WASHINGTON — A commercial aircraft carrying 80 tons of gloves, masks, gowns and other medical supplies from Shanghai touched down in New York on Sunday, the first of 22 scheduled flights that White House officials say will funnel much-needed goods to the United States by early April as it battles the world’s largest coronavirus outbreak.
The plane delivered 130,000 N95 masks, 1.8 million face masks and gowns, 10 million gloves and thousands of thermometers for distribution to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, said Lizzie Litzow, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Litzow said that flights would be arriving in Chicago on Monday and in Ohio on Tuesday, and that supplies would be sent from there to other states using private-sector distribution networks.
While the goods that arrived in New York on Sunday will be welcomed by hospitals and health care workers — some of whom have resorted to rationing protective gear or using homemade supplies — they represent just a tiny portion of what American hospitals need. The Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that the United States will require 3.5 billion masks if the pandemic lasts a year.
That overwhelming demand has set off a race among foreign countries, American officials at all levels of government and private individuals to acquire protective gear, ventilators and other much-needed goods from China, where newly built factories are churning out supplies even as China’s own epidemic wanes.
“China has abundant protective equipment now, and the rest of the world has a huge shortage,” said James McGregor, the chairman of greater China for APCO Worldwide.
The Trump administration has been seeking to ramp up production of respirators, ventilators and other medical supplies in the United States, but factories are already running at full capacity. Companies like General Motors, Ford and others have stepped forward to try making these products for the first time, but they may need weeks or months before newly built facilities can ramp up their production.
The shipment from China that arrived in New York on Sunday is the product of a public-private partnership — led by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner — with major health care distributors like McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein, a White House spokesman said. Representatives from those companies attended a meeting at the White House with Trump on Sunday.
The White House is arranging for air transport to help expedite the shipping of personal protective equipment purchased by these companies overseas, the spokesman said, adding that both FEMA and the State Department were helping support the effort.
Not all the supplies will come from China. Litzow said the United States was working with manufacturers from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, Honduras and Mexico.
American governors, mayors and lawmakers have been trying to arrange their own shipments of products from China, with some saying the federal government has been moving too slowly, which risks losing out to other foreign buyers. American officials have leaned on sister cities and province relationships, liaison offices they had set up in China to attract investment and connections with state-run Chinese companies to try to secure scarce equipment.
In the private sector, a variety of wealthy individuals, charitable organizations and corporate executives with connections to China have also stepped forward to try to help get goods to the United States.
Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire and co-founder of Alibaba, is funneling 1 million masks and 500,000 tests to the United States. The Committee of 100, a leadership organization of Americans of Chinese descent, has raised over $800,000 to purchase medical supplies and protective gear from around the world to bring to the United States.
Li Lu, the chairman of Himalaya Capital Management, said he was helping to arrange a shipment to the United States of 1 million masks made by BYD, a Chinese automaker of which Himalaya Capital is a part owner.
Since January, Li had helped to send more than $1.4 million of medical supplies from all over the world to Wuhan, where the outbreak first began. But by the beginning of March, as China was slowly recovering from its epidemic and a crisis was looming in the West, Li realized he needed to send the supplies in the other direction.
When BYD began producing masks in China at the end of February, the Chinese government initially bought up everything they made, he said. Now, the company is busy filling an earlier order of 40 million masks for Italy, but it will send its first order of a million masks to the United States on April 1, Li said.
Li said he was also speaking with China’s largest ventilator manufacturer, whose production had been bought up by parties in Europe through September, to try to persuade them to send a few hundred ventilators to the United States.
“China has the capacity now, and the U.S. has a huge need,” Li said. “We’ve got to fight together.”