US Military sold ‘surplus’ ventilators, face masks as coronavirus spread across the country

Updated: Apr. 14, 2020 at 6:48 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The US Department of Defense sold hundreds of items that could be used as personal protective equipment and thousands of pieces of medical equipment used to help patients breath in February and March, as the novel coronavirus spread across the country.

The DOD manages its supplies and equipment through the Defense Logistics Agency, which disposes of surplus equipment through its Disposition Services office.

Surplus equipment is sold through online auctions on the website

A WBTV viewer called the station in late March after noticing hundreds of items of PPE listed for sale on the website.

After the call, WBTV was able to find dozens of listings for personal protective equipment including respirator masks, face shields and surgical gloves and medical equipment including laryngoscopes and ventilators; all of which were sold between February 1 and April 7.

A review of the listings found that sales of the equipment continued after US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declared a public health emergency due to the outbreak of the coronavirus on January 31 and even after President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the virus on March 13.

In total, WBTV found 35 ventilators that had been sold on in February and March, including four that were auctioned off on March 17, four days after Trump declared a state of emergency.

The listings for six ventilators show they had been listed for re-sale on a related website as of early April.

In a different listing, a lot of more than 1,000 laryngoscopes—which are used to intubate patients to connect them to ventilators—was sold on April 7.

A ventilator purchased on a government auction website was listed for re-sale as of April 8,...
A ventilator purchased on a government auction website was listed for re-sale as of April 8, 2020.(Nick Ochsner)

A lot of 180 face shields were also sold on April 7, the website’s records show. In total, WBTV found nearly 500 plastic face shields with rubber band straps and a separate lot that contained boxes of medical face shields had been told between February 1 and April 7.

The auction website also listed more than 100 3M respirator face masks with replaceable cartridges that were auctioned of in March, mostly in lots of 12.

The model of 3M respirator mask that was auctioned off typically retails for about $35 per mask. But the records maintained on show masks being auctioned in last March, as providers scrambled to secure personal protective equipment, in lots of 12 for as much as $117 per mask.

The sales came as states competed for shipments of personal protective equipment, including face masks and shields, from the strategic national stockpile.

In North Carolina, Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry announced the state had received its third and final shipment of supplies from the stockpile on April 3.

“In total, we’ve only received about one third of what we requested from the stockpile,” Sprayberry said at the time.

This screenshot shows 3M respirator masks sold at auction on a US military surplus website at a...
This screenshot shows 3M respirator masks sold at auction on a US military surplus website at a cost of $117 per mask.(Nick Ochsner)

Elsewhere across the country, hospitals have worked to find enough ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients and their acute respiratory failure.

California shipped off 500 ventilators in batches of 50 or 100 to six states and the District of Columbia on April 7, the Associated Press reported.

A spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency declined to answer questions on camera but sent a lengthy statement in an email detailing the ways in which the agency has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Once the national emergency was declared by the President, DLA froze all medical supplies and equipment provided to IronPlanet, and pulled back items that had not been sold,” DLA spokesman Patrick Mackin said. “These items are now being supplied to federal, state, and local agencies as requested for their COVID response efforts.”

Mackin also pointed to a message on detailing the steps the company was taking to identify medical equipment and supplies in its inventory and send that stock back to DLA.

According to the website’s message, the company has already returned 12,275 N95 masks.

Mackin said DLA pulled back all medical supplies and equipment from by March 18, less than one week after Trump’s emergency declaration but too late to catch the four ventilators auctioned off on March 17.

“DLA Disposition Services has requested IronPlanet recall ventilators recently sold to third party buyers,” Mackin said in his email.

Mackin did not explain why DLA did not take steps to pull back medical supplies and equipment that was ultimately auctioned off sooner.

For other items, including the respirator masks and face shields, Mackin said they were not coded in the system as medical supplies.

Mackin’s email did not explain how a lot of more than 1,000 laryngoscopes were still advertised for sale and auctioned off on April 7.

“Bottom line: This is an example of how government and industry worked together to do the right thing,” Mackin’s email concluded.

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