Illinois Gov.: Project Airbridge an ‘Utter and Complete Failure’

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WASHINGTON — Project Airbridge, one of the administration’s efforts to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other supplies to healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been an "utter and complete failure," Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) told members of a House committee.

"Airbridge was designed to bring supplies and give them to distributors in the United States who already had a list of customers, not based on where the need was for dealing with COVID-19 … prioritized based on business dealings," Pritzker said Wednesday at a hearing on the worsening COVID-19 pandemic held by the House Homeland Security Committee. "Those supplies — sure, they worked their way through the United States but were not prioritized through COVID-19, so I think Airbridge was an utter and complete failure, in the sense that most of the supplies need to go to areas where there is a great need, not to where some private, for-profit distributor thinks they need to feed a pre-existing customer."

Project Airbridge was formally launched on March 29. "We’re bringing in the supplies from anywhere around the world as fast as we can so that they can serve the communities that need them most," Laura Lane, president of global public affairs at UPS — one of the Project Airbridge private industry partners — said at a press briefing in the White House Rose Garden.

In addition to issues with supply distribution, there were also problems with purchasing, Pritzker said. "I had many conversations directly with manufacturers, and one in particular basically said to me, ‘I’ll allow you to acquire this amount of PPE items if you’ll up your order by X amount so it’s greater than this other customer,’" he said. "They’re essentially pitting me against another customer in an environment in which we have a pandemic, and people are dying, and I’m having to make decisions based on some business person’s desire for greater profit." The state has since been able to purchase adequate amounts of PPE in a constant supply. "Prices have come down but this is not back to normal; it’s not pre-coronavirus pricing but we’re paying a lot less than at the beginning," he added.

But Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) wasn’t too happy with Pritzker’s remarks, asserting that other countries had done worse with the pandemic than the U.S. had. Pritzker responded that while he was not comparing the U.S. to other nations, "a lot of promises were made to the states — including to us — that were not delivered upon. The federal government made promises about the delivery of PPE and testing supplies, and that they had the capability to allow the CDC to give us more guidance, and really very little of that was delivered."

Bishop asked whether President Trump’s closing of the U.S. to travelers from China was helpful to Pritzker’s state. Although he didn’t have a problem with that move, Pritzker said, "I had a problem in the way the president announced it — nothing was done to help the airports deal with the problems of all the incoming passengers from those places" during the few days between the announcement and the border closure. "At O’Hare we had an overrun of people and that was a real problem."

Bishop also asked whether states such as Illinois should have had larger stockpiles of PPE and other medical equipment to begin with. But Pritzker said the federal government should have more quickly invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to ramp up supply manufacturing and distribute supplies efficiently. "We needed the federal government to organize the market to direct those resources so we could use them to save lives," he said. "That’s what the DPA would have allowed the government to do — direct resources to where they were needed," such as to New York and California. The governor also called for a national masking mandate. "We instituted ours in Illinois on May 1 and it aligns with significant downward shifts in our infection rate."

Meanwhile, the state of Alabama continues to struggle to get all the PPE it needs, said Col. Brian Hastings (ret.), director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. "Fortunately, when this began, our Department of Public Health had an existing stockpile of PPE left over from H1N1 a decade ago," he said. "This stockpile was mostly expired, but was able to be distributed … with the help of a waiver from FDA." However, today "our supply chain is still struggling to provide medical-grade respirators, some disinfectants, and PPE…. This supply mismatch continues to plague Alabama." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been helpful, although having to comply with dually reporting to FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services is "sometimes cumbersome," Hastings said.

Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, executive director of Harris County (Texas) Public Health — which includes the city of Houston — expressed concern over public health agencies’ loss of more than 56,000 jobs over the past decade. "That’s really concerning to me from a public health standpoint across the nation," he said. "We’ve taxed the public health system so much, and we’re going to see markedly more folks leaving the public health workforce, which is a real concern of ours."

He also said he was worried about the coming fall. "We’re still not through the first wave and now in a couple of months we’re going to be very much in the midst of flu season," Shah said. "We also have concerns about people not taking the flu vaccine because of concerns — misguided though they are — around anti-vaccination."

  • Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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July 10, 2020 at 06:45AM

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