his company can produce 20 million more masks a week. The union also has found a supplier who can deliver millions of face shields.
It warms the heart, SEIU-UHW’s altruism. They’re doing this completely out of the goodness of their heart, claiming they have “no financial interest in the transactions” and said they’re even distributing the masks to non-unionized facilities.
SEIU-UHW is working with the states, counties and hospitals to determine realistically the quantities they need, and then connecting their procurement officers directly to the supplier to arrange the purchase. The masks are $5 each, and the union has no financial interest in the transactions. The masks are being distributed to unionized and non-unionized facilities alike.
If one hasn’t recently ordered N95 masks, the $5 price point might not stick out. That price point is approximately five times the retail price at places like Home Depot, where they can be found in packs of 20 for $23.97.
Aren’t bulk purchases generally less expensive than purchasing in small quantities?
The masks were discovered just in the nick of time. SEIU-UHW made the announcement three days after President Trump announced that he’d invoked Section 4512 of the Defense Production Act, prohibiting hoarding, “and specifically named ‘hand sanitizers, face masks, and personal protective equipment’ as among the items he was considering for action.” During a press conference March 23, Attorney General Barr said, “If you are sitting on a warehouse with masks, surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door.”
Attorney General Barr: "If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about. But if you are sitting on a warehouse with masks, surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door."
— CSPAN (@cspan) March 23, 2020
Of course, it couldn’t possibly be hoarding since the SEIU-UHW claimed they’d been working on this for five days and had already connected the distributor with numerous hospitals and municipalities. Given the well-known need for these masks, perhaps the distributor should have placed a call to the Coronavirus Task Force instead of waiting for the SEIU to call?
Critics of the Trump administration have already pounced on a talking point that the fact that the SEIU found this “stash” is an example of the administration’s failure to deal with this pandemic. However, President Trump has reiterated that the procurement of medical equipment and supplies is done at the state level.
The union says it’s connecting hospitals and municipalities in New York and California directly with the suppliers and has no financial stake in the distribution of the masks. As reported by SEIU-UHW, thus far the State of California, Greater New York Hospital Association, Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Stanford Health Care, Sutter Health, Los Angeles County, Riverside County and Santa Clara County have purchased N95 masks located by the union.
Though Kaiser Permanente is listed as having purchased masks through this program, nurses at Kaiser San Diego have been instructed to use personal protective equipment such as N95 masks only while performing patient care with certain sets of patients and not as a preventative measure. As we exclusively reported Thursday morning, Kaiser Permanente characterizes such use as “exhibit[ing] social responsibility” and “prioritiz[ing] rational use of PPE equipment/supplies.”
There is ongoing debate in the medical community about how widespread use of N95 masks should be in hospitals at this time, given supply chain issues and the fact that the United States hasn’t hit the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic. Hospital administrators say the rationing is necessary so an adequate supply is available when the peak is reached. Many nursing associations, citing a Harvard University study on Chinese healthcare workers during the coronavirus outbreak and a belief that the CDC’s latest recommendations were made based on supply chain issues and not scientific data, are calling for more widespread use of PPE to protect nurses from contracting and spreading coronavirus.
(Ed Note: This article was edited after publication to reflect open market pricing.)