US president Donald Trump has proclaimed the coronavirus “very much under control.” Still, federal health authorities plan to acquire up to 500 million surgical masks in case he’s wrong.
The Department of Health and Human Services, according to a pre-solicitation issued to potential vendors on Wednesday, is purchasing the masks and respirators to bulk up its so-called Strategic National Stockpile. At the moment, the US has about 30 million masks on hand.
“Facemasks and N95 respirators are one part of an infection control strategy and are examples of personal protective equipment (PPE) that are used to protect the wearer from liquid and airborne particles,” the document says.
The Strategic National Stockpile consists of large quantities of critically important pharmaceuticals, vaccines, antidotes, and other emergency supplies kept in “strategic locations around the nation,” according to the HHS. These items are meant to augment those of state and local health authorities in case of a “large-scale public health emergency that causes local supplies to run out.”
HSS says the masks and respirators will be used to protect healthcare workers and first responders from airborne pathogens, which is “essential to maintaining resilience of the US healthcare system.”
Coronavirus, which was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has infected thousands of people across 34 different countries, and so far killed more than 2,700. There are now 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US.
The Trump administration has requested $2.5 billion from Congress for its coronavirus response, which will reportedly include the development of a vaccine. But some legislators say the funds will fall far short of what’s necessary.
“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in this country,” CDC official Nancy Messonnier told reporters on Tuesday. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
Among the civilian population, N95 masks are already in high demand:
The disposable masks and respirators the government is buying are not meant to be reused, and no one knows how long coronavirus will remain a public health issue. A spokesperson for HHS did not respond to a request for comment.