Africa

Inside the Chaotic, Cutthroat Gray Market for N95 Masks

By Ziyanda Zweni 18 November 2020

In his 30 years as a doctor, Andrew Artenstein had never worried about N95 respirators. The chief physician executive of Baystate Health, he ran his four hospitals in western Massachusetts exactingly, and an essential face covering being out of stock was inconceivable. His doctors, nurses and other responders went through about 4,000 a month, usually for treating patients with airborne diseases. There were always more in the warehouse, just outside the city of Springfield, where Baystate is based. But on April 6, as the novel coronavirus stampeded through the Northeast, Artenstein rose in predawn darkness, on a mission to secure about a quarter-million masks for his thousands of staff members. Baystate Health was just days away from running out.

For the next five hours, he was chauffeured down highways drained of normal traffic, while overhead a private plane bearing four specialists, who would vet the authenticity of the delivery, headed toward the same destination: a warehouse in the Mid-Atlantic, where the masks were being stored by a third-party dealer. A driver had been hired separately for Artenstein, because his frequent interactions with Covid patients meant he might expose the rest of the team to the virus. Two semitrailers were also converging to convey the delivery back to Massachusetts.

But it wasn’t actually clear yet how many N95 respirators there would be to pick up — the night before, the dealer confessed that he could only deliver a quarter of what had been promised, after canceling another pickup the previous week. (Because of an agreement between Baystate Health and the dealer, The Times has agreed not to identify him; he also declined to respond to questions.) Baystate Health had been forced to turn to unproven entrepreneurs like this after the corporate distributor it had once depended on ran out of N95s, when national and international supply chains collapsed at the beginning of the pandemic. Their predicament wasn’t unique. Many hospitals, states and even federal agencies were also desperate, transforming the normally staid market for health care commodities into a Darwinian competition of all against all.

Artenstein and his team had no choice except to pursue this tenuous lead. In the past two weeks, the number of Covid cases nationwide had grown about sevenfold. Nurses complained of having to improvise face coverings, even using modified ski goggles. Within a few weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would calculate that at least 9,282 health care workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and 27 had died — a fatality count that would pass 1,700 by mid-September. Artenstein knew that his own safety, and that of his doctors and other health care workers, might depend on the success of his mission.

He finally pulled up to the warehouse a little after 10 a.m. The Baystate Health equipment specialists picked several boxes at random, and sliced them open to verify that the cargo was authentic. Artenstein was flooded with relief; the masks sealed to a person’s face. The respirators could be loaded into the semitrailers. The Baystate team had hired trucks normally used by the food-service industry so that their cargo would appear to be nothing more than refrigerated meats and vegetables. This precaution was taken to help keep the respirators secure; stories were circulating of federal agencies, also struggling to get respirators, appropriating shipments.

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