Three Virginia congressmen and two colleagues are demanding an investigation into mismanagement of critical National Strategic Stockpile supplies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-07), Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA-11), Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D-VA-08), Katie Porter (D-CA-45) and Jason Crow (D-CO-06) called Monday on the department’s inspector general to open an official probe of stockpile problems during the coronavirus pandemic.
Writing HHS Principal Deputy Inspector General Christi Grimm, Spanberger and her colleagues requested answers about states’ requests for supplies from the stockpile, what material each state received, and how much time before supplies were shipped. They asked Grimm to launch an investigation by April 30.
“Our states’ health-care institutions and workers are struggling with a severe shortage of medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19,” Spanberger, Connolly, Beyer, Porter and Crow wrote. “The stockpile has failed our states, despite months of warning from experts about the risk of an outbreak in the United States.”
The legislators expressed “grave concerns” about how HHS has maintained the stockpile, prepared for public health threats and responded to states as they battle the pandemic.
“It is deeply troubling that the Strategic National Stockpile was unable to provide the support necessary for our states to adequately protect our health care workers’ response to the virus,” they wrote Grimm. “In March, the stockpile did not adequately fulfill our states’ first requests for personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other material to fight COVID-19. The second and third shipments from the stockpile were even more woefully inadequate. Since then, we have been informed that the stockpile is depleted of all personal protective equipment, and the president has repeatedly told the governors ‘they’re on their own’ to find equipment to support their states’ responses to COVID-19.”
Viral pandemics are not an unanticipated threat, the House members said. In 2017, federal Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden said the likelihood of a pandemic was what kept him up at night, they noted.
Professionals widely agree the best way to prepare for pandemics and other public health emergencies is by maintaining “an everyday system that can be quickly scaled up,” the legislators wrote the independent watchdog in a detailed, toughly worded letter.
The Trump administration clearly didn’t take public health threats seriously, they said.
HHS repeatedly proposed big budget cuts to the CDC and infectious-disease response programs, they said. National Security Advisor John Bolton abolished the National Security Council office that specialized in such issues, “meaning no senior administration official has been focused on global health security for the past two years, all but ensuring that it would be unclear who would be in charge during a pandemic like the one we’re living through now,” the House members said.
Reports of the COVID-19 outbreak in China began in January, but the administration repeatedly downplayed the threat and wasted “precious time in preparing for the virus’s likely arrival in the United States,” they wrote Grimm.
In February, the federal Office of Management and Budget requested a “paltry” $1.25 billion to respond to COVID-19, significantly less than what previous administrations requested to confront other pandemics, the legislators wrote.
“We are disappointed that even as the shortages of supplies have become more severe, the president has been inexplicably reluctant to fully utilize his powers under the Defense Production Act to mobilize domestic industry and coordinate the allocation of personal protective equipment our health care workers need to keep fighting COVID-19,” they wrote. “Even at this late date, these actions would save lives.”
As states and governors struggle to get desperately needed PPE and other supplies, the federal government has outbid them, “worsening shortages and exacerbating price increases,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “We believe this negligence and failure of leadership with regards to the maintenance of the Strategic National Stockpile has put our health care workers and our constituents in grave danger.”
Spanberger wrote the letter to the HHS inspector general and enlisted colleagues’ support, a House Democratic aide said late Monday. Reps. Porter and Crow had publicly been raising concerns about the stockpile for weeks.