HHS clarifies US has about 1% of face masks needed for ‘full-blown’ pandemic

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The Department of Health and Human Services clarified Wednesday that the United States has about 1%, not 10%, of the required respirator masks that would be needed for medical professionals if the COVID-19 outbreak were to erupt into a pandemic here.

The agency said its pandemic planning assumptions estimate the U.S. health-care system will need up to 3.5 billion N95 respirator masks over a year. The Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency stockpile of drugs and medical supplies, currently holds approximately 12 million medical-grade N95 respirator masks and 30 million surgical face masks, according to an HHS spokesperson. That’s a small fraction of the number of masks needed in a pandemic scenario. So-called N95 masks are preferred by medical professionals because they filter out about 95% of all liquid or airborne particles.

Health and Human Services official Dr. Robert Kadlec apparently misspoke while testifying Tuesday before the Senate health committee, repeating Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s incorrect math when he asked Kadlec: “What percent of what would be needed by medical professionals if we were to have a full-blown pandemic?”

“If it were to be a severe event, we would need 3.5 billion N95 respirator masks. We have about 35 million,” Kadlec said. 

Romney said, “So, about 10%?”

“Ten percent, and we’re actively working on that,” Kadlec said.

An HHS spokesperson, when contacted by CNBC after the hearing, confirmed that the U.S. has 42 million N95 and surgical masks in its stockpile and will need roughly 3.5 billion if a pandemic erupts here — which comes to about 1.2%.

The comment came minutes after World Health Organization officials called on medical supply manufacturers to “urgently increase production” to meet the global demand that is needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak rapidly spreading across the world.

“Supplies are rapidly depleting. WHO estimates that, each month, 89 million medical masks will be required for the COVID-19 response, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said separately at a news conference at the organization’s Geneva headquarters. He said manufacturers need to increase personal protective gear supplies by 40%. 

House and Senate leaders reached a bipartisan deal Wednesday providing roughly $8.3 billion in emergency funding to help fight the outbreak in the U.S. It sets aside just $1 billion for medical supplies and health-care preparedness, according to a House Democratic aide. The rest of the money is parsed out for research and development, state and local health agencies, foreign aid and small business loans, the aide said, asking not to be identified because the details aren’t yet public. 

“This should not be about politics; this is about doing our job to protect the American people from a potential pandemic,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in a statement.

HHS plans to use some of the money to purchase up to 500 million N95 respirators and face masks over the next 18 months, the spokesperson said.

The organization has yet to classify the virus as a pandemic and has maintained that its attention is on containing the spread, although the virus has substantially moved beyond China and has now been found in dozens of countries.

The CDC said Wednesday there are at least 129 cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths in the United States. More than 93,400 people across the world have contracted the virus, which has killed at least 3,190 as of Wednesday. 

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, told Congress on Tuesday that the outbreak already meets two of the three main criteria under the technical designation.

“It is a new virus, and it is capable of person-to-person spread,” she said. “If sustained person-to-person spread in the community takes hold outside China, this will increase the likelihood that the WHO will deem it a global pandemic.”

CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger contributed to this article. 

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