Face mask shortage in stockpile becomes political issue in election year

Washington — For more than 15 years, “Project BioShield” has guided the federal government’s plan for threats and global health crises like COVID-19, amassing vaccines and other critical supplies in the Strategic National Stockpile.

The priorities paved the way for hundreds of millions of dollars in new smallpox vaccines and anthrax antibiotics, but as coronavirus has spread globally, the U.S. stockpile had only 30 million masks for health care professionals — nowhere near the amount needed.

Now in an election year, political leaders are denying responsibility, as the public tries to understand what led to the nationwide shortage of the relatively cheap N95 face masks, the protection recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A review by CBS News finds that for the past decade, a combination of differing priorities, underfunding and slow responsiveness all contributed to the shortfall of masks, leaving thousands of medical professionals now at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

At the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, the H1N1 influenza pandemic strained emergency medical resources and forced the CDC to declare a public health emergency. More than 39 million N95 masks were sent to states from the national stockpile, according to a 2009 CDC response report. Later that year, an additional 59.5 million N95 masks were also released.

But the stockpile was never fully replenished. In February, the stockpile had only 30 million masks, according to Senate testimony by Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), who also said the country would need at least 300 million.

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