Friday, March 27, 2020

The N95 mask scandal

Andrew Koppelman

In the present pandemic, with massive shortages of medical equipment, central planning and rationing is an imperative.  Until the shortages end, the market can’t be trusted to rationally allocate N95 masks and respirators.  The federal government is the only entity that can develop a unified perspective on the areas of greatest need, and prioritize accordingly.  So it’s disheartening to learn that the Trump Administration’s catastrophic incompetence continues.

Almost 1.5 million N95 respirator masks are in a U.S. government warehouse in Indiana, according to the Washington Post.  Their expiration date has passed, but Centers for Disease Control guidelines say they can be safely used during the coronavirus outbreak. A rational government would immediately be shipping them to New York and Los Angeles, where the lack of protective gear is placing irreplaceable medical professionals in mortal danger.

Instead, the Department of Homeland Security, which controls the warehouse, has decided to offer the masks to the Transportation Security Administration.  Its staff doesn’t face nearly the danger of the doctors who are treating known, and sometimes virulent, cases.  But, the Post reports, its “workforce has been clamoring for protective equipment.”  The agency “has no plans to offer the masks to hard-hit hospitals, or hand them over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

“Health officials in Los Angeles County said its emergency supply of N95 masks is exhausted, encouraging doctors and nurses to consider reusing the disposable masks for multiple patients, a practice that is generally avoided because of the risk of spreading the virus among patients and hospital rooms.”  An administration official said that the masks are not going to FEMA because it already has a large number of masks coming.  Meanwhile the states are in a frenzied hunt for equipment, and report that they are getting a small fraction of what they have requested. 

The Republicans hesitate to intervene in markets.  But can’t they make rational decisions about the resources that the federal government itself already possesses?

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