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U.S. companies continued their massive sell-off of medical masks overseas throughout March, well after the coronavirus began infecting Americans and draining hospitals of critical supplies and even as White House officials raised red flags, a USA TODAY investigation found. 

America exported more protective masks — including disposable surgical masks and N95 respirator masks — this March than in any other month in the past decade. In all, $83.1 million worth of such products were sent from the United States to the rest of the world, according to an analysis of the latest U.S. Census Bureau trade data for the export category that includes textile-based protective masks.

March’s total export figure surpassed the previous high of $74.3 million set in February, when many of the masks went to China. And it far exceeded the average monthly shipment value of $53.3 million over the past decade, USA TODAY’s analysis found. The data shows only monthly totals and does not allow for a daily breakdown of shipments or companies.

The exports came even as top-level White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, were being warned that such shipments were hurting the country’s own supply, according to an 89-page whistleblower complaint released Tuesday from ousted U.S. Health and Human Services division director Dr. Rick Bright

The complaint includes numerous attachments that detail discussions among government officials as early as January about supply chain issues of personal protective equipment and the possibility of halting U.S. exports.

On Feb. 14, for example, Peter Navarro, the White House’s director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy sent a memo to the COVID-19 Task Force chaired by Pence: “Has the export of N-95 been halted? If not, why not? We are facing shortages of raw materials that suggest a constrained supply. We should not be exporting any more masks.” 

Navarro urged immediate action on the issue.

“Let’s move this in Trump time,” he wrote. “These masks are the frontline defense for our health care professionals, and we can’t waste time.”

Despite those warnings, President Donald Trump did not move to ban exports of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment until April 3, seven weeks later. He partially reversed that policy days later after backlash from other countries, in particular Canada.

Neither the White House nor the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responded to USA TODAY’s requests for comment. 

COVID-19 first appeared in the United States Jan. 21 and had infected at least 42 Americans by the beginning of March.

By the end of that month, the case count hit nearly 186,000 and prompted travel bans, stay-at-home orders and massive shortages of personal protective equipment. Hospitals across the county were struggling to purchase surgical and N95 masks, encountering ordering delays of up to six months, according to a survey released Monday by the watchdog of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

HHS Secretary Alex Azar serves on the COVID-19 Task Force to which Navarro’s memos were sent. Other members include director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, raised questions with Azar and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in early March after a Commerce Department flyer circulated that encouraged businesses to take advantage of temporary Chinese import incentives and pushed U.S. companies to sell more of their medical supplies critical to a coronavirus response abroad.

Businesses were encouraged to export protective masks, mechanical ventilators and even mask making machines to China. 

“In January, this administration was being told by its own members about the importance of doing something,” Doggett told USA TODAY. He said that instead of addressing the issue, the federal government continued to facilitate exporting protective equipment. 

“I’m very much an internationalist and I believe in cooperating with other countries,” Doggett said. “But at a time of such dire need in March, to be shipping what we need for our health care professionals and first responders abroad is a real betrayal of the national interest.”

Métis people Discussions started in January

While February was a record month for exports to China, where the novel coronavirus began, the data show that exports to Italy and Spain shot up in March as those two nations were reeling from the virus. At least half of the supplies, though, went to Mexico and Canada, the data show.

Discussions of supply chain issues of personal protective equipment began as early as Jan. 29, when an HHS deputy assistant secretary emailed eight other high-level people at HHS, including the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, with details on what the department was doing to address it, according to the whistleblower complaint.

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The email said the department was setting up a policy team that would look at “government purchases, changes to more restrictive PPE guidance, release of the stockpile, or blocking exports.” The email also alerted the recipients that Taiwan, home to a major manufacturer of N95 masks for U.S. brands, had implemented an export ban five days earlier, on Jan. 24. 

And on Feb. 9, Navarro sent a two-page memo to the COVID-19 task force urging, among other things, an immediate halt to the export of N95 masks. 

“The U.S. has four small companies that produce masks but depends on the rest of the world for about 90% of its supplies,” he wrote. “Currently, U.S. companies are ramping up but they are exporting much of their production. The U.S. therefore faces the real prospect of a severe mask shortage!”

And Bright wrote in an email on March 12: “Efforts to halt the export should be considered now. The easiest way may be for the SNS to place some orders with US‐based manufacturers to 1) buy the current inventory and 2) ramp up production of more.” 

Bright, a vaccine expert, alleges that he was removed from his post as director of the HHS Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in April after raising concerns about a drug Trump touted as potential treatment for coronavirus. He sent his complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Currently, the federal government is spending $400 million to decontaminate and reuse N95 masks, a concept that was unheard of before the current shortage. 

We want to hear from you: USA TODAY is tracking coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the country. Tell us your story. Email kbagenstose@gatehousemedia.com

Private citizens are sewing masks themselves to donate to local hospitals as a makeshift solution so workers don’t have to tie bandanas around their faces.

The mayors of 192 cities across the country said in a survey released in late March that they did not have sufficient face masks for their first responders and medical personnel, and 186 cities said they faced a shortage of other personal protective equipment.

The survey said the cities need 28.5 million face masks, 24.4 million other types of personal protective equipment and 139,000 ventilators. The respondents did not include mayors of some of the nation’s largest cities, like New York and Chicago.

Bright’s whistleblower complaint proves that people within the Trump administration knew months ago that a shortage was imminent, Doggett said. 

“When you know the storm is brewing,” he said, “you don’t export your life preservers.”

USA TODAY used the latest trade data published by the U.S. Census Bureau for the analysis and looked at each commodity’s trade value based on its Harmonized System Code, known as HS code based on a reference document for COVID-19 medical supplies published by the World Customs Organization.

Dian Zhang is a data reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at dzhang@gatehousemedia.com or @dian_zhang_. Katie Wedell and Erin Mansfield are investigative reporters for the USA TODAY Network. Contact Katie at kwedell@gatehousemedia.com and Erin at emansfield@gatehousemedia.com.

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