As the nation’s interest in COVID-19 expires, so are pandemic supplies nationwide.
As COVID-19 escalated to pandemic levels, there was a surge in demand for gloves, gowns, and N95 masks. The U.S. government’s Strategic National Stockpile was not prepared, and states were forced to compete for supplies on a global level.
Healthcare product distributors typically maintained 20 to 30 days of supplies before the coronavirus pandemic. When the pandemic hit, the scarcity of supplies was so severe that healthcare workers resorted to using trash bags for gowns and homemade masks.
In 2020, states collectively spent over $7 billion on PPE, ventilators, and other high-demand medical devices in just a few months. The costs were at a premium due to demand, creating a “seller’s market” for manufacturers. The federal government covered the costs for a sizable portion of these supplies.
PPE was essential during the pandemic, but expiration dates and surplus supplies have fueled a mass disposal effort of millions of items throughout the United States. According to Linda Rouse O’Neill of the Health Industry Distributors Association, “there is an excess of products across the entire system,” including states, hospitals, and manufacturers.
The necessity to ensure the protective gear functions effectively and the zero-dollar value set by FEMA for expired supplies makes it necessary for states to trash their surplus COVID gear. Louis Eubank, in charge of South Carolina’s Covid coordination office, recalls how difficult it was to obtain the supplies, which makes disposing of them even more frustrating. The state has had to dispose of more than 650,000 expired masks.
An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that at least 15 states, spanning from Alaska to Vermont, have discarded a portion of their stockpile of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) due to reasons such as expiration, surpluses, and a lack of recipients willing to accept them.
The discarded items include over 18 million masks, 22 million gowns, 500,000 gloves, and more. These figures do not include states that did not provide specific quantities to the AP or communicated their disposal through tons or other metrics. For example, Rhode Island reported discarding 829 tons of PPE, while Maryland disposed of over $93 million worth of supplies.
Scott Amey from the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, emphasized that balancing preparedness while avoiding surpluses is a significant challenge for governments. Despite politicians pledging in 2020 to avoid being caught off guard again, Amey warned that “memories are short, budgets are tight.”
The Health Industry Distributors Association suggests that product distributors keep a 60-to-90-day supply ready to prepare for sudden increases in demand. However, the association cautions that not everyone within the system, including manufacturers and doctors’ offices, necessarily needs such a large reserve of supplies.
But demand for such items is unpredictable. Ken Gordon, an Ohio Department of Health spokesperson, observed, “There was no way to know, at the time of purchase, how long the supply deficit would last or what quantities would be needed.”
In early 2021, a New York state-run veterans’ home received such an overwhelming amount of PPE deliveries that it had to store them under tarps in a parking lot. Unfortunately, when a warehouse was secured four months later, between $560,000 and $1.6 million worth of supplies were damaged and deemed unusable. Disposing of these damaged supplies cost the organization an additional $21,000 for incineration. Furthermore, an additional $779,000 worth of expired items were discarded, as the state inspector general’s office reported.
States and municipalities facing an oversupply of stockpiled items are selling them at a considerable loss. Vermont sold 105,000 boot covers for $82.50 and safety goggles for 29 cents each. Georgia’s Fulton County tried to move their extra PPE in a public giveaway event. Washington state sent hundreds of thousands of supplies to the Marshall Islands, and Pennsylvania attempted and failed to give its stockpiles to various health facilities nationwide.
Expired COVID-19 vaccines are problematic as well. In August 2023, the government had to dispose of more than 14 million expired vaccine doses from 2022, and in total, it has wasted more than 82 million doses since 2020 due to expiration.
As the government begins to rumble about new, alarming, and “extremely contagious” strains of the COVID-19 virus, Americans should remember that the only winners of the pandemic game are PPE manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
And, of course, politicians.