FEMA seized 5 million masks meant for veterans and sent them to federal stockpile: Report

The agency agreed to distribute 500,000 masks to the Veterans Affairs this week which is much lower than the requirement


                            FEMA seized 5 million masks meant for veterans and sent them to federal stockpile: Report
Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Chad Wolf (Getty Images)

Masks sought in the times of the pandemic were in the headlines again after an official source revealed that five million masks ordered by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to protect their staff members were seized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Washington Post reported recently. The issue has put a new focus on the controversy in the US centered around lack of enough personal protective gear at facilities for the healthcare workers. 

The healthcare workers at the VA facilities are engaged in providing services to veterans who are vulnerable to underlying health conditions. What’s added fuel to the controversy is the revelation that FEMA asked the vendors with equipment ordered for the VA to send the shipment instead to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). 

President Donald Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kushner, also his son-in-law, recently faced criticism for suggesting that the federal stockpiles of the protective supplies were not to be used by the states. “The notion of the federal stockpile was it’s supposed to be our stockpile, it’s not supposed to be states’ stockpiles that they then use,” Kushner said. In fact, after Kushner's words came, the language of the Department of Health and Human Services that maintains the stockpile was changed to suit his remark. 

Supply of masks in the US in the times of the COVID-19 have become the source of a major tussle. (Getty Images)

While it read earlier: "When state, local, tribal, and territorial responders request federal assistance to support their response efforts, the stockpile ensures that the right medicines and supplies get to those who need them most during an emergency", it was changed to: "The Strategic National Stockpile's role is to supplement state and local supplies during public health emergencies."

FEMA has responded to President Trump’s move to invoke the Defense Production Act to improve supplies as governors of many states have frantically sought medical equipment, leaving the stockpile depleted. The lack of provision of adequate gear has hit the federal functioning with Trump and the governors locking horns often.

Dr Richard Stone, executive in charge of the VHA, told the Post: “I had 5 million masks incoming that disappeared."

“The supply system was responding to FEMA. I couldn’t tell you when my next delivery was coming in,” Stone, a former Army deputy surgeon general, said in a clear display of his helplessness even when the health workers were fighting a potential danger. Stone said the veteran healthcare facilities were using as many as 200,000 face masks on a single day. 

FEMA agreed to distribute 50,000 masks to VA this week, a far low supply

The FEMA, however, agreed to distribute 500,000 masks to the VA this week after Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie made an appeal but that number was far too less in comparison with the demand of millions that the VHA had initially ordered. The VHA has 1,255 facilities and serves over nine million veterans in the country.  

The inadequate masks have made Stone allow the employees to work directly with coronavirus patients with one mask a day, the WaPo report said. 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Getty Images)

Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has been targeted by Trump after she criticized the White House over its crisis response, said last month that the vendors to whom her state gave contracts were asked ‘not to send stuff’ on orders from the federal authorities. “When the federal government told us that we needed to go it ourselves [on medical supplies], we started procuring every item we could get our hands on," she told Detroit-based radio channel - WWJ-AM.

She then alleged that those vendors with whom the state had contracts were now being told not to send stuff to Michigan. She also added that the state’s order had been “canceled” or “delayed” and were being redirected to the federal government. 

It's not only Michigan that is complaining

Michigan is not the only state complaining. Several states in as many as seven states revealed to the Los Angeles Times that FEMA officials were visiting them without notice and seizing medical supplies. The states are not sure whether the FEMA is stockpiling the medical items or distributing them. 

“Are they stockpiling this stuff? Are they distributing it? We don’t know. And are we going to ever get any of it back if we need supplies? It would be nice to know these things,” the LA Times report cited one medical-system official in Massachusetts as asking.

Officials in Colorado, on the other hand, alleged that FEMA took away 500 ventilators ordered in April. Trump later restored 100 ventilators as a favor to the state’s Republican Senator Cory Gardner but the Centennial State’s Democratic Representative Diana DeGette hit back at Trump saying he was ‘playing politics’. She said the president’s ‘mismanagement’ of the pandemic was causing loss in lives and livelihoods. 

Earlier in April, it was reported that FEMA and CDC are lobbying to reopen parts of the US by May 1 - a deadline that Trump is pushing for even though health experts have not shown full confidence over it. The US has almost a million confirmed COVID-19 cases at the moment with more than 54,000 dead - the highest for any nation in the world. 

FEMA authorities, however, denied the allegations. In a statement to Talking Point Memo, its spokesperson Janet Montesi said: “FEMA does not, has not and will not divert orders of PPE from our federal, state and local partners, nor do we have the legal authority to do so. In support of VA and our nation’s veterans, to date FEMA has coordinated shipments of more than 4.3 million various types of respirator masks, 1 million facial/surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and 14,000 face shields to VA facilities across the country.”

As of Friday, April 24, more than 6,300 veterans in VA medical care tested COVID-19 positive while 400 lives have been lost, the Daily Mail reported