It had all the markings of an illicit drug deal in a Hollywood movie: an encounter at a secret warehouse, with a last-minute sampling of the goods to make sure they were the real thing, a wire transfer of more than $1 million, and the sudden appearance of the FBI at the moment of handoff.
But this wasn’t about drugs. It was a deal cut by a Massachusetts hospital system for 250,000 scarce Chinese-made masks so its personnel could treat COVID-19 patients.
…At the warehouse, two empty trailer trucks stood at the ready, disguised as food-service delivery trucks. The idea was for them to take different routes back to Massachusetts to minimize the chance that the whole shipment might be diverted.
…The G-men examined Artenstein’s identification and checked his bona fides on Google. Eventually they allowed the boxes to be loaded on the trucks. But they still refused to let the trucks leave until they verified that the Department of Homeland Security didn’t want to claim the supplies first. (A call to the hospitals’ local Congress member’s office helped fend off any effort by that agency to get in the way.)
…“We were just on the trail of 1.2 million disposable gowns that were exactly what we were looking for,” he says. “It literally dissolved at midnight the other night — we were told it was stuck in Turkey, which may or may not be the case. But that’s as much as we could get in terms of rationale.”
…Other suppliers have explained failed deals by blaming the Department of Veterans Affairs or other states or other institutions or other suppliers for stepping in. “That’s what we’ve been told,” Artenstein says. “It’s possible we’ve been fed a story, but it’s hard to fact-check these things.”
Even when a supplier can be found, the system is paying as much as five times the pre-crisis price — $5 or more for N95 masks, which offer the best filtration against airborne contaminants, and which normally cost as little as 60 or 70 cents each.
…A system that should operate like clockwork has turned into a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game in which frontline workers and patients are merely pawns. Is this any way to run a 21st century country?