Abundance or Shortage? Newsom and Hospitals at Odds Over Mask Supply for Health Care Workers

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Months into the coronavirus pandemic, California is stockpiling masks for a future wave of infections even as hospitals say they still don’t have enough to protect workers from the deadly virus.

Newsom blamed the shortage on hospitals — saying they are not adequately distributing supplies the state has provided — and vowed to more aggressively track deliveries in the health care system.

“We need to see more distribution of N-95 masks to our frontline workers,” Newsom said during a news conference today, speaking in a warehouse full of cartons of the coveted masks.

“Some are getting two or three for a week… That’s unacceptable.”

As the state reported a record number of single day cases of 12,807 — and surpassed New York, albeit a state with half its population, to become the state with the highest number of confirmed cases — Newsom announced purchasing more potentially life-saving supplies.

He said the state is buying an additional 420 million masks for $315.6 million — including 120 million N-95 respirators and 300 million surgical masks — from BYD, a Chinese company that manufactures electric vehicles in California. Most of the new masks will go toward the state stockpile, intended to help California avoid the problems it faced this spring amid a tumultuous global marketplace for medical supplies and what Newsom called “the lack of a national strategy.”

As the pandemic mounted, the state sought vast quantities of medical supplies from untested vendors, and saw some deals get delayed or completely unravel. In one case, California wired nearly half a billion dollars for masks to a company that had existed for just three days — only to have bankers involved in the transaction raise concerns that it might be fraudulent. The state got its money back, but Newsom has described the incident as a learning experience.

Then in April, California signed a $1 billion mask contract with BYD. Delivery of those masks was delayed during the federal certification process, but Newsom said the state has received 146 million N95 masks from BYD so far and expects another 150 million in the upcoming weeks. Despite a number of high-profile delays and snafus, the governor framed the state’s massive contracts for protective gear as a resounding success.

Yet hospitals continue to contend they have limited supplies of masks and other protective gear that health care workers need, Carmela Coyle, CEO of the California Hospital Association, said today in a call with reporters.

“Things have improved since March and April, but that supply chain remains spotty,” she said.

Nurses are still reusing masks and looking for ways to decontaminate them, according to union representatives. The California Nurses Association has asked the state for more transparency as to which hospitals are getting masks from the state’s stockpile.

“There are steady reports (from nurses) that hospitals are still locking up PPE or rationing PPE,” said Stephanie Roberson, the union’s government relations director.

Coyle, who also called for more transparency from the state’s distribution, disputed Newsom’s characterization that hospitals are to blame for the mask shortage. The issue, she said, is that hospitals are simply going through their own inventory very quickly, even though they reserve N95 masks for personnel caring for COVID-19 patients. And not all hospitals get access to the state’s stockpile; first they have to show immediate need, Coyle said.

Even as some complain of insufficient supplies, the state has sent 17 million masks to other states, Newsom said, including Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona. He maintained that California has enough to share, and said problems in California are due to a “supply mismatch” — or the distribution of the items — not about total quantity.

“Arizona was… very desperate a few months ago,” he said. “It would have been wrong for me to sit on 100 million masks here in the state of California, and not help American citizens in real need. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep well at night.”

Earlier this year, Newsom loaned 500 of California’s ventilators to states harder hit by the pandemic. The governor has cast such collaboration as an act of benevolence that California can take on because of its size, with more resources to buy equipment and secure better deals at a larger scale. But Newsom is widely viewed to have higher political aspirations, and giving supplies to other states certainly helps burnish his image nationally.

He earned praise in the early weeks of the crisis as the first governor to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, which led to a relatively low rate of infections. But amid pressure to reboot the flailing economy, Newsom allowed many businesses to reopen in May, and hospitalizations began to rapidly increase.

In recent weeks, hot spots have erupted in Southern California and the Central Valley, said Coyle, the hospital association executive. Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Kern, as well as Fresno, Kings, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are seeing a high rate of covid hospitalizations, straining their resources, she said.

Imperial County also continues to struggle. Hospitals there have transferred about 600 patients outside county lines, she said.

Some hospitalization models project the state may need to prepare to treat upward of 21,000 COVID-19 patients by Aug. 21 — which is three times the number hospitalized today.

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