US limits virus aid for masks, gloves and other medical gear abroad

Lara Jakes, The New York Times

Posted at Jun 10 2020 08:24 AM

US limits virus aid for masks, gloves and other medical gear abroad 1
A volunteer with a nongovernmental organization delivers bread at an informal refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Feb. 21, 2020. Relief workers have been broadly restricted from using US funding to buy surgical masks, gloves and other protective medical gear to confront the coronavirus overseas, in order to keep that equipment available for those responding to the virus in America, according to regulations issued June 9 by the US government. Diego Ibarra Sanchez, The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Relief workers are broadly restricted from using Us funding to buy surgical masks, gloves and other protective medical gear to confront the coronavirus overseas, in order to keep that equipment available for health providers in America, according to regulations issued Tuesday by the Us Agency for International Development.

The new rules did grant an exception: The money can be used to buy equipment if it is produced in the part of the world where it would be used.

Humanitarian aid groups have waited for months for the guidance, the topic of an intense debate within the Trump administration, as masks, gloves, ventilators and respirators were desperately needed by American health workers to care for pandemic patients in the United States.

As they waited, relief groups received only a fraction of the nearly $1.6 billion that Congress approved in March to speed to aid workers in foreign countries.

“None of us ever wanted to do massive purchases in the United States or get into a situation where we would have been competing with cities and states for this critically needed equipment,” said Joel Charny, executive director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA. “It seemed to me that the administration was getting hung up on an issue that was really, fundamentally, so easy to resolve.”

He called the new guidance “a reasonable policy and one that we would have welcomed 6 weeks ago.”

A spokeswoman for the US aid agency did not have an immediate comment on the new guidance, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

It requires that humanitarian aid groups that are distributing support to some of the world’s poorest or most unstable countries seek written approval before using federal funding to buy N95 respirators or other surgical face masks, medical gloves, ventilators, certain air purifiers and filters and American-made testing kits. 

But it allows aid workers to buy that equipment when it is intended for the global regions in which it was made — a key provision that helps local economies that also are struggling as a result of the virus. 

The limits on the protective medical gear will remain in place until there is a surplus of supplies available in the United States.

In March, Congress approved $1.59 billion in pandemic assistance to be sent abroad through the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. As of last week, $386 million had been released. Of that, only $11.5 million in disaster aid had been delivered to private relief groups, even though those funds are specifically meant to be rushed to distress zones.

Collectively, the aid agency and the State Department have committed more than $1 billion in pandemic assistance to more than 100 countries since April. But the vast majority of that has yet to go out the door, tied up by a complex grant process that had been further slowed by micromanagement and delayed decisions, according to people with knowledge of the funding.

Charny said he hoped Tuesday’s guidance was a signal that more money would swiftly be delivered.

Compared to other first-world countries that are trying to find financial assistance for the global pandemic response, “the United States had extra money to spend,” Charny said.