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With as many as 150,000 new coronavirus cases a day, the U.S. is in the midst of a horrific surge in infections. Medical workers are clocking in grueling hours in packed hospitals. Personal protective equipment is in higher demand than ever. But has the country stored enough PPE to meet this winter surge? Monika Evstatieva of NPR's investigative unit looks into that.
MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: As the coronavirus began to sweep across the country earlier this year, states found themselves not just struggling to get the supplies they needed, but actually competing with each other for them, prompting this now-famous quote from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
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ANDREW CUOMO: It's like being on eBay with 50 other states bidding on a ventilator.
EVSTATIEVA: Competition for basic medical supplies was partially a result of shortages in America's last best defense in times of trouble, the strategic national stockpile.
GREG BUREL: So I wish that after the 2009 H1N1 event, we had received additional appropriations to replace materials that were used and then continue to expand that stock.
EVSTATIEVA: That's Greg Burel, the man behind the stockpile for a decade before he retired just before COVID-19 hit. He'd been here before, during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. He was able to take care of that emergency by sending out millions of units of PPE but never got the funding to restock.
BUREL: We believed we needed about a billion dollars in additional funding.
EVSTATIEVA: Not getting that meant they couldn't replenish what had expired, like N95 respirators.
ROBERT HANDFIELD: By the time COVID came around in January, a lot of the masks that they had were expired. I mean, they have a shelf life of about five years, and then you have to throw them away.
EVSTATIEVA: Robert Handfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University, advised a Defense Department COVID-19 task force. He says masks were just the beginning. Lots of basic supplies were no longer of use.
HANDFIELD: The plastic tubes that come out of the ventilators - those were also deteriorated to a point where they weren't usable. The batteries were not working in them.
EVSTATIEVA: The stockpile needed a makeover.
ROBERT KADLEC: We really kind of focused on a couple of critical things, which was getting better visibility of the supply chain.
EVSTATIEVA: Robert Kadlec is the person spearheading this new effort. He's the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services.
KADLEC: We also wanted to make sure that we could reduce our vulnerability to foreign suppliers and increase American domestic manufacturing.
EVSTATIEVA: Vulnerability to places like Wuhan, where the pandemic first emerged but also happened to be the world's biggest production hub of N95s. When Wuhan shut down, so did exports. Fast-forward to the spring. Besides figuring out a new supply chain, Kadlec and his team needed to also replenish the stockpile.
KADLEC: This is all part of SNS. We call it 2.0.
EVSTATIEVA: The 2.0 effort has had mixed results. Kadlec and his team wanted a 90-day supply of critical material, like N95 respirators, nitrile gloves and protective goggles. By the end of the fall, the number of masks they had hoped to collect was in the neighborhood of 300 million. As of now, they have half that much. So they've set a new goal to reach capacity by the end of the year. But that has experts worried.
SHIKHA GUPTA: Based on the details that we have and the numbers that we're seeing, they're vastly underestimating what would be needed for 90 days. We need billions more units of PPE to meet the need that we're seeing across the country.
EVSTATIEVA: Dr. Shikha Gupta is the director of Get Us PPE, a grassroots organization that provides free PPE to essential workers. And she says it is not just hospitals or states hunting for supplies.
GUPTA: Now we're also looking at detention centers and homeless shelters, teachers, private practices in rural parts of the country.
EVSTATIEVA: She says the need is much greater than the government planned for. But HHS' Kadlec says manufacturing and procurement of such large quantities takes time.
KADLEC: There is no silver bullet to magically have another billion masks here, you know, overnight.
EVSTATIEVA: Dr. Gupta says this means this winter is shaping up to be another great danger to front-line workers.
GUPTA: We've had so many opportunities to pay respects to our health care workers and front-line workers not by clapping for them at 7 p.m. or sending them free pizza, but by giving them the protective equipment that they need.
EVSTATIEVA: That's not what they signed up for, she says. That's not the American way.
Monika Evstatieva, NPR News.
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