Two New England senators are pressing the federal government to explain its plan to supply nursing homes with personal protective gear after reports surfaced that some equipment supplied by FEMA was inadequate or defective.
In a letter sent last week to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said they want to know how much gear FEMA has distributed to nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where it's going and what quality control measures the agency uses.
The letter comes after some nursing home administrators and advocates told the NBC10 Boston Investigators they haven't received enough personal protective gear from the federal government to keep vulnerable seniors safe during the pandemic.
Some also said PPE supplied by FEMA was moldy, expired or difficult to use.
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"It's just unacceptable," Hassan told NBC10 Boston this week.
During an April 30 press briefing, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor announced his agency would deliver care packages containing four items of PPE to more than 15,000 Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing homes nationwide.
The kits would be stocked with a seven-day supply of eye protection, masks, gowns and gloves, and individualized for each nursing home based on staffing, Gaynor said. Shipments were due to begin arriving in May and continue in June.
But some nursing home administrators said they're still short-stocked, and questioned the quality of the gear, telling NBC10 Boston they got some masks that weren't for clinical use, cases of moldy equipment and billowing surgical gowns.
"It's very concerning," said Dr. Richard Feifer, medical director at Genesis HealthCare, which runs two dozen facilities in Massachusetts, including the Sarah Brayton Nursing Center in Fall River.
Feifer says the gowns the Brayton Center received didn't have holes for hands.
"Not all the PPE that we received from the government was difficult, or was flawed," Feifer said. "In fact, much of it was very usable. But I've got to say it's not enough."
Warren, Hassan and two other Senate Democrats also expressed their concerns about the availability and adequacy of PPE, writing in a June 23 letter to the FEMA administrator that the number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care settings is alarming.
"It breaks your heart to think of somebody in a nursing home, already vulnerable and fragile, who is depending on staff who are trying to keep them safe, and the United States government isn't doing what it needs to do to help them do their best by each other,” Hassan told NBC10 Boston.
In a statement sent by email this week, FEMA defended its program to distribute PPE, writing that the gear it sent to thousands of facilities around the country meets FDA and medical standards, and that the agency is working with its contractors to "address concerns expressed to date with 1% of the total national nursing home PPE we have delivered since May."
Some equipment "may not be familiar to the nursing homes" because it's different than their usual supply, but that the discrepancy "does not warrant this type of scrutiny from the media," an unnamed FEMA spokesperson said in the statement.
State data shows deaths in long-term care facilities account for more than 60% of COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts, and a little more than 80% of deaths in New Hampshire.
The senators are asking FEMA if more shipments are coming and how it prioritizes where to send gear.
Hassan said she also wants the Trump administration to use the Defense Production Act more broadly to increase domestic production of PPE, making it more widely available and bringing down the price.
"We need a national strategy,” Hassan said. "The administration needs to take responsibility to do its job."