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Report: FEMA took 5 million facemasks intended for the VA

Hospitalman Thomas King dons a surgical mask during patient transport drills aboard hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) as the ship prepares to admit patients in support of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts. Comfort will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. This allows shore-based hospitals to focus their efforts on COVID-19 cases. One of the Department of Defense's missions is Defense Support of Civil Authorities. DoD is supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency, as well as state, local and public health authorities in helping protect the health and safety of the American people. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman)
April 28, 2020

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reportedly took 5 million face masks that were supposed to go to the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, according to the VA executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration.

Dr. Richard Stone told the Washington Post that he never received the masks, which were supposed to go to doctors and nurses working at the VA’s 1,255 hospitals. The hospital system quickly ran out of safe masks to use due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected almost 1 million people in the United States.

“I had 5 million masks incoming that disappeared,” Stone said. Some hospitals now have to use their own discretion in how they use and even reuse their current supplies of face masks due to the shortage by rationing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Stone said that FEMA instructed the face mask vendors to redirect the supplies to its Strategic National Stockpile. President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to let many companies that normally produce other products, to manufacture face masks the effort to limit COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“The supply system was responding to FEMA,” Stone said. Stone, a former combat surgeon and Army deputy surgeon general, said he did not know when his next shipment of face masks was coming in. VA facilities were going through about 200,000 masks a day, according to Stone.

FEMA provided the VA with 500,000 masks this week after Secretary Robert Wilkie filed an appeal to top FEMA officials, FEMA said in a statement.

“FEMA does not, has not and will not divert orders of PPE from our federal, state and local partners, nor do we have the legal authority to do so,” FEMA spokeswoman Janet Montesi said in a statement to Talking Points Memo. “In support of VA and our nation’s veterans, to date FEMA has coordinated shipments of more than 4.3 million various types of respirator masks, 1 million facial/surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves and 14,000 face shields to VA facilities across the country.”

As recent as April 11, a VA spokesman said that “all Ve employees who need PPE have it,” noting that the department was following CDC guidelines.

“CDC guidance states that ‘All U.S. healthcare facilities should begin using PPE contingency strategies now,’ and VA is currently adhering to CDC’s contingency capacity posture for PPE use,” the April 11 statement added.

Despite previously denying the PPE shortages, a recent memo from a top health system official instructed regional directors to plan for “scenarios that permit extended mask use, permit limited re-use, permit staff to bring in their own facemasks and N95 respirators, and allow decontamination of used N95 respirators.”

“(Veterans Health Administration) staff providing direct patient care to COVID-19 patients should use a N95 respirator. When N95 respirators are in short supply, VHA staff performing low-risk care on suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients may use surgical masks,” the memo added.