SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California plans to spend nearly $1 billion to buy up to 200 million masks each month to boost its stockpile of protective gear during the coronavirus outbreak, an eye-popping figure meant to turn the state into a distributor of medical equipment for other Western states struggling with supply shortages.
Gov. Gavin Newsom made the announcement on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show Tuesday night. On Wednesday, Newsom announced the state had its largest daily increase of COVID-19 deaths with 68.
“As a nation-state with a capacity to write a check for hundreds of millions — no, billions of dollars — we are in a position to do something bold and big that could be a catalyst to increase supply,” Newsom said. “We want to be there for our fellow governors.”
State officials have signed a contract with BYD North America to deliver the masks, chosen in part because it is a subsidiary of a company based in China, where most of the personal protective gear is made.
The order will include about 150 million N95 masks, which are tight-fitting and designed to protect against particles in the air. The other 50 million masks will be surgical masks, which are loose-fitting and protect against fluids.
California Hospital Association spokeswoman Jan Emerson-Shea had no details Wednesday about how the masks would be distributed. She said hospitals follow a chain of command to procure protective equipment that starts with local public health officials and runs all the way up to the state, depending on the availability of supplies .
Masks have been particularly hard to find in the U.S. and around the world. Most of them are made in China, which limited exports while the outbreak was ravaging that country, said Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief, a medical supply nonprofit that saw its own orders delayed during the pandemic.
“He will have pulled off something no one else in the world was able to pull off by arranging that contract,” Tighe said.
California taxpayers will pay $495 million upfront for the masks. The state will pay more as other shipments arrive, with a total estimated payment of $990 million, according to a letter the Newsom administration sent to the Legislature.
The money comes from a portion of the $1 billion aid package the Legislature approved last month, plus another $1.3 billion disaster response emergency fund that Newsom has the authority to spend. The move earned bipartisan praise from state lawmakers.
“We're all kind of together on this one. This is a must,” said Republican Assemblyman Devon Mathis, a member of the House Budget subcommittee that oversees health care spending.
California has already ordered $1.4 billion worth of personal protective equipment and distributed 41.4 million N95 masks. But the state has had trouble finding enough masks to meet the needs of its nearly 40 million residents. One shipment from Texas had to be sent back because the masks carried mold, Newsom said.
Ideally, health care workers will use a new mask for every patient, which is why they go through so many of them. But the state hopes to start cleaning masks so health workers can re-use them by partnering with Battelle, an Ohio-based company that says it can clean up to 80,000 masks per day. The masks can be used up to 20 times each, Newsom said.
In Santa Clara County, where the U.S. had one of its first confirmed COVID-19 cases, public health officials are so worried about a shortage of protective gear that they have ordered businesses and individuals to tell the government if they have stockpiles of more than 5,000 gloves and 500 masks. The government promised to keep the figures confidential.
“We can’t rely solely on our state and federal government. We have to turn locally to see what capacity for inventory exists here in our county,” said Dr. Jennifer Tong, hospital surge capacity branch chief for the Santa Clara County Emergency Operations Center.
Likewise, Newsom said the state can't rely on the federal government, which has sent the state about a million masks so far while continuing to thank President Donald Trump's administration for its response.
“That's not an indictment, not a cheap shot. At the end of the day, they don’t have the masks at the national stockpile,” Newsom said on MSNBC.
California has more than 18,800 COVID-19 cases and has recorded more than 490 deaths, according to data complied by Johns Hopkins University.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.