Federal government runs out of free face masks; TSA also 'susceptible' to shortages

WASHINGTON — An initiative to provide Americans with free face coverings has run out of supplies, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The shortfall comes as the nation struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 130,000 people in the United States.

In recent days, political leaders from both parties have urged Americans to wear protective coverings, which can drastically reduce the rate of viral transmission, perhaps by as much as 85 percent, according to one study.

Such masks can be fashioned from cloth, and many news outlets have published instructions on how to make face coverings at home. Commercially available masks, which some people may prefer, can be expensive, with athletic, reusable neck gaiters retailing for close to $20. Fashion-conscious consumers could purchase a $60 mask from a French designer. But scarcity made even ordinary, single-use surgical masks a prohibitive expense for some, especially in a marketplace rife with profiteers.

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent wears a protective mask and sits behind a protective barrier while screening a traveler at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A Transportation Security Administration agent wears a protective mask and sits behind a protective barrier at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., on June 9. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Project: America Strong was initiated by the federal government to distribute “reusable cotton face coverings to critical infrastructure sectors, companies, healthcare facilities, and faith-based and community organizations across the country to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” according to the project’s website.

The project appears to have run out of face masks in recent days. “The demand for the face coverings has exceeded supply. As a result, we are no longer accepting new requests. We are currently assessing requests on hand and prioritizing delivery to support populations most susceptible to the disease,” the website now says.

The deficit was worrying enough that it was noted by the Department of Homeland Security in an internal document, dated June 28, circulated among federal agencies on the coronavirus response and reviewed by Yahoo News.

The document reveals that the Transportation Security Administration, whose agents oversee security checkpoints at the nation’s airports, also faces a potential shortfall in face coverings. “TSA remains susceptible to shortages in critical PPE items caused by strain and unreliability of the supply chain, particularly for surgical masks,” reads one item from the document. “PPE” refers to personal protective equipment, a category that customarily includes face coverings, gloves and hand sanitizer.

HHS confirmed to Yahoo news that is was not taking any new requests for masks. “The face coverings were part of a multi-prong approach to re-open American economic activity while continuing to limit the spread of COVID-19,” a spokesperson wrote. “HHS distributed more than 346.4 million coverings under Project: America Strong to state, tribal, territorial, local, and federal agencies, as well as the transportation sector, long-term care facilities, dialysis centers and other critical infrastructure sectors, as well as faith-based and volunteer organizations.”

In a statement, a TSA spokesperson wrote: “TSA has an adequate supply of PPE.”

The Trump administration has touted its mastery of coronavirus-related supply chain issues. Those issues belong in the portfolio of Jared Kushner, the president’s influential son-in-law. The son of a New Jersey real estate developer, Kushner lacks expertise in supply chain logistics.

Working with John Polowczyk, a high-ranking official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Kushner implemented Project Air Bridge, which was intended to expedite the shipment of face masks and other equipment from overseas.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., second from left, joined by Sen. Gary Peters., D-Mich., left, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., second from right, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., right, wait to joins other Democratic Senators for an 8 minutes and 46 second pause on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 4, 2020 .(Susan Walsh/AP Photo)
From left, Democratic Sens. Gary Peters, Elizabeth Warren, Martin Heinrich and Tim Kaine on Capitol Hill, June 4. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

Earlier this month, three leading Senate Democrats — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Chuck Schumer of New York — charged that Project Air Bridge “has been marked by delays, incompetence, confusion, and secrecy.”

It is not clear that the shortfall in face masks experienced by HHS or TSA is related to the alleged deficiencies in Project Air Bridge.

Face masks continue to be critical to the nation’s ability to stem the coronavirus pandemic, which it has so far failed to do. During a congressional hearing on the coronavirus on Tuesday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders asked several of the nation’s top medical officials if they would support “the increased production of high-quality masks” that would be provided “free of charge to every household in America.”

Adm. Brett Giroir, a high-ranking official at HHS, said he agreed with the proposal. “That is very important,” he said, “because we need to support mask wearing.”

He said an office of HHS working on emergency preparedness had “contracted for hundreds of million cloth face coverings that could be distributed around the country.”

When those masks will arrive, he did not say.

Jana Winter contributed reporting to this story.


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