The claim: The Obama administration used and did not replenish the nation’s emergency stockpile of medical supplies, including N95 masks
As the novel coronavirus pandemic strains health care systems, questions around the U.S. government's response have circulated in the media and online.
On March 26, The Daily Wire published an article centering on the Obama administration’s role in using and allegedly failing to replenish the federal stockpile of N95 masks.
“The Obama administration significantly depleted the federal stockpile of N95 respirator masks to deal with the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009 and never rebuilt the stockpile despite calls to do so,” the piece begins.
The article draws from the reporting of outlets including Bloomberg News and the Los Angeles Times. According to Bloomberg News, “after the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, which triggered a nationwide shortage of masks and caused a 2- to 3-year backlog orders for the N95 variety, the stockpile distributed about three-quarters of its inventory and didn’t build back the supply.”
“After the swine flu epidemic in 2009, a safety-equipment industry association and a federally sponsored task force both recommended that depleted supplies of N95 respirator masks, which filter out airborne particles, be replenished by the stockpile,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump said during a press conference the country’s stockpile of personal protective equipment, including medical gear like N95 masks, is almost depleted.
A history of the national emergency stockpile
Established in 1999 to prepare the country for threats like pandemics, natural disasters and acts of bioterrorism, the United States has used and maintained its Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies during times of acute crisis in the health care system.
The reserve was originally named the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, but was renamed during a 2003 restructuring when additional materials were added to the supply. The stockpile is jointly managed by the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services.
While officials rarely discuss specifics about the reserve, like the exact locations and value of its contents, the fund's restocking contracts are largely public, including a July 2019 deal for vaccines valued at $1.5 billion.
Warnings about the United States' lack of preparedness for a serious pandemic have come from both inside the federal government and elsewhere since at least the early 2000s and as recently as last year.
“SARS has infected relatively few people nationwide, but it has raised concerns about preparedness for large-scale infectious disease outbreaks,” a 2003 analysis from the Government Accountability Office reads.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in April 2019 the BioDefense Summit that a pandemic was among his top concerns, CNN reported on Friday. "Of course, the thing that people ask: 'What keeps you most up at night in the biodefense world?' Pandemic flu, of course. I think everyone in this room probably shares that concern," Azar told the summit. (His full remarks are available on the HHS website.)
The stockpile has been used at least 13 times since its creation, including during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and 2001 anthrax attacks. Also during the George W. Bush administration, the national stockpile was deployed in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and then again for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, according to the stockpile's history published by the HHS.
In 2005, the Bush administration published a report that urged investment in local and national stockpiles, increasing domestic production capacity and coordinating research efforts toward cures and vaccines. In 2006, Congress approved expanding the stockpile to include protective gear like N95 surgical masks.
During the presidency of Barack Obama, the national stockpile was seriously taxed as the administration addressed multiple crises over eight years. About "75 percent of N95 respirators and 25 percent of face masks contained in the CDC's Strategic National Stockpile (∼100 million products) were deployed for use in health care settings over the course of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response," according to a 2017 study in the journal Health Security.
Again according to NIH, the stockpile's resources were also used during hurricanes Alex, Irene, Isaac and Sandy. Flooding in 2010 in North Dakota also called for stockpile funds to be deployed. The 2014 outbreaks of the ebola virus and botulism, as well as the 2016 outbreak of the zika virus, continued to significantly tax the stockpile with no serious effort from the Obama administration to replenish the fund.
ProPublica reported on April 3 that congressional budget battles in the early years of the Obama administration contributed to stockpile shortages. But the article notes available funds were used not to replenish masks: "With limited resources, officials in charge of the stockpile tend to focus on buying lifesaving drugs from small biotechnology firms that would, in the absence of a government buyer, have no other market for their products, experts said. Masks and other protective equipment are in normal times widely available and thus may not have been prioritized for purchase, they said."
During the presidency of Donald Trump, analysts have warned the United States is not prepared for a serious pandemic.
“We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support,” the 2019 World Threat Assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence states.
The Trump administration has not taken significant steps to replenish the masks in the Strategic National Stockpile.
Our rating: True
We rate this claim TRUE because it is supported by our research. There is no indication that the Obama administration took significant steps to replenish the supply of N95 masks in the Strategic National Stockpile after it was depleted from repeated crises. Calls for action came from experts at the time concerned for the country’s ability to respond to future serious pandemics. Such recommendations were, for whatever reason, not heeded.
Our fact-check sources:Department of Health and Human Services, Strategic National Stockpile: History Government Accountability Office, 2003 Report on Public Health Capacity Health Security, Personal Protective Equipment Supply Chain: Lessons Learned from Recent Public Health Emergency Responses Homeland Security Council, 2005 National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza National Institute of Health, The Strategic National Stockpile: Origin, Policy Foundations, and Federal Context 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community