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Some States Complain They Aren't Getting Federal Help For The Pandemic


Vice President Pence will start a series of conference calls today. He's going to be updating members of Congress on the federal response to the virus, including the effort to get medical supplies out across the country. Now, some states say they are being left out of this, one of them is Montana. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The federal government has taken a lot of flak over the nationwide shortage of medical supplies as the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. spikes. The White House has responded in recent days with something called Project Airbridge.


JOHN POLOWCZYK: The president gave me one task - get more to our health care workers now.

ROSE: Pentagon logistics expert John Polowczyk is helping to lead the effort. The Navy rear admiral says he's getting more surgical masks and other protective gear for health care workers into the supply chain quickly by working with half a dozen private companies to direct those supplies where they're needed the most.


POLOWCZYK: We anticipate these vendors, at our direction, helping them allocate product to the right place at the right time.

ROSE: But if your state isn't considered the right place, this system can be frustrating - just ask Montana Governor Steve Bullock.

STEVE BULLOCK: When you look at those five or six national distributors, Montana is sure as heck not getting much luck out of them.

ROSE: The market for medical supplies in America has become chaotic. States and hospitals are competing with each other and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the same scarce resources. At first, President Trump told governors to find their own supplies and that, quote, "we're not a shipping clerk." Then a few weeks later, the administration launched Project Airbridge to help alleviate the supply crunch. But Montana Governor Bullock, for one, says none of the supplies on those planes are coming his way.

BULLOCK: If the private market supply chains aren't necessarily working for the states and we're just bidding up prices against one another in a scarcity, I think it makes that much harder for us to do our job.

ROSE: Montana has a relatively low number of coronavirus cases. But it does have a serious outbreak in the Bozeman region. And that drew the attention of Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.


DEBORAH BIRX: There were some - a few standouts that we were concerned about, which was Vermont, New Hampshire, Idaho and Montana. These were micro-outbreaks that occurred due to ski events and weddings and nursing homes.

ROSE: Emergency responders in Montana say they need half a million N95 surgical masks. The state asked for 80,000 from the federal government but only got 10,000.

BULLOCK: I've gotten five times more supplies of N95 masks from North Dakota than I have from the Strategic National Stockpile.

ROSE: Governor Steve Bullock says the state has been left scrambling to find basic medical supplies elsewhere and, like many other states, paying exorbitant prices, like for those surgical masks. They used to cost a buck apiece.

BULLOCK: I was happy to bid up to almost five bucks a mask to try to get a supply into Montana. You know, I had one order - it was probably two weeks ago - that I was paying six bucks a mask on that ended up canceled.

ROSE: Not only is the marketplace chaotic and pricey, it's also flooded with opportunistic sellers. Michael Mooney (ph) is with Montana Disaster and Emergency Services. It's his job to figure out which companies can actually deliver and which are scams.

MICHAEL MOONEY: I've spent the last 13 days in this windowless room trying to vet potential vendors.

ROSE: Companies he's never heard of are cold-calling him. Some insist on getting paid upfront; others go for high-pressure sales tactics like this.

MOONEY: I've got masks on a plane from China right now if you commit right now.

ROSE: Mooney says the state did find two companies it felt good about and placed orders for 1 million masks. Now they're just hoping those masks make it to Montana.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "THIRTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.