Why are we short of masks for real?

The Strategic National Stockpile, America’s giant medical storage closet for a terrorist or biological crisis, once boasted more than 100 million respirator masks to protect doctors, nurses and other frontline health care workers in case of a contagion.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic started a few months ago, the supply had dwindled down to just 12 million fitted masks, known as N95 respirators, and 30 million surgical masks, a supply deemed to be less than 2 percent of what the nation would need for full-blown pandemic.

The tale of how such a critical supply lapsed, leading the Trump administration to scramble for 500 million new masks in the midst of pandemic, is one of government neglect and competing priorities that began in 2009.

That’s when the Obama administration drew down nearly 97 million of the masks to deal with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, effectively protecting frontline medical workers from a virus that infected more than 60 million Americans.

But when it was over, the administration decided not to fully restock the respirators, choosing to spend its $600 million annual budget for the stockpile on other priorities such as key drugs and vaccines to deal with smallpox, anthrax and the like, experts said.

There is really “no answer why the supplies were not replenished because the N95 masks are invaluable tools for preparedness and it was important that they be restocked,” said Charles Johnson, President of International Safety Equipment Association, whose members make supplies for the stockpile.

In the end, Johnson said, the Obama administration chose to use its “limited funds” in other ways and “made the best choices at the time even though his association and others periodically restated their calls to replenish” the N95 masks. That trend continued in the early Trump years as well.

The Clinton administration first began to examine a national plan to respond to pandemics and create the federal stockpile in 1990s. But the formal National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza was not officially published until 2005 during the George W. Bush administration, following the anthrax scare in 2001 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002.

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