Charlie Baker vents about getting outbid by the Trump administration for medical supplies

"I stand here as someone who has had confirmed orders for millions of pieces of gear evaporate in front of us, and I can't tell you how frustrating it is."

Boston, MA - 3/26/20 - Gov. Charlie Baker holds a press conference in the Gardner Auditorium at The State House on March 26, 2020. Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders addressed attempting to secure more pieces of personal protection equipment and mobile schooling concerns.  (Blake Nissen/ For The Boston Globe)
Gov. Charlie Baker holds a press conference Thursday at the State House in Boston. –Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

As medical supplies dwindle, Gov. Charlie Baker says his administration has put in hours on end trying to get health care workers the equipment they need to treat the ever-growing number of COVID-19 patients.

However, officials keep running into a familiar obstacle: The federal government, which has been competing with — and outbidding — states for supplies.

And after raising the issue with President Donald Trump last week, Baker expressed increasing frustration during a press conference Thursday afternoon about the bind in which his administration has found itself. Trump has urged states to order their own personal protective equipment, or PPE, rather than relying on the federal stockpile. Baker says his administration followed that advice, putting in their own orders for “millions” of masks and swabs — only to watch them get scooped away by the federal government.

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“I stand here as someone who has had confirmed orders for millions of pieces of gear evaporate in front of us, and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is,” the Massachusetts governor said Thursday.

“We now have other orders that are outstanding that are probably ‘confirmed,’ but we’ve literally gotten to the point where our basic position is until the god — until the thing shows up here in the commonwealth of Mass., it doesn’t exist,” the Swampscott Republican continued. “I’m telling you, people are spending hours and hours and hours trying to get this stuff here for exactly that reason. Our first responders, our health care workers, everybody deserves to have that gear. And I’m telling you we’re killing ourselves trying to make it happen.”

As The Washington Post reported this week, the PPE shortage has forced states and hospitals to desperately scramble — sometimes going to creative lengths — for masks, gowns, and ventilators. And while some local companies have tried to address the shortfall, states have asked the federal government for help, or at least more coordination.

Baker called the process an “incredibly messy thicket that’s enormously frustrating for all of us.”

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“There are a lot of very compassionate and very brave people here in the commonwealth, who are doing what they can to serve people,” he said, adding that “in this particular area, the entire country is struggling to deliver.”

So far, Trump has declined to use his authority to direct private companies to boost production of needed medical supplies. And according to multiple reports, the federal government’s strategic stockpile of medical supplies is not equipped to respond to the pandemic. Marylou Sudders, the secretary of Health and Human Services for Massachusetts, said Thursday that only 17 percent of the state’s requests from the stockpile have been filled.

But for Baker, “one of the biggest challenges” has been that the Trump administration is competing with states for supplies in the private market for the stockpile. Unable to compete with the purchasing power of the federal government, it’s a problem not unique to Massachusetts, he noted.

“I can’t tell you how frustrated governors, including this one, are about the issue associated with landing the order,” Baker said Thursday. “It’s happened to us. It’s happened to many governors across the country.”

During recent calls with the Trump administration, Baker said “our big message to them is you got to let us land the order.” He added that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials spoke about “creating a more coordinated approach” during a phone call earlier Thursday.

“I think this is going to be critical to our ability as a country, never mind as a commonwealth, to get access to the personal protective equipment that people need to actually do this job and do it well,” Baker said.

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