U.S. Sent China $18M in Face Masks and Protective Gear Ahead of Shortages as Outbreak Spread Globally: Report

The U.S. Commerce Department pushed U.S. manufacturers to sell millions of dollars' worth of face masks and other personal protective equipment to China in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, even as the virus began to spread to the U.S., a new analysis has found.

Analyzing economic data and internal government documents, The Washington Post found that the commerce department had urged manufacturers to ship nearly $18 million worth of protective gear to China in the months of January and February.

Compared to the same two months last year, exports of masks and other protective items spiked by 1,000 percent, jumping from $1.4 million to about $17.6 million. Meanwhile, exports of ventilators surged by triple digits, The Post found.

The first confirmed case of coronavirus was first detected in the U.S. on January 20.

Yet, the Commerce Department had released a flier on February 26 outlining a "CS China COVID Procurement Service," at a time when deaths related to COVID-19 had reached 2,770, almost all in China.

Days later, on March 3, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing also told colleagues about the "new service," The Post said, citing an internal email obtained by the newspaper.

Speaking on background, a Department of Commerce senior official told Newsweek on Sunday that senior leadership was aware of the issue and are currently investigating the matter. The senior official said the service was shut down on March 4 by senior leadership at the International Trade Administration (ITA) shortly after the flyer was distributed.

During the U.S.'s whole-of-America response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the official said the ITA had been working hard to help U.S. industry overcome supply chain disruptors, working with 100 organizations and 47 states and localities facilitate disbursement of personal protective equipment and other supplies across the country.

However, in the weeks since the outbreak began, the U.S. has struggled to address a shortage in face masks and other personal protective wear amid a surge in the number of confirmed cases across the country.

As of early Sunday morning, there have been more than 2.3 million cases of coronavirus confirmed worldwide, with more than 735,200 being confirmed in the U.S., according to an online tracker maintained by the John Hopkins University. Worldwide, 161,402 people have died in connection to the virus, with 39,090 of those deaths occurring in America.

In a statement on Twitter, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tx), who had initially obtained the flier and other information from the U.S. Commerce Department, accused the Trump administration of failing to put America first by exporting vital resources at a time when U.S. officials were being warned of the devastation COVID-19 could cause.

"If you're wondering why the U.S. is #1 in coronavirus deaths and not in masks, patient protective equipment, and ventilators, look no further than Trump's denial, delay, and deception," Doggett said. "Not exactly putting America first."

Face mask
Medical workers are seen outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic on April 16, 2020 in New York City. The U.S. has suffered from a shortage in masks and other personal protective equipment. Noam Galai/Getty

Speaking with Newsweek on Sunday, Doggett said the U.S.'s decision to ramp up exports to China was one of the "multiple failures of the Trump administration that have contributed, I think, to significant loss of life."

"At a critical time here, when word was coming in that we've got a pandemic, instead of preparing, Trump was only concerned about the economic aspects," he said.

While Doggett said he believed it was important to work with the international community during a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, he criticized the government for focusing on "promoting exports when we should have been adding to the national strategic stockpile, we had been depleted."

This article has been updated with a statements from the Department of Commerce and from Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html)
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.