Virginia’s senators call on federal government to explain seizures of medical supplies

Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner, left, and Tim Kaine, center left, joined their counterparts from Maryland to push for more federal Metro funding last year. (Robin Bravender/ States Newsroom Washington Bureau)

Virginia’s senators are asking Vice President Mike Pence to explain why the federal government is seizing orders of medical equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) sent a letter Friday to Pence and Peter Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, asking them to “explicitly and transparently lay out and publicly report on the federal government’s activities and plans.”

“We have heard disturbing accounts from states, health systems and hospitals and have seen press reporting indicating that FEMA has stepped in after orders have been placed to redirect significant shares of supplies meant for our constituents and Americans in need to the federal government,” the letter reads.

Multiple hospitals across the country have reported individual orders being seized by FEMA in the last few weeks, from thermometers ordered by a hospital in Florida to testing supplies taken from a health system in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

State leaders have also expressed frustration with the supply chain for medical gear and what’s often described as a lack of federal leadership in sourcing and distributing supplies. The Strategic National Stockpile, a repository of medical equipment intended for states and localities during public health emergencies, is reportedly depleted — a week after White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said the stockpile belonged to the federal government, not the states.

In his latest letter to clinicians, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver wrote that “additional shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile are not expected in the near future.”

Virginia is still experiencing “ a critical shortage of PPE,” Oliver continued. Recently released FEMA documents show that the state received a fraction of the equipment it ordered from the federal government. 

The absence of federal leadership has left individual states to compete with each other, hospitals, and the Trump Administration to buy medical equipment in an environment of scarcity, Gov. Ralph Northam has said repeatedly at press briefings.

“There’s no such thing as too much right now,” he said last week. “And what has prompted that — and I speak on behalf of all governors — is we’re competing. We’re competing with each other, we’re competing with other countries, we’re competing with other states.”

Kaine and Warner have heard reports of this problem in Virginia, though the letter does not mention specific hospitals and health systems. In a press briefing on Friday, though, Northam said he had not heard of any orders taken from Virginia health facilities.

“We have checked with our CEOs, and to date, we haven’t had that issue,” he said.

Earlier this week, Northam announced that the state had reached a $27 million contract with a Virginia-based logistics company to secure more protective equipment. 

As of Thursday, eight hospitals in Virginia reported that their supply of personal protective equipment would be exhausted in the next three days without assistance, according to data from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Three reported difficulty obtaining or replenishing other medical supplies. That’s led some health systems to get innovative. VCU has developed a system for decontaminating masks, allowing them to be safely reused, that it says it will share with other hospitals, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. 

The expense of securing extra equipment, combined with federal actions to seize orders of medical supplies, was putting a financial strain on hospitals, Kaine and Warner wrote.

“Hospitals and health systems are paying many times what they paid only a few months ago for vital supplies and are devoting significant human capital to the effort to ensure adequate supplies,” the letter reads. “And in some cases as we have learned, hospitals are not receiving complete orders of supplies due to unannounced intervention by the federal government.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to clarify that Kaine and Warner have received complaints of seizures by Virginia hospitals and health systems. It was also updated to include comments from Gov. Ralph Northam at a press briefing on Friday.