US government turned down opportunity to manufacture millions of N95 masks at start of pandemic: report

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) turned down an opportunity to access millions of U.S.-manufactured N95 masks in January, according to The Washington Post.

The N95 masks have been in high demand since the pandemic hit the United States and as health care workers scramble to protect themselves while caring for thousands of patients flooding local hospitals.

On Jan. 22, Prestige Ameritech, a medical supply company in Fort Worth, Texas, offered to ramp up production to make an additional 1.7 million N95 masks, noting that the federal government’s stockpile was diminishing.

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The government turned down the offer. 

“I don’t believe we as a government are anywhere near answering those questions for you yet,” Laura Wolf, director of the agency’s Division of Critical Infrastructure Protection, responded the same day Prestige inquired about its stockpile, according to the Post

Michael Bowen, who owns the company, told HHS his company was receiving various requests from private entities but would be willing to set masks aside for the government.

“We are the last major domestic mask company,” he wrote on Jan. 23, according to the Post. “My phones are ringing now, so I don’t ‘need’ government business. I’m just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad. I’m a patriot first, businessman second.”

Bowen said he could ramp up production to make an additional 1.7 million N95 masks per week. He told HHS that his company had four "like-new" manufacturing lines in an email, according to the newspaper. 

“Reactivating these machines would be very difficult and very expensive but could be achieved in a dire situation,” he wrote.

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The exchange was mentioned in the the 89-page whistleblower report from Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority who was ousted from his role in late April amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Bright filed a formal whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, saying he was demoted for trying to "prioritize science and safety over political expediency."

Emails obtained by the Post show Bright unsuccessfully pressed Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and emergency response, and other agency leaders on the issue of mask shortages, including Bowen’s proposal specifically. 

The push from Bright came months before the U.S. would begin to see shortages of masks and other protective equipment in hospitals across the country.