The Trump administration forced states to bid eBay-style for masks and ventilators, according to an explosive new documentary

  • The Trump administration failed to address major mask and equipment shortages during the first few months of the pandemic.
  • This lack of government action forced states to bid against each other for supplies in March and April, according to a new documentary about the US government's response to the coronavirus.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo compared the bidding war to "being on eBay."
  • The documentary, "Totally Under Control," premiered Tuesday on on-demand.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

One of the most powerful moments in "Totally Under Control," a new documentary about the US government's coronavirus response, is Mike Bowen's testimony before Congress.

At a House hearing on May 14, Bowen, a Texas mask manufacturer, described how federal officials ignored his repeated warnings about mask shortages — and how the entire country was suffering the consequences.

"I'm getting 500 to 1,000 emails a day," Bowen said. "I'm getting emails from moms, I'm getting emails from old people: 'Please, send me masks.'"

Then he started to cry: "I can't help all these people," he said.

By then, nearly 100,000 Americans had died.

A veteran of the medical supply industry, Bowen knew that the US did not have enough N95 masks to manage a pandemic, according to the documentary, which directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger filmed in relative secrecy over the past five months.

On January 22, Bowen emailed the US Department of Health and Human Services with a proposal: His company, Prestige Ameritech, could start producing an additional 1.7 million N95 masks a week.

"We can't protect Americans. That's too late. But I could make at least enough N95s to protect healthcare workers," Bowen said in the film. All he needed, he added, was financial support from the federal government.

The Trump administration didn't take Bowen up on his offer, even though President Donald Trump learned on January 23 that the coronavirus had the potential to spread globally. Less than a week later, Trump was also warned that the virus could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Instead, in February, the Trump administration encouraged other American mask manufacturers like 3M to sell their entire inventories of N95 masks to China, as part of its CS China COVID Procurement Service.

More than a month later, many US hospitals were dangerously low on PPE and ventilators. Workers were using the same single-use masks for several days, and nurses wore garbage bags instead of hospital gowns. One surgeon in Fresno, California, told the New York Times it was like being "at war with no ammo."

Instead of helping states get the supplies they needed, Trump told governors to go it alone.

"Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves," Trump said, according to the New York Times.

With no direction or leadership, states were forced to bid against each other for limited supplies, driving up the prices of equipment and increasing profits for the private companies that had imported them, according to the documentary.

"It's like being on eBay with 50 other states," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a press briefing on March 31.

Increasing profits for private companies 

The bidding war increased profits for mostly foreign manufacturers, and forced taxpayers to cover the extra cost. In many cases, Americans were forced to pay up to 10 times more than the price that local producers would have charged, according to the documentary. 

The federal government also outbid states on several occasions, driving Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to express frustration during a teleconference with Trump on March 19.

"I got a feeling that if somebody has a chance to sell to you or has a chance to [sell to] me, I'm going to lose every one of those," Baker said. 

Trump laughed.

"Well, we do like you going out and seeing what you can get, if you can get it faster," Trump said. "And price is always a component of that also. And maybe that's why you lost to the feds."

By the end of March, it was clear the government's free-for-all strategy wasn't working. So Trump Senior Advisor Jared Kushner set up his own PPE procurement task force with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

The FEMA supply chain task force was meant to help the federal government procure additional masks and supplies, partnering with other government initiatives like Project Airbridge to deliver PPE to hard-hit areas.

But the task force proved to be a disaster, as Business Insider previously reported. Max Kennedy Jr., one of its members, said in the film that the team consisted largely of inexperienced, 20-something unpaid volunteers "cold-emailing Chinese factories" from their personal Gmail accounts.

"In my time on the task force, our team did not directly purchase a single mask," he said.

Eventually, FEMA procured additional PPE and sent it to states. Even so, shortages of PPE and other medical supplies have persisted across the US.

"It is hard to believe that our nation finds itself dealing with the same shortfalls in PPE witnessed during the first few weeks that SARS-CoV-2 began its unrelenting spread," Susan R. Bailey, president of the Journal of the American Medical Association, wrote at the end of August.

She added: "But that same situation exists today, and in many ways things have only gotten worse."

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