Amid a nationwide shortage of respirator masks and other personal protective equipment for health care workers and first responders, Maine and other states looked to the federal emergency stockpile for help last month.

Most received only a tiny fraction of what they requested – 21 percent of the N95 respirator masks in Maine’s case – and were told by federal officials that the stockpile was being allocated based on the population of each state.

A Portland Press Herald analysis of the Trump administration’s own accounting of N95 allocations shows this was not the case. Maine received less than a third as many of the coveted masks per resident as Vermont or Rhode Island but more than three times that of Texas.

As of April 6, Maine had received a total of 86,008 N95s from the stockpile, or 1 for every 15.6 of the state’s inhabitants. Vermont received 1 for every 4.7 of its citizens, while Rhode Island got 1 for every 5 people. Hard-hit Massachusetts got less – 1 for every 28 people. Large states fared even worse: California got 1 for every 36.3 residents, Florida 1 for every 44.5, and Texas 1 for every 48.

“Whatever methodology this administration is using, there’s no transparency or accountability to it,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, said via email. “It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to discover how and why equipment is being distributed this way.”

Most states received three shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile, an emergency cache of critical medical supplies held in secret in warehouses across the country. The first two shipments of N95s, gloves, gowns and other gear were distributed in March and were indeed made on a per capita basis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allocation documents, which were made public by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

But the third and far larger distribution this month was made using criteria that have no relationship to the population of each state or even their apparent exposure to the virus. The allocations appear arbitrary, and the Trump administration refused to provide an explanation for how they were made.

In this third shipment, 16 states each received 120,900 N95s – including Vermont – as did the cities of Chicago and New York. The other 34 states – including Maine – each received exactly half as many, 60,450.

Partisan politics did not appear to be a factor. The states receiving the double shipment included ones with both Democratic and Republican governors, senators and electoral majorities.

A spokesman for FEMA, Michael Hart, referred questions about this third allocation – which accounted for the vast majority of the N95s distributed – to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ spokesperson Katie McKeogh. She, in turn, referred the questions back to FEMA.

A spokeswoman for Vermont’s joint COVID-19 information center, Stephanie Brackin, said the state was grateful for the federal supplies, but had no insight as to why it had received such large allotments.

Rhode Island – along with hot spots Washington state and New York City – received a special fourth shipment of 132,785 N95s, while equally vulnerable Connecticut, Maryland and Georgia did not. Asked about this shipment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Gretchen Michael said via email Tuesday evening that it was sent because Rhode Island had two early clusters of confirmed cases from a high school trip to Italy and a day care teacher, requiring the quarantining of 250 people.

Maine’s senior senator, Republican Susan Collins, defended the stockpile allocations of N95s in a recent interview with the Bangor Daily News, saying “the masks are generally allocated on a per-capita basis.” Asked if she was concerned that this turns out not to actually have been the case or with the Trump administration’s inability to explain the criteria that was used, her spokesperson, Annie Clark, did not answer the questions, instead providing a written statement documenting efforts Collins has made to secure additional PPE for Maine.

Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said in a written statement that the uncertainty about what metrics were being used to allocate PPE was adding “unnecessary confusion” and fueling speculation about potential motives. “I’ve urged the administration to act with more clarity, and will continue pushing to make sure Maine gets all of the resources – and the answers – it needs to protect our healthcare heroes and our vulnerable citizens,” he said.

In a written statement, Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District, urged Congress to reconvene and hold oversight hearings “not only to get answers to how the Strategic National Stockpile has been distributed, but also to the more pressing question of how the administration plans to ramp up and distribute supplies as we move forward.”

Maine has so far avoided a dramatic spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Hospitals, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and first responders say their stocks of personal protective equipment are sufficient at current demand levels, but would fall short if cases sharply increase.

“The overall status is OK for now, but just OK and just for now,” said Jay Bradshaw, executive director of the Maine Ambulance Association.  I don’t think any service has as much PPE as they would like.”

After the federal stockpile was exhausted this month, the Maine CDC has been seeking additional sources of N95s, including an order from a private supplier that is expected to be filled later this month. On April 14, FEMA provided 145,000 masks in a shipment unrelated to the stockpile.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said Friday that the state’s supply of PPE remains a concern. “I would describe it as OK,” he said. “We need more.”

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