Much of the MSM coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic has boiled down to a blame game at this point. While there were some hopeful signs of cooperation for a while between federal, state and municipal governments, particularly in New York and California, we’re now seeing some governors blaming the White House, the President calling out the states and almost everyone in cable news and the major newspapers seeking to blame the Bad Orange Man for doing a Bad Job.
Nowhere is this blame game more evident than in the debate over why we don’t have more ventilators, gloves, N95 masks and other personal protective medical equipment in the national strategic stockpile. The President recently blamed previous administrations, with a particular emphasis on Barack Obama, for depleting the strategic stockpile and not refilling it. This is a claim that’s been picked up by many (primarily conservative) outlets in the past week. So is it true? USA Today did a deep-diving fact check of this claim over the weekend and found that it is, but Obama isn’t the only president open to criticism here. Still, if the claim to be checked is specific to whether or not the Obama administration fulfilled its duties, they concluded that he did not.
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.
There’s a lot of good background on the history of the strategic national stockpile of PPE in that article and how the system fell into decay. It was established in 1999 and was used during a number of crisis periods including 9/11 and various disease outbreaks. The supplies have been used more than a dozen times since then, but there were no serious efforts to fully replenish the stockpile since it was used by the Bush administration following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The Obama administration reported used up roughly 75 percent of N95 respirators and 25 percent of face masks during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. The supplies were tapped again during various hurricanes beginning in 2009 as well as the 2014 ebola virus outbreak and the 2016 zika virus event. At no time was the supply replenished. Further, the storage facilities for many of the masks were not maintained properly or inspected, leading to a large number of masks being destroyed by dry rot.
But as I said at the top, there’s plenty of blame to go around. George W. Bush kept tapping the supplies during his last three years in office without replenishing them. And Donald Trump had nearly two full years to address the problem after taking office, but he didn’t do it either. All three presidents had adequate warnings from the CDC and other public health officials about the nature of the problem, but the resources to address the issue were never allocated. Also, there’s still been no explanation as to why the White House waited until the middle of March to order fresh supplies of masks and other PPE.
To sum this all up, if you want to repeat the claim that Barack Obama’s administration dropped the ball after severely depleting the supplies in the strategic stockpile, feel free to do so. It’s absolutely true. But there’s also more to the story than just that.