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National Stockpile Can't Match The Pandemic's Latest Surge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, listening in on that conversation was my colleague Monika Evstatieva of NPR's Investigations Unit. She has been reporting on the state of the stockpile. And we wanted to get her reaction to what we just heard from the general.

Hey there, Mo.

MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So start with what we heard there, Gen. Sanford's report card on the current state of the stockpile. How does it square with your own reporting?

EVSTATIEVA: Yes, Gen. Sanford is right. When he points out that the stockpile has made tremendous strides, it definitely has. But the question is, does it have enough to get us through the COVID surge this winter? So I've been looking into this as well. And what I have found out is that they are unlikely to be able to meet those needs. The experts I talk to, and they include current and former staffers at the stockpile as well with people with the Department of Defense and doctors and people who are experts on the supply chain - they've told me that the people in charge of the stockpile have underestimated demand. So they set this ambitious goal earlier this year to gather a 90-day stock of all the critical supplies they needed for COVID-19 response by the end of October. But given the severity of this winter's COVID surge, the need for PPE is likely to be in the billions not in the millions. And while they do want to manufacture more and are manufacturing more, that's just going to take a lot of time, and the need is right now. And they don't want to take away also from the private market so that the states can also purchase supplies.

KELLY: Stay with the point about states because we're hearing, often, something very different from the federal government and from state and local officials. We heard the general say they are not turning down any requests from states, but are states getting everything that they're asking for?

EVSTATIEVA: Well, yes and no. Sanford said that they have received a certain number of requests and they haven't turned any of those requests down, which is true. But the experts I interview say that the states are asking SNS for assistance, but sometimes, they are only receiving a fraction of what they're asking. And the SNS is giving them depending on what they think the state needs and how much they actually have available. And sometimes, that's not very much. Also, there is a tremendous need right now that I'm hearing from medical workers, essential workers, first responders - they are saying they don't have enough PPE and are forced to reuse it.

KELLY: SNS, one of many acronyms that we are all adding to our vocabulary during this unusual year - Strategic National Stockpile, of course. Just give us the tiniest bit of the history for how we got here, Monika.

EVSTATIEVA: In the beginning of the year, the stockpile was in a bad shape. The shelves were almost bare. A lot of the N95 respirators mask had expired because they have a shelf life of, like, five years. The ventilators were not working. The batteries were dead, so the stockpile really was not in a state ready to fight off a big pandemic. Also, last year, ironically, HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, conducted a tabletop exercise that tested the government's response to a large influenza pandemic that, Mary Louise, believe it or not, originated in China. And that exercise made clear the stockpile was understocked and underfunded, so they knew they might face such a pandemic eventually. They just did not know it would be so soon.

KELLY: And here we are. That is Monika Evstatieva of NPR's Investigations Unit.

Thanks for your reporting.

EVSTATIEVA: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HOLYDRUG COUPLE SONG, "AMPHRITTITES LOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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