War was declared, black markets naturally followed, and the commander-in-chief instinctively accused profiteering crooks of sapping the resources needed for the struggle against COVID-19. The illness, President Trump said, is an “invisible enemy.” But, he added, thieves are allegedly stealing medical supplies.
If it seems particularly ignoble, at a time when New Yorkers are applauding health care workers nightly, that someone would steal the gear that keeps them and their patients safe, well, it seems that way to the president and hospital administrators, too. But is this an endemic problem or a case of a stray anecdote or two sticking in Trump’s craw?
Some things have gone missing. Doctors and nurses and medical technicians report that masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer have been stolen. But while incidental theft happens, reports of bulk medical supplies “going out the back door” are apparently far less common.
Nonetheless, Trump said someone should look into it. He spoke to a friend, he explained, while questioning how a New York City hospital could go from using 10,000 masks a week normally to 300,000 masks during a pandemic. “I think,” the president speculated during a coronavirus task force briefing, “it’s maybe worse than hoarding.”
Trump didn’t name the hospital or say who tipped him off. Nor did he announce any specific plans to tackle the problem he identified. But the deputy attorney general did. In his first on-the-record interview, Jeffrey A. Rosen told RealClearPolitics that “you bet” the Department of Justice is looking into medical black markets. They had just busted a perp too, he added.
A Nevada man admitted to stealing at least four boxes of N95 masks from a VA medical center in Reno. Each package contained 50 respirators. If convicted, he could face a year in prison or a $100,000 fine. Another suspect, a hospital employee in Arizona, was arrested and charged with stealing protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Authorities said his haul was worth $1,700.
Although neither case comes anything close to the scale alleged by Trump, these are serious crimes, and the government emphasizes that stealing will be taken seriously. “We have no tolerance for theft during good times,” Rosen said, “and we certainly aren’t going to tolerate it during a pandemic.”
“We are concerned about it,” he continued, “but in large scale, I would say that there has been a different fact pattern that we have seen, which were not so much the straight-out theft from hospitals, but more people that had ordered stuff that could have otherwise gone to hospitals.”
The DoJ has cracked down on pandemic-related fraud, making it a responsibility of U.S. attorneys across the country. Law enforcement officials are sifting through the thousands of tips that flood into the national disaster fraud hotline. Hoarding, as Rosen noted, is of special concern. Attorney General Bill Barr announced to anyone sitting on critical medical supplies in hope of making an unsavory quick buck would be “hearing a knock on your door.”
It is discouraging but not surprising that some would exploit a public emergency for private gain, and it was all but inevitable that the problem would become political. Joe Biden accused the president of spreading rumors, and a Biden campaign spokesman told RCP that “Trump is attacking doctors, nurses, and hospitals with a grotesque conspiracy theory.”
The Trump campaign responded by saying that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is accusing health care workers who are blowing the whistle on missing safety gear of “lying” and a campaign spokesman told RCP that “Biden inexplicably has decided to make this a political issue.”
Before it was an issue on the presidential campaign trail, the governor of New York was raising the alarm. Andrew Cuomo ordered state police at the beginning of March to “look at places that are selling masks, medical equipment, protective wear, feeding the anxiety.” By the end of the month, after Trump raised the possibility of stolen supplies, Cuomo turned defensive. “If he wants to make an accusation,” Cuomo said, “then let him make an accusation.”
But as is the case elsewhere in the country, it’s hard to keep track of all the emergency medical equipment needed in this crisis, and hard to tamp down. A Brooklyn hospital reported that a large amount of personal protective equipment disappeared on March 25. “That was a really a terrible thing to do,” the executive vice president of New York-Presbyterian Hospital said in an internal statement. A few days later the New York Post reported that the missing goods had been discovered on the premises.
What is undeniable is that as this pandemic continues, the manufacturing of medical supplies ramps up. According to the White House, FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services have delivered or are currently shipping 38.2 million N95 respirators, 30.3 million pairs of surgical gloves, and 4.7 million face shields. Some of it will inevitably go missing. The DoJ will continue to investigate tips as they come in.
“Because we get a large number of leads, there’s a whole lot of things we’re still looking at,” Rosen said. “I am saying we have not yet been in a situation where we’ve made arrests or prosecutions for a large scale take, other than this one at the VA in Nevada.”
“I’m not saying that that it isn’t occurring,” he concluded. “We get leads, we follow leads. So, I’m not yet prepared to say that there are other ones that we can confirm.”