During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals and first responders have struggled with a lack of PPE, ventilators, and other essential medical supplies. The Federal Government has urged individual states to secure these supplies on their own, yet over the past month there have been numerous reports, from both Democratic and Republican governors, that the Federal government has been actively disrupting these efforts by outbidding them for, and sometimes even outright seizing, medical supplies when they try to acquire them.

NPR provides a good overview:

As the number of coronavirus cases surged in Massachusetts, nurses at a hospital in Milford were desperate. They held up cardboard signs outside the hospital asking for donations of protective gear to wear while treating infected patients.

William Touhey Jr. thought he could help. Touhey is the fire chief and emergency management director in this small town outside of Boston. He did some legwork, and placed an order for 30,000 protective gowns from overseas.

"We were hearing good things that it was coming," Touhey said.

Then he got a phone call from the distributor last week.

"The order had been redirected, as they put it, from us to FEMA," Touhey said. "It's just the way times are right now, where everybody's fighting for a very limited supply of material.” ...

At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is keeping a tight grip on critical medical supplies leaving the country – and coming in from overseas. This new system is disrupting an emergency supply chain that's been in place for decades.

And now governors, hospitals and local officials say the federal government is big-footing them by poaching the supplies they ordered.

"We had a good lead with a manufacturer on vents, and they got swept up by FEMA, so we're not getting them," Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, in an interview with CNN this month.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, says his state placed an order for millions of N-95 respirator masks — but never got them. "We had our 3 million masks that we had ordered ... confiscated in the port in New York," Baker said at a press conference this month.

After federal officials took those masks, Baker says Massachusetts scrambled to arrange a new shipment from China. But this time, state officials used a private plane that belongs to the New England Patriots. ...

But state and local officials say they're baffled. They don't understand how distribution decisions are made. And they don't understand why FEMA is taking some of the supplies they'd already ordered.

A 'War' For Medical Supplies: States Say FEMA Wins By Poaching Orders - NPR (April 15, 2020)

Business Insider cites a number of other reports:

FEMA "swept up" an order for 500 ventilators made by the state of Colorado last week, Gov. Jared Polis told CNN on April 4.

Similar accusations have come from officials on the local and state levels in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas, and Florida, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and an editorial in Talking Points Memo.

Shanel Robinson, freeholder director of the community of Somerset County, New Jersey, told local news outlet the Franklin Reporter and Advocate she had been informed that her order of 35,000 N95 and surgical masks had been diverted by federal government. She said she doesn't know where the masks went.

Officials in at least 6 states are accusing the federal government of quietly diverting their orders for coronavirus medical equipment - Business Insider (Apr, 8, 2020)

Similar reports from Illinois:

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is planning to obtain millions of masks and gloves from China and bring those supplies back to Illinois on charter jets — but he’s keeping the details secret out of fear the Trump administration might seize the cargo for the federal stockpile, sources said Tuesday.

Pritzker arranging secret flights from China to bring millions of masks and gloves to Illinois - Chicago SunTimes (April 14th, 2020)

And a Correspondence published in the New England Journal of Medicine provides a first-hand view of the difficulties hospitals face getting protective equipment, and the role of the federal government in exacerbating these difficulties

As a chief physician executive, I rarely get involved in my health system’s supply-chain activities. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed that. Protecting our caregivers is essential so that these talented professionals can safely provide compassionate care to our patients. Yet we continue to be stymied by a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the cavalry does not appear to be coming.

Our supply-chain group has worked around the clock to secure gowns, gloves, face masks, goggles, face shields, and N95 respirators. These employees have adapted to a new normal, exploring every lead, no matter how unusual. Deals, some bizarre and convoluted, and many involving large sums of money, have dissolved at the last minute when we were outbid or outmuscled, sometimes by the federal government.

In Pursuit of PPE - Andrew W. Artenstein, M.D. (April 17, 2020)

What is the explanation for this? If the Federal Government is counting on States to provide for their own medical supplies, as the President has often argued, why are they competing with them and driving up prices with bidding wars? Is this kind of thing normal and/or are the governors incorrect about what's happening? Or is there some justification for why FEMA and the Federal government are taking these kind of actions?


2 Answers 2


Abstract answer...

The unfortunate reason the ostensible Federal Government is competing with States is that it's presently dysfunctional, so that it is unable to behave in a Federal or federated way, or more specifically a tipping point has occurred where a sufficient number of its administrators lack the necessary faith in cooperation, or trust in their peers, which makes a federation of common interests and duties humanly possible. Cooperation decreasing from rarefied to evacuated in 2020, what's left is a relative surplus of faith in power, competition and personal ambition. Put another way, it's the difference between a wagon train and a chariot race, or between glue and solvent.

This loss of civic faith manifests itself in novel and comically narrow reinterpretations of the traditional duties and mundane functions of government, which, whenever these novelties should happen to become actual policy, become harmful or even dangerous to the nation. Once failure is publicly obvious, a faithless administrator then tends to regard their primary duty as surviving the resulting competitive assignations of blame and eliminations. For them it's like musical chairs...

Confederation still exists, albeit insufficiently federal, as with agreements between the states themselves...

As to whatever caused the present weakening of civic faith that itself spread an unfederative competitive mindset, or what might come of it if it worsens, those would be separate questions.


I don't know if you can find a non-opinion-based answer to the Fed's motivations, but as far as I figure you can run on 2 models.

  1. a centralized purchase, and re-issuance, where a central authority tries to assign short supplies to the ones in most need. This is good for non-federalized countries. Or even federal ones, if the different levels find it best to operate in that mode for this crisis.

  2. devolve purchases to the states and having minimal centralized purchases, maybe just to cover military & fed government needs. That should scale to the number of fed employees & military personnel, so it shouldn't affect the market too much as there are many more citizens (being looked after by states) than federal govt people.

Mixing the 2 , with a level of federal purchase that actively affects state needs, without reissuance? Well... Jared Kushner slammed for saying the federal medical supply stockpile isn’t meant for states

  • 4
    Problem with #1 is that in times of shortages somebody (most probably all) will not get all their needs, and it paints a crosshair on the central authority as all the other authorities can blame it for the lack of resources (it is always better to say "it is X's fault" than "we were not ready for this kind of situation). And politicians do not like to get the responsability of solving problems that cannot be solved.
    – SJuan76
    Apr 19, 2020 at 22:31
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    My understanding is that #1 is what the government would normally do, with the Feds using their centralized buying power to get and distribute supplies. But they’re not distributing supplies effectively to the states, which is why states have been trying to buy them on their own. #2 is what the states have been expecting, but then why would the Feds fight the states for supliies?
    – divibisan
    Apr 20, 2020 at 0:50
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    @SJuan76 It depends on the country and the level of trust. And it's also hard to decentralize purchases if tax collection is centralized. France is certainly operating on model #1. Plus, there are actually politicians that are actually looking to fix this the best they can, even if they have to take risks, rather than playing partisan games. The funny thing is that, big claims of war president aside, if Trump had concentrated on doing his best (not "solving", that's beyond reach right now) and being presidential, his popularity come November may very well have been higher. Apr 20, 2020 at 21:18
  • 1
    @italianphilosphers i think for a lot of people, "being presidential" means acting like presidents before, and they explicitly voted for trump because they were tired of that.
    – Andy
    Apr 20, 2020 at 23:22

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