US exports of surgical masks, respirators and other personal protective equipment to China soared in January and February, when the coronavirus was wreaking havoc in the country where it started and as did US intelligence agencies l had warned that it would spread soon.
US companies sold more than $ 17.5 million in face masks, more than $ 13.6 million in surgical clothing, and more than $ 27.2 million in respirators in China in the first two months of the year. year, far surpassing any other similar period in the past decade, according to the most recent foreign trade data available from the US Census Bureau.
USA TODAY’s analysis of trade figures comes as health professionals on the front lines of the national crisis say they are forced to reuse or do without personal protective equipment such as surgical masks and face shields to compensate for a shortage. Some states are also striving to find fans to prepare for a crushing of patients who should need it.
The White House and Congressional intelligence committees were briefed on the extent and threat of the coronavirus in January and February, but President Donald Trump did not stop exports of key medical equipment – a decision by at least 54 other countries so far.
The data shows how American manufacturers have increased production and sold off supplies to supply protective medical equipment to China for weeks, even as the threat from the coronavirus became clear. The CDC reported its first case in the United States on January 20. Over the next two weeks, the World Health Organization and the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared the disease a public health emergency.
More than 213,000 people were infected and more than 5,600 died in the United States on Thursday, reported the CDC.
“Obviously, there was a surge in demand in China, and basically it was a free market,” said Michelle Connolly, an economist at Duke University. “What was happening in the United States was clearly coming out, and more precisely in China. “
The United States exported more than $ 1.7 million worth of surgical masks to China in January alone – more than double the previous January. In February, shipments reached $ 15.8 million, according to the data.
Jesse Wang, co-founder of LuggEasy, a company that provides shipping services to Chinese residents in the United States, confirmed the sharp increase in mask exports in February. His company exported 14,000 to 15,000 pounds of masks from the United States to China in early 2020 alone.
At a retail price of around 50 cents a mask – which is probably higher than what large customers would have paid for – this meant that more than 31.6 million surgical masks were shipped to China in the second month. of the year, according to commercial data.
Overall, the figures add up to well over 28.5 million face masks that mayors of nearly 200 US cities have told a trade organization they need to help fight the coronavirus epidemic.
The fans also saw a spike. The United States exported $ 11.4 million in respirators to China in the first two months of last year, up from $ 27.2 million in the first two months of this year, a few weeks ago only before states and hospitals start begging the federal government to send more.
The price of fans varies from around $ 20,000 to $ 50,000 depending on the model, which means that the United States sent between 540 and 1,360 of them to China in January and February alone.
The US Department of State also donated 17.8 tonnes of medical supplies to China in February. The mass donation included “masks, gowns, gauze, respirators and other vital materials.”
The Census Bureau collects data as a dollar value representing the selling price of the product. Total exports of these items may be larger as the census data do not take into account small private shipments that family members may have sent to China or small packages exempt from certain deposit requirements.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Domestic demand soars
Health professionals across the country have said on social media and in reports that they fear for their lives because they are forced to ration disposable protective equipment for the entire week.
Private citizens sew on masks themselves to donate to local hospitals as a makeshift solution so workers do not have to tie bandanas around their faces. A New Jersey man was the first emergency room physician to die of the coronavirus on Wednesday since the outbreak on Wednesday. A Houston nurse is also fighting the infection.
Exports of other protective clothing, such as surgical suits, also skyrocketed. The United States shipped more than $ 271,000 of these supplies to China in January – nine times more than the previous January, the data said. In February, these shipments reached $ 13.4 million.
Jared Moskowitz, director of emergency management in Florida, said his team started ordering respirators, masks, gowns and other supplies from private suppliers more than a month ago, but only received about 10% of what she ordered on Thursday.
“I am now hearing distributors say that foreign governments are showing up with cash in these factories and jostling everyone with back orders,” Moskowitz told USA TODAY, referring to conversations with brokers who act as intermediaries in the supply chain.
“This is going to have to be examined to understand how we have enabled an American company, manufacturer of perhaps the most important personal protective equipment, to feed the world but not their country of origin,” said Moskowitz.
Moskowitz is not alone. Mayors of 192 cities across the country said in a poll released Friday that they did not have enough masks for first responders and medical staff, and 186 cities said they were facing a shortage of other equipment. personal protection.
The survey found that cities need 28.5 million face masks, 24.4 million other types of personal protective equipment and 139,000 fans. Respondents did not include the mayors of some of the largest cities in the country, such as New York and Chicago.
Trump said on Wednesday that the strategic national stock – a collection of vaccines and various medical supplies kept for emergencies – was almost out of personal protective equipment.
“We are giving massive amounts of medical supplies and equipment to the 50 states,” Trump said on Wednesday. “We are also holding back a bit,” he said, referring to the fans that are being saved to meet peak demand.
“We will be fairly soon to a point where we will have much more than we can use, even after stockpiling for a future disaster, which we hope will not happen,” said Trump. “We are going to distribute to countries around the world. We will go to Italy, we will go to France, we will go to Spain. ”
Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that the United States had distributed across the country “more than 11.6 million N95 masks, more than 8,100 ventilators across the country and millions of face masks, surgical masks and gloves ”.
While domestic companies exported lifesaving equipment elsewhere, the Trump administration continued to place barriers to similar imports.
Chad Bown, a senior researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the government continued to impose tariffs on Chinese imports of many medical products into the United States even as the coronavirus reached our shores.
The Trump administration announced on March 10 and 12 that it would relax these rates.
Bown called the move a recognition that the administration’s trade policies endanger public health. By the time they were relaxed, he said, tariffs were already affecting “nearly $ 5 billion in US imports of medical products from China, about 26% of all medical products imported from all the countries “.
A week later, Trump issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act which empowers the federal government to compel companies to produce medical equipment and meet national defense needs before any other contracts.
The wording of the order also allows the administration to control the distribution on the civilian markets of “personal protective equipment and fans”. It is unclear what the President will do with this authority.
Economists are now warning that countries are using protectionist trade policies such as export bans and tariffs to keep medical supplies in their country, and that these could backfire on hospitals and health care professionals. health who need it.
A team from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland said in a March 23 study that any tariff on items would increase the prices that hospitals and healthcare professionals pay for these products. The team recommended that governments reassess their restrictions to meet the social challenge of COVID-19.
Bown generally supports free trade as an economic policy, but he also said it would benefit public health intervention. There is too much uncertainty, he said, over the regions of the world that will be hit hard by the coronavirus to cut off any area of the production world.
“What the pandemic has revealed to the world is that nowhere is not safe,” said Bown. “Being open to international trade right now, during a pandemic, gives you many, many more options on where to source this material.”
USA TODAY used the latest trade data released by the US Census Bureau for analysis and examined the trade value of each product based on its Harmonized System code, known as the HS code. The HS codes for personal protective equipment and ventilators are taken from a reference document for medical supplies COVID-19 published by the World Customs Organization.