The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary

The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary
Official poster for 'Totally Under Control,' a new documentary about the US government's response to the coronavirus pandemic.Courtesy of Neon
  • The Trump administration failed to address major mask and equipment shortages during the first few months of the pandemic.
  • States were forced to bid against each other for supplies in March and April, according to a new documentary about the government's coronavirus response.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo compared the bidding war to "being on eBay."
  • The documentary, "Totally Under Control," is now streaming on Hulu.

One of the most powerful moments in "Totally Under Control," a new documentary about the US government's coronavirus response, is Mike Bowen's testimony before Congress.

At a House hearing on May 14, Bowen, a Texas mask manufacturer, described how federal officials ignored his repeated warnings about mask shortages. The entire country was suffering the consequences, he said.

"I'm getting 500 to 1,000 emails a day," Bowen said. "I'm getting emails from moms, I'm getting emails from old people: 'Please, send me masks.'"
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Then he started to cry: "I can't help all these people," he said.

By then, nearly 100,000 Americans had died.

The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary
Executive Vice President of Prestige Ameritech Mike Bowen testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health in Washington, DC, on May 14, 2020.Shawn Thew/AP
The documentary in which the testimony is included was made in secret over five months and began streaming Tuesday on Hulu. Directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger, the film comes from Jigsaw Productions, which finished putting it together on October 1, the day before President Trump announced he'd tested positive for COVID-19.
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Bowen, a veteran of the medical supply industry, knew that the US did not have enough N95 masks to manage a pandemic, according to the documentary. So he emailed the US Department of Health and Human Services on January 22 with a proposal: His company, Prestige Ameritech, could start producing an additional 1.7 million N95 masks a week.

"We can't protect Americans. That's too late. But I could make at least enough N95s to protect healthcare workers," Bowen says in the film. All he needed was financial support from the federal government. But President Donald Trump's administration didn't take Bowen up on his offer, even though Trump learned on January 23 that the coronavirus had the potential to spread globally. Less than a week later, Trump was also warned that the virus could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
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Instead, in February, the Trump administration encouraged other American mask manufacturers like 3M to sell their inventories of N95 masks to China as part of its CS China COVID Procurement Service.

More than a month later, many US hospitals were dangerously low on PPE and ventilators. Workers were using the same single-use masks for several days, and nurses wore garbage bags instead of hospital gowns. One surgeon in Fresno, California, told the New York Times it was like being "at war with no ammo."

The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary
Pop-up signs arranged on the lawn of the US Capitol Building show the faces of nurses and frontline healthcare workers pleading for PPE on April 17, 2020.Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn
"Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves," Trump told governors, according to the New York Times.
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States were forced to bid against each other for limited supplies, driving up the prices of equipment and increasing profits for the private companies that had imported them, according to the documentary.

"It's like being on eBay with 50 other states," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a press briefing on March 31.

The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (left) and President Donald Trump (right).Business Insider/Getty Images

Increasing profits for private companies

The bidding war increased profits for foreign manufacturers and forced taxpayers to cover the extra cost. In many cases, Americans had to pay up to 10 times more than the price that local producers would have charged, according to the new film.
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The federal government also outbid states on several occasions. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker expressed his frustration about that during a teleconference with Trump on March 19.

"I got a feeling that if somebody has a chance to sell to you or has a chance to [sell to] me, I'm going to lose every one of those," Baker said.

Trump laughed.
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"Well, we do like you going out and seeing what you can get, if you can get it faster," Trump said. "And price is always a component of that also. And maybe that's why you lost to the feds."

The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office on April 30, 2020.AP Photo/Evan Vucci
By the end of March, it was clear the government's free-for-all strategy wasn't working. So Jared Kushner set up a PPE-procurement task force with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The group was meant to help the federal government procure additional masks and supplies and partner with other government initiatives, like Project Airbridge, to deliver PPE to hard-hit areas. But the task force proved to be a disaster. Max Kennedy Jr., one of its members, says in the film that the team consisted largely of inexperienced, 20-something, unpaid volunteers who spent their time "cold-emailing Chinese factories" from their personal Gmail accounts.
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"In my time on the task force, our team did not directly purchase a single mask," Kennedy said.

Eventually, FEMA procured additional PPE and sent it to states. But shortages of PPE and other medical supplies persisted across the US for months.

"It is hard to believe that our nation finds itself dealing with the same shortfalls in PPE witnessed during the first few weeks that SARS-CoV-2 began its unrelenting spread," Susan R. Bailey, president of the Journal of the American Medical Association, wrote at the end of August.
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She added: "But that same situation exists today, and in many ways things have only gotten worse."

This story was originally published on October 14. It has been updated with new information.

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